Section #13 - Propensity for Violence

Our Propensity for Violence

You are there:

Militiaman John Burns
John Burns
Whipped Peter
Whipped Peter
James Henry Lane with Bayonet
James Henry Lane
Confederate Dead at Antietam Along the Hagerstown Pike
Confederate Dead at Antietam Along the Hagerstown Pike

while America becomes a nation of laws it also becomes a nation with a propensity to rely on violence to resolve its conflicts. 

“Why” this becomes a norm remains a mystery. Those departing England for the new world seek a “shining city on a hill,” not another battleground. But once here, their first 200 years of history are anything but peaceful. 

“How” violence becomes a part of American culture is more readily understood.

Fear is one precursor to violence and the battles for global hegemony between Britain, France and Spain force the colonists into combat mode in order to survive. Then comes the first war against the Crown, fought under the bellicose banners of “strike the first blow,” and “give me liberty or give me death.” 

But even independence does not insure security, and the new United States remains surrounded by the British in Canada and by Napoleonic France and Spain to the south and west. Despite these dangers, concerns about internal tyranny prohibit the creation of a standing army of trained professional soldiers. Instead individual citizens are mandated to store weapons of war in their homes and to serve in local militias. 

As Thomas Jefferson says:

The Constitution of most of our states (and of the United States) assert that all power is 

inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves; that it is their right and 

duty to be at all times armed. 

Possession of firearms in civilian hands thus becomes ubiquitous – and using them to resolve disputes follows on. 

One symbol lies in dueling, a custom brought along from Europe and practiced with alarming rates and dire consequences. 

Here an individual who perceives a “slight” issues a formal challenge to an adversary to engage in a duel. Intermediaries for both sides step in to cool tempers and, in roughly 80% of the cases they succeed. But if not, the two parties retreat to a “field of honour” seeking satisfaction. 

The confrontation is choreographed according to a set of rules known as the Irish Code Duello. A time and meeting place are selected, along with the weapons chosen by the challenged party. Single shot pistols replace swords as the norm, although advantages are at times sought by resorting to rifles or even Bowie knives. Seconds, including a doctor, are present to arrange the ground, insure that the rules are followed, care for injuries, and carry a will to the next of kin if necessary. 

Where pistols are used, the two combatants stand roughly ten feet apart facing each other, albeit turned slightly to narrow their profile, especially their chests. They raise and point their weapons, and when a designated second shouts “present,” they are free to fire at will. At times one man will fire before the other, and then he is required to hold his posture while the opponent takes his shot.      

The initial discharges may end with neither man hit or with one or both hit or even killed. But assuming the challenger is still alive, it is up to him to call an end or to insist on a second round. A third round may also occur, but that is the limit set for “civilized behavior.” Before additional rounds, the seconds try their best to end the affair, arguing that both men have already defended their honor.

Nobody knows how many duels are fought over the years. But the more famous ones – those involving public figures – are recorded at the time. Some fifty of these are shown below.

Perhaps the most memorable duel of all occurs in 1804 when America’s sitting Vice-president, Aaron Burr, challenges Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, and mortally wounds him with a shot to the hip. Ironically the pistol Hamilton chooses is the same one used by his son Philip when he is killed on the same field three years earlier.

President Andrew Jackson is rumored to have engaged in scores of duels, including one in 1806 that leaves his opponent Charles Dickinson dead and the General with a slug that remains lodged too near his heart to be removed and that continuously plagues his health.

Jackson’s bete noir, Henry Clay exhibits a comparable temper with multiple duels, one involving Congressman Humphrey Marshall of Kentucky that ends with both men wounded.

Senator Thomas Hart Benton duels twice with Charles Lucas, killing him on the second occasion.

The rising naval star Commodore Stephen Decatur, a hero in the War of 1812, is killed by Commodore James Barron who is offended by Decatur’s criticism of his conduct in the 1807 Chesapeake-Leopold engagement. 

