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To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant's Face

Libertarian Political Violence and the Origins of the Militia Movement

Robert H Churchill

Publication Year: 2010

After the bombings of Oklahoma City in 1995, most Americans were shocked to discover that tens of thousands of their fellow citizens had banded together in homegrown militias. Within the next few years, numerous studies and media reports appeared revealing the unseen world of the American militia movement, a loose alliance of groups with widely divergent views. Not surprisingly, it was the movement’s most extreme voices that attracted the lion's share of attention. In reality the militia movement was neither as irrational nor as new as it was portrayed in the press, Robert Churchill writes. What bound the movement together was the shared belief that citizens have a right, even a duty, to take up arms against wanton exercise of unconstitutional power by the federal government. Many were motivated to join the movement by what they saw as a rise in state violence, illustrated by the government assaults at Ruby Ridge, Idaho in 1992, and Waco, Texas in 1993. It was this perception and the determination to deter future state violence, Churchill argues, that played the greatest role in the growth of the American militia movement. Churchill uses three case studies to illustrate the origin of some of the core values of the modern militia movement: Fries' Rebellion in Pennsylvania at the end of the eighteenth century, the Sons of Liberty Conspiracy in Civil War-era Indiana and Illinois, and the Black Legion in Michigan and Ohio during the Depression. Building on extensive interviews with militia members, the author places the contemporary militia movement in the context of these earlier insurrectionary movements that, animated by a libertarian interpretation of the American Revolution, used force to resist the authority of the federal government. A historian of early America, Robert H. Churchill has published numerous articles on American political violence and the right to keep and bear arms. He is currently Associate Professor of History at the University of Hartford. "This book is about how we think about the past, how cultural memories are formed and evolve, and how these memories then come to impact current understandings of issues. Churchill provides an enlightening analysis of the ideology, structure, and purpose of the militia movement. Where much scholarship has categorized it as a cohesive, single movement, Churchill begins the process of unraveling its complexity." ---Steve Chermak, Michigan State University "To Shake Their Guns in the Tyrant's Face addresses an area---the relationship of American political violence to American ideology---that is of growing importance and that is commanding an ever increasing audience, and it does so in a way like nothing else in the field." ---David Williams, Indiana University Bloomington

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Title Page and Copyright

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pp. i-iv


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiii

This book began at Rutgers University. It sprang from the training in early American history that I received at the hands of Thomas P. Slaughter, whose work continues to serve as an inspiration. The idea of writing a history that explores the early American roots of the contemporary militia movement emerged from a conversation with Paul G. E. Clemens in the spring of 1996. During my time at Rutgers I was a member of a remarkable...

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pp. 1-23

On April 29, 1994, twenty-eight men met in the woods of northern Michigan. Angered by the events at Ruby Ridge and Waco and alarmed by rumors of black helicopters and foreign soldiers hidden on American military bases, these men agreed to associate as the ‹rst brigade of the Northern Michigan Regional Militia. The militia was the brainchild of Norm Olson and Ray Southwell, the pastor and deacon of a small Baptist...

Part One

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The Precedent of 1774: The Role of Insurgent Violence in the Political Theory of the Founding

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pp. 27-55

The people of Suffolk County responded to these resolutions by organizing militia companies, practicing military drill, and providing themselves with arms. They did so largely without recourse to organized government beyond the institutions of their local towns. Inspired by the Suffolk County Resolves, the people of New England took up arms in the fall of 1774 to nullify the Coercive Acts, legislation that they regarded as...

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The Revolution as Living Memory: Fries’ Rebellion and the Alien and Sedition Act Crisis of 1798–1800

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pp. 57-94

On March 7, 1799, the inhabitants of several townships in Bucks and Northampton counties, Pennsylvania, forcefully resisted the execution of a federal law providing for a direct tax on houses, land, and slaves.Assembled in three militia companies, these insurgents marched on Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and released prisoners in the custody of a federal marshal. Though the target of that resistance was the “house tax,” the insurgents were motivated in large part by Democratic-Republican claims...

