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Militia groups distort U.S. history


THE MEMBERS of the civilian paramilitary groups who testified in Senate hearings last week have their history wrong.

While denying any connection with the Oklahoma City bombing, some compared themselves to the colonists who fought the Revolutionary War.

By carrying "Don't Tread on Me" flags and using the word "patriot," these self-styled militiamen have long tried to invoke the spirit of 1776.

They rightly claim a precedent more than two centuries old. But nTC they have less in common with the American Revolution than with two upheavals that came afterward: Shays' Rebellion, an uprising of farmers in western Massachusetts in 1786, and the Whiskey Rebellion, a movement of frontiersmen in western Pennsylvania in 1794.

Unlike today's small, isolated groups, the 18th-century rebel movements loomed large in the small country. The Massachusetts government mustered an army of 4,400 to put down Shays' Rebellion.

The Whiskey rebels held a meeting outside Pittsburgh that drew 7,000 people; to restore order, the federal government marched nearly 13,000 men over the Alleghenies -- five times as many troops as George Washington took across the Delaware in 1776.

The rebels in both uprisings drew on army experience. Daniel Shays had been a captain in the Revolutionary War. The biggest clash of the Whiskey Rebellion was a shootout between a local militia, led by James McFarlane, also a veteran, and a tax collector besieged in his house.

Like today's militiamen, the rebels felt alienated from the government. The farmers who followed Shays resented the politicians in Boston who taxed them to pay off state debts.

After the Constitution was adopted and the government took over the states' debts, the main source of federal revenue was an excise tax on whiskey. The frontiersmen who distilled and drank it loathed the agents from Alexander Hamilton's Treasury Department who came to collect the revenue.

George Washington, on hearing news of Shays' Rebellion while home at Mount Vernon, called it "unaccountable."

"It is but the other day we were shedding our blood to obtain Constitutions of our own choice and making," wrote the future president. "And now we are unsheathing the sword to overturn them."

At the time of the Whiskey Rebellion, Washington was in office and hadn't changed his mind about those who took up arms against the government.

"If the laws are to be so trampled upon with impunity," he warned, "there is an end put at one stroke to republican government."

The Founding Fathers were concerned about law as well as order. They knew that the authority of a republican government rested with the people. If the laws turned out to be unpopular, they could be changed.

But they had to be repealed in the same way they had been passed -- by political effort and legislative action. Self-government is a responsibility, not just a right.

Some concerns voiced by today's militiamen -- that federal agencies are prone to high-handedness and quick to use force -- are legitimate. But the way to change things is not by putting on fatigues and telling conspiracy stories by the campfire, and certainly not by shooting it out with law-enforcement agents.

Seven years after the Whiskey Rebellion, the tax collectors relaxed their grip on Pennsylvania.

Not because of threats from self-styled militias, but because President Thomas Jefferson, elected with the support of people who resented the tax, led Congress in changing the law.

Richard Brookhiser, a senior editor at National Review, is writing a book on George Washington.

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