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Violence in America

by Richard Brookhiser

A survey

H. Rap Brown said that violence is as American as cherry pie. This is true of Brown, who is serving a life sentence for murdering a sheriff’s deputy. There is also a long history of violence in and around American politics, whose latest episode was the Tucson shooting. But it is not the only story. Americans should remember both sides of their split personality.

Two old catalysts of political violence in our history have been slavery and its child, racism. Slavery produces slave revolts, and requires eternal vigilance against them. Slave owners themselves sometimes saw the resulting violence as political. John Randolph of Roanoke, as brilliant as he was crazy, put the matter with his characteristic pith in a speech in 1811. The “poor slave” had lost “his habits of loyalty” thanks to the “infernal doctrine” of the French Revolution; now only “the gibbet and the wheel” could uphold “a sullen, repugnant obedience.” Violence continued after the Civil War as the Klan and similar groups waged a twelve-year struggle to restore white power. Parts of the Reconstruction-era South were like Iraq after the fall of Baghdad. In 1874, 3,500 members of the White League of Louisiana battled for control of New Orleans; only federal troops put them down. Northerners ultimately tired of the struggle. “The insurgents,” wrote The Nation, “had . . . plainly the right on their side.” By 1877 the federal government gave up, and the insurgency won.

Another old source of political violence in America afflicted only the political class: affairs of honor. The first American political parties — Federalists and Republicans (ancestors of today’s Democrats) — were coalitions of like-minded gentlemen; impugning a politician’s honor was one way to weaken his clout. A leader defended his honor by resenting affronts and demanding satisfaction. Affairs of honor had a patina of orderliness: They were conducted willingly by the participants, and did not always end on the dueling ground (one or both of the parties might back off just enough). Society acquiesced in the system: Although deaths in duels were considered murders, they were hardly ever prosecuted because no jury would convict. Numerous politicians died as a result. Button Gwinnett, who signed the Declaration of Independence, was killed in a duel in 1777; Richard Spaight, who signed the Constitution, was killed in another in 1802. Thomas Jefferson put Brockholst Livingston, a duelist who had killed a man, on the Supreme Court.

Over time, in the South and West, the code duello morphed into the feuds of blustering yokels like future president Andrew Jackson and future senator Thomas Hart Benton. In 1813 Jackson and two friends had an armed rumble with Benton and his brother in a Nashville hotel. When 19th-century politicians conducted a regular duel, it was called “high-toned” to distinguish it from such fracases. So Benton described a duel between Secretary of State Henry Clay and John Randolph, who had compared Clay to Black George, a rascally servant in Tom Jones; each man fired twice, but neither was hit — “a result due,” said Benton, “to the noble character of the seconds as well as to the generous and heroic spirit of the principals.”

Racial political violence is mostly over (although every time there is a race riot — the last was the Rodney King riot in 1992 — someone excuses it). Affairs of honor are gone too. Americans stopped being a nation of Barry Lyndons, anxious parvenus infatuated with pseudo-aristocratic norms; the bloodletting of the Civil War seems to have cured them of play-acting. Affairs of honor were also sublimated by partisanship. Since the late 19th century the aspiring politician has based his claim to lead on party loyalty, ideological fealty, or bringing home the bacon — none of which were proven by ritual face-offs.

But American political violence takes other forms. Politicians continue to be targets, though the violent are not fellow politicians but armed strangers.

Revolutionary groups commit violence to achieve political goals. In 1950 members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party tried to shoot their way into Blair House, where President Truman was living, killing a White House policeman; four years later a second group of them shot up the House of Representatives, wounding five congressmen. The Weather Underground plotted political terrorism; the bomb that demolished the 11th Street townhouse in New York City was intended to kill soldiers at Fort Dix in wartime. Timothy McVeigh and his comrades accomplished it, destroying a federal building in Oklahoma City and 168 people inside.

A final cause of political violence is madness. A demented stalker acts for reasons that are barely comprehensible. But he picks a politician, rather than a celebrity like John Lennon, because only a political figure fits the lunatic’s fantasies of power. The act is not political, but the victim is.

Presidential assassins have covered a range of motivations. John Wilkes Booth was driven by both race and politics: He was enraged by a post-war suggestion of Lincoln’s that southern blacks might vote, and he relied for help on a network of Confederate sympathizers and agents.

