One early category developed on the American frontier (from the late eighteenth century into the mid‐nineteenth century), a product of the vigilantism that arose in response to the absence of law enforcement and social organization in those areas. Another grew up during the Civil War and Reconstruction, in response to both racial and political strife and the continued lack of effective law enforcement throughout the country. A third form, overtly political, emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century when militant groups, often engaged in terrorist activities, pursued political goals on both the left and the right.
Paramilitary groups first arose in any number just before the Revolutionary War. The Revolution spawned violent resistance to Britain organized in mobs by popular leaders. The structure of the patriot movement was thoroughly connected to Boston's associational or “club” life and to the patriot organizations themselves, including the Loyal Nine, which gave birth to and served as the executive committee for the Sons of Liberty in Massachusetts. Though the Sons of Liberty was not necessarily paramilitary itself, its members and other patriot leaders steered and “politicized” the activities of the numerous clubs, eventually directing them toward more organized violence for revolutionary purposes. Their crucial maneuver by the patriot leaders was to forge a bond between two of the most prominent Boston mobs, composed of lower‐class workingmen and artisans, and to direct their hostility, previously aimed at each other, toward the British government. The resulting violence led to several organized riots (one during opposition to the Stamp Act of 1765 and another during the anticustoms resistance of 1768) and finally to the evacuation of two British regiments after the Boston Massacre (1770).
This loose model of one of the first paramilitary organizations in U.S. history served as a structural and ideological framework for organizations to follow, not only in other colonies before independence but later as well. The tradition of vigilantism became a sporadic feature of American life from the Revolution to about 1900. Sometimes called regulators, vigilantes were citizens who formed extralegal organizations to deal with the lawlessness and general disorganization that occurred during late revolutionary, Civil War, and Reconstruction times, and on the frontier. Vigilante movements could be identified by two basic characteristics: their regular organization and their existence over a defined, though sometimes short, period of time. They could be distinguished from more ad hoc mobs, including lynch mobs, by their structured nature and their semipermanence. Vigilante movements were often organized by prominent members of a community and reflected their social and moral values. Thus vigilantism could often be considered a socially conservative form of violence. Though vigilantes of the revolutionary period did contribute to the violence that spurred anti‐British sentiment (one of the most prominent groups was the South Carolina Regulators, 1767–69, who became Whigs during the actual Revolution), the vigilante tradition became more firmly rooted in American history and imagination on the frontier, where pioneers and settlers were often organized into extralegal groups who rounded up, flogged, or quickly tried and sometimes hanged the outlaws who plagued these areas before effective law enforcement was in place.
Historians have counted 326 organized vigilante movements in the two centuries since U.S. independence: there may have in fact been at least 500. Their ideology was four‐fold: the notion of self‐preservation; the right to revolution; the idea of popular sovereignty; and the doctrine of vigilance against crime and disorder. Four waves of vigilantism occurred: in the early 1830s; the early 1840s; the late 1850s; and the late 1860s.
In the mid‐nineteenth century, several kinds of legal organizations emerged, also in response to the absence of effective law enforcement and exclusive of the militias. The years 1844–77 saw the rise of the modern urban police system (in direct response to the urban riots of the 1830s and 1840s), but police departments were often undermanned, corrupt, or even incompetent. In the early 1850s, Allan Pinkerton started the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in Chicago. In lieu of a centralized, federal police agency, the Pinkertons essentially became an armed, private police force that could move across local, county, and state lines to deal with small‐ and large‐scale criminal activities or industrial disruption. Pinkertons were trained to solve robbery and assault cases, protect railway trains from looting, break labor strikes, and even to aid the U.S. government against post office theft. From a force of less than a dozen men in 1860, the Pinkertons grew into a late twentieth‐century organization of 13,000 full‐time and more than 9,000 part‐time employees.