Other public figures known for their frequent recourse to dueling include the Texan, Sam Houston, and several of the so-called Fire-Eater southern secessionists, Henry Foote, Preston Brooks, George McDuffie and Louis T. Wigfall.

Famous Duels Involving Public Officials

YearFirst DuelistOpponent
1777Button Gwinnet (w)General Lachlan McIntosh (w)
1778General Charles Lee (w)Fellow officer John Laurens -SC
1780James JacksonGeorge Wells (k)
1788Andrew JacksonWaightstill Avery
1801John RowanJames Chambers (k)
1801Philip Hamilton (k)George Eacker NY lawyer
1802Richard Spaight (k)John Stanly
1803John Ward Gurley (k)Philip Jones
1803Andrew JacksonJohn Sevier 
1804Alexander Hamilton (k)Aaron Burr
1806Andrew Jackson (w)Charles Dickinson (k)
1807William C.C. Claiborne (w)Daniel Clark
1809Henry Clay (w)Humphrey Marshall (w)
1810John G. Jackson (w)Joseph Pearson
1813Andrew Jackson (w)Thomas Hart Benton
1817Thomas Hart Benton (w)Charles Lucas (w)
1817Thomas Hart BentonCharles Lucas (k)
1819John M. McCarty (k)Armistead T. Mason (k)
1820Stephen Decatur, Jr. (k)James Barron (w)
1823Clement ClayDr. Waddy Tate
1823Joshua Barton (k)Thomas Rector
1823Andrew ScottJudge Joseph Selden (k)
1826Henry ClayJohn Randolph of Roanoke 
1826Sam HoustonWilliam White (w)
1827Henry Conway (k)Robert Crittenden
1827Robert Vance (k)Samuel Carson
1827George McDuffie (w)William Cumming
1828George CrawfordThomas Burnside (k)
1829Henry Foote (w)Edmund Winston (w)
1831Spencer Pettis (k)Thomas Biddle (k)
1832Thomas BaltzellJames Westcott (w)
1832Benjamin PerryTyler Bynum (k)
1832Philip MinisJames Stark (k)
1837A. S. Johnston (w)Felix Huston
1838Johnathon Cilley (k) William Graves
1838Preston Brooks (w)Louis Wigfall
1839Leigh ReadAugustus Alston (k)
1839August Belmont (w)Edward Hayward (w)
1840Louis WigfallThomas Bird (k)
1843George Waggaman (k)Dennis Prieur
1845William YanceyThomas Clingman
1847Albert PikeJohn Roane
1852James DenverEdward Gilbert (k)
1852John McDougalA.C. Russell (w)
1852Felix ZollifcofferJohn L. Martin
1853Samuel IngeEd Stanly
1853William GwinJ.W. McCorkel
1856Gratz Brown (w)Thomas Reynolds
1859David TerryDavid Broderick

But the propensity for violence in America extends far beyond personal dueling. 

Government sponsored attacks are repeatedly directed at members of Native American tribes who are forcefully driven off their historical homelands by white settlers. These conflicts begin during the colonial period and range from New England to the Carolinas and west to the Great Lakes region.

Early Conflicts Between Colonists And Tribes

1636-38Pequot War in Connecticut ValleyMass. Bay colonists vs. Pequot tribePequot tribe disbanded for good and survivors sold into slavery
1675-78King Philips War in New EnglandColonists vs. King Philip, Wampanoags sachemTribe defeated and Philip killed at Mt Hope, Rhode Island
1711-15Tuscarora War in North CarolinaColonists vs. Tuscarora, part of Iroquois nationColonists win and surviving Tuscarora migrate north to New York
176-66Pontiac’s War near Niagara FallsChief Pontiac confederation vs. British colonialsStalemate with 8 forts destroyed and British adjusting policies with tribes
1774Lord Dunmore’s War in VirginiaVirginia Governor Dunmore’s vs. Shawnee and Mingos Virginia victory at the battle of Mount Pleasant for Dunmore v

When the Revolutionary War breaks out, tribes are forced to choose sides. The large majority back the British who have long supported their fur-trading operations in the north and have refrained from attempts to confiscate their homelands. 

