American Panic: A History of Who Scares Us and Why
  • American Panic: A History of Who Scares Us and Why
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American Panic: A History of Who Scares Us and Why

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by Mark Stein

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In American Panic , New York Times bestselling author Mark Stein traces the history and consequences of American political panics through the years. Virtually every American, on one level or another, falls victim to the hype, intensity, and propaganda that accompanies political panic, regardless of their own personal affiliations. By highlighting the…  See more details below


In American Panic , New York Times bestselling author Mark Stein traces the history and consequences of American political panics through the years. Virtually every American, on one level or another, falls victim to the hype, intensity, and propaganda that accompanies political panic, regardless of their own personal affiliations. By highlighting the similarities between American political panics from the Salem witch hunt to present-day vehemence over issues such as Latino immigration, gay marriage, and the construction of mosques, Stein closely examines just what it is that causes us as a nation to overreact in the face of widespread and potentially profound change. This book also devotes chapters to African Americans, Native Americans, Catholics, Mormons, Jews, Chinese and Japanese peoples, Communists, Capitalists, women, and a highly turbulent but largely forgotten panic over Freemasons. Striking similarities in these diverse episodes are revealed in primary documents Stein has unearthed, in which statements from the past could easily be mistaken for statements today. As these similarities come to light, Stein reveals why some people become panicked over particular issues when others do not.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Due to an enduring susceptibility to fear and a concomitant desire for certitude, waves of political panic will likely continue to shape American history, but the nation’s founding principles of equality and the rule of law—as well as faith in freedom and democracy—offer a check on the excesses of “alarmists,” argues Stein (How the States Got Their Shapes). In advancing his shaky thesis, Stein surveys 12 episodes of political panic, in roughly chronological order, beginning with the genocidal campaign against Native Americans and ending with post-9/11 fears. African Americans, Chinese immigrants, women, homosexuals, Catholics, Jews, anarchists, Communists, Latino immigrants, and (somewhat anomalously) corporations are among the objects of panic in this cursory assessment. Stein takes pains to show how the objects of political panic can reinforce one another, as when anti-Chinese sentiment among ethnically white laborers and their representatives dovetailed with opposition to capitalist corporations that thrive on cheap, nonunion labor. But the book’s catch-all thesis tends to skirt complexity, and the emphasis on panic skews the discussion toward the irrational bases of these cases, rather than material ones like class interest or job competition. While there are lessons to glean here, careful readers may balk at the book’s generalizations. (May)
From the Publisher

“If there is an American cultural DNA - Mark Stein is the guy who most ably picks apart the strands that tell us who we are -- and in this case, what scares us and why -- and puts them and ultimately us under a microscope for a rarefied, compelling, and unforgettable view.” —Brian Unger, Writer, TV Host, Actor

“How refreshing! Mark Stein does not look at our history through the familiar prism of presidents, battles, and laws; instead he uncovers and relates the behavior and fears of the populace that too often has set the course of history. A wonderful read filled with lessons so needed now.” —Stanley Kutler, Author The Wars of Watergate

“American Panic is a learned romp through American history, and the persistent bad habit a strong and free people has of worrying about other people. Mark Stein's careful research demonstrates how successive panics, over witches, Indians, Masons, Chinese, Socialists, Latinos, Muslims and more, share a kind of DNA of hysteria. Stein's work is a sobering reminder of who we were and who we are. American Panic is edifying, entertaining and important.” —Ray Suarez, Al Jazeera America, and author of Latino Americans: The 500 -ear Legacy That Shaped a Nation

“Through compelling narrative and intriguing research, Mark Stein shines a beacon into the midnight of the American soul and shows us what our deepest fears say about ourselves as individuals and as a people. The psychological gap between the ideal and reality of E Pluribus Unum is Stein's theme, and he limns it with original and fascinating insight.” —Mark Olshaker, coauthor of Law & Disorder, Mindhunter, and The Cases That Haunt Us; novelist and documentary filmmaker

