A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government

A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government

by Garry Wills

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Overview

A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government by Garry Wills

In A Necessary Evil, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Garry Wills shows that distrust of government is embedded deep in the American psyche. From the revolt of the colonies against king and parliament to present-day tax revolts, militia movements, and debates about term limits, Wills shows that American antigovernment sentiment is based on a fundamental misunder-standing of our history. By debunking some of our fondest myths about the Founding Fathers, the Constitution, and the taming of the frontier, Wills shows us how our tendency to hold our elected government in disdain is misguided.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780684844893
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 10/20/1999
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.60(w) x 9.57(h) x 1.19(d)

About the Author

Garry Wills is an Emeritus Professor of History at Northwestern University. Born in Atlanta in 1934, he has taught widely throughout the United States. A prolific writer and scholar, Wills is the author of more than twenty books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln at Gettysburg, Papal Sin, and What Jesus Meant. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Date of Birth:

May 22, 1934

Place of Birth:

Atlanta, GA

Education:

St. Louis University, B.A., 1957; Xavier University, M.A., 1958; Yale University, Ph.D., 1961

Read an Excerpt

From Chapter 18: Groups: From Regulators to Clinic Bombings Ku Klux Klan (1866-70)

The Ku Klux Klan is the most famous of the vigilante movements in our history, because it was even more successfully glorified than the others, as part of the great myth of the slaveholding South -- that it had seceded in defense of freedom from central government oppression. Thomas Dixon's novel The Clansman and D. W. Griffith's movie made from it were praised by Woodrow Wilson -- and no wonder. This president with a doctorate in history from the Johns Hopkins University had written, in his multi-volume history of the United States, that the South, after the Civil War, had to resort to illegality as a way to preserve its honor:


The white men of the South were aroused by the mere instinct of self-preservation to rid themselves, by fair means or foul, of the intolerable burden of [state] governments sustained by the votes of ignorant negroes and conducted in the interest of adventurers....There was no place of open action or of constitutional agitation, under the terms of reconstruction, for the men who were the real leaders of the southern communities....They could act only by private combination, by private means, as a force outside the government, hostile to it, proscribed by it....They took the law into their own hands, and began to attempt by intimidation what they were not allowed to attempt by the ballot or by any ordered course of public action.


That attitude toward the Klan has not entirely disappeared. Even Shelby Foote, whose commentary on the Ken Burns TV special about the Civil War made him an icon of southern nostalgia for nonsoutherners, told an interviewer that the original Klan "was very akin to the Free French Resistance to Nazi occupation...[it] was anti-black but not opposed to all black people. It was trying to keep illiterate blacks from occupying positions like sheriff and judge." It was also trying to keep all blacks illiterate -- as when it forcibly closed black schools in Mississippi, twenty-six in one county, eleven in another, threatening and whipping teachers who tried to keep them open. One superintendent was flogged so viciously that his shirt was sent north and displayed by Massachusetts congressman Ben Butler on the floor of the House -- giving rise to the expression "wave the bloody shirt." Foote, I am sure, would not defend these school raids, but Wilson did:


Many of the teachers who worked among the negroes did in fact do mischief as deep as any political adventurer. The lessons taught in their school seemed to be lessons of self-assertion against the whites; they seemed too often to train their pupils to be aggressive Republican politicians and mischief-makers between the races. The innocent and enlightened among them suffered in the general opinion from the errors of those who deliberately sowed discord.


Wilson was right in saying that the Klan began more as prank than policy. Six Confederate veterans in Tennessee, in May or June of 1866, began a secret society in the spirit of a college fraternity. Even their name was taken from the Greek word kuklos (circle) used by fraternities like the Ku-klos Adelphon (Brothers' Circle) of the University of North Carolina. Secret rites and grandiose titles led to pranks in public, with members using various disguises and masks at first and communicating by the use of whistles, so as not to betray their own voices. They began to favor white robes and hoods after noticing their ghostly effect. Wilson enters into the fun: "It threw the negroes into a very ecstasy of panic to see these sheeted 'Ku Klux' move near them in the shrouded night; and their comic fear stimulated the lads who excited it to many an extravagant prank and mummery."

Within a year at most of its founding the possibility of turning black "comic fear" into a systematically terrorized condition had occurred to the original Klan and its rapidly proliferating bands of imitators throughout the South. It was the original group in Tennessee that saw the importance of making the Klan a kind of shadow Confederate army. Celebrants of the Klan claimed that they tried to get Robert E. Lee to take command, and that he blessed the effort without joining it. Be that as it may, they did get the second best of surviving Confederate generals, the man Shelby Foote calls one of "the two authentic geniuses of the Civil War" (Lincoln being the other) -- Nathan Bedford Forrest, the cavalry hero famous for getting there first with the most. There was no reason to doubt Forrest's ruthlessness toward blacks. He had been a slave trader before the war, a calling looked down on even by slave owners, and during the war he allowed, if he did not encourage, the massacre of black prisoners after the capture of Fort Pillow. By the spring of 1867 he had become the Grand Wizard of the Klan.

