THE BLOG

Whiskey, Pitchforks and the Accidental Center

11/09/2011 12:16 pm ET | Updated Jan 07, 2012

To the left, a financial crisis leads to drumbeats for rebellion. Protesters march on courthouses to protest mortgage foreclosures. Bankers are decried as Satan. The government arrests thousands, leading to confrontations and casualties. A protest movement against creditors is born.

To the right, a large insurrection rejects a call for higher taxes, taxes necessary to fund a spiraling federal debt. Business leaders organize to protest payment and to demand smaller government. An extremist culture of limited taxation foments a new political party which flexes its muscle in the next election.

Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party? No: Shay's Rebellion (1786) and the Whiskey Rebellion (1791).

Dust off your old history tome - or download it to your iPad - and you'll see we've been here before. As Mark Twain famously said, "history doesn't repeat, but it rhymes."

As Tom Leahy wrote recently on news-journal.com, the polarization of American political culture is nothing new. Even though our elected reps look at the divided congress and act "shocked" -- like Casablanca's Captain Renault - at such a thing, our nation has been this split since its literal founding, as the twin rebellions of the late 18th Century attest. Leahy makes the point that both rebellions stemmed from the same set of societal discontents that we face today.

Shays' Rebellion, the OWS of its time, was a protest by foreclosed farmers against the moneylenders who held their mortgages. Daniel Shays, a Massachusetts farmhand and wounded Revolutionary War Vet, came home to the grave injustice of being sued by his bankers, even though he hadn't been paid for his military service, and was forced to default as a result. Shays and his followers petitioned the legislature in Boston for debt relief. When that didn't work, Shays led an uprising of 800 farmers and their pitchforks against a mercenary unit in Springfield, leading to four casualties. Shays was sentenced to death but eventually pardoned by John Hancock. Shays' Rebellion led to the opposite of its intended effect, as the Articles of Confederation were considered too weak to provide a strong Federal Government that could enforce the rule of law and quell rebellions. As a result, Shays' Rebellion ironically spurred the Constitutional Convention and the full enforcement of property rights.
The Whiskey Rebellion, just as the Tea Party today, was led by a group of tax protesters: in this case, farmer-merchants who were angry about a new excise tax on their distilled spirits. They refused to pay, threatening (and exacting) violence on the tax collectors. When a U.S. Marshall travelled to Western Pennsylvania to enforce the tax, hundreds of protesters came to meet him. George Washington personally led a 13,000 man militia to suppress the rebels--who had already disbanded when he arrived. Effectively quashed, the Whiskey rebellion's most enduring effect was to spawn formation of the Federalist and Republican parties. It was years before Thomas Jefferson was elected the new Republican president and the Whiskey Tax was finally repealed.

In both rebellions, financial collapse led to populist fervor based on real injustice - which in turn led to armed insurrection. In both, the rule of law was upheld and the debate moved to the legislative realm. And in both, a young republic was able to preserve its democratic institutions without succumbing to dictatorship, totalitarianism or anarchy.

Those who see either the Tea Party or OWS as messianic or unprecedented are ignorant of the cycles of history and economics - and to the repetition of these themes throughout the past 235 years. The founders of this country reviled each other: Jefferson and Hamilton were bitter foes whose respective parties were viciously opposed. From William Jennings Bryan and his "Cross of Gold" and Huey Long and his Louisiana populist fiefdom to the bizarre fascist rants of Lyndon LaRouche, America has always been defined at the margins by extremists and populist rage.

American political history is not one of bipartisanship or Disneyfied cooperation. Democracy has always been rough and tumble and ugly to watch. In the 19th century, electioneering was routinely marked by bloody awls and bar brawls.

In the end, polarization is no more than opposite ends of a political spectrum acting as checks and balances on each other-- just as the three branches of government, legislative, executive, and judicial, serve as their own mutual counterweights.

The American miracle is one of laws that are bigger than any one movement and a pragmatic center that is less a movement than an accidental result.