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Domestic military action
Historically Speaking
James Finck
James Finck

If you read this column, then you know my goal is not to persuade to a particular belief but to merely inform with historical knowledge.  Such is the case with many online comments I have read over the past few weeks. With protest marches widespread, President Trump has threatened to use military action to stop the violence. I read recently that if the President uses military action against American citizens, then this country as we know it is over. I am not saying that we should use the army, and am hoping it is not necessary. However, historically speaking, it has been done before and actually our Constitution was created because of it.

As always first things first, something we don’t always use as much as we should. The Preamble to the Constitution lays out the five main roles of the federal government. The government is to establish justice, provide defense from our enemies, promote the welfare of its people, secure our liberty, and of course ensure domestic tranquility. In other words, one of the principle functions of the government is to protect us from internal threats. 

In the first century of our nation, those functions meant very different things. This was the century where the federal government had little role in people’s lives. One area the government took seriously was domestic tranquility, especially when it came to strikes. As labor unions grew and began to strike, the American government always took sides with management. If the companies and their people could not break strikes themselves, then state militias and even the federal government was always willing to step in. Arguably the most famous of these strikes was the Pullman strike. 

In 1894 the American Railway Union went on strike. It started at the Pullman company town outside Chicago. Among the many complaints was that the Pullman Company reduced wages but not rent on the homes employees were forced to live in. When railway workers across the nation struck, President Cleveland called out the Army to put it down.

As I said in the beginning, the idea of using federal forces helped lead to the Constitution. When men like Alexander Hamilton called for a stronger federal government at the Annapolis Convention in 1786, they did not receive much support. However, shortly after they adjourned, Massachusetts experienced Shays’ Rebellion. As always, my space is limited, so suffice to say a group led by Daniel Shays, upset with treatment from the Massachusetts government, marched on Boston. Governor Bowdoin called out the militia, but Shays’ men were veterans and many were part of the militia. Bowdoin was forced to collect private funds to raise a private militia. Under the current government then, there was no federal support. Shays’ Rebellion scared the other states who were having similar incidents and worried what might happen with rebellions in their own areas. Shays’ Rebellion was one of the incidents that motivated leaders to meet at the Constitutional Convention to secure federal protection against domestic insurrection.  

It did not take long for the new government and Washington to use the army. In 1794 when western Pennsylvania farmers protested a new tax on whiskey, Washington sent out the U.S. Army to squash the protesters and show the nation that there was a new sheriff in town, or at least a new government. He even led the army part of the way, the only time a president marched at the head of the U.S. Army. 

Washington was not alone. In fact, three of the four presidents respected enough to make Mount Rushmore used the army domestically. Most people know Lincoln used the army to maintain martial law in the south, but he also used it to influence domestic affairs in officially union states, like Missouri and Kentucky. The army even arrested the Democratic candidate in the 1863 Kentucky governors’ election. Teddy Roosevelt did not end up using the army, but in 1902 during the Anthracite Coal strike, when management refused to negotiate with the union, he threatened to use the army to take over the mines.

Throughout the rest of the 20th century, presidents continued to use the army in domestic affairs. When WWI vets marched on Washington to collect their promised bonus in 1932, President Hoover called out the army to disperse them. Then of course there are all the events during the Civil Rights Era. In 1957 when Governor Faubus of Arkansas blocked the Little Rock Nine from entering Central High, President Eisenhower called out the 101 Airborne Division. There were several riots in 1967 and 1968, especially after the death of Dr. King, and while National Guard units handled most of the violence, in some episodes the army was called out.

I am hoping the army is not needed in the protests and that the message is given without violence. You can also share your opinions of whether the President should or should not use the army on civilians. Make your arguments for both sides, but make them correctly.


Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma and Chair of the Oklahoma Civil War Symposium. Follow Historically Speaking atwww.Historicallyspeaking.blog or on Facebook.