Forrest's leadership of the Klan was an open secret. Though he would not admit to his membership (which was against the rules of the order), he defended the organization in public, telling a reporter in 1868: "It is a protective, political, military organization. I am willing to show any man the constitution of the society. The members are sworn to recognize the government of the United States. It does not say anything at all about the government of the state of Tennessee." In the very year he spoke, the Klan intimidated voters in the six months before elections in Arkansas by committing two hundred murders. In the six months before a Louisiana election, 1,081 murders were committed, 135 shootings, 507 floggings or other acts of violence. In three months before Georgia's election, there were thirty-one murders, five stabbings, fifty-five beatings, and eight whippings of three hundred or more lashes.

Wilson justified these acts under a plea of necessity: "They backed their commands, when need arose, with violence" (emphasis added). When violence became excessive, according to Wilson, it was because non-members of the Klan hid themselves in the hood without recognizing the code of honor real Klansmen observed: "Reckless men not of their order, malicious fellows of the baser sort who did not feel the compulsions of honor and who had private grudges to satisfy, imitated their disguises and borrowed their methods." Actually, the Klan was so loosely organized, and supplemented by so many other groups of white terrorists, that it cannot be blamed for all the violence, though it inspired and heartened others to commit it. The Klan's glamour cloaked every kind of vileness.

Foote, too, thinks the original nobility was betrayed and General Forrest "dissolved the Klan when it turned ugly." Forrest's biographer agrees that the general distanced himself from the Klan in 1869, but mainly as a way of placating Republicans he needed for his new railroad ventures. But his distancing did not "dissolve" the Klan. It took another three years for the federal government to rein in the Klan (without entirely erasing it). Organized terrorism continued in many forms, including irregular militia companies in Mississippi that made the state's governor complain, in 1875, of the "autumnal" (election season) terrorism that practically eliminated the black vote. As literary critic Edmund Wilson concluded in 1962, "The Klan was completely successful." Jim Crow laws just codified the conditions it had imposed.

Edmund Wilson is a good example of the way anti-governmental feelings can justify even this, the most murderous reign of vigilantes in our history. He sympathized with "the unfortunate south, which had been beaten but would not submit." While glorifying the Klan, he argued that Lincoln was "an uncompromising dictator." The myth of the Klan is hard, perhaps impossible, to kill. The city museum of Vicksburg, Mississippi, which is housed in the city hall, still has an 1860s Klan hood, with this information posted by it: "The Klan's purpose was to rid the South of the carpetbag-scalawag-black governments, which were often corrupt. Atrocities were sometimes attributed to the Klan by unscrupulous individuals." That is because the Klan was embedded in that nest of values I have been describing -- including religion. When an alleged black rapist was lynched in 1868, the Tennessee Observer editorialized: "We know not who did it, whether the Ku Klux or the immediate neighbors, but we feel that they were the instruments of Divine vengeance in carrying out His holy and immutable decrees." We get the whole mindset in that homey phrase "immediate neighbors." As President Reagan liked to say, people know best how to handle their own affairs. The only anti-government value the Klan could not observe was candor -- but even its secrecy shut out only others. The neighbors knew.


Wyoming Range War (1886-92)

The Wyoming vigilantes of the 1880s and early 1890s were glorified in Owen Wister's famous novel The Virginian (1902), in several movies based on that book, and in Michael Cimino's film Heaven's Gate (1980). The hero of Wister's novel is admired as a man of honor because he has to lynch his best friend for joining a rustler gang. But the truth about the Wyoming affair was not so much a matter of honest cowmen against rustlers, but of business interests against labor. The beef business had grown explosively in the 1870s, thanks to foreign investment of large amounts of capital. In 1879, the major owners formed the Wyoming Stock Growers' Association (WSGA) to keep prices up, cooperate on roundups, and discourage competition from small landowners. They also tried to control the labor force, their cowboys. Despite a certain prickly independence endemic to their work, the cowboys formed a union, which the WSGA meant to break. When labor went on strike in 1886, the strike leader, Jack Flagg, was blackballed by the WSGA. Unable to work on any of the large spreads, Flagg started his own small ranch. To punish those who tried to imitate him, the WSGA sponsored laws that made it impossible for nonmembers of their organization to join roundups, sell to buyers at auction, or bid for cattle there. (A prohibitively large bond was required for buying at auction.) Since mavericks (unbranded calves) strayed off or were lost before roundups, the WSGA tried to prevent their addition to independent herds by getting a compliant legislature to declare that all mavericks belonged to the WSGA itself, to be auctioned for the maintenance of inspection officers (often detectives in the employ of the WSGA). Ironi cally, these controls were probably unconstitutional invasions of the rights of business and trade -- but the businessmen themselves resorted to them.

The cattle barons ran into the same problem that frustrated the San Francisco business community. Juries were reluctant to convict some of the underdogs they were prosecuting. The WSGA responded by branding the jurors, and even their judges, as rustlers themselves, or as sympathizers with the rustlers. So they took the same course that the San Francisco vigilantes had -- making themselves judge, jury, and executioner. A man who was active against the WSGA was lynched, along with the prostitute in his company, in 1889. Owen Wister met one of the suspects in this lynching on a train leaving Wyoming and said he looked like an honest fellow -- the kind of "good vigilante" he would glorify in his novel. But witnesses who could have implicated the suspect disappeared as fast as he did, or they were silenced.

