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CR: The New Centennial Review 4.1 (2004) 1-72

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From the Pinkertons to the PATRIOT Act

The Trajectory of Political Policing in the United States, 1870 to the Present

University of Colorado

By 1940 [FBI Director J. Edgar] Hoover was the country's leading law enforcement officer. Much of what Hoover had done for the public and the police, however, had been done earlier by Allan Pinkerton and his two sons. Murray Kempton believed that Allan Pinkerton had invented most of the devices used by Hoover. The director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation "found the tablets already engraved; no further exercise was demanded of him except some tracing at the edges."
—Frank Morn, The Eye That Never Sleeps

On 26 october 2001, president george w. bush signed the so-called USA PATRIOT Act—the title is actually an acronym standing for "Uniting and Strengthening of America by Providing Appropriate Tools to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism"—thereby initiating what has been called "the most sweeping revocation of constitutional rights [and] civil liberties in the history of the United States."1 Usually referred to simply as "the Patriot Act," [End Page 1] the new law has been subjected to a range of substantive and often bitter critiques, most of them centering on the premise that, while it offers little by way of securing the country against the ravages of genuine terrorism, it provides a veritable carte blanche to domestic elites avid to preserve their own positions of power and privilege through the placement of arbitrary and generally severe constraints upon the range of activities/expression allowed dissident or "unruly" sectors of the body politic.2

Given that one of the better means of apprehending the implications inherent to a current phenomenon is to view it through the lens presented by analogous historical contexts, it is entirely appropriate that significant time and energy has been devoted to exploring the evolution of the Patriot Act out of what has come to be known as the "COINTELPRO Era" of FBI political repression during the period 1956-1971.3 By the same token, of course, it is appropriate to peel the onion further, examining the antecedents of COINTELPRO, demonstrating its foundation in the post-World War II "Second Red Scare" period,4 for instance, and, earlier still, the post-World War I Red Scare, which gave rise to such little-remembered horrors as the Palmer Raids,5 the IWW trials,6 and the then-nascent Federal Bureau of Investigation's campaign to destroy Marcus Garvey and his United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA; still the largest African American organization in U.S. history).7

A central conclusion drawn in every serious study that has sought to trace the trajectory at issue has been that the FBI, while by no means comprising the whole, has been at or very near the center of all that has proven most antidemocratic in American life during the past 90 years or more.8 The purpose of this essay is to push the timeline back further still, to the beginning, sketching the template upon which the Bureau was itself constructed, and thereby situating the origin of the repressive trend to which the Patriot Act presently serves as capstone, not in the fifth or even the second decade of the twentieth century, but rather in the mid-nineteenth.9 The ramifications of taking this longer view are, to be sure, profound: Given that the existence of an official/quasiofficial political police apparatus can be seen as defining the opposite of democratic order10 —a proposition with which all but a handful of commentators would agree11 —and insofar as such an [End Page 2] apparatus has been demonstrably present in the United States for all but the most formative years of its existence, basic logic requires that the very term "American Democracy" be understood as, at best, an oxymoron.

Democracy for Americans thereby becomes, in any but the most vulgarly rhetorical/propagandistic...