by Bruce Dunlavy (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)
The group of self-styled “militia” led by Ammon Bundy, who are occupying the Malheur bird sanctuary in Oregon, are not trailblazers creating a ground-breaking resistance to Federal authority. They are only the latest manifestation in a long line of anti-government, anti-commonwealth paranoiacs who have traced a long line through American history.
Certainly, Colonial America had its moments of anti-British flare-ups. The American Revolution grew out of reactions to such laws as the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Acts of 1767, followed by the Intolerable Acts, a collection of four laws passed in 1774 in response to the Boston Tea Party the year before.
The nation was barely a decade old when Shay’s Rebellion pitted frontier farmers against what they considered an abusive ruling class in Massachusetts. The Constitution was framed in part to verify the ability of the national government to tax and to enforce national laws. It took only five years after ratification for the Constitution to be tested in that regard, in the form of the Whiskey Rebellion. In Western Pennsylvania, home-distilled whiskey was a form of currency as well as a symbol of independence in frontier communities. The Federal tax imposed on it in 1791 angered the producers, and three years later they were in virtual rebellion. President Washington’s response was measured but firm. After three years of negotiations, warnings, and attempts to resolve the issue peacefully, Washington brought a then-massive army of 13,000 militiamen from four States to put down the rebellion. There was no actual battle, and the anti-government faction caved in, disintegrated, and drifted away. Federal authority to make law and exact taxes was confirmed.
Although widely approved, Washington’s action was by no means universally popular, even among the Founding Fathers. Jefferson was horrified, and when he became president in 1801, he quickly had the whiskey tax repealed. In 1795, Susanna Rowson and Alexander Reinagle staged a musical theater production, The Volunteers, which celebrated the actions of the rebels.
Image credit: rawstory.com
Anti-government conspiratorialists have maintained a rich legacy of resistance to perceived government-directed threats to individual liberty. Often these theories and actions have been informed by fears of international conspiracies by the Illuminati, Jewish bankers, slave traders, the Bilderbergers, immigrants, Communists, the “New World Order,” the Freemasons, the Tri-Lateral Commission, and a host of other hidden manipulators. Richard Hofstadter produced the seminal work on this phenomenon in his 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” which is well worth the reading more than half a century after its publication.
The history of land ownership and use in the American West has been a contentious issue since the second half of the Nineteenth Century, when the admission to the Union of several large States with a great deal of unclaimed land within their borders brought that land under the control of the Federal government. The “open range” concept in practice throughout almost all of the 1800s meant that cattle grazed freely on unfenced land. One ranchers’ steers intermingled with others’ and were marked with brands to identify whose were whose during the roundup in the spring.
Railroads, mining companies, and other corporations took advantage of lax regulations to become “paper farmers” with entitlements to land rights, and the largest, richest, and most powerful users of Federal lands began to choke off their weaker competitors. The open range – and with it, the “Old West” as it existed for a brief time after the Civil War – came to an end. The frontier was declared closed in 1890, and by that time the widespread availability and use of barbed wire had allowed big ranchers to close off both grazing on rangeland and passage of other herds through it to other grazing sites. Nevertheless, the concept of “open range” remained within this contentious atmosphere.
The Bundy group is staging a protest against a matter that was settled in 1934. In that year President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Taylor Grazing Act, which ended the longstanding practice of Western ranchers’ grazing their animals for free on publicly-owned land. Until then, grazing on land not set aside for Indian reservations, National Parks, etc., was open range, unregulated and requiring no fees for use. The Taylor Act was implemented to protect the land from overgrazing, soil loss, and other abuses by setting standards and requiring permits and payments for the grazing of animals on Federal land.
In 1976 the law was solidified and expanded to include other land uses and establish a pattern of sustainability for the public trust by which the national government holds the lands. Shortly thereafter, a movement calling itself the Sagebrush Rebellion championed the cause of divesting the Federal government of its control of national lands. Under the banner of “States’ Rights,” the proponents of the Sagebrush Rebellion attempted to put States in charge of the lands, expecting to get more favorable treatment from their governments, which are largely dominated by ranching and mining interests. [For a series of links explaining the roots and branches of the Sagebrush Rebellion, see this article in High Country News.]
The Bundy group’s occupation of the administrative buildings of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, established under President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, is but the latest manifestation of an attempt by groups of misty-eyed nostalgics to undo over a century of advancements and thereby re-establish a romantic era which they (wrongly) believe once existed. They imagine a time when the rugged conquerors of nature forged out into The Wilderness to plant the footprint of humankind in a place where the strongest and best dominate the weak and inferior.
Ammon Bundy and his cohort are a rump fragment of the “we-do-whatever-we-want” group that has spent five centuries – the last forty years in particular – attempting to reverse the progression of history from dominion over the natural environment to its protection and sustainability. These boot-wearing, gun-toting, cowboy-inspired folks are the face of those attempting a rear-guard holding action against the forces they fear are taking away their right to treat the earth as their own playground, but there is a much larger assemblage behind them. Since the beginning of the environmental movement in the 1960s, a more-or-less defined opposition has existed.
There always been a bunch who disapprove of laws that protect the environment, from the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act to the Endangered Species Act to the essentially voluntary efforts to reduce detrimental environmental impacts. These are the people who ridicule environmental consciousness as “tree-hugging” and equate it with insufficient manliness. A fine example of this pointless derision is right-wing radio commentator Rush Limbaugh’s newsletter gleefully proclaiming, “Not printed on recycled paper.”
We should recognize the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for what it is. The Refuge itself was created to protect wildlife – primarily birds – from over-hunting, habitat destruction, and heedless exploitation. It is significant that a revanchist band of anti-environmentalists has chosen it as the location for a short-sighted stand against the preservation of natural resources and the government’s responsibility to ensure that public air, land, water, wildlife, and other public assets are used in the public interest.