Battle of Athens: The Forgotten History of the Tennessee Rebellion Against Local Government

The fight for civil rights in America is not limited to black Americans. Nor is the American Revolution limited to the 1700s. Case in point: The Battle of Athens. This was a pitched physical confrontation lasting two days in 1946, but with roots stretching back into the 1930s. It is part of an overall pan-racial resistance to anti-democratic government forms throughout the United States – and an oft-forgotten moment in American history.

A corrupt political machine run by E.H. Crump was centered in Memphis, but had influence throughout the entire state of Tennessee. This extensive influence was used to alter the election laws and charters of cities and counties to make the electoral process more favorable to Crump and his men. Sheriffs and their deputies were paid on a fee system, whereby they received more money the more people they incarcerated — with predictable results. Travelers and tourists were hit hardest, with buses traveling through Crump-controlled areas pulled over and (the entire bus) ticketed for drunkenness.

This was felt particularly sharply in McMinn County, which was historically Republican. It has been alleged that the basis of Crump’s political power was delivering this Republican stronghold to Democrat President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1936 election. The Justice Department investigated election fraud there in 1940, 1942 and 1944, but declined to take action. The poll tax and politicized ballot counting were the most common methods of fraud, as well as that old standby of having dead people cast ballots.

The advent of World War II made matters worse. Most of McMinn County’s young men were off fighting the war. This meant that the county began scraping the bottom of the barrel when it came to appointing lawmen. Ex-cons were not considered unworthy and many were hired to help the county meet its needs. Gambling and bootlegging were permitted for those politically connected individuals within the county. To make matters worse, the machine was firmly in control of the newspapers and schools, and was the most gainful employment in the county.

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The Sons of Liberty Flag: How a Group of American Patriots Led the Colonies to Rebellion

The origins of the Sons of Liberty flag go back to 1765, when a secretive group of patriots known as “the Loyal Nine” was formed – the group behind the original Boston Tea Party. The flag was then known as “the Rebellious Stripes” and it was banned by the British king, the highest endorsement the Crown could give.

The Sons of Liberty: “No Taxation Without Representation”

The Sons of Liberty were perhaps the most radical group of American patriots during the pre-Revolutionary period, but the true Sons of Liberty had a relatively short lifespan. They were formed in response to the Stamp Act of 1765 and disbanded when the Act was repealed. Still, the name lived on as a popular brand name for the biggest firebrands of the American Revolution.

Many of the members of the true Sons of Liberty are American legends who need no introduction. Samuel Adams. John Hancock. Patrick Henry. Paul Revere. Even Benedict Arnold counted himself among their number. It’s unclear whether the original Sons of Liberty were a clandestine organization with an official membership or just a rallying point for anyone who opposed the Stamp Act. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The unified identity of opposition to the Crown was the organization, whether it was official or not.

The motto of the Sons of Liberty was a simple phrase known to virtually every American: “No taxation without representation.” While its origins are largely shrouded in mystery and lacking firm documentation, many experts agree that, to the extent that it was an organization with members, it was founded by none other than famous rabble rouser Samuel Adams.

The Stamp Act of 1765 and the Rise of the Sons

The Stamp Act of 1765 existed for the purpose of bankrolling British troops in the New World. Colonists resisted the Stamp Act not because the taxes themselves were intolerable, but because they believed their rights as British subjects were being violated by taxation without representation.

The first branch was founded in Boston in August 1765, followed by a satellite in New York in November of the same year. December saw communication between groups in Connecticut and New York. In January of 1766, Boston and New York linked up. By March, Providence was in communication with New Hampshire, Newport, and New York. Later that year in March, groups were set up in Maryland, New Jersey, and as far south as Virginia.