Kirkus Reviews
A fresh take on the outbursts of hysteria over witches, Catholics, women, communists, gays, Muslims, illegal aliens and others that have occurred throughout American history.Stein (How the States Got Their Shapes Too: The People Behind the Borderlines, 2011, etc.) explores the common source for political panics: the irrational fear that one's government is in danger. Beginning with the 1692 Salem witch trials, the author describes how Americans have acted out of fears of conspiracy and fears based on stereotypes in an effort to make the world comprehensible. The richly detailed episodes recounted here are often quite familiar, but Stein brings a new perspective to understanding how they came about, what they have in common and how the panics sometimes link to one another. In an early hallmark of political panic, Native Americans were deemed vile, and accusers engaged in heinous acts (ethnic cleansing) against them. Biblical justifications fostered hysteria over African-Americans, gays, women and Muslims. Secrecy, real or imagined, spurred fear of freemasons and the Chinese. The most enduring panic, over the danger of African-Americans, predates the American Revolution and soared after the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation reached a mass audience. There was never widespread panic over Jews, perhaps since they lacked a homeland and the equivalent of a pope. Most panics are fueled by unverified claims, an insistence on absolutes and the assertion that correlation is causation. Alarmists cannot be stereotyped: They include both the ignorant and the well-educated, and they are often opportunists—e.g., power broker Thurlow Weed, who benefited from the anti-Masonic movement, and Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, whose anti-Red raids of the 1920s factored into his presidential ambitions.Popular history that will appeal to readers of the author's How the States Got Their Shapes.

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St. Martin's Press
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American Panic

A History of Who Scares Us and Why

By Mark Stein

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2014 Mark Stein
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-46417-0


"Hyenas in human form — no good INDIANS except those that are dead."

— Chicago Tribune headline, January 3, 1891

Of all the political panics in American history, none has been more deadly than that which fueled the ethnic cleansing of the people who populated what is now the United States prior to the arrival of Europeans. Far more unarmed Native American women, children, and elderly were killed in the United States than all the people killed in the nation's other political panics combined. The treatment of Native Americans provides insight into a fundamental question regarding political panic: When is violence against a group of people an act of panic as opposed to an act of war?

From the colonial era through the nineteenth century, whites often viewed Native Americans as a threat to the expansion of settlements believed necessary for economic and political security. One of the first such conflicts was the Pequot War (1637–38). In that war, panic clearly surfaced when the colonists surrounded a fortified Pequot encampment and, recognizing the danger of charging into it, opted to burn it and kill anyone who tried to escape the flames — including women, children, and the elderly. Any Pequot was thus regarded as a threat. Commanding officer John Mason justified this killing of women and children when he wrote in his report, "But God was above them who laughed his enemies and the enemies of his people to scorn, making them as a fiery oven. ... Thus did the Lord judge among the heathen, filling the place with dead bodies!" It is conceivable that God favored the colonists over the Pequots, but it is not verifiable. As in the actions taken against accused witches, people were killed on the basis of an unverified claim.

Actions based on unverified claims are not, in and of themselves, acts of panic since we often act on the basis of assumptions. What is beginning to surface from the witchcraft panic and the massacre of the Pequots, however, is that an individual is susceptible to panic to the extent that he or she acts on the basis of unverified claims.

Panic in the Newly Born United States

In both the American Revolution and the War of 1812, Native Americans fought on both sides, based on what each tribe perceived to be its political best interest. In August 1813, Creek Indians from the Red Sticks tribe attacked American forces at Fort Mims in Alabama, where many noncombatants had sought safety. In this instance, it was the Native Americans who set fire to the premises, resulting in the deaths of scores of unarmed elderly, women, and children — and demonstrating that Native Americans, too, are susceptible to panic.

The massacre of whites at Fort Mims also illustrates other elements that recur in political panic. The first of these is, not surprisingly, panic breeds panic. This element can be seen in the Universal Gazette of Washington, D.C.; its October 29, 1813, report on the massacre described the Red Sticks as "savages" who lack "feelings of common humanity." This stereotype is, in turn, predicated on two elements that recur in political panics right up to the present day. One of these elements is the use of an absolute — in this instance, the assertion that all Red Sticks lack empathetic feelings. The assertion is akin to the absolute implicit in John Mason's claim regarding God's condemnation of all the Pequots. Surfacing as well in the Gazette statement is the use of a filtered fact. The absolute the newspaper applied to the RedSticks filtered out white people who had also indiscriminately killed men, women, and children.

