Spirit of ’76 Roars With a Vengeance, by Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac is the James H. Rudy Professor in the Department of Political Science at Indiana University. Professor Isaac’s research is in the area of political theory.


“We’re supposed to be horrified by the protesters. There’s a lot of people out there calling for the end of violence. A lot of conservatives, social media, who say that any violence or aggression at all is unacceptable regardless of the circumstances. I am glad Sam Adams, Thomas Paine, the actual Tea Party guys, the men at Lexington and Concord, didn’t feel that way.”

–Medal of Freedom recipient Rush Limbaugh (quoted in “Rush Limbaugh likens Capitol Rioters to Founding Fathers”).

“You are patriots. Just like the patriots that gathered at Bunker Hill. Just like the patriots at Valley Forge. Just like the patriots who forged this nation . . . We will not go quietly into the night. We will defend liberty.”

–Senator Ted Cruz, former Editor of the Harvard Law Review and former Clerk to William Rehnquist, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, speaking to a rally of Trump supporters in Georgia on January 3.

“It’s not who we are? Really?”

–An incredulous jazz musician and political science professor living in an unnamed Indiana college town.

Once upon a time it was widely believed, at least by many academics, that the United States was an essentially liberal nation based on a robust commitment to the rights of citizens. Made famous by Louis Hartz in his The Liberal Tradition in America, this idea can be traced to the origins of the republic itself, and the ringing Preamble of the 1776 Declaration of Independence: “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all mean are created equal . . . “ The idea was perhaps most vividly stated by Abraham Lincoln, who famously observed in his Gettysburg Address that the nation was “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

It has long been obvious that this understanding is perhaps idealistic but also problematic and that, if the U.S. was conceived in liberty, it was also conceived in slavery. Bondage, exclusion, racism, lynching, pogroms, harsh sexism and violent white supremacy—these things constitute the deep underside of American “liberty,” an underside that has often broken out into plain view. The Civil War—which of course concluded most inconclusively– is the most obvious example, but hardly the only one.

It is tempting to think of “liberty” and “slavery” as diametrically opposed. But the advocates of “liberty” have always wrestled with their attachments to forms of “slavery.” More important at this moment, the advocates of slavery and white supremacy have also claimed to be partisans of “liberty.” And if many abolitionists and Radical Republicans appealed to “the spirit of 1776” on the eve of the Civil War, likening “The Slave Power” to King George III, the leaders of the Confederate States of America also imagined themselves as veritable “sons of liberty” claiming “the spirit of 1776.”

Both drew on the rhetoric of the American Revolution, and the way it combined “liberal” concerns with rights and “civic republican” concerns with virtue. Advocates for greater equality, such as Frederick Douglass and Wendell Phillips, believed that the struggle to realize the promise of the Declaration’s Preamble was the ultimate form of civic virtue, and the maintenance of slavery a deprivation of rights that represented the ultimate form of corruption. And advocates for Black chattel slavery also believed in the link between civic virtue and the struggle to realize the promise of the Declaration’s Preamble, with one difference: like John C. Calhoun said in his 1848 “Speech on the Oregon Bill,” they believed that while Jeffersonian talk about inviolable rights and self-government was essential, the bit about “all men are created equal” was rubbish, “inserted into our Declaration without any necessity.” In short, they were anti-liberal and indeed racist partisans of republican virtue, who saw a strong federal government committed to the abolition of slavery and multiracial citizenship as a violation of their rights that was also an extreme form of corruption and humiliation.

The South Carolina Declaration of Independence, adopted on December 24, 1860, appealed to the original Declaration’s principle of “consent of the governed” to explain its resistance to the “tyranny” of the Union, which according to its drafters sought to advance “sectional interests” against the Constitutional right to own slaves (that’s right, the “inalienable right” to own slaves!). Lincoln, it argued, is hostile to the South and thus to the Constitution. Lincoln, indeed, was said to draw support “by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety.” (Does this sound familiar?) The Georgia Declaration, adopted on January 29, 1861, declared that the “rulers of the North” seek “ to subvert our society and subject us not only to the loss of our property but the destruction of ourselves, our wives, and our children, and the desolation of our homes, our altars, and our firesides.” Jefferson Davis, in his 1861 Confederate Presidential Inaugural Address, similarly claimed to be acting in the tradition of Jefferson and his Declaration, defending “inalienable rights” against “the folly and wickedness of our aggressors.”

The trope of “liberty against tyranny” has been a powerful source of American political rhetoric ever since 1776, as historian Bernard Bailyn made clear in his classic The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. It has inspired many of the greatest American democrats. It has also been a staple of Confederate and neo-Confederate thought, inspiring some of the most fanatical American opponents of democracy.

On July 4, 1964, Alabama Governor George Wallace–the country’s leading segregationist—delivered one of his most famous speeches, a ringing denunciation of the recently-passed Civil Rights Act that came to be known by the title “The Civil Rights Movement: Fraud, Sham, and Hoax.”