A few northern tribes, notably the Oneida, Mohicans and Delaware, favor the Americans, while the powerful Iroquois are divided in their loyalties. 

It remains unclear whether the tribal alliances are decisive in the outcome of any given battle. But it’s obvious that the British are advantaged by their native support. 

Tribal Alignments During The Revolutionary War

Allied With AmericansWhere
Delaware/LenapeOhio Valley
Iroquois (Tuscaroras, Oneidas)New York, Canada
Potawami,Great Lakes region
CatawabaThe Carolinas
Allied With Britain
ShawneeOhio Valley
MiamiGreat Lakes region
HuronGreat Lakes region
Iroquois (Mohawk, Seneca, Cuyugas, Onandogas)New York, Canada
ChickasawMississippi, Alabama
CherokeeGeorgia, Carolinas
CreekFlorida, Georgia
AbenakiNew England

The Revolutionary War proves disastrous for the tribes in general, but particularly for those who side with Britain. In the 1783 Treaty of Paris officially ending the war, the British cede almost all of the land occupied by the tribes to the Americans. Beyond that, the war erodes most of the good will many Americans initially feel for those who “were here first.” 

Over the next half century, violent aggression against the Native Americans is ongoing, with a series of landmark battles ending in forced treaties and massive land cessions. These are interrupted from time to time by tribal leaders like the Shawnee’s Blue Turtle and Tecumseh who form confederations and record short-lived victories. But eventually resistance is ground down, and after the Indian Removal Act of 1830 passes in Congress, the eastern tribes are all driven west along the Trail of Tears to reservations in Oklahoma. 

Some Later Conflicts Between The U.S. Military And Various Tribes

YearKey BattleOutcome
1787Battle of the Wabash in eastern IndianaConfederacy of Shawnee Blue Jacket, Miami Little Turtle, Lenape and Ottawa plus British supportGeneral St. Clair suffers worst loss to tribes in American history with over 600 U.S. troops killed. This is a major wake-up call for the U.S. military.
1794Battle of Fallen Timbers near Maumee. OhioShawnee confederacy but now without British supportMad Anthony Wayne defeats Blue Jacket followed by Treaty of Greenville ceding Ohio territory
1813Battle of the Thames – west side of Lake ErieBritish plus Shawnees, led by TecumsehWilliam Henry Harrison gains national fame here and Tecumseh is killed.
1814Battle of Horseshoe Bend in eastern MississippiRed Stick CreeksAndrew Jackson with Cherokee and Choctaw support crush the Creeks
1818First Seminole War in FloridaSeminoles (Creek links) and run-away slavesUS wins lead to Spain ceding Florida to America
1823Arikara War in South DakotaArikara tribeStand-off between U.S. Army and the Arikari
1832Blackhawk War in Illinois and WisconsisSauks, Meskwakis and Kickapoos led by Chief BlackhawkTribal raids to reclaim “ceded land” results in a victory at Stillman’s Run and a defeat at Wisconsin Heights. Both Lincoln and Jeff Davis serve in the US militia here, but not in combat.  
1830-1847Indian Removal ActThe “Five Civilized Tribes” of the southeast: Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole U.S. Army drives the tribes from their homelands to “reservations” mostly in Oklahoma; known as “Trail of Tears.”
1835-1842Second Seminole War in FloridaSeminoles led by Chief OceolaMultiple U.S. Generals finally win with Oceola captured and dies in prison
1840The Great Raid of 1840 in TexasCommanches under Chief Buffalo HumpSeries of successful tribal raids on America’s Texian settlers

Immigrants are another target of American violence. 

Much of this traces back to Catholic-Protestant clashes in England, coupled with paranoid belief that immigrant Catholics will be loyal to the Pope in Rome rather than to their government in DC. 

