Insurrections, Domestic

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INSURRECTIONS, DOMESTIC. An insurrection is an uprising against government or civil authority. Inasmuch as local officials are always charged with intervening to curb behavior understood to be outside the law, the broadest conception of the term would include race and ethnic revolts, such as slave revolts, lynchings, and the New York Draft Riot of 1863 (which had a combination of causes); violent labor unrest; and popular assaults directly targeting the political process (that is, political violence encompassing a range of uprisings from Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia in 1675 to anti-abortion violence in the 1980s and 1990s).Looked at this way, insurrections have always been a part of the American experience.

Rioting revealing racial and ethnic tensions goes back to colonial America. Lynchings and other brutality against slaves and freemen were matched by slave revolts, including the Negro Plot of 1741 in New York; the Charleston, South Carolina, slave revolt of 1822; Nat Turner's Rebellion of 1831; and the Harpers Ferry Raid in Virginia in 1859.There were urban race and anti-abortion riots (more than a dozen) in many major cities in 1834 and 1835; race riots in East St. Louis in 1917 and in Chicago in 1919; the Watts Riot in Los Angeles in 1965 and similar upheavals in Newark, Detroit, and New York City in 1967; and another major race riot in Los Angeles in 1992.

Industrial working-class rioting and its violent repression were commonplace, starting with widespread labor riots around Pittsburgh and in Ohio in 1877.The Homestead Strike in Pittsburgh in 1892 and the Pullman Strike in Illinois two years later were both repressed brutally, with loss of life. Succeeding generations saw more of the same: the Ludlow Massacre of 1914 in Colorado and the Detroit Sitdown Strike of 1936 are two examples.

Political insurrection against a broad array of governmental authorities was always in season. In colonial America, for example, Leisler's Rebellion in New York in 1689 and rent riots in New Jersey in the 1740s were but two examples of many, precursors of the widespread upheavals that accompanied the coming of the American Revolution. The opening shots of that revolution were heard in the Stamp Act Riots of 1765 and 1766 in Boston, New York, and elsewhere. These were followed by, among many possible examples, the Regulator Wars in North Carolina from 1769 to 1771 and the Boston Tea Party of 1773.In the immediate postwar era, more violence marred the American landscape; the most serious upheaval was Shays's Rebellion in western Massachusetts in 1786.No generation escaped: widespread political upheavals deriving from a variety of causes in 1834 and 1835, the Astor Place Riot of 1849 in New York City, and the Native-American Party–led Know-Nothing Riots in the 1850s in Baltimore, New York, and Louisville, among many other places, attest to this fact.

In the twentieth century, insurrectionary political causation was inherent in all of the many race riots, but purely political rioting was evident as well: the suppression following the "Red Scare" of the 1920s, and the repression of World War I veterans in Washington, D.C., following their Bonus March at the height of the Great Depression offer up well-known examples. The "days of rage" of the radical group the Weathermen was but one of many insurrections in the tumultuous 1960s. The same era gave rise to antiwar demonstrations, some violent, everywhere in America, directed at the nation's military involvement in Vietnam. No section of the country was spared the largely urban anti-abortion rioting that began in the mid-1980s and continued at the start of the twenty-first century.

The above is but a partial catalog of ubiquitous American insurrectional activity. To some American historians of the subject, rioting is as American as apple pie; to others, it is violence against civil society and the broadly protective laws of the land guaranteed by the First Amendment. Historians on both sides of the question count and catalog domestic insurrections endlessly. As they have done so, they have developed a body of theory about the role of rioting and violence in the shaping of the American Republic. While these historians and other social scientists differ on the constructiveness and validity of insurrection, they nevertheless all accept certain ideological touchstones.

First, of course, the very presence of First Amendment rights (the freedoms of speech, the press, and assembly) has underpinned claims that crowd actions in general have a quasi-legal standing (or at least debatable legal standing) in the American political process. Americans have always voted with their feet, some historians say; taking to the streets is an extension of constitutional civil rights. Those opposed will argue that it is a matter of degree; that is, when demonstrations turn violent, they become lawless. Second, while rural and small-town violence has always been with us, the rise of large cities from the early nineteenth century on conferred an anonymity on its inhabitants that made crowd actions a tempting way to redress grievances. And third, most scholars would agree, throughout its history America's very diversity and openness—though perceived to be two of its greatest strengths—have made episodic racial, religious, cultural, industrial, generational, and class hostility almost inevitable.

The very birth of the Republic was accompanied by the repeated crowd actions that characterized the American Revolution. To a degree, these mobs drew legitimacy in turn from crowds going back to the Magna Carta. Thus born of insurrection, Americans, the historian Paul Gilje has concluded, "have persisted in rioting throughout American history." Crowd actions have intermittently played important roles in moving the nation forward, with independence in 1776 being the prime example. Other instances of constructive results arising from domestic insurrection include democratic reforms growing out of the crowd actions of the Age of Jackson; working-class gains and the right to collective bargaining emerging from the industrial labor riots that extended from 1877 to 1937; and impressive racial progress and gains in race relations forged first through assaults on slavery by whites and African Americans before the Civil War, and then by the civil rights upheavals of the 1960s.

Violence always introduces danger, and many good people have died over more than three centuries of domestic insurrection, but—to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson—the tree of liberty must be watered each generation by the blood of patriots.


Gilje, Paul. Rioting in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

Graham, Hugh Davis, and Ted Robert Gurr, eds. Violence in America: Historical and Comparative Perspectives. Rev. ed. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1979.

Carl E.Prince

See alsoBonus Army ; Chicago Riots of 1919 ; Detroit Riots ; Los Angeles Riots ; Radicals and Radicalism ; Riots ; Riots, Urban ; Riots, Urban, of 1967 .