Opinion | Criminal Justice

The beasts that lurk among us — and the American saga

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The American saga has never encompassed anything quite like the assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6, but it has come close. Bloodthirsty mobs, violent intimidation, insurrections both real and threatened: These slouching beasts have long lurked in the darker valleys of our political landscape.

In the late 1760s, angry mobs across the colonies demolished private homes, threatened officials, even tarred and feathered customs inspectors. On a winter's night 1770, a "motley rabble," in the words of John Adams, accosted British soldiers with sticks and stones, "shouting and hazing and threatening life." The Redcoats opened fire and killed five, a sharp turn on the road to Revolution. 

Political uprisings and violence fueled the flames that forged the new nation. Shays' Rebellion in 1787 and the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794 challenged the shaky new order. Lesser known, but just as bloody, was the riot that broke out in Albany, N.Y., on July 4, 1788, over the not-yet-ratified Constitution. Supporters and opponents cracked heads, killing one man and wounding 18 more. Alexander Hamilton seized on the violence to urge New York to ratify immediately.

When the election of 1800 ended in an electoral tie, Congress deadlocked over who would be president, Thomas Jefferson or Aaron Burr. The specter of violence loomed. "Republican newspapers talked of military intervention," historian Gordon Wood wrote in "Empire of Liberty" - "The governors of Virginia and Pennsylvania began preparing their state militias for action. Mobs gathered in the capital and threatened to prevent any president from being appointed by statute."

Failing to win the presidency, Aaron Burr had to settle for vice president. He later shot Alexander Hamilton dead in a famous duel. Not long after that, Burr participated in a shadowy insurrection scheme, raising troops to detach part of the Louisiana territory and either hand it to the British or form his own country.

Before the Civil War, Congress was the scene of many vicious clashes, frequently involving guns, knives and other weapons - and all brilliantly recounted by Joann Freeman in "The Field of Blood." One verbal confrontation during an 1838 Congressional debate led to a duel in which Kentucky representative William Graves mortally wounded Maine Representative Jonathan Cilley. Mounting rage over slavery led to numerous incidents, the most famous being Preston Brooks' brutal caning of Sen. William Sumner on the Senate floor in 1856. 

Reconstruction and its aftermath brought widespread and murderous cruelty aiming to oppress Black Americans, including the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898. In a sequence of events comparable to the storming of the Capitol, a mob of 2,000 white men violently overturned the duly elected Black mayor and city council. Hundreds of Black people were killed, thousands displaced, homes laid waste. The incident was papered over for more than 100 years.

The 20th Century was not immune from the beasts. In 1933, a group of Wall Street tycoons tried to recruit former Marine General Smedly Darlington Butler to lead an army of 500,000 veterans on Washington to overthrow newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Butler, a two-time Medal of Honor recipient, said he was told that J.P. Morgan would supply the cash, and Dupont and Remington would supply the arms.

Anti-war protests and political assassinations of the 1960s gave way to '70s bombings by radical underground groups. During 1971 and 1972 the FBI counted an astonishing 2,500 bombings in the United States, nearly five a day.

We cannot escape history, as Abraham Lincoln told Congress in the midst of a blood-soaked Civil War. But that need not be cause for despair.

Go back to 1770. The people of Boston sought vengeance against the British soldiers, but instead got a fair trial in which revolutionary firebrand John Adams himself defended the British soldiers, who escaped punishment. "Facts are stubborn things," Adams told the jury. The Constitution was ratified in spite of the 1787 riot, not because of it. Looming threats of violence in 1800 faded, and Thomas Jefferson walked to the Capitol for his inauguration. Aaron Burr's plot fizzled when co-conspirators ratted him out, and though acquitted in a treason trial, he never wielded influence again. General Butler turned down money and power and stayed true to his oath. Bombs, threats and assassination attempts are blessedly rare. Those who seek to rob Black Americans of their rights lose ground every year. Yes, that battle goes on, but the forces of oppression are losing. 

This is the America I believe in.

Beasts will always seethe in the shadows, but we don't need to let them overrun our government.

Our institutions, our democracy, our sense of right and wrong - these are our shields. As we move forward into a new era, let us embrace "the better angels of our nature" to keep the beasts at bay.

Rick Beyer is an author, documentary filmmaker and producer, and co-host (with Chris Anderson) of the History Happy Hour livecast on the Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours Facebook and YouTube page. His books iinclude The Greatest Stories Never Told and Rivals Unto Death: Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. He lives in Chicago.

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