The antagonism toward Catholics is fairly muted until the 1840’s when the potato famine in Ireland and the failure of anti-monarchy movements in Germany and the surrounding duchies lead to a quantum jump in immigration to America.   

Immigration Trends

1820-29  128,502  51,617    5,753  71,132
1830-39  538,381170,675124,726242,980

By 1850, the number of foreign born residents reaches 2.24 million or 9.7% of the total population – up from only 4.6% a decade earlier. Most of the immigrants end up in major cities in the North, and often inland from the east coast. Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis and Cincinnati all have foreign born representation in the 50% plus range as of 1850.

In addition to concerns about “patriotism,” the Irish are portrayed as ignorant, prone to crime, and the source of cheap labor undercutting wages for others at the low end of the scale. The German immigrants are a different matter, mostly trained artisans, but also political rabble rousers and thought to be sure fire Jacksonian Democrats.

The organized backlash against the immigrants originates in Philadelphia in 1844, the brainchild of a Jewish-turned-Methodist preacher, Lewis Levin, who is convinced that a conspiracy is under way to threaten the nation’s values and government. His “Native American Party” calls upon U.S.- born, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants to “take back the country” – and anti-Catholic riots break out in Philadelphia and Louisville. But the Mexican War soon diverts the nation’s attention and Levin fades from sight. 

The movement is reborn however with the dramatic uptick in immigration. First as the “Order of the Star-Spangled Banner,” and then, by 1852, as the “Native American Party” – nicknamed the “Know Nothings” for its member’s rehearsed response to inquiries about its operations. 

The most violent attacks on immigrants occur in Philadelphia and Louisville, both strongholds of the Know Nothings Party.  

Major Incidents Of Anti-Immigrant Violence 

Year WhereWhat
1844Philadelphia, around Kensington Demand for use of Catholic Bible in school leads to mob action with two killed and Catholic churches and seminary burned.
1844Philadelphia, aroundSouthwarkAfter weapons are stored in a Catholic Church, a large mob demands their removal. The militia complies but then they are attacked for appearing to protect the church. Both sides employ canon fire and rifles and four militia and twelve rioters are left dead. A larger contingent of militia arrive to restore order. 
1855Louisville, KentuckyCatholic opposition to the King James Bible, oath taking and other affirmations of loyalty leads to the formation of pro and anti- Nativist lodges and a “Bloody Monday” clash with homes and churches burned and over twenty persons killed.

The Know Nothings achieve enough scale in 1852 to nominate a presidential candidate, Daniel Webster, but he dies nine days before the election. Still by 1855 the party becomes a national force, winning the Speaker of the House post after 133 ballots for Nathaniel Banks in the 34th Congress. This, however, is its high water mark, as dissension over slavery divides the party and drowns out a focus on immigration. 

Chattel slavery then emerges as the enduring symbol of America’s propensity for violence. 

Its roots are planted deep in the most sinister aspects of human nature:

    * The tribal instinct to sort people into the superior Us vs. the inferior Other;

    * A twisted satisfaction from asserting control and power over this Other;

    * The use of physical and psychological force to maintain the dominance;

    * An accompanying fear that the victim of this abuse will seek retribution;

    * Followed by an ever increasing set of punishments to prevent rebellion.

The “Others” in this case are kidnapped Africans who first appear in August 1619 when the private British ship White Lion drops anchor on the James River near Hampton, Virginia. In exchange for “victuals,” the ship commander hands over “20 and odd” Africans seized earlier in a raid on a Spanish slave ship. 

Their “Otherhood” is readily apparent in the color of their skins, their facial contours, their hair, their obvious differences in dress, manners and customs. The colonists brand them as “negros” or “negras” from the Spanish for “black,” and the Latin word “niger.” 

The question of what to do with the 20 slaves is resolved by turning them over to Sir George Yeardley, the sitting Governor of Virginia. Yeardley is the owner of a 1000 acre plantation on the James River and presumably he puts them right to work planting and harvesting his tobacco.

