The U.S. Has Always Known Political Violence, But Seldom Has It been so Pointless

Yes, indeed, we live in a period in which actual violence is perilously close to the surface in our politics. One of the two major political parties seems to have made the shadow of the mob into a kind of informal Political Action Committee, and the putative frontrunner for the party’s presidential nomination seems to be a master of getting other people to fight for him and then ducking out of the responsibility when they do.

Political violence, of course, is nothing new in this country. After all, it was born in political violence. The Sons of Liberty hereabouts were very much not into peaceable assembly to petition the government for a redress of grievances. They were, rather, very much into violently assembling to throw the tea into the harbor and running the government’s ass up to Halifax where it belonged. In the early years of the Republic, there was Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts (hometown, represent!) and the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania. The late Pauline Meier’s masterful Ratification recounts how the adoption of the Constitution took place as much in the streets as in Independence Hall. There was that conspicuous unpleasantness between settlers in Kansas and Missouri, which lead to the still more conspicuous unpleasantness between the years 1860–65.

And then there is the long-running political violence from which Ronald DeSantis is so desperately trying to spare the delicate little children of Florida. The way that slavery gave way to Jim Crow gave way to lynching, all with the acquiescence (if not the overt approval) of the political classes. The continent-wide genocide of the Native people was an act of political violence the way that subjugation for profit of any people is. And there is also the violence of the anti-choice movement, which finally blew up enough clinics and killed enough doctors that it got its way last spring. That our history is not as deeply bloodstained as that of Europe is simply a matter of our not being as old as France or Spain.

For me, the difference between the violence of January 6 and all of these previous explosions of political controversy is that most of them were about something tangible. The Sons of Liberty realized the real limits of being a colony. Farmers who followed Daniel Shays were legitimately at the edge of financial ruin. People opposed to the Constitution were opposed to a new form of government. The utter breakdown in the mid-19th Century was prompted by an inhuman economic system that had to be ripped out, root and branch, and a sanguinary conflict was the only alternative.

What was January 6 about? It was about nothing tangible, nothing real. It was about delusions and theories, carried over the air on waves of sound, or across the country in millions of pixels. It was about a rigged election that wasn’t. It was about imagined oppressions, podcast tyrannies of the twisted imagination. It was about mob violence as a getaway vehicle for a criminal president. There was an essential—and delusional—nihilism about it that made it all the more threatening, all the more terrifying, and less and less American. When we turn on ourselves, dammit, it’s for a reason.

Let us return, then, to the brand new state of Kentucky, where in 1820 the so-called “Era Of Good Feeling” came to a crashing end.

map of kentucky, 1817

Map of Kentucky, 1817.

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The War of 1812 had produced a boom time for the American economy. In Kentucky, they chartered 40 new banks, which came to be known during later events as “the 40 thieves.” Alas, the bankers and citizens of the time failed to learn the lesson that Lehman Brothers would fail to learn in 2008: Booms go bust. Welcome to the Panic of 1819 (not to be confused with the panic of 1825, 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893, or 1907)!

International trade had resumed with a vengeance following the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, and then it stopped cold. The Second Bank of the U.S. proved to be run by idiots. Cotton prices collapsed. Credit evaporated. Property values plummeted. In Boston alone, 3,500 people ended up in debtors prison by the end of 1820. But the panic hit hardest in the west, which at that point included Kentucky.

As Digital History explains:

The downswing spread like a plague across the country. In Cincinnati, bankruptcy sales occurred almost daily. In Lexington, Kentucky, factories worth half a million dollars were idle. Matthew Carey, a Philadelphia economist, estimated that 3 million people, one-third of the nation’s population, were adversely affected by the panic. In 1820, John C. Calhoun commented: “There has been within these two years an immense revolution of fortunes in every part of the Union; enormous numbers of persons utterly ruined; multitudes in deep distress.” The panic had several causes, including a dramatic decline in cotton prices, a contraction of credit by the Bank of the United States designed to curb inflation, an 1817 congressional order requiring hard-currency payments for land purchases, and the closing of many factories due to foreign competition. The panic unleashed a storm of popular protest. Many debtors agitated for “stay laws” to provide relief from debts as well as the abolition of debtors’ prisons. Manufacturing interests called for increased protection from foreign imports, but a growing number of southerners believed that high protective tariffs, which raised the cost of imported goods and reduced the flow of international trade, were the root of their troubles. Many people clamored for a reduction in the cost of government and pressed for sharp reductions in federal and state budgets. Others, particularly in the South and West, blamed the panic on the nation’s banks and particularly the tight-money policies of the Bank of the United States.