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War for Poverty

When a country is mired in poverty, violent revolution is the most emotionally appealing remedy.  So cinematic.  Since the powers that be almost never agree, any call for violent revolution is, in practice, a call for civil war.  But how well does the “remedy” of civil war actually work?  So far, the very best treatment I’ve found is contained within Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion:

Civil war is development in reverse.  It damages both the country itself and its neighbors.  Let’s start with the country itself.  Civil war tends to reduce growth by around 2.3% per year, so the typical seven-year war leaves a country around 15 percent poorer than it would have been…

Both economic losses and disease are highly persistent: they do not stop once the fighting stops.  Most of the costs of civil war, perhaps as much as half, accrue after the war is over.  Of course, sometimes the rebellion is worth it, with rebel victories ushering in an age of social justice, but this does not happen often.  Usually the political legacy is about as bad as the economic legacy – a deterioration in political rights.  A rebellion is an extremely unreliable way of bringing about positive change.  Rebel leaders who claim to have launched a civil war for the good of their country are usually deceiving themselves, others, or both.

Furthermore, civil war breeds civil war:

Civil wars are highly persistent.  The average international war, which is nasty enough, lasts about six months.  You can do a lot of damage in six months.  But the average civil war lasts more than ten times as long, even longer if you start off poor…

Having looked at why civil wars started and how long they lasted, we then looked at what happened when they were over.  As previously noted, the end of a war often is not the end of the conflict; once over, a conflict is alarmingly likely to restart.  Furthermore, the experience of having been through a civil war roughly doubles the risk of another conflict.  Only around half of the countries in which a conflict has ended manage to make it through a decade without relapsing into war.

Along the way, Collier also heaps amusing scorn on the Third World’s indigenous war-mongers and their credulous First World apologists:

Our work has proved controversial.  In part this is because the people attracted to the academic study of conflict tend to be politically engaged and are sympathetic to the acute grievances enunciated by various rebel movements, who often adopt extreme measures to oppose governments that may indeed be unsavory.  To such academics, the whole idea of investigating statistically whether there is a relationship between objective measures of grievance and a propensity to rebel is taken to be more or less an insult, since they know there is one.

And:

[T]he rebel groups generate a discourse of grievance that feeds these concerns, in effect inviting fellow travelers to imagine themselves wearing bandoliers on the barricades.  Unfortunately, you simply can’t trust the rebel discourse of concern for social justice; what else do you expect them to say?

A calm look at the data shows that this skepticism is well-justified:

Genuine grievances should be addressed whether or not they provoke rebellion, yet all too often they are not redressed.  But the sad reality seems to be that grievances are pretty common.  Rebels usually have something to complain about, and if they don’t they make it up.  All too often the really disadvantaged are in no position to rebel; they just suffer quietly.

Peace lacks the romance of war, just as appeasement lacks the romance of rebellion.  Yet if you really want desperate countries to escape poverty, you should hew to the path of peace.  If appeasement is the price of peace, you should probably pay it.  Civil war is a viable – though high-risk – strategy for power-hungry leaders.  For countries, however, it is a path to wretched ruin.

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“Second Shutdown” Theatrics: Heads Trump Wins, Tails America Loses

Unless Congress and the Trump administration reach a new spending deal by February 15, the federal government will go back into “partial shutdown” status. As of February 10, congressional negotiators seem to be nearing agreement on a deal that includes about $2 billion in funding for President Trump’s “border wall” project. Trump, as before the recent shutdown, is seeking $5.7 billion.

My prediction: There are three ways this can come out. One is highly unlikely, and both of the other two would constitute a victory for Trump and a loss for Congress in general, even more so for congressional Democrats, and most of all for the American people.

Let’s get the unlikely outcome out of the way first: There’s probably not going to be another shutdown. Trump is going to sign whatever deal lands on his desk.

If the deal includes the $5.7 billion he’s demanding (it won’t), he’s obviously the winner. Expect a lavish White House Rose Garden signing ceremony, even if there’s snow on the ground.

If the deal offers a lesser amount (it will), congressional Democrats will have lost anyway, by buckling on their previous opposition to funding the wall at all. That’s a bad outcome for a new Democratic majority in the House. It signals a lack of political will to take on the Republican agenda.

Whatever amount the deal includes, Trump will sign it — and if it’s less than $5.7 billion, he’ll then follow through on his threat to declare a “state of emergency” and use existing military funding to make up the difference.

In doing so, he’ll throw yet another serving of red meat to his electoral base, acting as the strong-man figure they adore.