This kind of forced labor is long-standing practice in England. It begins with serfs whose survival depends on working land owned by the aristocracy. Later comes slavery, with some Africans working on the great domestic estates, others in British colonies, especially the West Indies. While the serfs are regarded as “full human beings,” the Africans are seen as a lower form of life.

As slavery expands in the colonies, some owners simply accept it while others feel compelled to try to rationalize it. Among the latter is Thomas Jefferson who concludes:  

       I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race,
       or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments 
       both of body and mind… This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a 
       powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people.

Jefferson’s racial stereotyping is readily accepted across the South and North and it becomes codified in Article I, Section 2 of the 1787 Constitution:

Representation and direct taxes shall be apportioned…by adding the whole Number 

of free Persons…and three fifths of all other Persons (i.e. those enslaved).

At this point, the Africans are officially classified as 3/5th of a “full human” and are reduced to chattel or personal property, akin to farm animals, and vulnerable to the whims of their owners. 

In some cases they are treated favorably, albeit absent their personal freedom. But many other times, they are forced to endure what Joseph Conrad calls “the heart of darkness,” where…

The mind of man is capable of anything.

Frederick Douglass captures these moments in his autobiography: 

There are certain secluded and out-of-the-way places, even in the state of Maryland,

seldom visited by a single ray of healthy public sentiment—where slavery, wrapt in its

own congenial, midnight darkness, can, and does, develop all its malign and shocking

characteristics; where it can be indecent without shame, cruel without shuddering, and

murderous without apprehension or fear of exposure.

My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read 

departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery 

closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!

What follows from this abuse is a cycle of terror that feeds upon itself and ends with violence suffered by the enslaved and their masters alike. 

The slave fears the whip and the many other forms of degradation imposed upon him. At least sub-consciously the master identifies with the slave’s plight and begins to fear a moment of retaliation. In turn, to avoid the threat, he imposes even greater forms of punishment and control. As Jefferson puts it:

Slavery is like holding a wolf by the ears – one can neither safely 

 hold him, nor safely let him go.

For some captives, all hope is abandoned, and their pleas to “go home” are directed at the peace of the grave. 

Oh yes, I want to go home…where dere’s no whips a crackin…I want to go home. 

Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home…to carry me home.

Others, perhaps 50,000 per year, attempt to run away, and some succeed either on their own or with help from the Underground Railroad. 

A few decide to fight back in what are termed “black uprisings.” How often these occur is unknown, but five receive national coverage.

Five Significant Slave Uprisings

YearWhereLed ByOutcome
1800Henrico County, Va.GabrielLarge-scale plot leaks, rebels intercepted by militia , 26 hanged including Gabriel.
1805Chatham Manor, Va.Handful of slavesCruel overseer Stark  an four other whites are whipped before the end with two slaves dead
1811German Coast, La.Charles DeslondesBand of 25 slaves hack Gilbert Andry to death and march toward New Orleans raiding plantations and growing to 200 strong. They lose a pitched battle with militia. Twenty blacks KIA, 50 captured, Deslondes butchered. Severed heads on pikes line the road to NO.
1822Charleston, S.C.Denmark VeseyAME minister Vesey’s elaborate Bastille Day plan leaks and 67 conspirators are arrested and summarily hanged, including Vesey.
1831Jerusalem, Va.Nat TurnerThe most vicious recorded uprising is led by 30 year old Nat Turner who reads the Bible and plots revenge for being whipped and having his wife sold off. His assault begins with 7 slaves using axes to kill men, women and children on his plantation before adding 70 followers who sack about 15 nearby farms and murder some 60 whites. Finally the state militia stops the band, hanging and beheading those captured including Turner. At his trial Turner prides himself on his actions saying they were justified by the suffering of slavery.

Increased levels of white fear follow each of these “uprisings.” In the South, owners try to weed out and summarily lynch potential “trouble-makers.” In the North, white fear results in even more “black codes,” segregation and vicious race riots.                