This marks the great difference between the California and Wyoming vigilantes. The latter worked in secret, like the Klan. Though business interests directed the terror, they did not have a dense urban crowd to manipulate. Holders of the large ranches were often resented for absentee ownership, clannishness (most belonged, when in the state, to the exclusive Cheyenne Club), and arrogance. So they could not seize the organs of law themselves. They struck in the dark, or used hired guns. The most famous instance of the latter is the invasion of Johnson County, the stronghold of the independents, by a train in which twenty-two Texas assassins were hidden. They had a hit list of seventy men they were supposed to dispose of, but they got bogged down in the siege of one house where two men were holding out. By the time the house had been set on fire and the occupants shot, Jack Flagg, who came on the scene by chance and escaped a fusillade from the besiegers, was able to alert the countryside. Now it was the gunmen's turn to be besieged -- warned that superior forces were converging upon them, they holed up at a ranch that was quickly surrounded.

The Republican governor of Wyoming, an ally of the businessmen, wired President Benjamin Harrison that he needed federal troops from nearby Fort McKinney to put down an "insurrection" of Johnson County, making the gunmen's intended victims the violators of law. The troops arrived, effected a surrender by the vigilantes, and took them by train to Fort Russell. The hired guns, released on bail (with WSGA money for their bond), went back to Texas. Local citizens involved in the "war" were never brought to trial.


McCarthyism (1940s and 1950s)

The era of communism as a pervasive force in American life -- of the "enemy within" -- was a concomitant of the foreign threat from the Soviet Union. This fear led to excesses that are normally considered a governmental aberration. It was, after all, the Truman administration that fired security risks in the State Department and elsewhere, the Congress that investigated suspected communists and jailed some of them for contempt, the courts that convicted Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Since vigilantes work outside the government, these acts cannot be chalked up to vigilantism.

But there was a penumbra of nongovernmental activity, accompanying these official policies, that can qualify as vigilantism, since it not only went beyond what the government was doing, but did so out of a distrust for the government. These vigilantes were responding to the public agitation of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who charged that the government was not purging itself of the communists who had infiltrated it. Various groups -- veterans organizations, Catholic clubs, private monitors of the entertainment industry -- compiled lists of dangerous people to be hounded out of their jobs. These and other private agencies account for more victims of McCarthyism than did official agencies.

Ten leftist moviemakers were questioned and jailed by federal authorities, but approximately 250 were fired or denied the chance to work on the studios' own initiative. The government dismissed scientists from federal work on nuclear projects, but private schools and universities fired teachers, or refused to hire or promote them, in far greater numbers. The government put suspect organizations on the Attorney General's List of communist fronts, but ordinary citizens denied those groups halls to meet in or outlets for their advertising. The government demanded loyalty oaths for those working on sensitive assignments, but universities demanded such oaths from people teaching any subject at all, on the grounds that Karl Marx might be smuggled into mathematics lessons, or that a teacher might do the Kremlin's work just by teaching poorly. As one anti-communist zealot said, "Inadequate and improper teaching of any subject could be considered as subversive."


Clinic Bombings (1980s and 1990s)

As the Ku Klux Klan lynched blacks who violated white society's orderly regime, anti-abortion terrorists in the last two decades have harassed, bombed, or shot people who conduct what the terrorists call a "holocaust" of murdered babies. Like all vigilantes, they feel they must provide the law enforcement the government has ceased to exercise since the 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which made women the arbiters of their own pregnancies. In the immediate aftermath of that decision, political protest took the form of agitation and propagandizing in the arena of public opinion, largely conducted by the Catholic Church's hierarchy and adherents. But beginning in the 1980s there was an increase in violent campaigns against abortion clinics and their staffs, with evangelical Protestants leading the way. Some social scientists connected this development with the election of Ronald Reagan as president, an election that evangelicals felt had been won by their crucial support at the margin of voter majorities.


Following President Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, the number of violent incidents against clinics and clinic personnel, including vandalism, death threats, assault, arson, bombing, and invasion, increased by almost 450 percent. President Reagan's speeches to anti-abortion groups were interpreted by radicals as tacit approval for their vigilantism.


An abductor of a doctor who performed abortions claimed that his allies felt "they have a green light from the president." Lawyers for clinic bombers adduced in court a Reagan letter that demanded "something be done" to stop abortions. When Reagan's rhetoric against abortion was not followed by actions after he won office, some felt that they were expected to take the steps that he desired but could not implement because of an obstructive Congress. The scholars Dallas Blanchard and Terry Prewitt wrote in 1993:


Our point is not to cast Reagan as leading a "call to violence" but to cite the effects of Reagan's failure to issue a call against violence in the context of the ideological struggle that intensified after the 1984 election. Reagan's re-election was interpreted by Jerry Falwell and others of the religious Right as a renewed mandate for their position.

We have here the situation that often arises where vigilantism is concerned -- the authorities either turning a blind eye on the extra-legal "enforcement" or seeming to do so. That impression was confirmed when George Bush's Justice Department entered a 1991 protest against a district judge's injunction against Operation Rescue activists who had blocked three clinics in Wichita, Kansas, shutting down their operation. The Bush administration also supported Operation Rescue's 1992 plea before the Supreme Court that interfering with access to clinics did not suspend women's rights.

