As the “occupation” of the abandoned headquarters of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon has unfolded over the last day or so (See the Oregonian for regularly-updated coverage), there have been a number of attempts to place the self-styled “militia” into larger context. The long-standing debate over public lands and their usage in the Mountain West,seems to drive some elements of the armed men that seized the building. Some of their rhetoric has also focused on the conviction of two ranchers for setting fires that burned out hundreds of acres of public land, though the convicted ranchers themselves have disavowed the actions of the terrorists*. At root, a potent and heavily-armed brew of white power, anti-government, conspiracy-theorist and vigilante group impulses has produced this latest attempt of self-proclaimed “oppressed patriots” to “reclaim their constitutional rights,” which apparently involve grabbing publicly-owned land, owning many guns, and not paying any taxes forever and ever.
Given the dramatic nature of this insurrection, it’s only natural that these efforts at contextualization look to the past to make sense of the present events. The terrorists themselves have laid claim to their version of the American past, comparing themselves to some mythic amalgam of patriotic-revolutionary-founding father-esque freedom fighters who threw off tyranny and oppression in the 18th century. Other observers have pointed to incidents like Waco and Ruby Ridge to explain the power of this fringe ideology and its brinkmanship fetish. And still others have looked to the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion, a crucial event in the formative years of the American republic, because it seems to have embodied the same issues of local versus national sovereignty, and because “militias” are the key players in the confrontation.
At first blush, the comparison seems apropos. The Whiskey Rebellion was an uprising of farmers–most of them in precarious socioeconomic circumstances–in western Pennsylvania (as well as some counties in western Virginia, the Maryland panhandle, and even further southwest into eastern Kentucky) that was prompted by the 1791 excise tax passed by the first Federal Congress. The tax was on distilled spirits, which hit these western farmers particularly hard–their usual practice with the grains they cultivated was to distill much of the harvest into whiskey, which was far cheaper to transport over the Appalachian mountains to eastern markets. Indeed, such was the value and utility of whiskey that it served in many of these western areas as a de facto currency. The 1791 tax, associated with Alexander Hamilton’s controversial economic program, mandated a tax on each gallon of distilled spirits, vigorously enforced by federal excise agents who had been granted a broad range of powers, including the ability to seize illegal stills and their produce. For the westerners, this legislation struck at their very livelihood, as most of them were small-scale distillers who did so out of economic necessity. The large-scale distillers, mostly backed by eastern investments, accepted the tax as a relatively light burden to bear for something that might well stifle any competition from the West. So the debate quickly became less about specific taxation and more about the very nature of the republic created by the American Revolution–a war that many of the westerners had themselves fought in. As opposition to the tax increased, so too did the federal efforts at its enforcement. By summer’s end, as western discontent boiled over, a ragtag “army” of insurrectionists mustered near Pittsburgh. This prompted Treasury Secretary Hamilton to urge President George Washington to come down hard on this mob of angry rednecks, to demonstrate that the new national government would not be defied, that it would see its laws enforced. Washington needed no convincing; he had long been bedeviled by squatters on the various land claims he held as one of western Pennsylvania’s largest absentee landlords, and was eager to teach these people a lesson as well. The result was a 13,000-man force (larger than the American wing of the army that defeated Cornwallis at Yorktown) deployed with Washington and Hamilton at its head to quash the “whiskey rebels.” Washington himself only accompanied the force halfway, leaving the rest to an eager Hamilton. Ultimately, though, it was a moot point, as the insurrectionist force evaporated before the army’s arrival. Federal authority was upheld, though at a heavy political price–the emerging Jeffersonian Republican coalition gathered much strength from the heavy-handed show of force, and Hamilton’s economic program became the lodestone of the emerging First Party System that wracked the political culture of the early republic.
So how is the Great Wildlife Refuge Takeover of Oregon any different? Isn’t it another case of plucky, ragtag agrarians standing up against the combined interests of capital and an overweening national government to assert their rights and protest fundamentally unjust policy? I’m sure this is how the self-styled patriot force sees it, but to buy into that logic requires daunting leaps of imagination. Are these ranchers being oppressed by paying grazing fees to use public (i.e., owned by taxpayers like the rest of us) lands for their herds? Is it tyranny to prosecute arsonists for illegal burns that destroy hundreds of acres of said public lands? Yes, ranching and public land policies–especially when conservation is involved–have a difficult and complex history (part of my family has been cattle-ranching since the late 1800s), but the case in question here hardly seems like a concerted effort to destroy ranching and ranchers. And given the history of the antigovernment militia movement, especially its ties with white power groups, it seems pretty clear that these “patriots” are inspired by much larger, and more dangerous, impulses than a couple of arson convictions and a beef with conservationists over protected habitats.
