Skip to content

Reflections on Violence in the United States

These reflections on domestic violence—that is, violence occurring within the United States—first appeared as the introduction to American Violence: A Documentary History, edited by Richard Hofstadter and Michael Wallace and published in 1970. We have deleted the footnotes, added subheads, and abridged here and there, but we have resisted the temptation to update this parade of riots, brandings, lynchings, shootings, and tar-and-feathering parties with examples from our own time. “The primary precedent and the primary rationale for violence comes from the established order itself,” Hofstadter writes. “Violence is, so to speak, an official reality.” No doubt, further examples and incidents in the line of these all-too contemporary reflections will spring to your mind. —Eds.

The United States, it has been said, has a history but not a tradition of domestic violence. A history, because violence has been frequent, voluminous, almost commonplace in our past. But not precisely a tradition, for two reasons: First, our violence lacks both an ideological and a geographical center; it lacks cohesion; it has been too various, diffuse, and spontaneous to be forged into a single, sustained, inveterate hatred shared by entire social classes. Second, we have a remarkable lack of memory where violence is concerned and have left most of our excesses a part of our buried history. . . .

For historians violence is a difficult subject, diffuse and hard to cope with. It is committed by isolated individuals, by small groups, and by large mobs; it is directed against individuals and crowds alike; it is undertaken for a variety of purposes (and at times for no discernible rational purpose at all), and in a variety of ways ranging from assassinations and murders to lynchings, duels, brawls, feuds, and riots; it stems from criminal intent and from political idealism, from antagonisms that are entirely personal and from antagonisms of large social consequence. Hence it has been hard to conceive of violence as a subject at all. . . .

Today we are not only aware of our own violence; we are frightened by it. We are now quite ready to see that there is far more violence in our national heritage than our proud, sometimes smug, national self-image admits of. Our violence frightens us, as it frightens others, because in our singular position uncontrolled domestic violence coincides with unparalleled national power, and thus takes on a special significance for the world. It is not only shocking but dangerous for a primary world power to lose three of its most important and valuable public leaders within a few years, and with them to lose an immeasurable part of its political poise. Violence in Colombia or Guatemala is of life-or-death concern to Colombians and Guatemalans. Violence in the United States has become of life-or-death concern to everyone. It is, again, disturbing to many Americans that the recent outbreaks coincided with the most sustained economic boom we have ever had. Although the American creed has been built upon the efficacy of riches, it has now become alarmingly clear that some of our social discontents, instead of being relieved by prosperity, are exacerbated by it. Although Americans are richer than ever, they have not found a way to buy themselves out of trouble.

Americans certainly have reason to inquire whether, when compared with other advanced industrial nations, they are not a people of exceptional violence. Any American who has lived for a time in England, for example, can hardly fail to notice there a gentleness and a repugnance to violence that underlines our own contrasting qualities. Americans, however they may deplore and fear violence, are not so deeply shocked by it as the English are. Our entertainment and our serious writing are suffused with violence to a notorious degree; it is endemic in our history. Americans, apparently taking it as a part of the stream of life’s events, do not as a rule very promptly rise up in large numbers and in lawful ways to protest, oppose, or control it. They are legendary for their refusal to accept the reality of death, but violence they endure as part of the nature of things, and as one of those evils to be expected from life.

How does the United States really stand today among the nations of the world in the level of its domestic violence? Here it is important not to succumb to the conventional and maudlin anti-Americanism of our era, and not to be parochial even in self-denigration. For good or ill, violence has been a common agent of historical change almost everywhere; it occurs at decisive moments even in the history of those nations that have otherwise enjoyed long periods of gradual and relatively peaceful change. While we may find violence undesirable, we can hardly find it unnatural. The United States, even with its considerable record of violence, appears not as some mutant monster among the peoples of the world but rather as a full-fledged and somewhat boisterous member of the fellowship of human frailty. What is most exceptional about the Americans is not the voluminous record of their violence, but their extraordinary ability, in the face of that record, to persuade themselves that they are among the best-behaved and best-regulated of peoples. . . .

Few of us will be so parochial in our anti-Americanism as to fail to see that large-scale violence is so commonplace in the histories of societies that the American record, when put in a world-historical perspective, is not so remarkable as it first seems. What is impressive to one who begins to learn about American violence is its extraordinary frequency, its sheer commonplaceness in our history, its persistence into very recent and contemporary times, and its rather abrupt contrast with our pretensions to singular national virtue. What must also be observed about it, however, is the circumscribed character and the small scale of the typical violent incident. America has experienced one major internal war on an exceptionally costly scale. But its riots and massacres and other spontaneous outbursts of savagery do not otherwise loom inordinately large when projected against the long backdrop of history. It is horrifying to read of the heads of sixteen slaves exposed on poles at intervals up the Mississippi River as a warning to blacks after the slave insurrection of 1811. It is still more horrifying to think of the aftermath of the Spartacus uprising, when, after inflicting well over thirty thousand battle casualties on the slaves, the Romans crucified about six thousand of them along the road from Capua to Rome. It is, again, depressing to read of the repeated mobbings of Irish Catholics in nineteenth-century American cities, but it may not be wholly irrelevant to recall that in the massacres of Huguenots attending and following St. Bartholomew’s Night of 1572 in France, the uncounted and uncountable murders are believed by some modern scholars to have reached about eight thousand or ten thousand or that in the massacres of English and Scotch settlers in the Irish uprising of October 1641, some twelve thousand to fifteen thousand were murdered or died of subsequent ill treatment. The deaths in the Indonesian massacre of Communists and their sympathizers in 1965–6 may well have exceeded one hundred and fifty thousand. If the quantitative dimension of such human tragedies is to concern us, as I think it must, America’s episodic violence does not rank notably large.

Still, our civil violence is quite out of keeping with our image of ourselves as one of the world’s most advanced political cultures. Our new sense of this disparity finds support in the attempts of the experts of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence to measure the nations of the world against each other. In some ways their comparisons are crudely mechanical. The “measurement” of civil strife by the numbers of participants, the duration of incidents, or the casualties per hundred thousand of population has no way of taking account of the decisive qualitative aspects of violence. The political importance of an act of violence need not be at all proportionate to its cost in casualties—witness the Boston Tea Party, in which not a soul was hurt. Like so many other positivistic inquiries in social science, such “measurement” jars our sense of proportion by setting down with mathematical exactitude data that have in actuality little of the precision apparently conveyed by the figures in which they are reported. It is a bit hard to understand what we are being told when we learn that the “magnitude of civil strife” in Venezuela for the troubled five-year period 1961–5 was 20.3 while that of France was 12.1, and that of the United States for the five years 1963–8 was 13.8. The fact that the estimated casualties for the United States per hundred thousand were five, whereas those for France were four, may not tell us quite what we want to know about the comparative importance of violence in the polities of the two countries. There were more casualties in the local encounter over the “People’s Park” in Berkeley in May 1969 than in the convulsive upheaval throughout France a year earlier.