Violence over abortion, though it was widespread, seemed (like Klan violence) to be especially common in the South. This can be seen in the pivotal role played by Pensacola, Florida, in the development of the anti-abortion war. In 1984 two young evangelicals blew up the main abortion clinic in that town, demolishing it beyond further use. When the clinic was reestablished elsewhere, the same men, with the help of one's wife and the other's fiancée, blew up that building and the offices where two doctors performed abortions. The triple explosion occurred on Christmas morning, as what the perpetrators called a "birthday present for baby Jesus." It was commonly thought that revulsion at violence would discourage other opponents of abortion from endorsing such tactics. But that was not the case in Pensacola, where John Burt, from an Assembly of God congregation, and David Shofner, a Baptist minister, organized demonstrations in favor of the "Pensacola Four," supporting their right to interfere with the murder of babies. They clearly believed what the lawyer for the accused men was pleading in court -- that these were all-American boys ("Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn") who were simply doing what God told them to do, and that the real judgment must weigh upon a society that tolerates abortion:


When Jesus was on trial, the government won in the case and Jerusalem fell. Socrates was tried and Athens fell. If Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are convicted, America will be the loser. We cannot take those losses impending on us now.


Tom and Huck were convicted and sentenced to five years in prison, but the sentence was suspended and they were required to pay for the damage done at $100 per month. They and their supporters took this as a sign that the community was with them in spirit, since it imposed only the lightest possible rebuke. Pensacola had become the capital of anti-abortion activism. Leaders of the movement flocked to the city, including the Catholic Joan Andrews, who engaged in nonviolent sabotage at clinics (sealing doors with Super Glue, planting stink bombs, wrecking equipment, and the like). She slipped into a Pensacola clinic and was arrested while damaging a medical suction machine. She, too, was given a suspended sentence if she would promise not to return to the clinic she had damaged. She refused -- in fact, she would cooperate in no way with the authorities whose system supports abortion. She did not comply when asked to come into court, move about in the prison, or answer questions addressed to her. She had to be carried everywhere, and was eventually left in the cell she would not budge from on her own. Her reputation for sanctity grew when Mother Teresa, the famous missionary in India, expressed an admiration for Andrews. The authorities even offered to release her in Mother Teresa's custody. Mother Teresa agreed to this plan, but Andrews would not accept it. Now Pensacola attracted Joan celebrants to come and demonstrate in her honor.

It was at such a demonstration that the evangelical activist Randall Terry established the key organizational links for launching his Operation Rescue, in effect taking the anti-abortion leadership away from the Catholic Andrews and widening the movement among Protestants in the South (though Terry is from New York). Terry targeted the South for his attempts to block access to clinics and disrupt their operation, mounting what he called "the siege of Atlanta," filling jails there in the late 1980s. Atlanta continued to be a center for anti-abortion terrorism. In 1997 a clinic was bombed in the suburb of Sandy Springs, as was a lesbian nightclub, with letters from "the Army of God" taking credit for the blasts. Letters delivered to the Atlanta Constitution also claimed the Army's responsibility for the 1998 bombing of a clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, where one person was killed. It is now alleged by the FBI that the fugitive Eric Rudolph, a fundamentalist "Christian Identity" believer, may have been involved in these bombings, as well as in the 1996 bombing of Atlanta's Olympic Park that killed one and injured over a hundred people. Rudolph became a folk hero in 1998 for his ability to elude capture in the wilds of his native North Carolina, where local residents laughed at federal attempts to run him down.

Pensacola had returned to the news in 1993, when Dr. David Gunn was murdered there by a pistol shot outside his clinic, and in 1994 when Dr. James Barrett and the man driving him to his clinic were killed with shotgun blasts. Even when the violence moved north, with the 1998 murder of a doctor, Barnett Slepian, in Amherst, New York, the man sought as a material witness to this crime -- and to three other shootings of doctors over the Canadian border -- had been arrested in Atlanta as part of Terry's "siege of Atlanta" and in Pensacola demonstrations. A computer web site based in Carrollton, Georgia, ominously ran a slash line across Dr. Slepian's name after his murder, the seventh such mark through the name of a doctor killed for performing abortions. The God-fearing owner of the web site, Neal Horsley, did not disguise his pleasure at the death.


There are other examples of vigilantism too numerous to be considered here -- for instance, the use of the Pinkerton Detective Agency and other "private police" forces to break up union organizing and strikes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Union organizers were branded as un-American, outsiders acting on the basis of foreign ideologies. Modern militias that arm themselves for opposition to a government aligned with the United Nations or with other foreign entities are also "vigilant," watching for signs of the "takeover."

At first glance, vigilantism may not seem to fit with the anti-governmental values we find in other activities listed in this book. Vigilantes favor more "law and order" than the government is providing. But they do this for the kind of "community values" -- religion, social homogeneity, tradition -- that can be aligned against the actual government at any time. The Klan and McCarthyites, clinic bombers and the Militia of Montana, are opposed to the government as too cosmopolitan, too secular, too disrespectful of traditional mores. Even union busters felt, in the past, that government was too soft on anarchical immigrants outside the American tradition, not making them conform to the American way, to the traditions of American capitalism. Here, as often, business has it both ways, offering freedom from "big government" while doing its own regimenting and empire building.