Indeed, in a subsequent engagement with the Red Sticks during the War of 1812, General Andrew Jackson made no secret of such genocidal intentions when he wrote of the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. "Determining to exterminate them, I detached General Coffee ... to surround the bend in such a manner as that none of them should escape," he wrote. After killing more than 550 who were now trapped on a peninsula, Jackson reported that his men "continued to destroy many of them who had concealed themselves under the banks of the river until we were prevented by night." The murders resumed at sunrise.

During Jackson's presidency, panic regarding Native Americans helped fuel the federal government's premier act of legislated ethnic cleansing, the 1830 Indian Removal Act. The legislation mandated the relocation of Native Americans from much of the southeastern United States. "Doubtless it will be painful to leave the graves of their fathers," Jackson declared in that year's State of the Union message. But, he went on to say, "is it supposed that the wandering savage has a stronger attachment to his home than the settled, civilized Christian? Is it more afflicting to him to leave the graves of his fathers than it is to our brothers and children?" Jackson's remarks contained an unverified claim and a filtered fact. His comparison of the "wandering savage" to the "civilized Christian" asserted an unverified claim that the culture of Native Americans is inferior to that of Christians. His assertion that Native Americans leaving their ancestral land was no more painful than Europeans leaving their ancestral land to come to America filtered out millions of Europeans who chose not to leave their ancestral land — a choice this legislation denied to Native Americans.

Some tribes, recognizing the inevitable, voluntarily complied. Others did not. Of them, one soldier who participated in the removal wrote, "Women were dragged from their homes by soldiers whose language they could not understand. Children were often separated from their parents and driven into the stockade with the sky for a blanket and the earth for a pillow. And often the old and infirm were prodded with bayonets to hasten them to the stockades." Among the 16,000 Cherokee forced to relocate, some 4,000 died on the trek to the reservation set out for them in what is now Oklahoma. In the months that followed their arrival in this new environment, another 4,000 are estimated to have died. The Cherokee speak of it still as Nunna dual Tsuny, rendered in English as the "Trail of Tears."

The Social Soil Beneath the Trail of Tears

The panic over Native Americans was the first to erupt from a social soil in which racial prejudice was deeply rooted. Joining the biblical justification offered for the wholesale slaughter of the Pequot, racial justifications rooted in Nature were increasingly offered as the nation entered the nineteenth century while simultaneously expanding westward. With the death toll along the Trail of Tears mounting, beliefs about racial determination of character had become so deeply rooted that George Turner wrote, in Traits of Indian Character (1836), "His reason ... is less corrupted and perverted while he roams in his native forests than in an unrestricted intercourse with civilized man." Fearing, on behalf of the Indians, that contact with whites corrupts and perverts their reasoning, Turner did that which he claimed to fear by justifying the exile of Native Americans based on reasoning corrupted and perverted by an unverified claim regarding their reasoning (unverified because Turner was not fluent in any of their languages), and possibly further perverted and corrupted by the fact that Turner was a prominent land speculator.

As the United States expanded to the Pacific Ocean and its population began to fill those lands, increasing numbers of Americans contemplated the extinction, and among some the active extermination, of all Native Americans. On August 14, 1851, the National Intelligencer in Washington, D.C., commented on epidemics of smallpox among Native Americans: "There are few persons, we suppose, who do not anticipate the entire extinction of all the present tribes of North America." While lack of vaccination for smallpox (medically known since 1796) among Native Americans was one element in these epidemics, so too were acts of political panic. Connecticut's Norwich Courier reported on April 18, 1855, of an army captain who, "in view of the anticipated troubles with the Indians in Nebraska, suggests that blankets taken from small pox hospitals be freely distributed among the different tribes."

