There is a widespread distrust, if not outright hostility, towards the federal government in the United States today. It can be seen in the increasing popularity of the Tea Party Movement, the rapid growth of armed patriot militias, and heard in the daily political discourse of ordinary Americans. It should come as no surprise that the Tea Party movement has adopted Ron Paul as its informal spokesman, reflecting the general political climate of anti-government hysteria that is flourishing throughout white America. According to a recent Gallup poll, fear of “big government” has reached a near-record level, with 64% of Americans viewing Big Brother as the largest threat to future of the nation.1 In truth, there is nothing new about these sentiments. As we shall see, they can be traced far back into American history, at least to the time of the Civil War, and at their core, they are fundamentally a reaction to the gradual erosion of white privilege and white supremacy that has taken place over the last 100 years or so.
While the Gallup poll reveals that a majority of Americans distrust and resent the federal government, it also obscures the fact that these sentiments are deeply racialized. As another poll shows, while a majority of white Americans believe that the federal government is doing too much in ensuring equal opportunity in employment, education, housing, and healthcare, a majority of Blacks believe that the government is not doing enough to secure these ends.2 This discrepancy reflects the different roles assigned to the federal government by whites and Blacks respectively. Historically, whites have looked to Uncle Sam to promote and protect white privilege and supremacy, and opposed any steps taken by federal government to integrate non-whites into the social structure on equal terms. Thus, whites have tended to view any legislation passed by the government that promotes racial equality as unjust, if not outright tyrannical. Blacks on the other hand, believing in the promises of opportunity and democracy espoused by America, have tended to look to the federal government to secure their civil rights and to promote equal opportunity. While Blacks have looked upon Uncle Sam as their reluctant protector, whites are more and more coming to see the federal government as an intrusive, corrupt and oppressive force, imposing its will upon a betrayed settler nation.
The promise of American democracy was never intended to extend beyond the bounds of white male property owners, which practically every white male could become. As John Jay wrote in the Federalist Papers at the dawn of independence, “those who own the country ought to govern it.”3 This premise was taken for granted by all of the founding fathers and built into the very structure of the U.S. government. The ever-exalted “separation of powers,” said to form the core of democracy, was in fact designed to protect the interests of the minority, that is, as Alexander Hamilton put it, “the propertied classes.”4 As Blacks at the time were not considered human, but chattel, and could not own property, they were never included in America’s democratic vision. As revolutionary historian J. Sakai wrote in his groundbreaking work Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat, “we need to see the dialectical unity of democracy and oppression in developing settler Amerika.”5 From its very inception, America was conceived to be a settler democracy of, by, and for European settlers, with Blacks, Native Americans, and all other non-white people as colonial subjects. This is the key to understanding white America’s historical relationship to, and its present resentment towards, the federal government.
Up until the mid-nineteenth century, the federal government allowed a great degree of autonomy and sovereignty to state governments, its role confined largely to exterminating Native Americans and conducting foreign affairs. However, beginning in the 1850’s some major contradictions began to emerge between the industrial capitalist states of the North and the agrarian slave states of the South, fracturing the Union into two irreconcilable halves. The conflict principally revolved around land, labor, and each sides’ desire to expand its mode of production westward across the newly conquered frontier. Renowned scholar W.E.B. Du Bois notes in his definitive study Black Reconstruction in America that the Civil War “was a war to determine how far industry in the United State should be carried on under a system where the capitalist owns not only the nation’s raw materials, not only the land, but also the laborer himself; or whether the laborer was going to maintain personal freedom, and enforce it by growing political and economic independence based on widespread ownership of land.”6 The morality of slavery was never seriously at issue; what was at stake was the future of the American empire itself and who would rule it – the Northern industrial capitalists or the Southern slave planters?
None of this is to say that slavery or Blacks were merely incidental to this conflict. On the contrary, “the heart of the matter was the slave system,” and Blacks were at the very center of this system.7 However, the Northerners were never genuinely concerned about the liberty of Blacks, nor were they motivated by anything other than unadulterated self-interest. Their intention at the beginning of the Civil War was not to abolish slavery ,but merely to contain it within the South, to prevent its expansion westward, and to preserve the Union at all costs. For the South, this curtailment of its liberty to expand to new frontiers spelled certain death. Thus, the slave states opted to secede from the Union in the hopes of forcing a compromise on “terms which would include national recognition of slavery, new slave territory, and new cheap slaves.”8 The Southern states were not going to blemish their honor or accept defeat by allowing the federal government, controlled by the North, to dictate the limitations to the slave system.
