Ballots or bullets? Riot or representation? America has faced such crossroads in the past, in which violent unrest preceded change. Shays’ Rebellion in 1786 led to the Constitution. The Civil War resulted in emancipation. And anger with policing and the criminal justice system, with government COVID lockdowns, and with widespread disregard of election law and procedures, led to 2020’s summer of deadly riots and the mobbing of the U.S. Capitol in January 2021.
But rather than leap into the abyss, the 2022 midterm election results suggest a return to normalcy, with voters taking a breath by once again dividing power in our national government.
Still, it seems possible that the underlying concerns over the mounting government dysfunction — its irresponsiveness to all but the rich and powerful, the in-groups — may lead again to spasms of protest, some of which may turn violent.
A part of this ongoing unease stems from the feeling that America is increasingly divided. That both mores and self-interest of the college educated have widely diverged from working class customs and needs. That the coastal elites look down upon the flyovers—whether they even stop to think of them at all.
This has led to a simmering discussion of a national divorce among intellectuals and average voters, the progressive left, and conservatives.
The mounting feeling that our differences are irreconcilable is made worse by a national government and permanent bureaucracy that make it all but impossible to avoid being commanded by those who, many feel, hold an alien world view. Whether it’s culture, how to integrate morals and standards, public health, criminal justice, education—the list goes on. And because of the increasing nationalization of government power, moving to Florida, Idaho, or Texas isn’t a viable long-term escape.
There’s even a genre of fiction that’s picked up on the vibe that something just isn’t right, with Kurt Schlichter’s Kelly Turnbull series foremost among the latest offerings that explore a dystopian future where America violently splits into red and blue camps. (Note, Kurt and I served in the California Army National Guard together—he’s a darkly humorous Tom Clancy—but with combat experience.)
Of course, America’s been there before — everyone knows how the Civil War went. That attempt at divorce killed 620,000 men, about 2% of the population or more than six million dead proportionately today. The root of that divorce filing was irreconcilable differences over slavery, with the conflict putting 3.9 million enslaved Americans on the path to freedom.
But few Americans know we almost broke apart threescore and seventeen years before Lincoln’s Gettysburg address—over causes that echo today’s divisions.
In 1786, Shays’ Rebellion ignited in Massachusetts over money — debt and taxes, to be exact. As the government of Massachusetts struggled to raise taxes to pay debts incurred in the Revolutionary War it imposed taxes, payable in gold or silver, on farmers, many of them war veterans who themselves were not paid for their service.
In addition, New England farmers borrowed during the war to put more acreage under the plow while the British burned their way through the South. Now, both debt and taxes were due, and the farmers had little means to pay. They revolted, burning courthouses—that’s where the mortgage records were kept—and chasing off tax collectors. In time, the merchants of Boston hired a private army to crush the rebellion. The violence in the land of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill so shook America’s leaders that it paved a path to crafting the Constitution less than a year later, and its ratification only 22 months after the revolt in Massachusetts.
Unfortunately, critics of America have recast our founding into a mere defense of slavery, viewing the Constitution through the two dimensional black and white lens of race. Since the nation was born in sin, the rationale proceeds, its very foundation, the Constitution, must be destroyed, root and branch.
But America’s early years were far more troubled and complex than modern observers, focused on their First World problems, can grasp.
After wearing out Britain over eight years in the War for Independence, many expected that America, governed under the weak Articles of Confederation, would break up and fall prey to European powers. In 1787, John Jay warned of exactly that in Federalist 4: “(America could) split into three or four independent and probably discordant republics or confederacies, one inclining to Britain, another to France, and a third to Spain, and perhaps played off against each other by the three…”
That the Constitution emerged from this volatile and dangerous time was a more amazing accomplishment than defeating Britain — and it almost didn’t happen.
This is why, in our season of mutual contempt and anger directed against our fellow citizens, I wrote Crisis of the House Never United, A Novel of Early America — to imagine an America where ratification of the Constitution failed, leading to an early, chaotic, and violent national divorce. I aimed to refresh our “mystic chords of memory… swell the chorus of the Union” and appeal to “the better angels of our nature” lest our inheritance of liberty should be lightly tossed aside.
Chuck DeVore is a vice president with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, was elected to the California legislature, is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, and the author of the new book, “Crisis of the House Never United.”