Chapter 19: Individuals: Frontier

Vigilante groups are less common, now, than that peculiarly American phenomenon, the individual vigilant for his or her own safety, armed to provide for it, not delegating the task to faceless groups or agencies. The rest of the world is bemused or appalled at the guns that float everywhere in our society, as many guns as there are people. But we are assured that they are a necessity, that taking a gun from a man is depriving him not only of safety but of freedom, of manhood, of the right to be an individual. This belief, idiosyncratic in others' eyes, is central to the American value system. It expresses the desire for self-sufficiency that is at odds with government control. It is fed by a whole series of myths, of which the frontier myth is perhaps the most obvious.

According to that myth, the American man (more rarely, woman) was freest when he went west, armed to remain safe while he invented himself, freed from the pressures of conformity, of deadening civilizational habits. The frontier has always been with us -- it was at the Atlantic Ocean's edge when the first settlers arrived on this continent. It was pushed westward through the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. But the imagination has fed on one time as the pre-eminent era of the frontier -- oddly, the time when the frontier was filling up rapidly, when the lone individual was less isolated than before, when a countdown was taking place to the year 1893, when the historian Frederick Jackson Turner ominously announced that the frontier was closed. That period, from the Civil War to the close of the nineteenth century, was celebrated by its end in a spate of dime novels, lurid biographies, and traveling spectacles like Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. A trio of friends -- Theodore Roosevelt, Owen Wister, and Frederic Remington -- kept the myth alive long enough for it to pass into the history of cinema, where it became what French critics have described as the quintessential American movie, the western.

All through this process, the gun is credited with a leading role in the "taming" of the West. It was the main tool by which men held their own against nature, Indians, and other frontiersmen. There is some basis for this hugely inflated tale. The Civil War had been a great accelerator of gun technology, use, and expertise. Americans, who had not (despite myths about the early militias) been universally familiar with guns, acquired some familiarity from service in the war. When the troops on both sides were mustered out, many of them illegally kept the guns they had been issued. Besides, the spurt in technological invention and improvement of guns continued right through the century, as Samuel Colt and Oliver Remington came up with new models meant to flog sales at ever faster rates. The guns were now tooled with greater precision. The wholesale shift from muzzle-loading to breech-loading guns was accomplished. Ammunition was improved, both the powder and the casings. In 1871, two Union army veterans, William Conant Church and George W. Wingate, set up the National Rifle Association, to encourage soldiers to improve their marksmanship with the latest expertise about guns. They held shooting contests between the army and the National Guard (established in 1879), awarding prizes and distributing educational material on weapons development. There was a close alliance between the NRA and the National Guard -- George Wingate, the NRA founder, became the president of the National Guard Association. That union was reflected in the declaration of principles enumerated by the National Guardsman of 1877: "We believe in rifle practice as an important element of National Guard education."

The title of the NRA is important -- it was a rifle association. The rifle was the most effective, reliable, and used weapon of the time. One would never guess that from the myths of the West, especially as they have been embroidered in the twentieth century. These focus almost entirely on the handgun, the "six-shooter." The picture of "the gunfighter" -- a term that did not come into general use until this century -- is of the fast-draw artist, whose weapon is always with him, strapped to his side, almost a part of him, something he can practice with in idle moments, or show off to admirers, or compare with other men's personalized models, and -- of course -- whip out at the slightest affront or challenge.

This gun has become truly magical in the hands of literary figures or movie actors. It can be effective when "thrown" (with a motion flipping it from one's ear toward the target, near or far), or fired from the hip, or with its hammer "fanned" (the palm of the left hand slapping it while the right hand holds it steady, a process that is supposed to speed the rate of firing), or accurately fired from a galloping horse, or fired from both hands at once by "two-gun" marksmen. The point of all these maneuvers is to show that the shooter does not have to aim along the barrel with his eye. The fast-draw artist cannot take the time or trouble to do that, even though the gun was designed to be used that way -- which is, after all, why the six-shooter had a sight at the end of its barrel. Samuel Colt said he designed his revolver barrels to remind the user of a finger, so it would be pointed like one. We do not normally point at something by putting our hand to our belt and sticking one finger out at that level. We point with extended arm, our finger at the end of it.

Despite improvements, the nineteenth-century revolver was still an imperfect weapon, and all its shortcomings would be added to by the antics of the movie cowboys. A "thrown" shot is a vague gesture, inclusive of most things but the target. It is impossible to get real accuracy when firing from the hip. And fanning the gun (which can be done only at hip level) would bounce it around and hose the area with shots. Nor is one arm steady enough to hit a target from a moving horse. As for shooting with two guns (often "throwing" both), even ambidextrous people will be really aiming only with one, wasting the other's shots and endangering standbys. Besides, the smoke caused by the black powder used then would blind the guns' wielder if he pumped out shots at the rate of the "two-gun" heroes of the movies. That same smoke made it impossible to perform the marvels that are a staple of westerns -- such as keeping a can bouncing with a succession of shots, or keeping an object in the air by hitting it repeatedly. The thick smoke from the gun would make such continued accuracy impossible.