The issue of state sovereignty also played a major during the Civil War. Indeed, some members of the Confederacy argued that state sovereignty was the principal matter of contention during the Civil War, with slavery having nothing to do with it at all.9 However, the appeal to “state sovereignty” during the Civil War actually served to conceal the white supremacist agenda of the Confederacy. By using race-neutral political language, the Confederates were able to obscure the fact that what was at issue was the states’ alleged right to enslave, oppress, and exploit Blacks. Many Southerners felt that they should be free to practice slavery, and any measure adopted by the federal government to curtail or undo this practice was an act of absolute tyranny. It was at this time that many Americans, not just in the South, came to view the federal government as an alien and coercive instrument of tyranny.
The Civil War was extremely vicious and brutal, with casualties ranging in the hundreds of thousands. As the war intensified, for reasons of both expediency and necessity, the Union forces decided to begin enlisting runaway slaves as soldiers. Even before the Emancipation Proclamation, that is, before the federal government formally abolished slavery, the mere presence of Union troops in Southern territories elicited slaves in the area to emancipate themselves as they fled across Union lines in search of sanctuary.10 The Union forces didn’t know what else to do with these fugitive slaves but employ them as laborers for the military or enlist them as soldiers. Abolition was the next logical step from there, so on January 1, 1863, President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, instantaneously liberating all of the slaves in Confederate territory (but not outside of it).
To most Americans, North and South, this unilateral decree issued by the President was an act of treachery, an all-out assault on white supremacy. As Du Bois pointed out, “of all that most Americans wanted, this freeing of the slaves was the last.”11 For Southerners, this was an attack on property – the ultimate tyranny, the supreme act of betrayal. For Northerners, it was a grave injustice inflicted upon their white brothers, an unfortunate consequence of a tragic war. At the same time, Northern workers felt their own white privilege threatened because they feared that the freed slaves would now migrate to the North and compete with whites in the labor market, driving down wages.12
With the defeat of the Confederacy, the federal government immediately set out to reconstruct the South upon a new basis. Union forces occupied the Confederate states and thus helped to usher in the only genuine democratic phase of American history until that point: Black Reconstruction. It was during this period that white Americans, mainly in the South, began to see the federal government as an enemy of the “white race.” The federal government forced the Confederate states, literally at gun-point, to adopt new state constitutions which “provided for equal civil rights, established universal suffrage and disenfranchised disloyal white citizens.”13 It is estimated that perhaps 200,000 whites were disenfranchised during Reconstruction, while 703,459 Africans were enfranchised following the passing of the 13thand 14th amendments. Thus in 1867, there were more Black registered voters than white registered voters in the South.14
Even more than abolishing slavery, the radical measures passed during Reconstruction raised the hostility of whites towards the federal government to epic proportions. One can hardly imagine the shame and humiliation of these proud Southerners, under military occupation, forced to watch their former “property” roaming freely among them, even governing them! None of it of course would have been possible without the armed forces of Uncle Sam, which imposed Reconstruction on the South and sustained it for many years after the war. Scalawags were just as hated as the freedmen, with white mobs frequently castrating them if they were found alone.15
It wasn’t before long, however, that white Southerners began to mount a counter-revolution against Reconstruction in an attempt to restore white supremacy and reduce Blacks back down to their natural place. To achieve this, whites began to form secret para-military organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), the White Caps, the White Cross, and the White Legion. These terrorist groups sought to overthrow Reconstruction by inflicting sheer terror on the Black population. “During the 1868 elections in Louisiana, for example, some 2,000 Afrikans were thought to have been killed or wounded, with many more forced to flee. In Shreveport, a gang of Italian fishermen and market venders called ‘The Innocents’ roamed the streets for ten days before the elections, literally killing every Afrikan they could find. Some 297 Afrikans were killed in New Orleans.”16 This campaign of terror was carried on for ten years, until the last Reconstruction government fell in 1877 with the Hayes-Tilden deal.
The KKK is probably the most infamous white para-military group in American history. More than any other organization, it was responsible for terrorizing any Black person who participated in politics or otherwise supported Reconstruction. The Klan was very popular among the white masses and it was very effective at restoring white supremacy throughout the South. Back then, the KKK was extremely pro-American,but at the same time, it was an “extralegal counterrevolutionary force literally at war with the established government”.17 It was largely fighting to reverse the policies imposed by the federal government on the South, which they believed threatened the integrity of their white, Christian nation. There is a revisionist tendency among historians to depict the Klan as some fringe group that did not engender popular support for its campaigns of terror, but nothing can be further from the truth. In reality, the Ku Klux Klan and their agenda of white supremacy were as American as apple pie.
