With the recent revelations that some members of the militia defending Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch may have plotted to raid a U.S. Air Force installation, it seems necessary to hold a logical discussion of the risks of armed revolt against the federal government. An astonishing number of Americans are coming to believe that armed conflict between Americans and their government may be likely or even inevitable. Last year, a Fairleigh Dickinson poll found that 29 percent of Americans believed that armed revolution might be necessary within a few years to protect civil liberties. Almost half of Republicans held this view.
The fact that this option is even being considered by otherwise rational people is an indictment of the state of the country and the ongoing degradation of the rule of law under Barack Obama and the Democrats. The push to implement Obamacare against the opposition of the majority of Americans is only the tip of the iceberg of grievances against the present administration. On many occasions, the Obama Administration has chosen to ignore written law or implemented its own will over that of Congress by executive fiat. The revelations of domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency have convinced Americans that they are monitored constantly by the federal intelligence apparatus. The harassment of ordinary Americans by the Internal Revenue Service acts to intimidate citizens who care enough to get involved in the political process in opposition to the president. The trickle of information about the Benghazi killings argues that the Obama Administration would let Americans die and cover up the cause for political gain.
Into this mix of ever more intrusive government power and well-earned mistrust of those in charge comes those who, fueled by conspiracy theories of federal gun grabs, UN troops on American soil, “false flag” terror attacks, and FEMA concentration camps, feel that the only way to preserve American freedom is to violently rise up and destroy the current federal government which has expanded far beyond it limited constitutional role.
The potent mix of paranoia, misguided patriotism, and paramilitary training has produced a number of domestic terror plots in the past. Although Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City is the best known militia-based terror plot, McVeigh was far from being the only such plotter. One of the most recent plots to be broken was the Hutaree group in Michigan, which planned to murder local police officers. A lesser known case was the Tyler, Texas cyanide bomb plot from 2003 in which several people were arrested with a cyanide gas bomb that could have killed thousands.
Those who argue for an armed rebellion to preserve the Constitution miss the obvious fact that armed rebellion is itself unconstitutional. The Second Amendment preserves the right of the people to keep and bear arms, but there is no right to take up those arms against the constitutionally established and democratically elected government of the United States.
The First Amendment protects the “right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for redress of grievances.” There is no mention of a right to violently fight to overthrow the government.
In contrast, the Constitution makes clear that an armed rebellion would be a justification for an even greater abridgment of rights. Article I Section 9 provides that the “writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it[emphasis mine].”
The fledgling United States of America suffered its first rebellion long before the Civil War. In 1791, during the presidency of George Washington, a group of Pennsylvania farmers, angered by a federal tax on whiskey rebelled against the federal government. President Washington and founding father Alexander Hamilton, at the time Secretary of the Treasury, did not celebrate the Whiskey Rebellion as citizens exercising their constitutionally protected right to revolt against a law that they disagreed with. Rather, they sent a force of 13,000 militia troops, led by Hamilton himself and Virginia governor Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee (the father of Robert E. Lee) to crush the rebellion. Most of the rebels fled, but two of the leaders were captured and convicted of treason.
That is essentially what armed rebellion is. Treason.
Article III Section 3 of the Constitution eliminates any doubt that armed revolt is treason. The Framers wrote, “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort” [emphasis mine].
If the prospect of committing treason is not enough to discourage would-be rebels from taking up arms against the federal government, there are many other practical reasons as well. The most obvious is that such a rebellion would be doomed to failure from the outset.
In both the American Revolution and the Civil War, rebels had popular support for their positions. Prior to the Revolution, patriot activists had gained control of colonial legislatures and militias. Modern militia activists are fond of claiming that only three percent of the colonial population took up arms against the British government, but the percentage of the colonists supported the struggle for independence was much higher, approximately 40 percent by the end of the war according to some recent estimates. In the Civil War, secession had overwhelming support in both the Confederate state governments and among the white Southern population.
Today, opinion polls may point to unhappiness with the current federal government, but it is beyond debate that the current government was elected by a majority of American voters. Rebels would be fighting against the democratic will of the American people. If mainstream conservatives, to say nothing of advocates of revolution, cannot win at the ballot box, it is extremely unlikely that they would be able to win a war of rebellion. Even among the people who voted against President Obama, roughly half the country, many would not support an armed revolt.
Historically speaking, insurgencies almost never defeat conventional armies. The only real hopes for most insurgencies are to outlast their foe or hope for aid from outside. In the American Revolution, the Minutemen did not defeat the Redcoats on their own. The war did not end until after the French entered the war on the American side with a massive contribution of regulars and naval ships. In Vietnam, the South did not fall to the Viet Cong as commonly believed, but to a conventional North Vietnamese invasion. In Iraq and Afghanistan, insurgents, after being defeated on the battlefield, have merely waited for American troops to withdraw.
If there is little hope of a militia insurgency defeating the federal government on its own or benefitting from a foreign intervention, the big question is how the U.S. military would react. Members of the armed forces take an oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. In a situation with rebels illegally taking up arms against the constitutionally established and democratically elected government of the United States, the course of action that America’s soldiers would take should be clear.
The irony of an armed revolt by militia members is two-fold. On one hand, recent polling in the run-up to this year’s elections indicates that voters will hand the Democrats a historic defeat. Such a rejection of progressive policies after six years of Barack Obama and eight years of Harry Reid could indicate the electoral course correction back to constitutional principles that many militia members claim to desire. Violence against federal law enforcement or military personnel could endanger that correction by pushing moderate voters away from conservative candidates and back toward the Democratic liberals.
On the second hand, an armed revolt would give the current administration even more of an excuse to crack down on political opponents. The Obama Administration has shown the willingness to use any excuse available as a pretext for advancing anti-gun legislation and subverting individual freedoms of speech, religion and press. With a violent rebellion or insurgent campaign underway, President Obama would have the constitutional power to arrest and detain American citizens without presenting evidence against them (habeas corpus), ushering the indefinite detention of American citizens that many fear.
Conservative candidates who were perceived to agree with the insurgents who prey on their fellow Americans would likely face defeat at the polls. This would mean an increase in the liberal voting bloc that is only too willing to vote away constitutional freedoms and to confirm judges with an activist interpretation of the Constitution.
Thus, the erosion of rights feared by the militia could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.