The smoke helps explain the amazingly low casualty rate in encounters where several people were shooting revolvers at close range. A notorious gunfight of 1879, which took place in Dodge City's famous Long Branch saloon, went like this. Two men quarreling over a woman drew their guns. They were standing so close to each other that "their pistols almost touched each other." Neither man took the time to aim, so both managed to miss with their first shots. One man stepped back, took aim, and hit the other. But the wounded man kept firing, until one more hit (out of two more shots) put the wounded man down. In the smoky fray, eleven shots were fired at practically point-blank range, and nine of them missed. This was not unusual, or caused by the fact that these men were amateurs (one was a buffalo hunter famous for his accuracy with both pistol and rifle -- and he was the one who lost).

In a more famous gunfight, the shoot-out at Tombstone's O.K. Corral (actually, behind the corral) -- the only gunfight Wyatt Earp ever took part in -- "nine men and two horses are suddenly gathered in a lot perhaps eighteen feet wide." They turned revolvers, a shotgun, and a Winchester rifle on each other in this small area, which was quickly filled with smoke, and only three of the men were killed. When Earp's brother Morgan -- who survived the O. K. Corral -- was later shot in the back while playing pool, Wyatt took revenge in the customary manner: he killed one man with a shotgun pressed against him and cut another almost in two with the same gun, not indulging in any nonsense about "quick draw" with a revolver.

The fight that made James Butler ("Wild Bill") Hickok's fame, at Rock Creek, Nebraska, in 1861, occurred when the landlord of an overland coach station, David McCanles, came to collect money from the station manager. The twenty-four-year-old Hickok, who worked in the station stables, exchanged angry words with the landlord in the yard before going into the station. When McCanles challenged Hickok to come back out, he was shot dead by a rifle at one of the windows. One man who was with McCanles tried to run into the house, but Hickok wounded him as he was coming through the door and a woman in the station bashed his head in. Another of McCanles's men, along with McCanles's twelve-year-old son, ran off into the woods. The man was chased and pinned down by a bloodhound kept at the station, and someone with Hickok killed him with a shotgun. No one in McCanles's party had fired a gun. The presence of the child shows they had not come looking for violence. When Hickok told the story of this slaughter of three men to a credulous journalist, he claimed that McCanles, who had nine other men with him, had charged into the station firing a gun, and Hickok killed him with his rifle. Then the gang burst in through two doors, and Hickok killed four of them with his revolver, before he killed the others with a knife. That is the story that made Rock Creek the best-known gunfight after the O. K. Corral. In later versions, Hickok's ten dead men grew to twice and even to thrice that number. Actually, he killed eight men at most (giving him credit for several of the kills at Rock Creek) in the whole course of his life.

If much shooting just caused much smoke, why did cowboys carry two guns? We know they did so from contemporary photographs. Some carried three or four. It was not to use them simultaneously, but to pull the other if the first one misfired -- as it often did, for a variety of reasons. Those who carried three or four did not even trust the second one to work properly. Those who expected to be using a revolver were wise if they fired it just beforehand, cleaned it, and checked the cylinder pin, the percussion cap, and the flash hole:

A serious drawback to all percussion caps of the era was the fulminate of mercury, which soon corroded the nipples. When checking his weapon, the experienced pistol man also regularly inspected the nipples. To guard against misfire, at each loading he pushed a pin or spike through the flash hole to remove any dirt or unburned powder....Hickok also made a practice of periodically firing and reloading his pistols to avoid overnight dampness, which affected the salt-laden black powder of the day.

Proper loading was a problem. Until the 1870s, many had to rely on loose powder and caps. Improvements came, but they made the individualist rely on anonymous factory workers: "Metallic ammunition became commonplace in the 1870s, but it was of poor quality and subject to misfire." If the first bullet misfired, the gun could jam from a cap falling into its mechanism, and after a few shots powder could foul the works.

When modern experts tried to verify reports of sharpshooting with nineteenth-century Colt revolvers, they went through a careful ritual before each shot, making sure the antique gun was in perfect condition, not relying on mass-manufactured ammunition, but measuring each ball taken from the gunmaker's own molds:

Before each test great care was taken to load the weapons correctly, and grease-soaked felt wads were placed under the balls, which were themselves smeared with grease when rammed into the chambers to reduce the leading in the rifling. Even then, fouling from the black powder affected the weapons' accuracy. Consequently, it may be assumed that only if owners of cap-and-ball were careful to keep them extremely clean, well oiled and properly loaded could they expect to achieve reasonable accuracy with them.

Despite all these modern precautions and advantages, "It is regrettable that few reports of the prowess of old time pistol shots can be substantiated." One nineteenth-century target shooter whose skill was verified (by matches he won in England in 1897) was able to use the new smokeless ammunition and a personally designed sight, and he had time to aim along the barrel with each shot. Even so, he said, the pistol is not an accurate weapon for actual use beyond a few yards.

It is natural, then, that when a man intended beforehand to use a gun, he would take a rifle, carbine, or shotgun, whose longer barrel gave him greater accuracy and whose shoulder stock and two-handed hold gave him greater control. That is how Hickok hunted down the men suspected of killing his brother. But what of the quick-draw duels in the street that form the climax of so many movies? The answer is simple. That never, ever, happened. For a number of reasons. The holsters of that time were not designed for quick drawing. In fact, some of the most famous gunmen wore no holster at all. Hickok wore his guns tucked into a sash. The guns were worn at belt level (not in low-slung holsters along the thigh), their butts forward to keep the barrel out of the man's groin. One drew from the right with one's left hand (or vice versa). Whoever moved first would automatically win any hypothetical speed contest (the reaction time to another's move is a prohibitive disadvantage, modern tests have shown). The only "fair fight" would have been one, like modern contests, where a referee gives the signal to both men at the same time. Quick draws are, in fact, a modern phenomenon. The first important record was set in 1934, and the game did not really catch on till 1954, by which time special holsters had been designed for it. If the first to draw is going to be the winner anyway, the only sensible thing to do was to come into a dangerous situation with a weapon already drawn.