Nonetheless, the figures compiled by the National Commission’s experts constitute the only check we have thus far against arbitrary impressions, and they confirm our sense that the United States is far from being the most peaceful among the Western or other industrial nations with which comparison seems most appropriate. These experts find in the United States of recent years a magnitude of civil strife that compares very unfavorably with most other nations of a high level of economic development, and somewhat unfavorably even with some nations of a medium level of economic development. This country has been, for example, less strife-ridden than Indonesia, Algeria, Rhodesia or Venezuela, about as strife-ridden as France, India, and Ecuador, and far more so than the United Kingdom, West Germany, the USSR, Puerto Rico, Taiwan, and the Scandinavian countries, to choose more or less at random from a large number of countries with less domestic violence than our own.

There is another respect in which such data should be looked at carefully: the level of civil strife has no consistent relation to political freedom. The United States in the 1960s showed a relatively high level of freedom and permissiveness in its policies toward domestic protest at a time when it had profoundly divisive domestic problems and a simultaneous unsuccessful and unpopular foreign war. This reads like a prescription for violent disturbances. By contrast, nations governed by dictators or firmly installed authoritarian systems—Portugal and Spain, the USSR, Poland, Yugoslavia, and Rumania, as well as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Republic—all stand well below the United States in the dimensions of their civil strife. Yet the internal peace enjoyed by some polities rather resembles that of the graveyard, and here invidious comparisons with American violence would have little meaning. One might well prefer to endure occasional and limited violence if the only alternative is a state of almost unlimited repression. . . .

Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding

An arresting fact about American violence, and one of the keys to understanding of its history, is that very little of it has been insurrectionary. Most of our violence has taken the form of action by one group of citizens against another group, rather than by citizens against the state. The sheer size of the country, the mixed ethnic, religious, and racial composition of the people, and the diffuseness of power under our federal system have all tended to blunt or minimize citizen-versus-state conflicts and to throw citizen-versus-citizen conflicts into high relief. And this is one of the reasons why so much of our violence has been buried away in our historical memory: for historians, conflicts between groups of citizens, no matter how murderous and destructive, have been forgettable; attacks upon state power, no matter how transient and ineffective, win historical attention. Hence such low-key and almost charmingly benign episodes as the Boston Tea Party, Shays’ Rebellion, and the Whiskey Rebellion find a place, as indeed they should, in our history books. But other episodes, often of startling savagery and destructive effect, like the suppression of the slave rebellion in New York in 1712, are readily forgotten.

Again, our federal structure has deflected violence from the symbols of national power. Although much of our violence has been carried out by, or launched in response to, local police or military power, very little has been directed against the power of the several states, and practically none against the power of the national government. On occasions, it is true, state legislatures have been threatened or even seized, though usually by groups with objectives too limited in scope to be called “revolutionary.” But the most common form of American violence, bringing citizen into conflict with citizen, has usually brought the power of authority into play as a third party (though by no means as a “neutral” one) to protect property or end crowd violence; and there have been countless occasions when the truly costly violence, in human terms, has occurred only when the police act. But the important point here—important in part because we may now be witnessing a change in the pattern—is that crowd actions have hardly ever been coupled with a flat challenge to the legitimacy of the whole American system. Since our violence did not typically begin with anyone’s desire to subvert the state, it did not typically end by undermining the legitimacy of authority.

The United States has thus been able to endure an extraordinary volume of violence without developing a revolutionary tradition, and indeed while maintaining a long record of basic political stability. With the striking—and admittedly very important—exception of the Civil War, our political development has taken place for over 175 years under relatively free conditions, with a stable Constitution, free (if not always quiet or uncorrupted) elections, orderly and effective political parties, and working parliamentary institutions. We have brought a vast continental area together under a free government and combined in one polity people from several parts of the world. The coexistence of stability and violence poses a paradox: most of the countries we regard as acutely violent we also regard as suffering from chronic upheaval and political incapacity. But not the United States, which has long shown a political stability that compares favorably with, say, that of England or the bland polities of Scandinavia, and yet has a level of civil violence that rather resembles some Latin American republics or the volatile new states of Asia and Africa.

Violence is, so to speak, an official reality.

Finally, one is impressed that most American violence—and this also illuminates its relationship to state power—has been initiated with a “conservative” bias. It has been unleashed against abolitionists, Catholics, radicals, workers and labor organizers, Negroes, Orientals, and other ethnic or racial or ideological minorities, and has been used ostensibly to protect the American, the Southern, the white Protestant, or simply the established middle-class way of life and morals. A high proportion of our violent actions has thus come from the top dogs or the middle dogs. Such has been the character of most mob and vigilante movements. This may help to explain why so little of it has been used against state authority, and why in turn it has been so easily and indulgently forgotten. Our new concern about violence today is, among other things, a response to a sharp increase in its volume, but it is also a response to its shifting role. Violence has now become, to a degree unprecedented in the United States, the outgrowth of forcible acts by dissidents and radicals who are expressing hostility to middle-class ways and to established power. Many people see it as newly dangerous because it is politically more purposive than in the past, more intimately related to basic social issues, and because it touches the vulnerable sensibilities of the comfortable middle class.

The Pot, Unmelted

It inevitably will be asked why advanced industrial America has so violent a history, but this is not, I think, either as difficult or as interesting as another question: How could America have combined such a substantial degree of popular domestic violence with such a high degree of political stability? The conventional attribution of American violence to our long frontier history should not be given too much credence. It is true, of course, that frontier conditions somewhat enhanced the American disposition to violence, as they did, for example, in the history of Indian warfare and the attitudes it engendered. And before the era of the gangster hero, it was the frontier that gave this country one of its central images of justified violence and some of its archetypal heroes of violence.

Yet it is worth emphasizing that over the whole course of our history only a small portion of the total American population—and always a decreasing portion—has ever seen or been on a frontier. Again, all frontiers do not automatically produce similar patterns of violence, as a comparison of American with Canadian and Australian behavior would show. The prominence of violence in the South, far behind the advancing frontier, should inspire further skepticism on this count. But also, as it happens, most American domestic violence has been urban. If we are to understand it, then, we must turn away from the preoccupation with the frontier and from explanations based on the natural environment to look at the conditions of American urban life. And when these are examined, one is quickly driven to the conclusion that ethnic, religious, and racial mixture—above all the last of these—are the fundamental determinants of American violence. And they have been exacerbated by other national circumstances: weak government, localism, and the diffusion of authority and power; extraordinarily rapid urban growth, large-scale migrations, and rapid social change; the inability or unwillingness of urban Americans to relinquish their gun culture; and finally, the development in the nineteenth century of a type of socially unchecked industrial baron, often an absentee, lording it over a distant and heterogeneous “alien” working force with which he felt no ethnic, institutional, social, or religious ties. . . .

I propose to review briefly a few major chronic forms of group violence. . . . For the sake of brevity I confine myself here to some of the most costly and symptomatic varieties: riots of several kinds, industrial violence, lynching, vigilantism, and slave revolts and their suppression.

