You say you want a revolution (revisited)


“Future citizens will need muskets to assassinate their oppressive viceroys,” James Madison might have hypothetically remarked during the intermission of a slave auction. “In fact, this is probably the second most important freedom any of us will be able to come up with. Somebody should write this shit down.”

Everyone knows Thomas Jefferson’s “tree of liberty” quote – at least, everyone who has ever studied American history, perhaps in school, or for fun or profit. What it leaves out, and what I think is important to realize, is that we, as American citizens, do not have merely the right to overthrow the government – the Right of Revolution, as political philosophers have so eloquently named it. Having the right, the ability, did not go far enough in the minds of our forefathers, a group so violently and vehemently revolutionary that they have yet to be matched in the eras since (which is partly the point, but I’m not there yet). Nay, they embedded in us the duty of revolution, and described it as such (emphasis mine):

[W]hen a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce [the people] under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.

Giving us the option was not enough. It did not reliably ensure action. We needed to be compelled to overthrow the government, should the need arise. Compelled how, you ask? By our founding and indoctrinating documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, from which the above excerpt is taken. We are obligated to throw off the yoke of our tyrannical monarch, should it begin to weigh heavily upon us. Our founders insist on it, rather than simply allow us to.

This concept reared up its head recently, in several instances, but none so vividly as when it perched upon the shoulder of a man named Larry Pratt – executive director of lobbying group Gun Owners of America – during an aggressive jaw session with Chris Matthews on Hardball.

This is how it went.

Pratt’s sole argument for keeping assault weapons completely unregulated is so that these weapons may be used by the citizenry in the event it becomes necessary to fulfill Thomas Jefferson’s prophecy and usurp the government. He is openly advocating violence against the government under certain circumstances. (And, as Matthews points out, Pratt isn’t referring to the event of a military coup, or some case in which our legitimately elected government is usurped by some other entity, and that it would then be necessary to usurp that entity, which has taken over our government, to avoid living under dictatorial rule. No, he is admitting quite plainly that he is planning for the eventuality of taking up arms against our legitimately elected government. Now, this may be what Jefferson had in mind, but coming from Pratt it sounds a lot more nutty and unsettling than patriotic.) From

The reptilian executive director of Gun Owners of America, last seen telling gun control advocates “they have the blood of little children on their hands,” argued that we are “less free without automatic rifles,” and need to stay prepared.

Matthews, who loves nothing more than hurling himself through cracked-open doors like this, was all too happy to oblige with a “prepared for what?”

Pratt: “To take on our government. [And this] government has gone overboard.” He continued that it’s time to take action “when elections are stolen.”

Matthews, gratifyingly, pressed him for any example of an instance in which this could possibly be reasonable, and the only one Pratt came up with was Athens, Tennessee, in 1946. Charlie Pierce, in a very informative post on the incident, describes “the Battle of Athens” like this:

“The Battle Of Athens,” as it’s usually called, involved an armed attack, mainly by World War II veterans, against a local political apparatus that had completely broken down the democratic process in McMinn County in Tennessee. (McMinn was a rebellious place from jump. It had allied itself with the Union during the Civil War and it had declared war on Spain before the rest of the country did.) Local government had become almost entirely corrupt to the point where, when the local vets came home, they found any attempt at political redress crushed by, among other institutions, the local cops, who harassed them for any offense, no matter how petty, real or imagined, and also infuriated them by getting between the vets and their hootch.

In August of 1946, the vets ran a slate of throw-the-rascals-out candidates, and, on election day, the local machine posted armed guards at the polling places. The vets responded by going home and arming themselves. (The first person killed was an elderly black farmer who merely was trying to vote and was shot in the back by a deputy.) General mayhem ensued.

Pratt proposed no other scenarios, but held strong to his position that unregulated assault weapons were a must-have, and that we were “less free” without them.

This discussion – and there have been others of the same right-wing gun movement to which Pratt belongs making the same or similar arguments – has brought up, to my mind at least, a larger point: Jefferson’s inviolable proposal, like the 2nd Amendment itself, has not aged well. It has not shifted well into the modern era, in the sense of retaining its relevance or viability, or even feasibility. I don’t even know if it’s possible. When Matthews asked Pratt for an example of when this might happen – when it might be necessary for the people to rebel against the government in a violent manner – he wanted a literal example from history, but I would have rather heard what he thought was a hypothetical example from a possible future. What would have to happen, at this day in age, for the American people to rise up, as a whole, and overthrow the government? And even if we did somehow manage to make the decision, as a group, that it was necessary to do this, how would we even start?

Then I was reminded of an article written by Chuck Klosterman for what used to be his regular column in Esquire magazine. I first read it in 2007, when it was published, and went back and re-read it today. I was struck by how salient and germain it is to the current discussion over gun control, and the larger issues tangential to it (such as those emphasized on the right). The quote at the very beginning of this post is from the article, as is its title. A main-idea excerpt:

Something has been occupying my mind as of late, and I can’t tell if this thought is reassuring or terrifying: I’ve been thinking about the possibility of revolution, or–more accurately–the impossibility of revolution. I’ve started wondering what would have to happen before the American populace would try to overthrow its own government, and how such a coup would play itself out. My conclusions are that a) nothing could make this happen, and b) no one would know what to do if it somehow did. The country is too large, its social systems are too complex, and its people are too complacent, too reasonable, and too confused. I’ve decided that the U. S. government is (for lack of a better, preexisting term) “unoverthrowable.” And this would probably make a man like Patrick Henry profoundly depressed, were it not for the fact that he’s been dead for 207 years.

Read it. It’s well worth it, and you won’t regret it.

Food for thought, America. I can’t even fathom the implications of what this could mean.

  1. jeremiah757 said:

    Well, this is certainly a paradox. America is unique because our revolutionary founders contemplated the eventual overthrow of their new republic, and expressly provided for its citizens to be armed. On the other hand, it is treason for modern citizens to contemplate the same. So, there can be no frank discussion of the Second Amendment in these terms.

    As a practical matter, our government is “unoverthrowable,” as you say. A revolution in America would probably look a lot like Egypt’s – popular protest and complicity from the military. By the way, “incontrovertible” literally means impossible to overthrow – but this is a term from logic, not politics.

  2. kipp said:

    Good point, this does create a troubling paradox through the seemingly contradictory provisions encouraging citizens-overthrowing-government and against treason. There does seem to be the very beginnings of a frank discussion about this, as the call for more gun control in the wake of so many shootings has produced a backlash on the right in the form of calling for less gun control. When they assert this idea, however – the idea that an armed citizenry is necessary for the eventuality of overthrowing the government – those asserting it are immediately tagged as outer-fringe conservatives, and are summarily dismissed. (In the interest of honesty, I should mention that I dismissed the idea out of hand too, the first time I heard it, because it seemed so preposterous.) So you’re right, it is difficult to get an actual discussion going about these specific issues.

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