We are flirting in this country with the darkest and most serious kind of civic disaster: the disaster of political violence. Not only the shameful and deadly fiasco in the Capitol building on January 6, but the merciless parade of arson, defacement, and slaughter that tore through our cities in the summer of 2020: these are like the first thunderclouds that pass over the air before a storm. If the storm comes, it will be the ruin of us all.
Our career politicians and their lackeys in the press grinned and cheered while Marxian revolutionaries ravaged our streets. They are now putting on a farcical display of mock principle, portraying the Capitol rioters as organized insurrectionists and issuing earnest calls to root them and their kind out of American society forever. The arrogant cynicism of aristocrats like this is a major root cause of the American people’s desperation and fury.
If people like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Elect Kamala Harris are pretending now to be shocked and appalled at the possibility of armed rebellion, remember that just last year Harris publicly invited donations to a bail fund for rioters in Minnesota. Just as much now as then, whether they fret theatrically about insurrection or egg it brazenly on, what people like Harris are out for is power. They are part of the problem and should be regarded as nothing more.
But the hard truth is, whichever faction of rioters seems most sympathetic to partisan eyes, mobs in the street and in the Capitol represent profound failure all around: failure of leaders to lead, failure of the people to respond maturely and wisely, failure of government to serve the men and women who employ it—failure, in a word, of the American regime.
I’m far from believing that the failure is permanent or fatal for the country. But it’s worth understanding this moment for what it is so we can take it with the seriousness it deserves: this is not about grandstanding or hot takes. This is an urgent crisis that requires mature reflection. It is a make-or-break moment for our society that will determine how we and our children’s children live going forward.
What Did the Founders Think about Revolution?
Beyond the screaming and the pontificating, beyond the dimwitted children at CNN stoking the flames, the question at hand is: when and why do people take up arms against their fellow citizens and against their government? Strangely, framing it that way gives some small hope for a path forward, because we have confronted these questions before. Our Constitution was written by men who believed deeply in the rule of law, and yet they had just fought a war to overthrow their rulers. Less than a hundred years after the revolution, America would turn in on itself and fight another gruesome war between the federal government and a rival army of American citizens. That war, awful though it was, would end slavery and let the nation come into its own.
So it’s not as simple as saying “political violence is never justified” and leaving it at that—if only it were. But political violence founded our nation, and there are times—times of extreme catastrophe and oppression—when it is tragically the only solution. I want to be as clear as possible at the outset that I do not believe this is one of those times. But I also want to seek some clarity, for all our sakes, about what those times are and how we should think about them. For that we can refer to the founders themselves, who were well aware of these complexities and reflected on them deeply.
If you read only one document about revolution and insurrection from the founding era, it should probably be Federalist #28. It was written by Alexander Hamilton in 1787, as the states were voting on whether to ratify the new Constitution which would eventually become the law of our land. Hamilton was reflecting on the dangers and the necessity of a national army, and arguing that a stronger central authority wouldn’t stop the people from exercising their rights.
Perhaps the first weirdly encouraging thing Hamilton says about clashes between the government and the people is: they happen. “Seditions and insurrections are, unhappily, maladies as inseparable from the body politic as tumors and eruptions from the natural body,” he writes in the first paragraph; “the idea of governing at all times by the simple force of law (which we have been told is the only admissible principle of republican government), has no place but in the reveries of those political doctors whose sagacity disdains the admonitions of experimental instruction.”
Hamilton was thinking first about the need for the government to put down conspiracies and insurrections with military force. As Senator Tom Cotton wrote in a now infamous Op-Ed for the New York Times when Antifa and BLM were terrorizing urban centers, “the federal government has a constitutional duty to the states to ‘protect each of them from domestic violence.’” That is the practical consequence of what Hamilton was arguing.
Shortly before the Constitution was drafted, Massachusetts had faced an armed uprising now known as “Shays rebellion,” in which a veteran of the revolution and his supporters fought against increased taxation. The founders were appalled at the prospect that the revolutionary spirit might not have been satisfied by 1776: “The flames of internal insurrection were ready to burst out in every quarter…and from one end to the other of the continent, we walked on ashes, concealing fire beneath our feet,” said James Wilson looking back on the tense days of Shays’ Rebellion. It sounds familiar.
So Hamilton was keen to vest the government with power to stamp out anti-Constitutional insurrections. He wanted to ensure the stability of the government and protect the people from the horrors of sedition. It helped that Washington, whose revolutionary credentials were impeccable, had reacted with passionate “indignation” when a group of his own soldiers conspired to attack Congress and demand pay in the “Newburgh conspiracy.” The founders had learned the hard way, and taught explicitly, that violent revolution is something to be avoided if it’s even remotely possible.