One of the most worrisome aspects of frontier life for settlers was conflict with American Indians; several kinds of legal paramilitary organizations developed to defend against and attack Indians. The Comanches of Texas in the mid‐1800s, themselves engaging in guerrilla warfare, were so effective that ranging companies, federal troops, and finally the Texas Rangers were used to deal with the problem. The Texas Rangers (like the Arizona Rangers) were historically situated somewhere between a paramilitary organization and a police force created by the state government; they were mobilized for special circumstances such as Indian attacks and the extreme disorder of the southwestern frontier. The Frontier Battalion of the Texas Rangers, established in 1874, was a thoroughly professional paramilitary organization that was finally able to end the warfare between settlers and Indians in that year in a ruthless and bloody campaign.
The labor movement also led to some illegal organizations to combat terrible working conditions, low wages, and long hours during the expansion of the Industrial Revolution. Beginning in the 1870s, many laborers, from railroad workers to miners, used the strike as their major weapon against industry. Management often used lockouts and strikebreakers in response. These conflicts could lead to violence. The “Molly Maguires,” a secret organization of Irish immigrant miners who attempted to unify labor in the coalfields of Pennsylvania throughout the early 1870s, fought their employers with terrorist tactics, engaging in intimidation and assassination. The Pinkertons were sent in to investigate and eventually break this particularly violent organization, and most Molly Maguire gunmen were tried and hanged in 1877. Pennsylvania industrialists employed a private iron and coal police, a paramilitary force, in the late nineteenth century.
One of the most powerful and well known extralegal paramilitary organizations has been the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Three different waves of Klan activity each represented a phase of history and organizational ideology, though each also reflected some continuity in ritual and regalia. The first movement arose in the South during Reconstruction. This Klan was created by a group of Con federate veterans as a secret social club in Tennessee in 1866 and grew in direct response to Reconstruction policy. The organization used violence and intimidation against blacks and white Republicans in the South to achieve dominance for the Democratic Party and white supremacy. Though it did not become centralized, the first Klan spread throughout the South; it waned after elite sponsorship withdrew and the U.S. government sought to suppress the Klan under the Enforcement Acts (1870–71).
A second Klan emerging during World War I and in the 1920s was more widespread and composed of between 3 and 6 million followers. This Klan skillfully exploited racism and paranoia, particularly against the foreign‐born, and spread throughout the South, Midwest, and West. It not only continued to use force and intimidation but began to wield considerable political power as well. The complex ideology of this more popular and politically adept Klan catered to notions of family and community values, the necessity of protecting the sanctity of the white race, and small‐town America.
The third Klan, in the 1950s and 1960s, was a considerably less popular but no less racist, anti‐Semitic, paranoid, and militant organization responding to changing race relations, particularly desegregation. The continual acts of aggression and violence, including the murders of three civil rights activists in Mississippi in 1964, finally forced the federal government to take action. The KKK today remains dedicated to white supremacy and radical nativism and has ties to other Fascist and neo‐Nazi groups, including the Aryan Nations and the Order.
Radical political ideology drove some terrorist paramilitary organizations of the extreme Left and Far Right in the late twentieth century. In the 1960s, two offshoots of the New Left Students for a Democratic Society, the Revolutionary Youth Movement and the Weathermen (later the Weather People and Weather Underground), engaged in deliberately violent acts against symbols of authority and U.S. policy in denunciation of social injustice and racism at home and abroad. In 1969 and 1970, the Weather groups staged riots in downtown Chicago, attacked “imperialist” targets like schools and police stations, and finally set off bombs in New York City and elsewhere, killing some civilians and some of their own members. Though the Black Panthers did not begin as a paramilitary organization, local urban police forces found the Panthers' militant separatist ideology and exhibition of weapons quite threatening, and police harassment eventually forced violent confrontations in such cities as Oakland and Chicago in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Also on the radical Left, the Symbionese Liberation Army was a small (a dozen members) but radical and violent organization of the early 1970s composed of mostly middle‐class university radicals with a revolutionary ideology that sanctioned bank robbery, murder, and kidnapping, including the abduction of one of the young members of the Hearst publishing family. Their rampage ended in Los Angeles in a shootout with a Los Angeles SWAT team in 1974. This group served as the archetype for other militant groups, including the Black Liberation Army, which also engaged in intensive terrorist tactics.
