The Bundy brothers are in jail. LaVoy Finicum is dead. The rest of the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom at Malheur have either gone back to where they came from or have joined the Bundy brothers in jail. (At the deadline for this article, four wood ticks still had their heads dug in, but that won’t last long.) By all accounts, Finicum was a sincere family man with a gift for explaining his point of view quietly and clearly. The Bundy brothers are firm in their conviction that they are in the right and claim that they love America.
What did it all mean? Fasten your seat belts. This is a dive into history and philosophy and how they stack up against recent events.
We’ve all heard their side of the story: The federal government has no right to interfere with the use of the land by the people who live on it.
This has happened several times before.
On Dec. 16, 1773, just a few weeks earlier in the year than when Malheur was invaded, a group of armed men defied the law and destroyed a lot of valuable property in Boston Harbor. The mob in Boston was much more destructive than the one in Oregon. An entire shipment of tea was destroyed by the Sons of Liberty. Just three years later, a committee, with representatives from all thirteen British colonies in America, declared that they had plenty of justification to be independent of Britain. After eight years of bloody war, the colonies were independent.
Another example happened eight years after the revolutionaries won their war in 1783. Some of the farmers in western Pennsylvania decided that the new government’s laws didn’t apply to them. Specifically, they decided to stop paying what they believed was an unjustified tax on whiskey in 1791. More than 500 armed men attacked the fortified home of the tax inspector. The new government, under the firm hand of George Washington, made short work of them. Washington himself commanded a “well-regulated militia” that marched to western Pennsylvania, and the rebellion was over. Just like the mob in Oregon, the farmers in Pennsylvania didn’t have it in them.
In 1861, seven whole states decided that the laws of the United States didn’t apply to them, and they rebelled again. That war cost more American lives than any other in history. Rebelling against the government is serious stuff.
The complaints heard in Boston, Pennsylvania, and in the Confederate States were remarkably similar to the ones heard in Oregon. Why isn’t Malheur the same as what happened 242 years earlier in Boston? The answer is that it is the same. Well … it’s mostly the same but with a big, important difference.
What all these groups did was completely illegal — even the one that sparked a successful revolution in Boston. They all claimed that they had no other choice because the government they had was unfair, and that justified breaking the law. The difference is that in the British colonies in 1773, and in South Carolina in 1861, actually did start a war. The Citizens for Constitutional Freedom in Oregon weren’t quite serious enough to do that. Neither were the farmers in Pennsylvania.
Once you reject the laws of the government you have and start using violence, then you are a revolutionary — whether you think so or not. The British colonies in 1775 understood that. But the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom haven’t figured it out yet. If you’re not planning on going all the way and forming your own government, then you must use the laws of the one you have. You can’t have it both ways. The Citizens for Constitutional Freedom are great on talking big and threatening violence, but they really just want to pick and choose which laws they will follow and which ones they won’t.
Laws don’t work like that. The Citizens for Constitutional Freedom are just mad because they lost in court, life is tough, and they’re having a hard time making it in today’s world. It’s worth remembering that in Boston, one of the principle complaints of Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty was that the government was undercutting their prices and making it hard to make a living smuggling tea into the colonies from Dutch traders. According to Wikipedia, “Because the Tea Act made legally imported tea cheaper, it threatened to put smugglers of Dutch tea out of business. Legitimate tea importers who had not been named as consignees by the East India Company were also threatened with financial ruin by the Tea Act.”
Maybe the government is a big part of the reason that life is tough for the people grazing their cattle illegally on public land. Maybe the future doesn’t look very good for these ranchers. But the fact is that they lost the legal battle. Either they suck it up and do something else (Ammon Bundy manages vehicle fleets in Phoenix.) or they actually rebel and start their own government.
In 1775, many former British citizens decided that they couldn’t live under the new government that the revolutionaries formed and moved to Canada or back to Britain. In a real revolution, people have to pick sides and live with the consequences. Benjamin Franklin famously said, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” He wasn’t kidding. Britain did hang a lot of revolutionaries. But Citizens for Constitutional Freedom doesn’t have the stomach for that. They just want to be able to choose who they pay grazing fees to … or whether to pay them at all.
“But, but, but,” I hear you saying, “the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom do respect the law. That’s why they carry those pocket constitutions around with them. They carry the flag. They recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The federal government is the one violating the law!
A big part of the law is a system for deciding what the law actually means. If someone believes that the federal government is wrong, there’s a legal way to prove it. The problem is that the people in Oregon tried that … and lost. They lost cleanly and they lost completely. But they can’t stand that, so they packed their guns up to an undefended wildlife refuge and threatened to shoot people if they didn’t get their way. LaVoy Finicum tried to do just that.
I happen to believe that the Supreme Court was completely and totally wrong in the Citizens United case. I believe that Corporations are not the same as people. I also believe the Supreme Court was out of their collective gourd in District of Columbia v. Heller. What part of “well-regulated militia” did they not understand? But my interpretation of the Constitution didn’t win in court. I don’t have the right to threaten people with violence to try to get my way — unless I want to start a war and form my own government.