Riots, I suppose, have been the most important single form of domestic violence in American history, certainly when measured by their historic duration, and probably when measured by the cost in casualties. But rioting in itself is not a single category that will yield us very much understanding: rather it is a broad rubric that covers a wide variety of types of social conflict. Rioting has taken place chiefly in the cities, but in earlier days it was not unknown in the countryside. We have had political riots (particularly important in the Revolutionary period and in the heated moments of the Federal era), election riots, food riots, anti-abolitionist and other anti-radical riots. We have had riots arising out of industrial disputes—which I will discuss in connection with industrial violence. But by far the greatest number of riots have arisen out of ethnic-religious or racial antagonisms; and even many of the riots that seem to stem from other issues, when examined more closely, turn out to be shaped by such antagonisms. What may be called election riots, for example, often prove to be the result of an effort to keep some minority group from voting. What seem to be riots arising from labor disputes may turn out to have a strong racial coloration, when one finds white workers attacking black scabs or imported Chinese laborers. An examination of violent episodes impresses one with the delusive and superficial character of the “melting-pot” image as it has been so often applied to our history. The truth is that all too often, especially under urban conditions, the contents of the melting-pot did not melt; or when they did, it was only under fire. And so far as the blacks are concerned, the melting never took place: the preponderance of our crowd violence has been a case of whites against blacks.

To an extraordinary degree, class conflict in American history has been overshadowed by ethnic-religious and racial conflict. Intermittent group warfare has been our substitute for, or alternative to, class war, and class war itself, when it has flared up, has seldom taken place in a clear atmosphere, unclouded by our racial-ethnic antagonisms and by our complex hierarchy of status based upon religious-ethnic-racial qualities.

When riots began to reflect ethnic mixture, they took on an especially lethal quality. Americans, it is true, had a considerable heritage of violent action in the colonial period. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the English were a rough lot, and most Americans were transplanted Englishmen. Violence, and the threat of violence, marked at their peak by New York and New Jersey tenant riots and Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia, were significant in colonial life, and when Americans entered the Revolutionary era, they had a well-established habit of moving into forcible action. But their ways had also somewhat softened, and the violence that prevailed in the late eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth was limited in its destructive consequences, even though often of decisive political importance. The town or country demonstration was a common thing, and in the resistance to taxes or mortgages, in the protests against the Stamp Act and the excises, it rose often enough to the level of violence. But as Howard Mumford Jones has remarked of mobs in the pre-Revolutionary era: “American mobs were curiously lacking in furious, deep-seated, and bloodthirsty resentment. No royal governor was hanged or shot by a drumhead court-martial. No stamp collector or customs official was summarily executed, though some of them suffered physical injury. No ‘tyrant’ was decapitated as the unfortunate Governor of the Bastille was decapitated, and nobody’s head was borne about the streets of Philadelphia or Boston on a pole. There was no American parallel to the Jacqueries, the Noyades, the September Massacres, or the Reign of Terror.” Nothing in American experience in the eighteenth century approached the Gordon riot of 1780 in London, in the course of which 285 rioters were killed and enormous physical damage was done.

What Jones observes about the crowd actions of the pre-Revolutionary period seems largely true of such action as took place during the domestic political conflicts of the 1780s and the 1790s. But after 1830, with increasing ethnic mixture in the Northern cities and the quick suppression of slave restiveness—or of attacks upon slavery—the tempo and destructiveness of violence increased. The next major period of riots, rising with the growth of cities and the development of large slum areas, Irish immigration, and the abolitionist movement, came in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s, which Richard Maxwell Brown has described as “a period of sustained urban rioting particularly in the great cities of the Northeast.” This, he suggests, “may have been the era of the greatest urban violence that America has ever experienced.” Brown has counted in the four cities of Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston at least thirty-five “major riots,” and there were other riots in the cities of the Midwest and the lower Mississippi Valley, like Cincinnati. But if we had more complete histories of smaller communities, the number of identifiable riots would probably grow considerably.

The fiercest riots arose out of religious-ethnic and racial conflict, but a few important ones were waged against abolitionists. The great abolitionist orator Wendell Phillips was converted to abolitionism in 1835 by seeing a mob drag William Lloyd Garrison down Court Street in Boston with a rope around his neck. In 1837 a mob in Alton, Illinois, attacked the office of Elijah P. Lovejoy, and after a brief battle killed the anti-slavery editor. It was partly in response to this episode that Abraham Lincoln issued his famous warning of 1838 against American lawlessness to the young men of Springfield. Lincoln was aware not only of the anti-abolitionist riots but also of nativist riots directed mainly against the Irish. Touched off by the burning of the Ursuline Convent at Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1834, they continued well into the 1850s. The Anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party encouraged the use of violence, not least in attempting to keep foreign-born voters from the polls. Clashes between Know-Nothing Clubs and Democratic organizations over the voting rights of immigrants were frequent in the 1850s. One fracas in Baltimore, in which organized platoons were set against each other, cost the lives of eight and a toll of fifty wounded. As Ray Allen Billington has written: “In every American city the story was the same. In New Orleans four men were killed when native and foreign factions clashed. In Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1,500 Americans stormed the Irish section and destroyed homes and churches. In St. Louis the 1854 elections led to a riot in which ten men were killed and several wounded. More serious was a battle which developed in Louisville on August 5, 1855. There the native factions had been aroused by a no-popery campaign being carried out by the Louisville Journal. When a group of them marched through the German sector, fighting began which only ended after more than twenty men had been killed and several hundred wounded.”

Nativist riots were followed by riots between the Irish and the Negroes. In the New York City draft riots, which raged for five days in mid-July 1863, and which owed more to interracial tensions than to anti-war feeling, there was wholesale murder and lynching of blacks. Estimates of those killed, which vary widely because of the clandestine burial of victims, range up to twelve hundred.

Reconstruction in the South was marked by frequent episodic violence on both a large and small scale. . . . Radical Reconstruction leaders in several Southern states organized Negro militias (actually often racially mixed) both to defend the interests of the freedmen and to patrol and control elections. Southern whites reacted to this challenge to their supremacy by forming, under various names, White Leagues, politico-military organizations which, unlike the Ku Klux Klan, operated quite openly, conducting military drills and laying public plans for resistance. The White Leagues were, in effect, the armed wing of the Democratic Party. Their members seem to have welcomed, and on some occasions probably planned, riots as occasions upon which they could strike back against the Negro militias. In some areas violence became commonplace. An investigation by the Texas legislature showed that between the close of the war in 1865 to June 1868, 509 whites and 486 freedmen had been killed. Most of the deaths had been inflicted by whites, and only a tiny fraction of the white deaths resulted from attacks by freedmen. Between 1868 and 1876, lethal riots of considerable consequence took place in Opelousas, Louisiana, Laurens, South Carolina, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Clinton, Vicksburg, Yazoo City, Mississippi, and Hamburg, South Carolina, and there were many lesser disturbances. The most extraordinary encounter took place in New Orleans on September 14, 1874. In this affair, which rose above the level of a riot or shoot-out to that of a pitched military battle in the streets of the city, two factions were battling for control of the state. In this encounter a Gatling gun and some regular artillery were deployed, and the clash of the two armed groups left over twenty dead and over one hundred wounded. By 1877, with the defeat of radical reconstruction, the last of the Negro militias was dissolved.