On the radical Right, extralegal paramilitary groups in the late twentieth century maintained an ideology based on white supremacy, anti‐Semitism, and staunch nationalism that gained national attention in the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of these, the Aryan Nations, based in Idaho, hosted national conferences to spread the propaganda of intolerance. This organization and others like it, including the Order and the Posse Comitatus, rallied not simply around racism but also the issues of gun control and government intrusion in American life, to which almost all these groups were radically opposed. These paramilitary organizations were part of a growing self‐styled “militia movement” of the 1980s and 1990s, which made its opposition to gun control, its hatred of big government, and its defense of self‐asserted “constitutional rights” the more public ideological message. Some of the most visible acts committed by individuals or groups who linked their ideology to this so‐called militia movement included the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and the actions of the Montana‐based Freemen, whose tax evasion and acts of intimidation instigated the federal government's retaliation and an FBI siege in 1996. Other militia groups also engaged in weapons and warfare training, called “paramilitary training,” preparing for what they believed would be an apocalypse—a massive crackdown by the federal government or even a full‐scale race war.
Despite the enormous variety of their views and membership, paramilitary groups have had an extensive, if sporadic, history in the United States, though their premises have changed with social and political conditions. The first most prominent groups were concerned with maintaining law and order: these included both the extralegal vigilante organizations and the legally sanctioned Pinkertons and Frontier Battalion. The second type arose in response to the social and political disruption of the end of slavery following the Civil War and massive immigration and urbanization in the early twentieth century. Extralegal organizations like the Ku Klux Klan emerged and then spawned similar organizations, which continued to exist in the late twentieth century. A third type, overtly political, has included the terrorist groups of the late 1960s to the 1990s. Rightist groups like the Aryan Nations and the modern Ku Klux Klan bridge two categories by combining racist orientation with ideologically driven activity in pursuit of political goals.
The United States was born in violent revolution, and developed through rapid territorial expansion, urbanization, industrialization, and immigration, frequently at times of limited or ineffective local and national law enforcement. These determinants may have contributed to the national characteristics of voluntarism/associationalism (seen in the tendency to join clubs or voluntary organizations) as well as vigilantism. Paramilitary groups may also be linked with specific periods of social and political unrest, and the perception on the part of the American people that federal and local government is incapable of or unwilling to respond to the needs of the general public. This perception, combined with a widespread ownership of guns and a pervasive belief in individualism and personal freedom, has provided the social, political, and historical impulses behind many paramilitary groups.
[See also Citizen‐Soldier; Militia and National Guard; Native American Wars: Wars Between Native Americans and Europeans and Euro‐Americans; Patriotism; Posse Comitatus Act; Rangers, U.S. Army.]
James D. Horan , The Pinkertons: The Detective Dynasty that Made History, 1967.
Richard Maxwell Brown , Strain of Violence: Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism, 1975.
Richard Maxwell Brown , The American Vigilante Tradition, in Violence in America: Historical and Comparative Perspectives, Hugh Davis Graham and Ted Robert Gurr, eds., 1979.
Richard Maxwell Brown , Historical Patterns of American Violence, in Violence in America, Hugh Davis Graham and Ted Robert Gurr, eds., 1979.
Richard Maxwell Brown , The History of Extralegal Violence in Support of Community Values, in Violence in America, Thomas Rose, eds., 1979.
J. Bowyer Bell and and Ted Robert Gurr , Terrorism and Revolution in America in Violence in America, Hugh Davis Graham and Ted Robert Gurr, eds., 1979.
David Bennett , The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to The New Right in American History, 1988.
Leonard J. Moore , Citizen Klansmen: The Ku Klux Klan in Indiana, 1921–1928, 1991.
Eric Foner and and Olivia Mahoney , America's Reconstruction: People and Politics After the Civil War, 1995.
Kenneth S. Stern , A Force Upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate, 1996.
Abigail A. Kohn
"Paramilitary Groups." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/paramilitary-groups
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