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A Brief History of Americans Revolting Against Their Government

Americans have looked for a reason to rebel against stuff since our nation's founding.

There's a scene in The Wild One, a 1953 movie starring Marlon Brando before he got fat, in which members of the Black Rebel Motorcycle club are dancing with some women.

"Hey Johnny," Mildred asks, "What are you rebelling against?"

"What do you got?" Brando replies.

That attitude more or less sums up the American attitude toward revolution. Taxes we don't like? Dump some tea in the river. Coal miners feel like they're getting shafted? Grab some rifles, boys, it's a battle. Don't want to pay your grazing fees? Round up your militia, give them assault rifles, and get those boots on the ground. Since the country's founding, there has been a grand tradition of Americans rebelling against America.


The miners of the Battle of Blair Mountain. Screengrab via YouTube

Typically, and this may be a spoiler, these insurrections do not work out. The most famous example, of course, is the little scuffle the US got into with the Confederate States of America, but there have been tons of others. Here are six examples of citizen-led insurrections, rebellions, and coups d'etat that show the misguided militiamen starving in an Oregon wildlife refuge this week are not only poorly prepared, but also unoriginal.

Shays' Rebellion

Daniel Shays and Jon Shattuck, planning a rebellion. Image via Wiki Commons

Year: 1786
Who Revolted: Farmers led by Daniel Shays, over high taxes
How They Failed: Beaten by better armed government forces

The ink wasn't even dry on the Articles of Confederation before the new Americans started agitating against their infant government. Two groups of Massachusetts farmers led by Daniel Shays and Luke Day got fed up with the government demanding they pay taxes in hard currency rather than goods. Most farmers didn't really have hard currency because they farmed to live rather than sell and because the Continental Army was paying its soldiers with the prospect of being free from Britain (a precursor to paying interns "in experience").

In August of 1786, a militia took control of a courthouse and prevented the court from doing its business. On September 19, the Supreme Court of Massachusetts indicted eleven rebels for a series of charges that amounted to treason. Everyone's favorite microbrewer, Sam Adams, suggested that revolt in a republic should be punishable by death.


Six days later, Shays and Day organized a group to shut down the state supreme court. They were met by a militia that had been tipped off about the planned attempt and paid to stop it. The Rebellion came to a head when Shays marched on the Federal Armory at Springfield with 1,500 men, intending to coordinate a simultaneous attack with Day's forces. The state had around 1,200 men. When Shays advanced, on January 26, 1787, the state militia fired grapeshot from two cannons. This killed four and wounded twenty, and caused general retreat and panic. Two days later, the militia so thoroughly surprised the Shaysites that they barely had time to pull up their pants. There were no casualties and the rebellion was more or less over.


John Brown dragging his son and shooting his rifle. Image via public domain

Year: 1859
Who Revolted: Abolitionist John Brown and his acolytes, to incite a slave rebellion
How They Failed: Overcome by superior government forces after failing to incite a slave rebellion

John Brown was a notable rabble rouser with the insane idea in his head that people in America should not own other people in America. You may also remember him as the owner of the most homeless looking beard in the entirety of American history.

In 1859, Brown holed up with 18 men—13 white and five black—in a farmhouse to plan the storming and seizure of the federal armory at Harper's Ferry. He invited Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, but Tubman was sick and Douglass thought Brown was touched in the head. He was right. Anecdotal evidence aside, Brown's lawyers claimed insanity when trying to save him from the gallows, though he protested, saying he was "perfectly unconscious of [his own] insanity."


The basic plan was to seize the army and incite a slave revolt. Brown projected that hundreds of slaves would cast down their chains and join the small force on the first night and that he would have a nice little fighting force by dawn. The only problem was that they forgot to tell the slaves what was going on.

Everything went well at the start. Brown and his men captured commander Colonel Lewis Washington (a relative of George's) to take as a hostage, cut telegraph wires to cut off communication, and stopped a passing train to prevent word of their attack from spreading. They happened to kill a freed black baggage handler who attempted to stop them—a bad move when you're trying to incite a slave rebellion—and then let the train go for some reason. The train's conductor immediately told people there was a crazy guy attacking the armory, and Brown's team was eventually captured by then-US Army Colonel Robert E. Lee, who showed up to take charge in the 1800s equivalent of his street clothes because he had been vacationing in Texas.

After the rebellion and before Brown was hanged, Lee said that he thought the black members of Brown's party had been forced into action (a really bad move when you're trying to incite a slave rebellion). But Brown had no regrets, and before his execution he wrote:

"I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood. I had as I now think: vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed; it might be done."


He was more or less right.

Wilmington Coup D'Etat

A Red Shirt rally on November 1, 1898. Image via NC state archives on Flickr

Year: 1898
The Revolutionaries: Angry Southern Democrats who wanted to reinstitute racist policies
How They Failed: They didn't :(

In November of 1898, a group of angry white supremacist Democrats marched on the city hall of Wilmington, North Carolina and seized control of the government, deposing the mixed-race Republican government. And here's the thing: It actually pretty much worked.