The main reason, though, that this is no modern-day Whiskey Rebellion (or Shays’s Rebellion, if you’re thinking about that comparison, too) is that the westerners of the 1790s had a legitimate case that they were suffering from “taxation without representation.” The trans-Appalachian West was growing more rapidly than any other region in the young American nation, yet representative apportionment (on both the state and national level) tilted decidedly in favor of the older (and in most cases wealthier) eastern districts. It would not be until the wave of voting reform and legislative reapportionments of the early nineteenth century that this malapportionment–which had existed since the early colonial era–would be fully redressed. So legislation like the excise tax of 1791 which so blatantly favored commercial over agricultural interests, despite the fact that small farmers were a huge bloc of the citizenry, could make it through the legislative gauntlet only because of this tilt in favor of eastern interests. In an era of property qualifications for the suffrage and of legislative districting that vastly diluted the political voice of westerners, there was a legitimate case to be made for the taxation-without-representation argument of the Whiskey Rebels. Not so today. In an era of rampant suppression of the minority vote, of tea-party congressional clout being enough to force out the Speaker of the House, of policing and law enforcement that is clearly skewed along racial lines, and of the NRA’s chokehold on the legislative process, for a group of white, male, property-owning, gun-toting conservatives to claim the government doesn’t represent them is so laughable as to strain credulity. Only in the paranoid vision of white “patriots” convinced the black president is out to steal their guns while the UN seizes American land to open up re-education camps can this two-cent Red Dawn fantasy be seen as a patriotic vindication of the Constitution.
To argue, therefore, that this farce of a takeover in Oregon is the modern equivalent of the most significant popular uprising of the 1790s is to dignify it with an ideology that resembles that of the Whiskey Rebels in name only. The comparison becomes valuable only when we focus on the contrasts between the two: in the 1790s, extralegal force was necessary because those using it were literally written out of any significant role in governance. Not so for today’s avatars of the white majority who make the bewildering claim that the government is not “theirs.” The 1790s Whiskey Rebels articulated a program of economic justice, however peculiarly defined, while the antigovernment zealots in Oregon want to claim resources belonging to the common weal for selfish and private ends.
But perhaps the most dramatic contrast between the two is in the response from governmental entities. In 1794, Hamilton and Washington marched at the head of an army larger than any force they fielded in the Revolutionary War to suppress this serious challenge to federal sovereignty and the constitutional regime. Today, law enforcement is maybe framing a response…we think…despite the heavily-armed militamens’ avowals that they are ready to “kill and be killed” to defend whatever it is they’re defending. It’s certainly a far cry from the way law enforcement responded to the unarmed protesters in Ferguson , Missouri–a response which involved an array of weaponry more suited to invading Basra or Tikrit than observing a legal protest by unarmed citizens. And that disparity, I think, tells us much of what we need to know about the state of our institutions today. Only in 2016 can armed white males frame themselves as the victims of tyranny, and try to wrap themselves in American history in order to legitimize the absurdity.
But in this instance, history doesn’t provide that comfort. The past is another country, as they say; they do things differently there. And the powerless of the 1790s are not the forefathers of the powerful of 2016. To make that case is to abuse the historical record, and to lend legitimacy to a movement which deserves none.
*Yes, Terrorists. These men and their actions meet the very definition of terrorism. And as scores of people have pointed out on Twitter, if this was a group of armed African Americans or Muslims, the entire military would have been mobilized by this point. To not use the term is to ignore the clear intent of these…terrorists.
For more on the Whiskey Rebellion, see especially Terry Bouton’s Taming Democracy: “The People”, the Founders, and the Troubled Ending of the American Revolution. Thomas Slaughter’s The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution remains a classic source, and William Hogeland’s The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America’s Newfound Sovereignty is an excellent recent account. For primary sources, see the interpretations offered by Hugh Henry Brackenridge, History of the western insurrection in western Pennsylvania, commonly called the whiskey insurrection. and in the first volume of Albert Gallatin’s Writings.