When is it Justified?
And yet, there was—and still is—the fact that our own Declaration of Independence takes the possibility of justified revolution as a given. “When in the course of human events”—not if, but when—“it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.” But how to know “when”? If revolution is such a painful, bloody, miserable thing—and it is—how can we know when to make the terrible decision of taking that cost upon ourselves?
Hamilton addresses this, too, in Federalist #28. What has been called the “right of revolution” may fittingly be invoked “if the representatives of the people betray their constituents.” In such a case “there is then no resource left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government.” It would, Hamilton argued, actually be more feasible to rebel against the federal government than against state governments, because rebelling against the federal government would require a vast, coordinated, and carefully planned assault. “In a single state,” he explains, “if the persons intrusted with supreme power become usurpers, the different parcels, subdivisions, or districts of which it consists, having no distinct government in each, can take no regular measures for defense. The citizens must rush tumultuously to arms, without concert, without system, without resource.”
That is a pretty apt description of the Capitol hill assault, which was a federal-level riot with a state or local level of disorganization. The motley crew of protestors and rabble rousers that flooded into the building were unruly, disorganized, and without a plan. They had concerns about election integrity—some of which I share—but the court cases attempting to prove that November 2020 was a fraud had failed. One would be hard-pressed to say what they wanted, or—if what they wanted was Trump back in office—how they realistically thought they were going to achieve it.
What Hamilton argues about real, justified rebellions is, in part, that they have to be thought through and given the gravity they deserve. The fact that the United States is a big, diverse, and centrally governed country actually helps ensure that any successful revolution, in the event of true federal usurpation, would have to be carefully considered. Its costs would have to be weighed, and its rationale would have to be defended persuasively before a large number of citizens. Anything less than that is unserious and juvenile—not to mention counterproductive. The riot on January 6 was all those things.
Taking Riots Seriously
In a funny sort of way, Hamilton’s arguments here mirror those of James Madison in Federalist #10. This is one of the most famous Federalist papers—it argues that liberty and representative government can thrive in a large republic because it means the different interests and factions have to find ways of working together if they want to accomplish anything major at the national level. This forced compromise and collaboration is a national safeguard against “the cabals of a few.”
For Hamilton, true revolution means collaboration, organization, and coordination among a variety of Americans, all of whom agree that their country has been stolen from them. He goes so far as to say that a successful revolution will have to ally with some parts of the government—either state governments against federal, or vice versa:
Power being almost always the rival of power, the general government will at all times stand ready to check the usurpations of the state governments, and these will have the same disposition towards the general government. The people, by throwing themselves into either scale, will infallibly make it preponderate. If their rights are invaded by either, they can make use of the other as the instrument of redress.
It is not my opinion that either the protestors at the Capitol or the rioutous mobs from summer 2020 have thought through and coordinated their efforts seriously enough to justify revolution. If there is any group of people who really have tried to coordinate insurrection in recent memory, it’s oligarchs like George Soros and Jack Dorsey, who have calculatingly funded and encouraged racialist agitators while silencing opposition. That kind of puppetry and deceit really does amount to something like a coup—though not one, God willing, that has yet taken full control of this country.
I imagine some will object that the tech magnates and their Democrat stooges effectively have staged a silent revolution of their own, one for which violent rebellion is the only available mode of redress. To this I respond: grow up. We have not even begun yet to pursue all our legal and nonviolent options for fighting back against Big Tech and Davos. Conservatives talk a big game about local politics, but do you know the name of your local representative? Do you know whether he or she really stands for what you believe in? How about your neighbors—do you have any idea what their politics are? Any chance you can work together with them to get someone good on the ballot? Any chance you’ve tried?
The Left has played a long and in many cases quite sinister ground game for decades—infiltrating the schools, funding election efforts, building infrastructure and connections that have enabled them to insinuate themselves and their psychotic ideas into the culture. We laugh at the Democrats’ worship of the failed gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, but they know that her relentless local campaigning was a big part of what clinched the Senate when it all came down to Georgia.
We can—must—play the same ground game in reverse, substituting our good ideas for their bad ones. We have to get serious about building new schools for our kids, about seeking new servers for our digital communications, about making the local connections that will be the foundation of our new coalition. The alternative is more frantic, unpremeditated political violence, which won’t do what we want and will eventually make everything much, much worse. Count me out.
If, on the other hand, you’re ready to get serious about winning the ground game on the New Right—if you’re ready to start working yesterday for a more robust populist coalition, one that can win locally and, in time revitalize conservatism nationally—then I’m right there with you. Let’s get to work.
Spencer Klavan is host of the Young Heretics podcast and associate editor of the Claremont Review of Booksand The American Mind. He can be reached on Twitter at @SpencerKlavan.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.