The coup took place on November 10, two days after a vote restored the Democrats to power across the state. Before the vote, gangs of Democratic-affiliated "Red Shirt" thugs went around and terrorized black voters until they stayed away from the polls. The white supremacist leader, Col. Alfred Moore Waddell, publicly said that he would use black bodies to "choke the current of the Cape Fear River" before the election.

They won, but Waddell decided he couldn't wait and stormed the city hall anyway. Up to 90 black people were killed when the white supremacists took power. They got away with this because they took control of the government and because it was more or less allowed to murder black people in that time.

The next year, 1899, the Democrats enacted Jim Crow laws like literacy tests and poll taxes to prevent black people from voting them out of power—the precursors to modern voter ID laws that similarly disenfranchise people who are already getting hosed by the system.


Battle of Blair Mountain

Top: Federal troops set up tents. Bottom: A federal guard on duty in a mining town. Image via West Virginia state archives

Year: 1920-21
Who Revolted: Mine workers, against their union-busting bosses and, later, federal troops
How They Failed: The mining companies had more guns, bombs, and the backing of the government

While the Battle of Blair Mountain wasn't exactly an attempt to overthrow the US government, it was a move by protesters for fair working conditions in the many coal mines of West Virginia. Initial protests sprung up because the company refused to provide payment in US currency, let alone let the miners do things like take a vacation or start a union. The revolt started in May 1920, when 12 agents of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency evicted some miners and their families from Stone Mountain Coal Company houses.

This was a fairly common practice. The miners would be forced into tents and then a heavily-armored company train called the "Death Special" would pass, shooting machine guns into the tents. They were stopped in town by Police Chief Sid Hatfield, who placed them under arrest—a gun battle ensued, killing three townsfolk and seven of the agency detectives.

Tensions escalated for over a year, culminating in a force of 13,000 United Mine Workers marching on Blair Mountain. US President Warren G. Harding threatened to send in troops and bombers to disrupt the UMW force, but balked. Instead, the coal company hired private planes to drop bombs and leftover gas from WWI on the workers as they attempted to reach the non-unionized towns on the other side of the mountain. It wasn't great.


On September 2, about a week after the hostilities began in earnest, federal troops arrived and the impressively-named UMW commander Bill Blizzard disbanded his force. After the skirmish, UMW membership went from 50,000 to 10,000.

Battle of Athens

The crowd outside the Athens, Tennessee jail as returning GIs attack it with dynamite. Image via Tennessee State Library and Archives

Year: 1946
Who Revolted: Returning World War II soldiers
How They Failed: They didn't

Following World War II, about 3,000 veterans returned to McMinn County, Tennessee, to find that it had been taken over by an asshole sheriff abusing his power to line his pockets and the pockets of his friends.

The basic problem was that county law enforcement operated on a fee system: the more arrests were made, the more money they got—sort of a reverse version of current quota systems. The sheriffs would pull over busses passing through the county and basically randomly hand out public drunkenness tickets.

The returning GIs loved drinking and hated the crooked cops that were constantly busting them for loving drinking, so they decided to push their own candidates. McMinn County had already been investigated three times for voter fraud, and to ensure that plenty more fraud would take place, the sheriff got some 200 armed deputies from neighboring counties to patrol polling locations on Election Day.

After the vote, the sheriff's deputies stole the ballot boxes and took them to the jail. Yes, really. The GIs marched on the jail and a standoff ensued. Eventually, the GIs just dynamited the thing open and went and got the ballot boxes. In the end, five of the GI candidates were elected. As you can imagine, this garnered quite a bit of press.


Days of Rage

Year: 1969
Who revolted: The Weathermen, against the Vietnam War
How They Failed: Outnumbered by the Chicago police

Over three days of October in 1969, the Weathermen faction of Students for a Democratic Society staged a series of protests designed to " bring the war home" to Chicago. About 800 people showed up in Lincoln Park, wandering around and listening to desultory speeches. Only about 250 remained when, at 10:25 PM, they got a signal from a bullhorn and began marching to the affluent Gold Coast neighborhood, smashing windows. They found and destroyed a Rolls-Royce, completely. Their target was the Drake Hotel, where Julius Hoffman, who had presided over the Chicago 8 trial, was staying.

They made it eight blocks before running into a forming police line. The police counterattacked and basically just ruined the Weatherman's shit. The protesters had football helmets; the cops had everything else, including nightsticks, actual body armor, and cars, one of which apparently drove into the Weatherman group at 25 miles per hour.

The next day, a 70-strong "women's militia" assembled in Grant Park. They were overpowered by police when they left the park to raid a draft office. Illinois Governor Richard Ogilvie summoned more than 2,500 National Guardsmen to fight off the Weatherman attack.

On October 11, the Weatherman organization held a 300-person march through the Loop, Chicago's central business district. Though the police stood two deep on both sides of the protest, the Weatherman marchers broke through and started smashing car and store windows. In the ensuing scuffle, a policeman was paralyzed as he attempted to tackle a protester. The Weatherman organization subsequently started singing a parody of Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" to mock the cop's condition. The cop, Richard Elrod, now has a street named in his honor.

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