As early as the French and Indian War, General Jeffrey Amherst (for whom towns in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, and a county in Virginia are named) inquired during a battle for present-day Pittsburgh, "Could it not be contrived to send the small pox among the disaffected tribe of Indians?" Justifying his view with Nature, Amherst stated that Indians were "the vilest race of beings that ever infested the earth, and whose riddance from it must be esteemed a meritorious act for the good of mankind." William Trent, one of the officers under Amherst, subsequently recorded in his diary, "We gave them two blankets and an handkerchief out of the small pox hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect." Amherst's directive did that which it feared, which was an emerging hallmark of political panic: Fearing Native Americans were "the vilest race of beings" on earth, Amherst urged and oversaw one of the vilest acts conceivable.

The degree to which smallpox-infected blankets were used to exterminate Native Americans cannot be stated with certainty. What can be stated with certainty is that other forms of indiscriminate massacres — actions embedded in an absolute, that all are a danger — increasingly occurred as the nation expanded. The degree to which this absolute became rooted in the nation's political landscape can be seen in a brief news item in the May 17, 1871, Savannah Advertiser on an encounter at Camp Grant, Arizona, in which nearly 150 Apaches were killed, many of whom were women and children seeking food rations at the outpost: "The people of Arizona have determined to protect themselves against the Indians, and after the massacre at Camp Grant they started in pursuit. Soon after they came upon them encamped and killed eighty- five of the party."

In March 1863, U.S. troops under the command of Colonel Patrick Conner slaughtered 224 members of the Shoni tribe along the present-day Idaho-Utah border in reprisal for the murder of several miners by three Shoni. The murder of those miners was indeed a capital crime. But to sentence an entire tribe to death without trial by jury or congressional declaration of war is to do that which one fears: Fearing all Shoni were a danger to the United States because some of its members violated U.S. laws, Conner and his troops endangered the United States by dispensing with the due processes of law that are the country's pillars.

Following the Civil War, General Philip Sheridan led troops in an attack on the Montana-based Piegans, killing 173 of their men, women, and children. Georgia's Macon Telegraph declared in its March 8, 1870, report of the incident, "The Indians are a filthy, degraded race," revealing another element that frequently recurs in political panics: a blank to be filled in. In this instance it resides in the word degraded; this use of the word leaves it to the reader to determine what constitutes the gradations of race based on his or her own knowledge, needs, and fears.

The mass murder of Native Americans reached its climax on December 29, 1890, when the Seventh Cavalry charged upon a band of Sioux at Wounded Knee Creek on the tribe's Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Between two and three hundred men, women, and children were killed. Absolutes abounded in newspaper accounts, such as that in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, which declared, "The teeth of these treacherous wild beasts must be drawn as a guarantee of safety in the future," or when the Omaha World Herald concluded, "There is no alternative." (Italics added in both quotations.)

That those who justified the violence at Wounded Knee did so on the basis of unverified claims became apparent within weeks of the event. A report to the commissioner of Indian Affairs from one of the agency's representatives at the Pine Ridge Reservation stated, "The party [of Sioux] was not a war party ... but a party intending to visit the agency. ... I do not credit the statement which has been made by some that women carried arms and participated in the fight." The military leaders at Wounded Knee would well have recognized that the approaching Sioux were not a war party based on observations previously made by the army's preeminent Indian fighter, General George Armstrong Custer. In his widely read book, My Life on the Plains (1874), Custer stated, "Indians contemplating a battle, either offensive or defensive, are always anxious to have their women and children removed from all danger." That General Custer wrote these words is all the more revealing since the rage demonstrated by the Seventh Cavalry at Wounded Knee was partially fueled by revenge for the 1876 massacre by the Sioux at the Battle of Little Big Horn, an episode remembered today as "Custer's Last Stand." In that episode, five companies in the Seventh Cavalry were wiped out, along with General Custer.

These twin massacres illuminate the difference between political panic and war. Many of the 268 U.S. troops killed at Little Big Horn were wantonly murdered by Sioux. Those murders were acts of panic committed during warfare. The distinction surfaced immediately after the massacre, when the victorious Sioux made no effort to pursue their advantage by attacking Billings, Montana, sixty miles distant, where white women and children resided. Quite likely battle panic was also present at Wounded Knee. In that episode, however, the indiscriminate killing of any Native American revealed widespread political panic, underscored by the fact that the Sioux were clearly not approaching with the intention to attack.