McKinley’s assassin, Leon Czolgosz, was an anarchist, and Kennedy’s, Lee Harvey Oswald, was a Marxist, though both acted on their own. Charles Guiteau claimed to be supporting a faction of the Republican party — James Garfield, whom he killed, was a Half-Breed, or reformer, while Chester Alan Arthur, his vice president, was a Stalwart who had been put on the ticket for balance. Yet it soon became obvious that Guiteau was nuts (he had joined, then sued, the Oneida Community, a Christian sex commune in upstate New York). The nuts category also includes several failed assassins, among them John Hinckley, who shot Ronald Reagan, under the impetus of a crush on Jodie Foster, and John Schrank, who shot former president Theodore Roosevelt, claiming to have been guided by the ghost of William McKinley.

Turning violence to political advantage is almost as old as violence itself. The first president to be shot at was Andrew Jackson. His would-be assassin was Richard Lawrence, a house painter who believed that Jackson had kept him from being king of England. Lawrence approached Jackson on the steps of the Capitol as the president was leaving a congressman’s funeral in January 1835. Lawrence’s pistols — he had two of them — misfired.

Harriet Martineau, an English writer, attended the funeral at the Capitol and saw Lawrence subdued. She visited Jackson at the White House several days later; his reaction disturbed her. He blamed Sen. George Poindexter of Mississippi, a former ally turned critic, for Lawrence’s attack. “He protested, in the presence of many strangers, that there was no insanity in the case . . . that there was a plot, and that the man was a tool, and at length quoted the attorney-general as his authority. It was painful to hear a chief ruler publicly trying to persuade a foreigner that any of his constituents hated him to the death: and I took the liberty of changing the subject as soon as I could.” Jackson’s behavior made former president John Quincy Adams wonder in his diary “if we were running into the manners of the Italian republics,” obsessed by conspiracies and vendettas. (Poindexter was no saint — he had killed a man in a duel — but the notion that he was plotting to assassinate Jackson was preposterous, and a Senate investigation cleared him.)

America was founded in revolution, and the violent do not have to look far for inspiration or cover. They could start with James Madison in Federalist No. 46, where he tries to assure his readers that the new system proposed by the Constitution cannot become oppressive. “Besides the advantage of being armed, which the Americans possess over the people of almost every other nation, the existence of subordinate governments . . . by which the militia officers are appointed, forms a barrier against the enterprises of ambition.” Madison’s first line of defense against a rogue national government is federalism: The states and their militias will check the threat. But his second line of defense is the armed populace: They might do it without militias. He goes on to say that if Europeans had guns they might “shake off their yokes”; if they had local governments too, they would certainly do so.

Jefferson, as usual, wrote more bluntly. In a 1787 letter to Col. William Smith, John Adams’s son-in-law, he discussed Shays’s Rebellion, an uprising of Massachusetts farmers against high land taxes. Jefferson excused the rebels as ignorant, not wicked. “What country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. . . . The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” Madison was saying that violence must always be an option; Jefferson was saying that the option has to be exercised periodically, like some bloody Olympics.

Well-chosen words can go far in the world. Jefferson’s made it to the T-shirt Timothy McVeigh was wearing when he was arrested. But the writing of the Founders should not be riffled like a deck of Tarot cards. Public arguments, like The Federalist, trump private letters; public documents trump both. When Jefferson was writing the Declaration of Independence for the Continental Congress, he explained some of the conditions for violent action: a long train of abuses, a design to oppress. The conditions must also be submitted to the world (and submitted, one infers, not on MySpace, but by a body as representative and respectable as the Continental Congress).

There is at the same time another world of American politics: the world of working with the tools we have. What is most remarkable about our history is how often that world has been the world of relevant action. There are a few free countries with histories less violent than ours: Britain, since the Gordon Riots; Canada (though they too have had murderous regional nationalists). So many others are free but turbulent; or turbulent and only intermittently free. Better than reflecting on “civility,” Americans might read Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky. Her foreground subject is France at the start of the German occupation (her book is unfinished because the Germans sent her to Auschwitz). Her deep subject is a country where everybody hates one another, and has hated one another for 150 years. I am a Francophile, but it is not a pretty picture.

Our America, not the America of lunatics, bombers, brawlers, and race men, was nobly foreseen in Federalist No. 1. “It seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”

The author of that Federalist paper was Alexander Hamilton, killed in a duel by Vice President Aaron Burr.

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