Although there was never any long hiatus in rioting, the next major episode after the 1870s occurred during the violent period of 1915 to 1919, when there were twenty-two major interracial disturbances, many of them arising out of Northern wartime migration of Southern Negroes. These were, in the main, large-scale interracial conflicts in which the initiative was taken by whites. In most instances, Negroes fought back. The worst of the post-war riots took place in Chicago. It began late in July 1919, when a young Negro “encroached” upon a swimming area the whites had (without legal authority) marked off for themselves, and was stoned until he drowned. By the time the riot was over, a week later, thousands of both races had been involved in a series of frays, fifteen whites and twenty-three Negroes had been killed, and hundreds injured. The riots of the 1919 period established a certain pattern: whites were resisting the rapid growth of Northern Negro communities; on occasion they seemed to welcome an incident that would give vent to their feelings; Negroes, it was made clear (though there were earlier precedents for this), would fight back; and the police exacerbated the situation by their obvious unneutrality.

The riots of that era were fully interracial, with the blacks mainly on the defensive. In this respect, the riots of the 1960s have thus far established a new pattern. Today the initiative comes from within the Negro community, and the action is not precisely interracial in the old pattern (though it does strike at white representatives of authority and occasionally singles out whites) but is directed more at property (particularly white property) than persons, and is largely confined within the ghettos. The earlier interracial riots were touched off to a large degree by white resentment of an increasing black presence. The ghetto riots, though they seem too spontaneous to be planned for this or any end, serve the purpose of expressing social protest. In this respect they appear to have been successful: it is rioting on a large scale that has, more than anything else, alerted national and community leaders to the seriousness of Negro grievances and the hardships of life in the black slums. There is, of course, a cost and a danger in the riot as a vehicle of protest: riots inflict their primary casualties and property losses on those who live in the ghetto; they also tread a dangerous line in that they risk setting in motion a popular backlash that might undo the gains that come from forcing white elites to become aware of black grievances. Negro leaders, including many militants, are distressed at the racial self-image that emerges from the riots. . . .

Yes, They Shoot Strikers

In respect to its social consequences, if not actual casualties, industrial violence appears to rival rioting—though there are times, as in the great railway strike of 1877, when the two merge. Although there had been violence arising out of capital-labor disputes long before, the major phase of our industrial violence opened with the activities of the Molly Maguires in the anthracite coal towns and with the strikes of 1877, and continued to the time of World War I. The great railroad strike of 1877 led to riots and violent encounters in more than a dozen cities; it resulted in at least ninety deaths and in injuries it would be futile to try to count, as well as in extensive property damage. The ranks of strikers and sympathizers, swelled characteristically by adolescents and erupting in several cities in rapid succession, were almost more than the limited police and military forces of the country could contain. For the first time, the event raised the specter of an unmanageable national insurrectionary power (though nothing of the kind seems to have been in the minds of the strikers), and led to the very considerable strengthening of the National Guard and the establishment of a chain of armories in key cities.

Riots and presidential assassinations have been exacerbated by the fact that ours is a gun culture.

There was to be no comparable threat again (though the railroad strike of 1886 was also violent), but the industrial history of the country was punctuated by fiercely fought strikes, like those at Pullman and Homestead. The beginning of the twentieth century brought many more episodes of violence, especially where the Western Federation of Miners and the IWW were influential. Bouck White remarked in 1911 that the “vital and arresting point” in the case of the Los Angeles Times bombing by the McNamara brothers was “its disclosure of a state of internecine war in our civilization.” The long struggle in the Colorado coalfields in 1913–14 was climaxed by an atrocious attack by militiamen upon a tent encampment of workers at Ludlow in which, besides the several victims of rifle fire on both sides, eleven children and two women of the colony were burned to death when militiamen poured coal oil on the tents and put them to the torch. When the Industrial Relations Commission met in 1914 to study the fierce industrial violence of the Progressive era, Walter Lippmann remarked, in words which today sound strikingly contemporary, that its members “have before them the task of explaining why America, supposed to become the land of promise, has become the land of disappointment and deep-seated discontent.”

The most recent phase in industrial violence came with the organizing campaigns of the 1930s. The national cotton textile strikes of 1934 resulted in probably as many as thirteen deaths and required the deployment of ten thousand troops. The Little Steel Strike of 1937 cost the lives of fifteen strikers and seriously injured over one hundred. The last memorable episode of violence in labor history was the Memorial Day Massacre in the Republic Steel Strike during 1937 when police charged a crowd of demonstrating strikers, killing ten men and injuring many others. No one has ever attempted to take a full toll of the casualties arising out of industrial violence, nor has anyone made a close comparative study of violence in American labor disputes and that in other industrial countries. However, I believe no student of labor history is likely to quarrel with the judgment of Philip Taft and Philip Ross: “The United States has had the bloodiest and most violent labor history of any industrial nation in the world.” Taft and Ross have identified over 160 instances in which state and federal troops have intervened in labor disputes, and have recorded over seven hundred deaths and several thousands of serious injuries in labor disputes, but one can only underline their warning that this incomplete tally “grossly understates the casualties.” The rate of industrial violence in America is striking in light of the fact that no major American labor organization has ever advocated violence as a policy, that extremely militant class-conflict philosophies have not prevailed here, and that the percentage of the American labor force organized in unions has always been (and is even now) lower than in most advanced industrial countries. With a minimum of ideologically motivated class conflict, the United States has somehow had a maximum of industrial violence. And no doubt the answer to this must be sought more in the ethos of American capitalists than in that of the workers.

Hang ’em High! The Price of Eternal Vigilance

Lynching and vigilantism have so few parallels or equivalents elsewhere that they can be regarded as distinctively American institutions. Lynchings—open public murders conceived and carried out more or less spontaneously by a mob—seem to have been invented here. In the first scholarly study of the practice, written in 1903, James E. Cutler remarked that “lynching is a criminal practice which is peculiar to the United States.” The nearest approach he could find to it—its similarity is slight—was in the rural districts of Russia where peasants sometimes took it upon themselves to execute accused horse thieves. However, the Eastern European pogrom may in fact be more comparable. While lynchings began in this country with early nineteenth-century vigilantism and again took place on a considerable scale in the South during Reconstruction, it was not until 1882 that the Chicago Tribune first began to take systematic account of them, and in later years the record was continued by the NAACP. . . . During the nineteenth century a significant minority of lynching victims were white; but after the turn of the century they were almost all blacks. Victims were not always men: there are reports of the lynchings of at least ninety-two women, seventy-six black, sixteen white. Nor was lynching confined to the South: there are only four states—Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont—that have been free of it.

The extraordinary lawlessness prevalent in the South, the Southwest, and some parts of the West is reflected in the relation between lynchings and legal executions. In all but a few years from 1882 to 1903, the number of lynchings exceeded, usually to some considerable degree, the number of lawful executions for capital crimes. . . .