In 1819, in response to the widening depression, something called the Relief Party was born, sweeping the Kentucky elections. The legislature thereupon chartered a new Bank of the Commonwealth. In a 1959 lecture on the period, historian Edward Hilliard explained why this was a bad idea:

The Old Bank of Kentucky had suspended in 1818, so the Legislature promptly chartered the Bank of the Commonwealth, famous because it was supposed to have capital of $2,000,000, while actually it had appropriated for it the sum of $7,000, all of which apparently went for printing presses to print more paper money.

Oh, OK.

Of course, this paper promptly went to a discount. That would not be objectionable to debtors if creditors could be made to accept these notes at par in payment of debts. Within two years the Bank of the Commonwealth had issued more than $2,300,000 of these notes. It had in its vaults at the time the magnificent sum of $2,633.25 in specie.

The creditors and moneyed interests of the time sought their own relief in the generally sympathetic courts, which riled up the small landowners even further. In May of 1822, a judge named James Stone overturned a law that had enabled farmers to delay payment on their debts for two years. Kentucky exploded. Responding to this anger, the legislature decided in 1824 to abolish the state court of appeals and to establish a new one, more likely to favor the farmers. However, the existing court of appeals refused to disband and the real fun began. Old Court and New Court parties emerged, and very quickly polite debate was abandoned. As Hilliard recounts,

Law enforcement practically ceased. Respect for all courts was shattered and a wave of crime resulted. Men took the law into their own hands—a habit which beset Kentucky for a hundred years. About this time the phrase Linch Law began to be used[…]Lawyers representing creditors tried to get their cases into the Old Court. Those representing debtors tried to get their cases into the New Court. In magistrate and circuit courts there was much dispute as to which court should be recognized. Some of the circuit judges recognized the New Court, some the Old Court; but most circuit judges sat on the fence and sent appeals to both New and Old Courts.

As has been the case throughout American history, an election campaign in 1825 made everything much worse. Someone dumped emetic of tartar into the whiskey at one rally, sickening hundreds of people. The clerk of the Old Court refused to hand over his records to the clerk of the New Court, who simply black-bagged them out when the office was closed. Each court thereupon indicted the other court’s clerk. The state capitol burned down, so the legislature met in a nearby church, and then the church burned down.

In the middle of all of this, in 1825, a sensational murder took place: State Attorney General Solomon Sharp, a New Court man, had been accused of seducing and abandoning a woman named Anna Cooke, leaving her with a pregnancy that ended in a stillbirth. Subsequently, she was romanced by a young man named Jeroboam Beauchamp, a onetime admirer of Sharp’s. She told her suitor that they could not be married until Beauchamp restored her honor by killing Sharp.

In the meantime, Sharp had resigned as AG and run for the state legislature against Old Courter John Crittenden (later to become famous for trying to middle the issue of slavery on the brink of the Civil War). News of the election reached Beauchamp, who thought he’d use the ongoing political violence as cover for his private revenge. He snuck into Sharp’s house in the dead of night and stabbed him through the heart, killing him instantly. Beauchamp detailed the event in his confession:

He knew me the more readily I imagine, by my long, bushy, curly suit of hair. He sprang back and exclaimed in the deepest tone of astonishment, horror and despair I ever heard, “Great God! It’s him!” And as he said that, he fell on his knees after failing to jerk loose his wrist from my grasp. As he fell on his knees I let go his wrist and grasped him by the throat, and dashing him against the facing of the door, I choaked [sic] him against it to keep him from hallowing, and muttered in his face, “die you villain.” And as I said that I plunged the dagger to his heart.

The trial was deeply corrupt on both sides and, as such, a major circus. During closing arguments, one prosecutor attacked a defense attorney with a cane. Eventually, Beauchamp was executed, but not before Anna Beauchamp was allowed to stay with him in his cell, where the couple tried to commit suicide, twice. Anna was the only one who died, and that on her second attempt. (Beauchamp likely was bleeding out when they hanged him.)

The murder became grist of the ongoing Old Court vs. New Court battle. New blamed Old for inciting Beauchamp to violence, while Old suggested that the governor had offered Beauchamp a pardon if he would implicate the party in the crime. Eventually, the tempest petered out. The economy turned around in 1826. The act that created the New Court was repealed, and its decisions were declared void by the newly reconstituted Court of Appeals. Nothing about this spasm of political violence was imaginary. No phantom redress of imaginary grievances was involved.

As Hilliard, writing in 1959, concluded:

I sometimes think we have come a long way since the days of the Two Courts. Then I wonder. We now recognize that Constitutions exist and exist for the purpose of protecting minorities but occasionally the Executive branch of government has no hesitation in trying to control the judicial branch by packing the court. We do recognize that the judicial branch can declare an act of the legislative branch unconstitutional and thus nullify it. But we protest violently sometimes.

Yes, in fact, we do.

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