“We come here today,” he began, “in deference to the memory of those stalwart patriots who on July 4, 1776, pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to establish and defend the proposition that governments are created by the people, empowered by the people, derive their just powers from the consent of the people, and must forever remain subservient to the will of the people” (ever since John C. Calhoun, the part about “all men are created equal” has eluded racist tribunes of “liberty”).” He described the Civil Rights Act thus: “It is an act of tyranny. It is the assassin’s knife stuck in the back of liberty. With this assassin’s knife and a blackjack in the hand of the Federal force-cult, the left-wing liberals will try to force us back into bondage. Bondage to a tyranny more brutal than that imposed by the British monarchy which claimed power to rule over the lives of our forefathers under sanction of the Divine Right of kings.”

Wallace proceeded to denounce “the liberal left wing press,” supposedly in the thrall of “Communists,” “Communist sympathizers,” “socialists,” and “anarchists” intent on destroying “liberty.” Like the colonists of 1776, Wallace held, Southerners are virtuous citizens resisting “despotism.” After rehearsing a long litany of liberal evils, he concluded that “There is yet a spirit of resistance in this country which will not be oppressed. . . Let it be known that we will no longer tolerate the boot of tyranny. We will no longer hide our heads in the sand. We will reschool our thoughts in the lessons our forefathers knew so well. We must destroy the power to dictate, to forbid, to require, to demand, to distribute, to edict, and to judge what is best and enforce that will of judgment upon free citizens.”

That was then. This is now. The rhetoric of radical resistance to the “tyranny” of civil rights and multiracial democracy is now the rhetoric of Trumpism. Trump’s echoes of Wallace have long been noted. In April, as COVID-10 was spreading and “Militias Against Masks” were mobilizing “the people” against “tyrannical” Democratic governors, Trump loudly issued a call to “Liberate Michigan” and “Liberate Virginia, and save your great Second Amendment, it is under siege,” an obvious  incitement to violence taken most seriously by those who conspired to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

Trump has long used the language of radical civic republicanism to mobilize his supporters. Back in late April of 2019, Trump delivered a rousing address at a National Rifle Association meeting in Indianapolis. Denouncing the Mueller probe as a “coup” he incited his supporters to rally to his cause and to oppose “Far-left radicals in Congress [who] want to take away your voice, your jobs, your rights, and they especially want to take away your guns.  You know that.  They want to take away your guns.  . . .  you have socialists and far-left Democrats that want to destroy everything that we’ve done.”

Trump ended by invoking the memory of the Minutemen who fought the British at the start of the American Revolution:

“Two months before the American Revolution broke out, with the shot heard around the world, a group of patriots gathered along a bridge in Salem, Massachusetts. In the preceding months, British soldiers had confiscated muskets in Boston. You know the story well.  Gunpowder was seized in Somerville. And the patriots in Salem knew that the Redcoats would soon come for the town’s cannons. But the Americans were prepared — they already loved our country — and they were determined to defend their rights to the death.  When hundreds of British soldiers arrived at the bridge, the Americans stood firm, blocking their path. When swords were drawn, they didn’t flinch. . .

In the courageous actions of those early Americans, we see the defiant and determined spirit of patriotism that has always willed America to its greatest victories.  It is a spirit that is passed down from generation to generation, from fathers and mothers to sons and daughters.  It is the spirit that lives in each and every one of you. Our duty, our responsibility, our sacred charge, is to preserve the freedoms that our ancestors gave their very lives to secure. Because no matter how many centuries go by, no matter how much the world changes, the central drama of human history remains the same. . . . One one side are those who seek power, control, and domination. And on the other side are patriots like those in this hall who stand upright and plant their feel in eternal defense of our liberty.”

This is the language of the violent insurrectionists who invaded the Capitol last Wednesday, and who are planning further capitol sieges and invasions in the coming week.

The Philadelphia Inquirer recently profiled Jim Sinclair, a 38-year-old home restoration contractor from Bensalem, Pennsylvania, who traveled to Washington to participate in the MAGA “Stop the Steal” march. “Freedom!!!!!!!” Sinclair posted on Facebook alongside a photo of Mel Gibson from Braveheart . “It’s 1776, the American people have ears and eyes. We will not accept this fraudulent election.” Politico has reported that online social media traffic among extremists in the lead-up to last Wednesday’s insurrection frequently alluded to the precedent of 1776. An open letter by Chris Zimmerman, a Nevada Republican party official, has gone viral, insisting that “Trump will be president for the next four years. Biden will not be president,” declaring Pence a “traitor,” and concluding “the next 12 days will be something to tell the grandchildren. It’s 1776 all over again!”

Patriot groups like the Three Percenters–which explicitly draws on the example of the Minutemen of Lexington and Concord—fancy themselves the true heirs of the American Revolution, and more recently of Timothy McVeigh, who back in 1995 sported a tee-shirt to his attack on the Alfred Murrah Building bearing the Latin inscription: “Sic Semper Tyrannis” and the famous aphorism from Thomas Jefferson: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants”).

The armed-and-zip tie-carrying marauders who erected gallows outside the Capitol last week and then stalked the building in search of Nancy Pelosi, Jim Clyburn, and Mike Pence were self-styled patriots simply out to refresh “the tree of liberty,” virtuously carrying American flags, Confederate flags, and Trump flags interchangeably.