He’ll also add another boxcar to a long train of abuses & usurpations (as the Declaration of Independence puts it) by himself and previous presidents. His contemplated “state of emergency” tactic would seize executive power to do what only Congress, under the Constitution, may do (“No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law”).

Not long ago, journalists might have labeled that situation  a “constitutional crisis.” But in the 21st century, Americans and American politicians have seemingly become desensitized to presidential rebellion against the Constitution, from George W.  “unitary executive” Bush’s use of “signing statements” to modify the content of bills passed by Congress, to Barack “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone” Obama’s claims of power to wage war in Libya, Syria and elsewhere without congressional approval.

The border wall is fast becoming more than just a morally bankrupt and economically stupid political ploy. It’s in the process of becoming yet another milestone on the road to the presidency as an openly proclaimed, and uncontested, dictatorship.

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Remember

Nobody asked but …

I remember other times when our country has seemed on the brink of running off its rails.

My cultural memory keeps me ever in mind of Valley Forge, the KKK, and the Whiskey Rebellion. We, as a society, wear the Civil War on our sleeves. Freedom of speech, in the form of historians’ writings, has kept us in the loop on the genocide of the Native Americans, the overthrow of Hawaii, the Spanish-American War, the yellow fever, and two World Wars. My own ancestors have made sure I remember the Great Depression.

In my life, I have seen the sky full of war planes, a polio epidemic, Vietnam, McCarthyism, Watergate (and subsequent scandals), Kent State, urban race riots, military adventurism (read quagmirism), 911, the seeds of past wars becoming the weeds of future wars.

We have survived. We are surviving. Three hate filled mass killings or attempted killings tore into our collective conscience in the past week, the supermarket in Kentucky, the mailbombs from Florida, and the synagogue in Pittsburgh.

These instances are unbearable. But we will stay on the rails. We will survive.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Yes, Things Have Been This Bad Before; In Fact, They’ve Been Far Worse

It’s closing in on a week before an American election. For some people means that everything absolutely must be about nothing but that election, with hyperbole.

The president of the United States is fear-mongering over the approach of a convoy of Latin American immigrants to get his “base” to the polls.

His Democratic opponents are  pretending that every Republican voter is a potential mail-bomber, for the same purpose.

As I write this, a mass shooting at a synagogue in Pennsylvania doesn’t seem to lend itself well to the election narrative yet. Democrats are already trying to make it about guns. Republicans note that the shooter apparently disliked Trump for being “too pro-Israel.” I’m sure the competing election-related talking points will jell before Election Day.

Things seem pretty bad, don’t they? In fact, in a Facebook political conversation the other day a loved one somberly informed me that “things have never been this bad.”

Whoa. Just one minute there. Never?

Even focusing on the three aforementioned items, that’s not the case. Migrant caravans have been running since at least 2010, “suspicious packages” have been a weekly occurrence since the 2001 anthrax scare, and mass shootings at churches (and schools, and workplaces, etc.) have been above-the-fold news items since Columbine.

But let’s look back a little and remember how bad it’s been before.

Does the date September 11, 2001 ring any bells?

How about the Los Angeles riots of 1992  (or the Watts Rebellion of 1965)?

The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968, followed by the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy on June 5, 1968 and preceded by the assassinations of Malcolm X on February 21, 1965 and John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963?

Remember Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941)?

Or Black Friday (October 29, 1929)?

Or the whole period from April 12, 1861 to May 9, 1865 (and after)?

It’s a long, long way downhill from where we’re at, and we’ve been much, much further down that slope before. More violent.  More fearful. More bigoted. Definitely poorer.

The  November 6 election won’t likely be remembered as any kind of major turning point in history.  It’s not “the most important election” of the last two, let alone of our lifetimes or our country’s.

Yes, things will almost certainly get a little worse, whichever party “wins” and no matter how resoundingly, because that’s the direction we were already headed in and not many Americans seem inclined to change direction back toward freedom (if they were, Libertarians would run the election table; the polls indicate no such trend).

Yes, the future looks pretty grim in general. Economic depression, rampant political violence, even open civil war aren’t something we’re magically immune to.

But neither are those things lurking right around the corner if you vote “wrong” (or don’t vote at all) on November 6.

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