Diminishment of the Panic

Even before the massacre at Wounded Knee brought to a close two centuries of warfare between whites and Native Americans, widespread panic over Native Americans had begun to abate. One of the earlier indications surfaced in an 1879 legal challenge by Chief Standing Bear of the Ponca tribe. When the federal government discovered it had inadvertently granted to the Sioux a region in present-day Nebraska that the government had previously granted to the Ponca, Standing Bear and his tribe were forcibly removed and marched to a reservation in present-day Oklahoma. Unhappy in this new environment, Standing Bear walked back to his ancestral land (a distance of some 400 miles) where, upon arriving, he was promptly taken into custody by the U.S. army. In this instance, however, a local attorney went to court on Standing Bear's behalf, seeking a writ of habeas corpus. Enshrined in Article I of the Constitution, a writ of habeas corpus requires the government to declare what law a person has been charged with violating or to release the person. Indian Inspector Edward C. Kemble, who had overseen the relocation of the Poncas, defended the incarceration of Standing Bear on the basis that Native Americans were genetically inferior. "In dealing with Indians," he asserted, "we must sometimes do as we do in dealing with children ... and may have to decide for them what is best." Federal judge Elmer S. Dundy was not so certain, ruling that "an Indian is a 'person' within the meaning of the laws of the United States."

Citizenship for selected Native Americans also commenced prior to Wounded Knee. In 1885, a Department of Interior report stated, "The Indian problem could be easily solved by simply withdrawing all government supervision over these people and conferring upon them the rights of American citizenship." In defending this view, the report cited a key element in what turned out to be its widespread acceptance by the public when it noted, "After incorporating into our body politic four million blacks in a state of slavery and investing them with citizenship and suffrage, we need not strain at the gnat of 260,000 Indians." That the threat white Americans felt from Native Americans was now equivalent to that of a gnat became evident with the passage of the General Allotment Act of 1887. It provided a means for Native Americans to become citizens by altering the ownership of tribal land in a way that enabled tribe members to sell their individual parcels. The law reflected the fact that white Americans were now far more land thirsty than bloodthirsty.

As citizens, Native Americans turned out to be as law-abiding as non–Native American citizens. Representative of their loyalty to the nation is the fact that some 12,000 Native Americans served in World War I, with soldiers of Choctaw descent earning particular distinction as "code talkers" who translated sensitive military messages into their native language — so linguistically different from European languages it was beyond the abilities of enemy code breakers to decipher it. Similarly during World War II, Navajo soldiers served as code talkers. In that war, more than 44,000 American Indians served in the armed forces (several being awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military award in the United States), and another 40,000 left their reservations to work in ordnance depots, factories, and other war industries.

To this day, assumptions about the inferiority of the character and culture of Native Americans remain, though widespread panic is long past. In its aftermath, however, winds of guilt continue to blow through ravines in the soul of the nation now living on the land it conquered. Those winds, however, have blown right by equally deep-rooted prejudicial views regarding the other major group present since the nation's founding: African Americans.


Excerpted from American Panic by Mark Stein. Copyright © 2014 Mark Stein. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Mark Stein is the author of How the States Got Their Shapes , a New York Times bestseller that became the basis of the History Channel series of the same name, in which he frequently appears. He is also the author of How the States Got Their Shapes Too: The People Behind the Borderlines. He lives in Washington, DC, where he has taught at the Catholic University of America and American University.

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American Panic: A History of Who Scares Us and Why 2.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
040 More than 1 year ago
This is a well written history and psychology of minority group persecution here. It starts with the Salem Witch Trials and ends with American Muslims (and those mistaken for Muslims). I learned quite a bit about U.S. history and the psychology of persecution. I have given the book to a friend, as it has important lessons that are likely to be of interest to a wide range of the reading public.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Author compares Fox news to Colbert and Stewart shows. Last two parodies of news stories. Wasted money and how could this even get published ?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Another that wants to re-write history to suit their own narrow minded ideals.