These marauders have made very clear that, like the famous “shot heard ‘round the world,” last week’s assault on the Capitol is merely the opening salvo in their war to “Stop the Steal” and “Make America Great Again.” Thus the terrifying, recently-publicized call to action, “Patriot Action for America 2021,” which announces the intention to repeat the effort on January 16-17, in advance of the January 20 Inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. These “patriots” are calling for an “assembly” of over 15,000 “armed patriots” on the steps of the Capitol building, where they can proceed to surround the Capitol, the Supreme Court Building, and the White House.  They claim that this is not an effort to “overthrow the government” but an effort to “defend President Trump” and to prevent “democrat politicians” from “stealing the election” by placing Joe Biden in power.

The Action’s website announces:

This is not a government overthrow. This is the coordination of American citizens taking action due to the lack of action by those who are supposed to be guarding America, and her existence, from “All enemies, foreign and domestic.”

America is now under attack by a domestic enemy known as the democrat party. Democrats have had decades to perfect their trade of lying, cheating, stealing and corruption where it is now to the point that although their actions are criminal and underhanded, the laws they have created and implemented over the years make these actions protected.

We the People are finished with government corruption at the hands of Democrats. January 16, 2021, we begin the process of exterminating the democrat ideology from America . .

With the fraudulent, stolen election of 2020 creating the breaking point for 10s of millions of law abiding Americans, Democrat corruption will now come to an end at the hands of American Patriots, and along with it the socialistic communist threat democrats impose on our country.

These angry and violent Trump supporters are racists and xenophobes who hate equality—except their equality, as armed and vigilant citizens, vigilantes, of a radical white republic. They are insanely jealous of their “liberties” and—echoing a trope that goes back to the American revolution– they believe that they face a deliberate conspiracy against their freedom. It is tempting to view these reactionaries as resentful and benighted supporters “status,” “ascription,” and “traditional inequality.” And they are most assuredly supporters of gender inequality, racial inequality, and class inequality. But they are also adherents of a racially-inflected civic republicanism, and self-styled heirs of the American Revolution and the “spirit of 1776.”

And this is one very potent source of their danger (the other is that they have millions of guns and other weapons and include many former of even current police officers and members of the U.S. military).

From the Seneca Falls Declaration of 1848 to the radical discourse of Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, Eugene V. Debs, and Martin Luther King, Jr., citizens have drawn on the rhetoric of the Declaration and what Debs called the “Spirit of ‘76” to defend the expansion of rights and the development of a more inclusive and egalitarian democracy. This rhetoric has inspired the labor movement, the women’s movement, and the civil rights movement. And, in a complicated way to be sure, it has even inspired the Black Lives Matter movement. Nikole Hannah-Jones, in her often-reviled essay inaugurating the 1619 Project, refers to the 1776 Declaration as the source of “both an ideal and a lie”; and yet she also insists that the struggle against racism has been inspired by this “American creed,” and that this struggle “has helped the country to live up to its founding ideals.”

Trump and his radical right-wing followers hate this American political tradition, and they hate those who seek to keep hope in this tradition alive, in words and deeds.

All summer long, Trump responded to the protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd by promoting a campaign of slander and vitriol against BLM and against the 1619 Project that was also an attack on “anarchists,” “socialists,” and “Democrats.” In September he announced the appointment of a “1776 Commission” designed to repudiate “radicalism” and “hatred of America” and to promote “patriotic education.” Assembling a group of distinguished-looking, well-coiffed and attired conservative academics and journalists at the White House, he declared, in a speech obviously scripted for him, that “Our mission is to defend the legacy of America’s founding, the virtue of America’s heroes, and the nobility of the American character. We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms, and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country. We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.”

How noble. How virtuous. How hypocritical and misleading.

There is a kind of American conservatism, personified by the likes of columnist George Will and perhaps some of those involved in the Lincoln Project, that is serious about the words of the Declaration, the meaning of the American Revolution, and the importance of “civic education.”

But this is not the discourse of Trump and his supporters.

Their “spirit of ‘76” was on display last week at the Capitol, as angry, violent, conspiracy-addled “patriots” stormed the Congress seeking to upend an election and to deliver “popular justice” towards elected officials seeking to do their Constitutional duty. Theirs is the “patriotism” of “Second Amendment solutions,” the storming of democratically-elected legislatures, and the intimidation of democratically-elected public officials. For them “inalienable rights” means the right to bear arms in public, refuse masks, and threaten others, and “consent of the governed” applies only to them and their supporters.

These people are angry. They are armed.  They are determined to “refresh the tree of liberty” with “the blood of tyrants,” with their own “patriotic” blood, and with the blood of everyone who stands in their way. And they have only just begun.

These fanatics are heirs to a very real political tradition that combines a kind of grass-roots “Jeffersonianism” with racism and the authoritarian and militaristic appeal to “blood and soil.” And the notion that “this is not who we are” severely underestimates their “native” roots, which go back to the nation’s origins in “resistance to tyranny.”

They do not represent “the mainstream” of U.S. politics—yet. 

What will happen in the months, weeks, and especially days to come remains to be seen.

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