The lynching of blacks, although apparently spontaneous, seemed also to manifest a desire to establish beyond any doubt the point that the caste system of the South could not be challenged. In this respect there is a suggestive psychological similarity, even if no easily established historical affiliation, between the psychology of lynchings and the pattern of suppression of slave revolts. The extraordinary harshness with which slave revolts, or suspected or alleged conspiracies to revolt, were suppressed, supplies a suggestive analogue to lynching, and on a few occasions to vigilantism as well. By and large, slaves under the American slave system were deemed entitled to a trial, but where rebellions, real or imagined, were concerned, the law was swift, and the punishment was often harsh or even barbarous. From the beginning whites seemed to be determined, through the brutality of reprisals, to impress upon slaves the futility and the extraordinary danger of rebellion or otherwise resisting slavery. Such occasional tactics as pulling runaways out of jail and lynching them, burying a slave alive for the murder of his master, tortures to get confessions of slave revolt plots, and whipping to near the point of death bespeak a certain purposive brutality. As early as 1712 when slaves rose up in New York City and killed several whites, reprisals were unrestrained: rebels were burnt, hanged, and hung alive in chains as a public example of the fate of slave rebels. In 1741 a rumor, probably false, that slaves were planning to poison the city water supply was followed by the burning alive of thirteen slaves and the hanging of eighteen others. In one New Orleans revolt of 1811 the heads of sixteen captured rebels were posted on poles as a warning to others. The abortive Gabriel plot in Virginia in 1800 was suppressed with the hanging of as many as thirty-five blacks, and a like number were hanged in Charleston, South Carolina, after the disclosure of the abortive Denmark Vesey plot of 1822. The well-remembered Nat Turner insurrection in Virginia in 1831, which resulted in the deaths of at least fifty-seven whites, ended with a massacre of reprisal whose victims ran well over a hundred and included scores of innocent blacks.

Vigilante groups may be defined as organizations formed to create and enforce laws of their own making in the supposed absence of adequate law enforcement. Penalties inflicted by vigilantes were at times devised to fit the alleged crimes, and they often followed an informal trial; but a peremptory lynching was more likely to be the result of a vigilante arrest. In the main vigilantism was a frontier phenomenon, although it could appear in urban areas that had been affected by frontier traditions. In fact the largest of all such organizations was the San Francisco Vigilance Committee of 1856, which may have had from six thousand to eight thousand members. Richard Maxwell Brown, in his informative study of the subject, considers the South Carolina Regulators, a frontier movement organized to put down a backcountry crime wave in the 1760s, as the first precedent for vigilantism. But this movement, which largely succeeded in its purposes and disbanded in 1769, seems hardly to have started a tradition, since the next notable vigilante organizations, which appeared in Illinois and Indiana, did not emerge until the period 1816–30. In the main, vigilantism, which moved westward with the frontier, was a mid-nineteenth-century phenomenon. The 236 movements Brown has recorded killed at least 729 persons. Almost half of these killings took place in Texas, California, and Montana, and all but a small fraction of them were committed in the half century between 1840 and 1890.

Vigilante groups were rarely led by rowdies or thugs. Indeed it is testimony to the extent to which informal and violent substitutes for law were accepted in many parts of the country that such organizations often drew their leaders from the top levels of local society, sometimes from prominent merchants and able young men on the make, and that their following came largely from the solid middle class. They were organized, after all, to defend property, as they saw it, and to maintain order. To justify themselves they invoked self-preservation, popular sovereignty, the need for efficient and inexpensive justice, and even at times the sacred right of revolution. Very commonly they salved their consciences by holding informal trials, and sometimes the larger movements were quite formally organized and governed. Most vigilante organizations seem to have accelerated in violence, moving rather rapidly from whipping and expulsion to hanging. On occasions, too, their organizations led to near anarchy, when a vigilante movement would be met by an anti-vigilante coalition, and two rival groups would settle into a feud not altogether unlike the gangster feuds of the twentieth century, but sometimes intermingled with local partisan politics. Yet the larger vigilante movements won a surprising acceptance in the respectable world. Pointing out that at one moment (in 1890) four ex-vigilantes were serving in the Senate, Brown enumerates among prominent men who were ex-vigilantes, or who at some time strongly approved of vigilantism, two presidents (Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt), five senators, eight governors, and a considerable number of writers.

No doubt defenders of vigilantism like Theodore Roosevelt, Ray Stannard Baker, and H. H. Bancroft thought of vigilantism as an expression of a kind of old-fashioned popular American hardihood, and as an informal, basically well-intentioned, sometimes necessary and benign extension of the law. We may wonder what they would have thought of the vigilantism of the modern Ku Klux Klan, whose members in the main also thought themselves to be acting in the name of patriotism, law and order, and moral decency. Appealing to Americans devoted to these old-fashioned virtues, as well as to the domination of the old-fashioned white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant type, the Ku Klux Klan probably had over two million members pass through its ranks between 1915 and 1944, over four fifths of them in the South, Southwest and in the older North Central states of Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois. The Klan was strong in cities and in small towns, particularly in areas of rapid growth and social dislocation. In order to intimidate Negroes, Catholics, Jews, labor leaders, “loose women,” and in some cases to enforce Prohibition as well as its own notions of religion, morals, and racial and ethnic purity, the Klan resorted to some techniques, like lobbying, that are quite legitimate in the American canon, but also to extensive violence in the vigilante tradition. As early as 1921, before the Klan had reached its peak membership, the New York World listed 152 outrages it believed had been committed by the Klan, including twenty-seven tar-and-feather parties, forty-one floggings, and four murders. In addition, the Klan on occasion resorted to kidnapping, house-burning, simple assault, branding, and mutilation. The intimidating force of its activities in those parts of the country where it was strong can hardly be overemphasized.

Starting with the 1960s, a new type of urban vigilantism has appeared in a few American cities. Chiefly with the purpose of opposing organized crime, and out of a sense of dissatisfaction with existing police protection, various groups, some black and some white, have begun to organize to patrol the streets. Unlike earlier vigilante organizations, the urban vigilantes organized in the 1960s have tended to cooperate with the police and the authorities, and thus far have shown little disposition to resort to violence. They have shown, however, some tendency to direct their attention toward race relations, and there is always a certain dangerous potential in the existence of groups of armed civilians, however well-intentioned. . . .

Granny Get Yer Gun

Every aspect of violence in our history, from riots to presidential assassinations, has been exacerbated by the fact that ours is a gun culture—a thing without parallel among the industrial nations of the world. In some measure our gun culture owes its origins to the needs of an agrarian society and to the dangers and terrors of the frontier, but for us the central question must be why it has survived into an age in which only about 5 percent of the population makes its living from farming and from which the frontier has long since gone. Why did the United States, alone among modern industrial societies, cling to the idea that the widespread substantially unregulated availability of guns among its city population is an acceptable and a safe thing?

Much of it has to do with an ideology widely shared since colonial times and seemingly confirmed by the supposed success of the militiamen in the Revolution and the War of 1812 (their dismal failures were swept under the rug): the classic radical Whig conviction that a standing army, along with the potential Caesars and Cromwells who command it, is one of the greatest dangers to free government, while an armed populace is one of freedom’s primary safeguards. It is this political doctrine that was embodied in the Second Amendment, with its injunction that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms not be infringed”—though the Second Amendment also made it clear that this right was not a categorical prerogative of the individual but was linked to the civic need for “a well regulated militia.”

