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.