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The Libertarian Memory of the Revolution in the Antebellum Era

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pp. 95-104

In January 1830 Senators Daniel Webster of Massachusetts and Robert Hayne of South Carolina engaged in a passionate debate over the nature of the Constitution and of the union. The debate was a key moment in the articulation of the competing antebellum constitutional doctrines of states rights and national supremacy. It also illustrates the continuing hold of the Revolution and the Alien and Sedition Act crisis upon the...

Part Two

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The Roots of Modern Patriotism: Conscription, Resistance, and the Sons of Liberty Conspiracy of 1864

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pp. 107-143

In February 1863, Ohio congressman Clement Vallandigham rose in the House of Representatives to speak against the extraordinary exercise of emergency war powers by President Abraham Lincoln. Vallandigham’s speech addressed the particulars of the conscription bill then before the house, but his sentiments applied with equal measure to Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, to a wave of military arrests across the nation...

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Cleansing the Memory of the Revolution: Americanism, the Black Legion, and the First Brown Scare

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pp. 145-173

At the end of the Civil War, the dispute over the nature of American patriotism persisted. Republicans during the war had embraced loyalty to a strong national state and that state’s monopoly on legitimate violence as the essence of patriotism. In contrast, even at the war’s end, Democrats continued to insist that fidelity to the Constitution and to eighteenth-century understandings of liberty and limited government...

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The Making of the Second Brown Scare: Liberal Pluralism and the Evolution of the White Supremacist Right

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pp. 175-182

The Republican embrace of a new ideal of patriotism during the Civil War marked the beginning of a new era in American history. Over the next century, first Republicans and later Democrats repudiated the insurgent violence that had characterized the onset of the American Revolution. They also abandoned the libertarian memory of the American Revolution that had played a fundamental role in early American politics. ...

Part Three

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The Origins of the Militia Movement: Violence and Memory on the Suburban-Rural Frontier

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pp. 185-227

Sometimes change is sudden, and so dramatic that we can hardly believe our eyes. On November 9, 1989, I came home from teaching high school and turned on the television. I had followed the events in Eastern Europe closely that fall, but it still took me twenty minutes to fathom the live images of young people dancing atop a concrete wall. I simply could not grasp what I was seeing. The newscasters reporting the fall of the Berlin Wall were themselves speechless. ...

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An Exploration of Militia Ideology: The Whig Diagnosis of Post–Cold War America

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pp. 229-272

In Armed and Dangerous, the first of many reports on the militia movement issued by civil rights organizations, the Anti-Defamation League described the movement’s preoccupation with gun control. But it also noted that militia figures had expressed a much broader range of political and constitutional concerns: “Although thwarting gun control is the chief aim of the militias, they seek to turn the clock back on federal involvement in a host of other issues as well.” The report then asked...

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Epilogue: The Defense of Liberty in the Age of Terror

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pp. 273-277

The election of George W. Bush in 2000 set the U.S. government on a markedly different course than that it had pursued in the 1990s. For the militia movement, the most important outcome of the election of 2000 was the appointment of John Ashcroft as attorney general. On May 17, 2001, Ashcroft responded to an inquiry from NRA executive director James Baker with a letter that outlined his views on the meaning of the...

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pp. 279-286

The following table lists those counties that I am confident hosted active militia groups between 1994 and 2000. It is limited to those states for which I have a sufficient familiarity with the movement to make this judgment. It is possible that the table underrepresents the number of counties that experienced militia activity during the 1990s. The table is based on a variety of sources. Particularly important are two lists of militia...


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pp. 287-353


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pp. 355-370

E-ISBN-13: 9780472027460
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472034659

Page Count: 384
Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Radicalism -- United States -- History.
  • Government, Resistance to -- United States -- History.
  • Militia movements -- United States -- History.
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