Given all these obstacles to pistol use, why was the handgun so popular in the West? Men clearly found it comforting to have a gun they could wear without carrying it or even thinking about it. Rifles have to be put down if you are going to do a chore, have a drink, or simply move about. But having the gun always there at one's waist was itself an obstacle, so far as community peace was concerned. It was there for instant use by drunks, hotheads, or panicky people. That is why handguns were banned in the cattle towns. The "Wild West" was the birthplace of strict gun-control laws. Far from the gun being the tamer of the West, the West had to tame the gun in order to be civilized. Kansas, after its bloody experience in the John Brown days, had made it a state law that no vagrants, drunks, or former Confederate soldiers could carry "a pistol, bowie-knife, dirk or other deadly weapon." The cattle towns made the restriction much tougher, collecting guns from cowboys and drovers when they came inside the city limits. (Wyatt Earp and his men went to the O. K. Corral because they heard the Clantons had not given up their guns in town.) Famous "gun cities" like Dodge had a year or two of violence when the herds were first driven to them in the early 1870s, but they quickly imposed the gun laws that cut homicide rates spectacularly. In 1877 and 1882, there were no killings in Dodge City during the cattle season. In the other years, the average was one and a half killings, some of those accidental or unconnected with cowboys or marshals.

These results were not attained by a lone marshal awing bad guys with his quick draw (Earp mainly used his revolver as a club when arresting people). The cattle towns hired police forces of five or so men who acted as a team (like those going with the marshal, Virgil Earp, and his deputy, Wyatt, to the O. K. Corral). When cowboys were not coming into town, the police were a sanitation and repair work force -- Wyatt Earp repaired boardwalks in the off season. The cattle towns were run by a business elite, since the towns formed a nexus between large-capital investments in herds and in the government-supported railroads. They needed a controlled climate in which gambling and prostitution were regulated (secretly taxed but protected, to keep the cowboys coming up from Texas) while safety was guaranteed (to keep buyers and agents in town for the large cash or banking transactions involved in shipping such huge amounts of property).

In general, the settlement of the West was not a matter of individuals going off into the wilds. The modern frontier was marked by the advance of a technologically more sophisticated culture into a backward one. The technology of the western settlers -- in mining and drilling equipment and expertise, railroad expansion, cavalry intelligence and maneuver, coordination of market information by telegraph, and a steady influx of manufactured goods -- was at the core of settlement. One reason the railroads were eager to buy cattle was to fill the trains that had been running back empty to the East after bringing huge amounts of equipment, stores, weapons, and commercial products to the West. The western endeavor depended on an eastern base, both capitalistic and governmental. The army was especially important and desired by the supposedly unregimented individuals of the West. The network of forts often set the pattern of civilian settlement (Dodge City began as a mere adjunct to Fort Dodge). And the army's weapons had more to do with conquering the West than any lone gunmen did. The trained teamwork of the cavalry was seen in the way it deployed to fire at Indians. Even rifles were not accurate from bouncing horses, so the cavalry rode into range of the foe, dismounted in designated groups of four, with one man deputed to hold the horses while the others fired (from natural props or cover if possible). Indians also dismounted to shoot. The wild charges of men shooting from the saddle are the creations of Hollywood.

Although raw settlements did have unstable conditions at the outset, especially when in conflict with Indian, Mexican, or renegade groups, there was a massive social effort to quell those conditions as rapidly as pos-sible. That is why Prohibition, gun control, and women's suffrage were pioneered in the West. The most successful settlements were the most regimented (the Mormons were outstanding in this regard). Social institutions -- churches, schools, newspapers, libraries, theaters, and "opera houses" -- were introduced and supported by business interests and communal discipline. The federal government supported the whole enterprise with land grants, subsidies to the railroads, and maintenance of the army's logistical trains. Fiction is full of violent struggles when tracts of territory were thrown open to settlers making a run to stake their claims. When fifteen thousand people made the run into Oklahoma Territory, on the day when it was declared open in 1889, newspaper stories told of shootings, claim jumping, and bloodshed around Guthrie, the "instant town" where claims were recorded. But no one was killed or even wounded:

Within thirty-six hours after everyone had arrived at the "Magic City" on the Prairie, this heterogeneous mob had elected a mayor and a council of five members, adopted a city charter, and authorized the collection of a head tax. Within a week, Baptists, and Methodists, and Presbyterians were holding church service in tents and planning the construction of permanent church buildings....Six months passed before Oklahoma Territory recorded its first homicide.