At any rate, as the United States became more and more industrial and urban, its people, even in the towns, still continued to exercise, and indeed grow emotional, about their “right” to go armed, and it is a safe guess that there have been very few peacetime periods in our nineteenth-century history during which guns in the hands of civilians did not outnumber those in the hands of soldiers and policemen. The Founding Fathers were in dead earnest in their fear of a standing army. In the mid-1780s, after they had just won their independence by the force of arms, Secretary of War Henry Knox found himself managing an army of about seven hundred men under the Articles of Confederation, and a few years later, when the Washington administration under the new Constitution proposed to add only 512 more, the Pennsylvania democrat, Senator William Maclay, grew nervous at the thought that the government might be “laying the foundation of a standing army.” Even in 1811, when the country was clearly headed toward war with England, the army numbered only 5,600 officers and men.

Blood-letting is republican high spirits in action.

Historically, therefore, the United States long exhibited the interesting spectacle of an armed population juxtaposed to feeble police and military establishments, a remarkable testimony to public confidence in the loyalty of the citizens and in their disposition, if they were to use their arms at all, to use them only against each other and not against civil authority. But the notion that the citizen needs a gun to protect himself, a notion now nourished by a gun lobby which is as powerful as it is indifferent to the public safety, is still very widely and intensely felt in the United States. Today, despite the anguished memory of recent assassinations and the expressed interest of a great majority of the public in stronger gun laws, despite the appearance of armed rioters and mounting complaints about criminal and political violence, the nation still lives under the chaotic governance of twenty thousand permissive and porous federal, state, and local laws regulating guns; and the state of the laws still abets assassins, maniacs, impulsive murderers, and potential political terrorists at the expense of the general population and the civic order. . . .

Today the supplies for an armed crowd are more accessible than ever. Because it is the only great nation that will permit their import and sale, the United States provides the only large and rich market for militarily obsolescent but still usable weapons. World War II surplus guns and NATO discards have flooded into the country for many years, many of them selling for $15 or less (the one that killed President Kennedy was sold for $12.78). It is estimated that from 1959 to 1963, between five and seven million foreign weapons were imported, and the urban population of the country is probably more heavily armed than at any time in our history. . . . The most stringent federal law (1968) still goes no further than to prohibit the mail-order sale of guns and ammunition, and the strongest state laws tend to bar only the carrying of concealed weapons.

The history of America’s gun culture—the casualness with which we extend country and frontier ways to the urban milieu, the stunning aplomb with which for so long we lived with an armed populace and negligible official forces—is at once a symptom of political negligence and yet a token of deep political self-confidence. American authorities discovered only in the frequent riots of the 1830s how lightly policed their cities were; it was not until the sudden apparition of anarchy in 1877 that they concluded that a substantial National Guard was necessary. Americans seem always to have been quite sure that, whatever might happen up the alleys where the modern equivalents of the James and Dalton brothers meet each other and draw, nobody will do anything to challenge the power of government or subvert the American way of life. It is unfortunate if the citizens insist on attacking each other from time to time with lethal weapons, but past experience shows that such disorders will not shake the government. Blood-letting is republican high spirits in action. The tree of liberty has to be watered by the blood of tyrants and martyrs. And it is true that for most Americans so much of the worst violence has taken place so far from home—so many of the violent labor struggles, for example, in out-of-the-way places like Cripple Creek, Centralia, Ludlow, Coeur d’Alene, Everett, Gastonia, McComb—that one hardly believes it will affect the population centers of the nation. From the beginning there was a benign and wise disposition to let bygones be bygones, where uprisings, even those with insurrectionary overtones, were involved: there were easy pardons and no official vindictiveness after the Shays’ Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, the Fries Rebellion. The old American tolerance for the violent act may have been founded on some secret sympathy for it—D. H. Lawrence believed that “the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer”—but it was also and more certainly based upon an uncommon confidence in the stability and security of the country, the confidence that almost any kind of mess could be brought under control quickly enough if one suddenly had to extend oneself, and that if a few people died in the meantime, that was just the way of the world.

And then, after the terrible decades of violence from the late 1870s to about 1914, some forms of violent action had reassuringly tended, despite some fluctuations, to go sharply downward until almost yesterday. Lethal vigilantism (despite a few murders by the Klan in the 1920s) went out with the last century; lynching, long in slow decline, decreased sharply in the 1920s and all but disappeared by the end of the 1930s; violence in labor disputes flared up in a last ugly climax in the 1930s and then abruptly died away. Perhaps we came to take it for granted that, as all things are supposed to get better, violence would take care of itself too. No historian or sociologist has yet tried to find an answer to the question: How is a particular form of violence, once firmly rooted in the ways of society, done away with? If we were to examine vigilantism, lynching, and industrial violence with this question in mind, I am not at all sure what form our answers would take, but it seems reasonably clear that they would be upsetting to one of the most modish ideas of our era, the idea that our basic social problems will best be solved if they are turned back to management by local communities where “participatory democracy” can come into action. Whatever may happen in the future, in our past, at any rate, local control and the action of the people in the streets have had gory consequences time after time. The story of our diminished violence, in those areas of our life where it has in fact largely been brought under control, has been in good part the story of the submergence and defeat of arbitrary, bigoted, self-satisfied local forces by the advancing cosmopolitan sentiment of a larger, somewhat more neutrally minded state, or, better, national public. It has been marked by the replacement of small-town vigilantes by state authorities or national troops; the subordination of local sheriffs harboring secret or even open mob sympathies to the external forces of relatively neutral law, by the supremacy of national laws and standards over state and municipal laws and practices; the replacement of hometown sentiment by metropolitan ways of criminal justice; the subjection of local abuses to the spotlight of national, and even world, opinion; the concentration of nationwide attention on employers and police officers who had counted on being able to terrorize miners, textile hands, or lumber-workers in remote towns on the assumption that nobody would be looking; the establishment of national legal authority over a system of recognized collective bargaining. This is a country in which the whole is likely to be better than the sum of its parts.

As American As Cherry Pie

On the cover of the June 30, 1969, issue of New Left Notes, the organ of the Progressive Labor faction of Students for a Democratic Society, there is a large woodcut illustration which must surely be one of the minor signs of the times. Two young men, one white, one black, are seen crouching on a roof-top above a city in flames. Both are armed with automatic rifles, and both wear, Mexican-fashion, the criss-crossed bandoleers of the rural insurrectionary or bandito. They are revolutionaries, urban guerillas. Alongside them is the legend: “We are advocates of the abolition of war, we do not want war; but war can only be abolished through war, and in order to get rid of the gun it is necessary to take up the gun.” One must, I think, pass by the resemblance of this promise of a war-to-end-war to other such promises in the past; one must pass by also its hauntingly perverse echo of the words of the American officer in Vietnam, that “in order to liberate the village we had to destroy it,” to consider its larger meaning for American political culture.

