The thing that needs to be said in respect of the rebellion that has gathered at the ranch of Cliven Bundy is that it is as American as apple pie. At the rate things are going the Nevada ranchers are going to write themselves into American history right alongside Daniel Shays and the Pennsylvania backwoodsmen who confronted the federal government over taxes on whiskey. The echoes are uncanny — complete with the sanctimonious lectures from the federal government over the law and the righteousness of the anger of the rebels.
Shays mounted his rebellion in western Massachusetts even before we had the Constitution. His aim was to close the courts trying to collect for Massachusetts taxes to cover its costs in the Revolution. Tempers were exacerbated by a depression, like they are today by the Great Recession. Things came to a head in 1786, and the fighting grew serious in 1787. Before it was over, five rebels were killed — and one person on the government side. In other words, it was far worse than anything we’ve seen yet in Nevada.
Eventually several thousand persons confessed to participating in Shays’ rebellion, hundreds were actually indicted, and 18 were sentenced to death. Yet with all that, but two — John Bly and Charles Rose — went to the gallows. Even Captain Shays himself was pardoned. The rebellion, though, ended the governorship of James Bowdoin and brought into power the tax-cutter John Hancock. It was Shays’ uprising that inspired Jefferson’s remark about how the “tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
Washington was less prepared to apologize for the rebels. He wrote to General Henry Knox that had anyone three years earlier told him of such a rebellion he’d have thought the person a “bedlamite.” The view through the backward prism of history, though, is startling in the degree to which the rebels’ concerns animated the debate in the Founding era, including the assumption by the federal government of the Revolutionary debts of the states. Massachusetts may have defeated its rebels, but they made their point.
Ditto the distillers in Pennsylvania. The taxes against which they rebelled — put into law by the Whiskey Act of 1791 — were part of Hamilton’s campaign to pay off the debts the federal government had assumed. They were as much a part of the law at the time as the grazing fees are today at Nevada. Maybe more so. But Pennsylvania’s farmers felt there was inadequate local representation and that the tax regime favored big distillers in the eastern part of the state. The tarring and feathering of a tax collector, Robert Johnson, took place in September.
The Battle of Bower Hill took place in 1794. Hundreds of rebels were involved. Major MacFarlane was killed. And as the war sizzled on, Washington became during the rebellion the only American president to command an army in the field — a force of nearly 13,000 men. Before the fight was over, two dozen would be charged with treason, but only two — Philip Wigle and John Mitchell — were convicted. Washington pardoned them. While the federal government won the war, the government had great difficulty collecting the tax.
In 1799 and the following year, another rebellion — John Fries’ — rattled the country. This one was also in Pennsylvania, but among the Dutch, who balked at paying a tax on homes imposed to pay for the army and navy America raised during the quasi war with France. The rebellion resulted in three convictions of treason. President Adams pardoned them and issued a more general amnesty, amid a sense that the federal government had overplayed its hand. In 1801, Jefferson became president and the whiskey taxes were repealed.
In 1787, Jefferson had asserted, in a letter to Madison, “that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.” He called it “a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” It would be inapt to put too much stock in that advice. But it would be shortsighted to ignore it altogether. So far the Nevada ranchers haven’t come close to the kind of treason seen in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, while the federal government is making all the blunders it made back then. Whatever else can be said about Cliven Bundy, he’s in an American tradition.