The historiography of the West has undergone a major shift on the subject of its violent and unregulated nature since 1968, when Robert Dykstra established the actual homicide rates in the cattle towns where gunmen were thought to have ruled. Dime novelists, it turns out, were not the only exaggerators of the West's individualism and self-protection. Historians must bear their share of the sensationalism. The textbook in which many students learned about the West -- Ray Billington's perennial Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier -- had to be revised in a 1974 edition to remove unsubstantiated claims like this: "Seldom did a group of drovers leave [town] without contributing to the population of boot hill." (Billington's popular course at Northwestern University was nicknamed by its students "Cowboys and Indians.")

Much of the violent death rate in the West, as in the rest of the country, was caused by that problem of all technologically advanced societies, the industrial accident, whether in mines or in railroad construction and operation. If one wanted to live a really dangerous life, the place to be was not on a cattle town street, facing a bad guy with a gun; it was in a mine, where slides, fires, and explosions gave you a fifty-fifty chance of being killed on the job if you stayed at it:

One out of every thirty western miners was disabled every year in an accident. One out of every eight was killed. The hardrock miner could thus expect to be either temporarily or permanently disabled in one or more accidents during his lifetime, and he had an even chance of being killed in one before he retired.

This was one of the things that made people call any forlorn hope a "Chinaman's chance," since Chinese laborers were prominent among those who worked both the mines and the railroads. As for railroad safety at the time, 433 men died laboring at railroad couplings in 1893 -- 143 more than died on both sides at Little Big Horn, the bloodiest by far of the cavalry's battles with Indians.

The myth of frontier individualism -- of the man whose gun made him his own master, free and untrammeled -- dies hard. What is excitement for the movies is ideology for the National Rifle Association, which thinks gun control would destroy the frontier spirit that made America great. But the gun did not tame the West. The West had to tame the gun.

Copyright © 1999 by Literary Research, Inc.

Table of Contents

Key to Brief Citations13
Introduction15
I.Revolutionary Myths23
1.Minutemen25
2.Term Limits42
II.Constitutional Myths57
3.Sovereign States59
4.Checking Efficiency71
5.Co-equal Branches83
6.The Uses of Faction91
7.Bill of Rights104
8.No Standing Army112
III.Nullifiers123
9.John Taylor of Caroline: Father of Nullification127
10.Jefferson: Prophet of Nullification134
11.Madison: Abettor of Nullification145
12.Nullification North: Hartford Convention153
13.Nullification South: John C. Calhoun163
14.Academic Nullifiers171
IV.Seceders179
15.Civil War181
V.Insurrectionists189
16.From Daniel Shays to Timothy McVeigh191
17.Academic Insurrectionists207
VI.Vigilantes223
18.Groups: From Regulators to Clinic Bombings225
19.Individuals: Frontier242
20.Individuals: NRA252
VII.Withdrawers261
21.Individuals: From Thoreau to Mencken263
22.Groups: From Brook Farm to Hippie Communes278
VIII.Disobeyers287
23.From Dr. King to SDS289
IX.A Necessary Good297
24.The Uses of Government299
25.The Uses of Fear309
Conclusion318
Notes321
Index347

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Michael Beschloss The Washington Post Book World Wills displays once again his relentlessly questioning, subtle, and versatile mind.

Edmund S. Morgan The New York Review of Books A tract for the times...a plea for common sense in allowing government to do good without the paranoid obstructions of the misguided or malevolent.

Taylor Branch The New Yorker Not since Hannah Arendt wrote on revolution and on totalitarian psychology has a scholar of such broad classical training addressed a popular readership on issues of such moment, and with such animating reverence for what Arendt called the public space among citizens.

Curtis Gans The Washington Post A lucid, important, and rigorous defense of government.

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A Necessary Evil 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A debunker of many a common mantra thrown around the political climate today. We need the leveling of rhetoric this book provides. I have heard most of the historical myths parlayed as a rational for today's position pro and con on many issues. I am aware of how groups rewrite history for their own purposes. The reviewers with an agenda can be spotted because this book has hit the tender underside of flim flam. Just read the book I recommended if you wonder how the South justifies the Civil War to this day.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a disappointing piece of work, by a man who is rapidly becoming the Robert Bork of the left. Like Bork, he invents an alternative history that has little to do with the actual writings or lives of the framers. He also seems to believe that anyone who disagrees with his theories -- which are idiosyncratic and sometimes at odds with all significant scholarship on the subject -- is either a knave or a fool. One example is his treatment of the Second Amendment. Wills is at odds with virtually every major constitutional scholar (from Laurence Tribe of Harvard, to Sanford Levinson of Texas, to William Van Alstyne of Duke -- to name just a few), and with the vast majority of historians (e.g., Leonard Levy, Joyce Malcolm, Robert Cottrol). Yet his treatment of those who disagree with him is contemptuous and condescending. To his mind, they're all NRA stooges. Wills's political agenda -- like Bork's -- is clear. It is also clear that he substitutes vituperation for argument because, ultimately, he doesn't have much of an argument. A forgettable book that will soon be forgotten. That's too bad, though. There *is* an important point to be made here. Wills is right that the Framers weren't anarchists. The Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation because the Articles didn't create a strong enough government to serve important national needs. Where Wills ultimately fails is in his inability to stake out a tenable middle ground between anarchism and state worship. I don't know why this is so hard: after all, the Framers managed. But the task eludes Wills. The result -- as with Bork's 'The Tempting of America,' which this book strongly resembles in many ways -- is a political screed that will polarize more than it enlightens.