Say what you want about Cliven Bundy, but his standoff against tax collectors over unpaid cattle grazing fees is just the reminder America needs of our deep roots in libertarian insurrection.
If you’re not familiar with Bundy’s rebellion, here’s a refresher. Cliven Bundy, a Nevada cattle rancher, has been grazing his cattle on federal lands for over 20 years. In 1993, federal rules changed, and Bundy was required to pay a grazing fee. Twenty years and several court orders later, Bundy hasn’t paid a dime. As a result, a few weeks ago, government officials tried to herd Bundy’s cattle off federal lands. Not to be ousted, Bundy and a gaggle of armed supporters showed up to the scene, ready to stick it to the man. The federal representatives abandoned Bundy’s cattle, and are still trying to figure out how to react.
As outlandish as this might seem in today’s society, Bundy is following in the footsteps of a long line of American rebels, including Daniel Shays. Shays was a Revolutionary War veteran whose debt-financed agricultural endeavors were badly affected by the post-revolutionary economy. When Massachusetts’ Governor Bowdoin cracked down on debtors, Shays and a group of other farmers took arms. Shays and company confronted Bowdoin’s militia, and after a few shots were fired, both forces scattered and the rebellion failed. In the subsequent election, however, Bowdoin was trounced by John Hancock, who lowered taxes and eased regulation on debtors.
A bit closer to home, the Whiskey Rebellion of 1800 followed a similar trajectory, in which Western Pennsylvania distillers opposed a tax on bartering used grain. George Washington, eager to flex his new constitutional muscles, led a troop of 13,000 militiamen to confront the rebels, who disbanded before the army arrived. Washington won the battle but lost the war, however, when Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic Republicans came to power in 1801 and repealed the whiskey tax. Though Shays’s Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion failed in their original motives, they had a significant impact on subsequent electoral and legislative outcomes.
Similarly, Bundy’s Rebellion will not succeed. When history looks back on our racist cattle rancher, he’ll be remembered as a nutjob who fought the law and saw the law win. But it’s worth noting that Bundy’s actions are bringing important issues to the national dialogue. Maybe the federal government shouldn’t own 80 percent of Nevada’s land. Maybe taxes and regulations are hurting the little guy too much.
Rebellions like Bundy’s remind us of the importance of liberty in our country’s past, and make us think about its appropriate role in our future. As Thomas Jefferson said of Shays’s Rebellion, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants…. God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion; what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms.”