There is in America today a rising mystique of violence on the left. Those who lived through the rise of European fascism, or who have watched the development of right-wing groups in this country over the last generation, or have fully recognized the amount of violence leveled at civil rights workers in the South, are never surprised at violence cults on the right. . . . What has been more arresting is the decline of the commitment to non-violence on the left, and the growth of a disposition to indulge or to exalt acts of force or violence. . . . Certain ironies in the new cult of violence are inescapable. The sidewalk Sorels who preach violence know very little about it, and sometimes prove pitifully ineffectual in trying to use it. Those who practice it with the greatest effect—the police and the military—find preaching superfluous. The new prophets of violence are almost certain to become its chief victims if it becomes general and uncontrolled, especially when their own romanticism carries them from the word to the deed. Historically, violence has not been an effective weapon of the Left, except in that rarest of rare circumstances, the truly revolutionary situation. Under normal circumstances, violence has more characteristically served domineering capitalists or trigger-happy police, peremptory sergeants or fascist hoodlums. And even in our day, I think it should be emphasized, the growing acceptance of violence has been unwittingly fostered from the top of society. The model for violence, which has rapidly eroded the effectiveness of appeals to nonviolent procedures, has been the hideous and gratuitous official violence in Vietnam. And after having created and made heroes of such a special tactical force as the Green Berets, we should not be altogether surprised to find the Black Panthers wearing their berets and practicing close-order drill. It may be childishly irrelevant to cite the example of Vietnam as an answer to every reproach for domestic acts of force or violence, but there is in that answer a point of psychological importance that we should not overlook: now, as always, the primary precedent and the primary rationale for violence comes from the established order itself. Violence is, so to speak, an official reality. No society exists without using force or violence and without devising sanctions for violence which are used to uphold just wars and necessary police actions. But the frequency and the manner in which official violence is used is of signal importance to the legitimation of the civic order. Any liberal democratic state is in danger of wearing away its legitimacy if it repeatedly uses violence at home or abroad when the necessity of that violence is wholly unpersuasive to a substantial number of its people.

Neither establishments nor revolutionary movements can do without sanctions for violence. What any man sees as a just war or a necessary police action will, of course, depend upon his situation and his politics; but only a few pacifists quarrel with the idea that just wars are conceivable, and only a few utopian anarchists are likely to deny that under some circumstances authorities have to use force or violence to keep order. The right of revolution is itself an established and sanctified rationale for violence. It can hardly be banished from the established sanctions in a country like America that was born in a revolution. One of our most sacred texts lays down the circumstances under which revolutionary resistance becomes legitimate. “Prudence,” it also remarks (there were revolutionaries for whom prudence was a consideration), “will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such a Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

In our own time we have no difficulty in thinking of some tyrants against whom the right of revolution was or could have been justifiably invoked, and responsibly so when the circumstances warranted hope of success. Unfortunately, in this age of verbal overkill, the epithet of tyranny can be hurled at any regime that is intensely disliked by a morally self-confident minority, and the prospects of revolutionary success may seem astonishingly good to those who gull themselves with their own miscalculations and fantasies. The classic rationale for revolution is now widely used to sanction piecemeal violence against democratic regimes in which no shadow of a revolutionary situation exists. The word “revolution” has been distended to apply to any situation in which there is rapid change or widespread discontent. Hence acts of forcible or violent adventurism can be given a superficial legitimacy by defining any situation one pleases as a “revolutionary situation . . .

One of the essential difficulties in justifying violence is that its success is an ingredient in its justification, and such success is usually a matter of chance. There areI some blunders that are worse than crimes, and among these are the blunders of those who, even in a good cause, precipitate violence without reasonable grounds for believing that violence will serve its purpose or that it can be contained within bounds that will be proportionate to the ends in view. No doubt it is tempting to think of putting a final end to some grave and massive social evil by a quick, surgical, limited act of violence. But the difficulty lies in being reasonably sure, before the event, that the evil will indeed be ended and not exacerbated or succeeded by some equal or greater evil; that the violence can really be limited both in time and in the casualties it inflicts, and that the reaction will not be more harmful than the surgery. For this reason all politicians, revolutionary no less than establishment politicians, must work with a terrible calculus in human misfortune.

In order to justify the use of violence as a means toward the accomplishment of some humane and “progressive” end, one must first believe that he knows, roughly at least, two things: first, that so-and-so much violence is in fact necessary to achieve the end; and second, what the countervailing human cost of the violence will be—that is, where its repercussions will stop. There are, of course, many people who imagine that they have this kind of command of the future; but some of us are not so sure, since we are not even sure that we can judge the necessity or usefulness of past violence in many cases where all the returns seem to be in hand. . . .

In the new politics, force or violence has a new place: for some it is satisfying merely to use it, but others have devised strategies to provoke counter-violence to show up the establishment, as they put it, for what it is. In any case, violence has come to bear the promise of redemption. “Violence alone,” writes Frantz Fanon in one of the canonical works of the new politics, “violence committed by the people, violence organized and educated by its leaders, makes it possible for the masses to understand social truths and gives the key to them.” Fanon, writes Sartre in presenting him, “shows clearly that this irrepressible violence is neither sound and fury, nor the resurrection of savage instincts, nor even the effect of resentment: it is man recreating himself . . . . No gentleness can efface the marks of violence, only violence itself can destroy them.”

Violence, then, is not only useful but therapeutic, which is to say indispensable. It seems natural enough for those who have been victims of a great deal of violence, or simply of the constant threat of overwhelming force, to conclude that they can restore their dignity only when they use violence themselves. But the restorative power of violence, if indeed violence can have such a power, must surely depend upon its being used successfully. The unsuccessful use of violence, ending in defeat and fresh humiliations, may in fact intensify the original malaise. It is hard, for example, to imagine that the survivors of the grim massacre of the Indonesian Communist party in 1965–66 would have the same enthusiasm for the restorative power of violence as the victorious Algerian rebels. And this is why the existential mystique of violence, which tries to circumvent the rational calculus of tactical probabilities, will not do: its claims for therapy or sanctification through violence rest upon an arbitrary assumption of success. There is no satisfactory refuge from political calculation in psychology or metaphysics. . . .

This is a country in which the whole is likely to be better than the sum of its parts.

But in the end one must give the prophets of violence their due: violence is pervasive in human experience and has been pervasive in American history, and however it repels us, we must see it as an instrument of common use. The creed its proponents put before us is simple but forceful: Violence has been all but universal in the past. Violence changes things and nothing else does. Violence is therefore necessary. “Violence,” said Rap Brown in what must surely remain one of the memorable utterances of our time, “is necessary and it’s as American as cherry pie.” Presumably he did not expect his listeners to be so uncritically patriotic as to think that violence must be good because Americans have so often used it. No doubt his hope was that if a decent respect for the normality and inevitability of violence could be instilled in the minds of his contemporaries, they would be less censorious about the violence supposedly necessary to black liberation. And one should grant all that is sound here: certainly violence that would in fact lead to a full realization of the rights of blacks would have a great deal to be said for it, and would stand in quite a different moral position from the violence, say, that many lynchers used for their own entertainment and for the edification of their children. Here, as always, however, one encounters the latent, the unexamined assumption: violence will deliver that which is expected of it. It is an assumption shared more and more among the very young, black or white: justice will be won by “fighting in the streets.” Fighting in the streets as a revolutionary technique—it is one of the few old-fashioned ideas still alive.