Northern Race Riots

1824Providence, RIHardscrabbleWhite mobs roam the area and destroy upwards of 20 black homes.
1829Cincinnati4th ward Competition for low paying labor jobs leads roving Irish bands on a 5 day rampage to burn down African-American homes and businesses and caused about a half of all blacks to leave the city, with some heading to Canada. 
1831Providence, RISnowtownA much larger riot lasting five days and nights with more destruction and at least one known death
1834New York CityFive PointsThe spark here is abolitionist minister Dr. Samuel Cox welcoming blacks into his church services. Black homes are destroyed before New York’s National Guard breaks up the chaos.
1835BostonLecture hallAbolitionist Lloyd Garrison is seized after attending an Anti-Slavery Society meeting, dragged through the streets by a rope by a white mob who threatens to hang him. Police save him and he spends the night in the jail for safety.
1836Cincinnati1st and 4th wardsAngered by abolitionist James Birney and his newspaper, whites respond by throwing his presses into the Ohio River and again razing black residences and storefronts, while the Mayor applauded. 
1838Pennsylvania HallPhiladelphiaFour days after the convention hall opens with an abolitionist conference, anti-black rioters burn it to the ground 
1851PennsylvaniaLancaster CountySlave owner Edward Gorsuch is killed attempting to recapture his run-away slave after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 goes into effect. The slaves escape to Canada and the government fails to convict the protectors in a jury trial.  

The pattern of violence in the American culture is well established by 1840 – from the early global battles for survival to personal dueling; from brutality toward the native tribes and foreign immigrants to black uprisings, white retribution and race riots.

But these pales in comparison to the violence associated with the conflicts related to the nation’s original sin of slavery:

       * The Mexican War of 1846-47 with military and civilian casualties estimated at roughly 

       * 13,000 on the American side and 25,000 for the Mexicans.

       * The tragic events in “Bloody Kansas” between 1854 and 1858. 

       * The Civil War of 1861-65 with brothers fighting brothers and deaths across both sides 

           around 750,000 or over 2% of the total population at the time.    

A southern preacher of a much later era sums up the toll of this American culture of violence.

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing

it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may 

murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence    

you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate…

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night 

already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate 

cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. (Martin Luther King/1967)

George Washington 7 with Sword
George Washington
Unknown Minuteman 2
Minute Man
Militiaman John Burns
Every minute man has a weapon nearby.
Every minute man has a weapon nearby.
Alexander Hamilton 3
A fatal duel: Treasury Secretary Hamilton (left) killed by Vice-President Aaron Burr (right)
Aaron Burr 2
A fatal duel: Treasury Secretary Hamilton (left) killed by Vice-President Aaron Burr (right)
Henry Clay 2
Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson each engage in multiple duels
Andrew Jackson
Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson each engage in multiple duels
Drawing of Settlers and Native Americans
Violence against the native tribes accelerates after the Revolutionary War
War of 1812 General
The arms come out again in the War of 1812
War of 1812 Lenaux
The arms come out again in the War of 1812
Whipped Peter
Cycles of racial hatred and unrestrained violence are perpetuated by chattel slavery.
Wilson Chinn 2
Cycles of racial hatred and unrestrained violence are perpetuated by chattel slavery.
Kansas Militiaman
Violence in Bloody Kansas is a precursor to a nation divided.
James Henry Lane with Bayonet
Violence in Bloody Kansas is a precursor to a nation divided.
John Brown 2 Young
Violence in Bloody Kansas is a precursor to a nation divided.
Unknown Calvaryman Post Mortem
Young and old pick up weapons as the Civil War breaks out
William Techemush Sherman + Staff
Both sides employ even more deadly weapons to slaughter each oter
Robert E. Lee 3
The call to violence draws military men and preachers alike
Leonidas Polk
The call to violence draws military men and preachers alike
Confederate Dead at Antietam Along the Hagerstown Pike
Cameras record the human carnage
Col. William Rogers and 2nd Texas Dead at Bettery Robinette, Corinth
Cameras record the human carnage