Certainly world history yields plenty of cases in which some historical log-jam seems to have been broken up by an eruption of violence, which is then followed by a period of peaceful, gradualist improvement. It is always possible in such cases to argue (though difficult to prove) that the violence was a necessary precondition of the peaceful change that followed. The trouble is that there are so many other cases in which violence has decided issues in ways we are less likely to applaud. The Civil War stands in marked contrast. Again, it did settle historical issues, the issues of union and of the legal status of slavery. But it was preceded by a decade of searing civic violence and climaxed by a war that cost six hundred thousand lives, and it left an extraordinary inheritance of bitterness and lethal passion that has not yet ended.

If we look at the use of violence in social situations of less profound consequence than those which led to the Revolution and the Civil War, we can find instances when violence in the United States appears to have served its purpose. And it has been, on the whole, the violence of those who already had position and power. Many vigilante movements, for example, achieved their limited goal of suppressing outlaws. Lynching clearly added a note of terroristic enforcement to the South’s caste system. For years employers used violence and the threat of violence against labor with success: in the main, the outstandingly violent episodes in industrial conflict were tragic defeats for labor, although there were occasions when violence initiated on behalf of employers became too blatant for public acceptance and boomeranged. Labor has used violence less often than employers and with only rare success. There was, to be sure, one very effective series of extra-legal actions by labor—the sit-downs of the 1930s. However, in these instances the workers, though using illegal force, were using a tactical device that tended to avert rather than precipitate acts of outright violence. This may explain why they won considerable sympathy from the public, which was at the same time becoming acutely aware of the violence, intimidation, and espionage used by employers in many industries. In any case, the sit-downs were a transient tactic which labor leaders abandoned as soon as collective bargaining was achieved, and it is difficult to imagine the sit-downs repeatedly successful as a standard device.

In sum, violence can succeed in a political environment like that of the United States under certain conditions. Those who use it must be able to localize it and limit its duration. They must use it under circumstances in which the public is either indifferent or uninformed, or in which the accessible and relevant public opinion (as in the case of vigilantes and, usually, of employers in the nineteenth century) is heavily biased in their favor. If violence is accompanied by exceptional brutality (lynching, employer actions like that at Ludlow), it must be kept a local matter, and the perpetrators must hope that it can somehow be screened from the attention of the larger polity. The conditions for its success, in this respect, seem to have become more problematic in the age of mass communications, where the most vital tactical problem is to set the stage so that the onus for violent action can be made to seem to rest entirely upon one’s adversaries.

If violence sometimes works, it does not follow that nothing but violence works. Most of the social reforms in American history have been brought about without violence, or with only a marginal and inessential use of it, by reformers who were prepared to carry on a long-term campaign of education and propaganda. The entire apparatus of the welfare state, from child labor laws, wage-hour regulation, industrial safety laws, and workmen’s compensation to legally regulated collective bargaining, social security, and medical care for the aged is the achievement of active minorities which, while sometimes militant and always persistent, were also patient and non-violent. Ours, however, is an age that cannot wait, and it is doubtful that young militants, black or white, are taking much comfort from the example of such predecessors in the tradition of American reform. The activists, according to their temperaments, will argue either that earlier reforms, being props to the establishment, were of little or no value, or that they were all a generation overdue when they came. The first response is simply inhumane, but the second has much truth in it: such reforms were indeed long overdue. However, it does not follow that the use of violence would have hastened their coming. Under some conditions the fear or threat of violence may hasten social reforms, yet if actual outbreaks of violence were the primary force in bringing reform, one might have expected social welfare laws to come in the United States before they came to such countries as Great Britain and Germany where there was considerably less industrial violence. The important element seems to have been not the resort to violence but the presence of powerful labor movements with a socialist commitment and the threat of sustained action through normal political channels.

But the confrontationist politicians of our time have hit upon an approach to violence that surmounts one of the signal disadvantages under which social dissidents have labored in the past: they have learned the value not of committing violence but of provoking it. It remains true today, as it has always been, that most political violence is committed by the agents of authority. In the past, for example, labor often got the blame for violent outbursts that were primarily the work of police or other agents of employers. Hence one speaks of “labor violence” but not of “capital violence.” Today, however, a technique has been found to put official violence to work in the apparent interests of dissent. A small cadre of determined activists, enveloped in a large crowd of demonstrators, can radicalize a substantial segment of public opinion by provoking the police into violent excesses—if necessary by hurling objects, but better still by hurling nothing more than verbal abuse. The activists have correctly gauged the temper of the police, who are often quite ready to oblige by lashing out indiscriminately against both those who have offended them and those who have not—orderly demonstrators, innocent bystanders, reporters, cameramen. Young radicals have thus found a way to put the police and the mass media to work for them, as the public sees a hideous spectacle of beating, kicking, and clubbing by officers of the law against unarmed demonstrators and witnesses. Outrage becomes the more blatant to those who are aware of and attracted by the milky innocence of the majority of young demonstrators.

Whether the larger public effect of such confrontations will actually work to the ultimate advantage of the activists is problematical. What they can see with their own eyes at the moment of conflict is that many persons, hitherto vaguely sympathetic, become, at least for a time, energized and activated out of indignation. What they choose to ignore is the other, less visible but usually larger public, which puts the full blame on demonstrators and backs the police and the authorities. . . .

The Slumbering Beast

The particular forms of violence that flourished in the 1960s seem now to be on the decline: ghetto riots have been tapering off, and the crest of violence touched off by campus protest may have been reached in the years 1967–70. Black militancy is certain to be with us for an indefinite future, and it is a sobering thought that the one major breakdown of the American political system came in association with an unresolved problem of race; but black agitation tends to grow more selective about methods and goals, and it is by no means clear that it must involve large-scale violence or mass casualties. Student activism too seems likely to outlast an American withdrawal from Vietnam, since it rests on a profound cultural malaise that goes beyond any political issue, but it may work at a lower level of emotional intensity. An end to the war would bring about a political and economic climate in which the effort to relieve urban blight and poverty and to come to terms with the demand for racial justice can be resumed under far more favorable conditions than those of the past five or six years. It is a rare thing in our experience to be centrally preoccupied with the same problem for two successive decades, and it is quite conceivable that even a persisting and relatively high level of violence in the 1970s will come to be regarded as a marginal rather than a central problem. At some time in the near future the destruction of the environment, and the problems attendant upon pollution and overpopulation, are likely to take the center of the historical stage and to have such a commanding urgency that all other issues will be dwarfed. . . .

When one considers American history as a whole, it is hard to think of any very long period in which it could be said that the country has been consistently well governed. And yet its political system is, on the whole, a resilient and well-seasoned one, and on the strength of its history one must assume that it can summon enough talent and good will to cope with its afflictions. To cope with them—but not, I think, to master them in any thoroughly decisive or admirable fashion. The nation seems to slouch onward into its uncertain future like some huge inarticulate beast, too much attainted by wounds and ailments to be robust, but too strong and resourceful to succumb.