As noted above, the terrorist tactics of the Klan and other vigilante organizations succeeded in overthrowing Reconstruction in the South. In the 1877 Hayes-Tilden deal “the South promised to accept the dominance of the Northern bourgeoisie over the entire Empire, and the permit the Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes to succeed Grand in the U.S. Presidency. In return, the Northern bourgeoisie agreed to let the planters have regional hegemony over the South, and to withdraw the last of the occupying Union troops so that the Klan could take care of Afrikans as they wished.”18 The defeat of Reconstruction gave birth to the era of Jim Crow, which was a way for Southern states to reestablish white supremacy without federal intervention. The South was reintegrated back into the U.S. and granted a degree of autonomy over their own racial policies.
With Jim Crow, white supremacy was safe for the time being, but it couldn’t last forever. Jim Crow was essentially a form of legal apartheid, of de jure segregation, enshrined in state law and enforced by the local police forces, if not the Klan. In the North, racial segregation was not legal, but there was actually de facto segregation, with Blacks mostly confined to urban ghettos and projects and consigned to the lowest rungs of society. Although Blacks were U.S. citizens on paper, they were denied their civil rights at any time and this created an intense climate of resentment on the part of Blacks. This contradiction culminated in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
As the Civil Right struggle got underway in the mid-1950’s, white America had a relatively harmonious relationship with the federal government, in both the North and South. The New Deal had done a lot to boost working-class whites into the ranks of the middle class, alleviating some of their apprehensions toward Big Government. Whites in the South were content with the arrangement that had been in place since the end of Reconstruction and everything seemed to be tranquil. But beneath the surface a storm was brewing of magnanimous proportions. Blacks were sick and tired of the second-class status they were relegated to and they began a campaign to attain full civil rights and equality before the law.
The Civil Rights struggle originated as a direct challenge to Jim Crow in the South. Black students from Northern universities traveled into the deep South where racial prejudice was very intense. They staged sit-ins at segregated facilities, refusing to comply with Jim Crow laws. In almost all cases, the local police were called in to beat and arrest the demonstrators. Hordes of white masses would also band into mobs and attack protestors, even killing some. The violence unleashed by white Americans on peaceful Black protestors brought Jim Crow into the national spotlight, pressuring the federal government to do something about this blatant disregard for civil rights in the South. The government had its hands tied however because the overwhelming majority of white Americans did not support civil rights for Blacks. It was common to hear whites call for “respect of law and order,” as they criticized Blacks for breaking segregation laws to attain their civil rights. The term “law and order” is in fact a race-neutral euphemism for “stay in your place” with a racial slur attached at the end. Because the injustice of Jim Crow could not be rectified by any other means but civil disobedience, whites were essentially telling Blacks to just be quiet and accept the status quo.
It is interesting to note that while Blacks looked to the federal government to protect them during these protests, whites looked to Big Brother to “restore order” and arrest the demonstrators. This once again reflects the different roles assigned to the government by Blacks and whites respectively. On the one hand, you have Blacks expecting Uncle Sam to live up to his rhetoric of freedom and democracy, and to provide protection to those pursuing their legitimate civil rights. On the other hand, you have whites expecting the government to repress any challenge to white supremacy and to defend the status quo at all costs. The federal government, however, had its own agenda, and reluctantly decided to side with the civil rights movement. Even as it urged caution and patience to the Black civil rights leaders, the federal government was actually worried that the civil rights movement could get out of control and become radicalized. This is what impelled the Johnson administration to pass the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. Predictably, Southern whites saw these pieces of legislation as violations of their state sovereignty, reviving long slumbering anti-federal government sentiments among them. Whites in the South felt betrayed by Big Brother yet again because the government had sided with non-whites against its own white American children, undermining the rule of white supremacy.
To address some of the racial inequalities that existed in the North, which were causing riots in major urban cities on the East and West coast, the federal government even adopted a policy of Affirmative Action. This policy was designed to create equal opportunity for minorities in all domains of social life. For many white Americans, this was the last straw. Ignoring the fact that white Americans are already levels above non-white Americans in virtually every social indicator, many whites viewed the Affirmative Action measures as unjust acts of tyranny intended to destroy the white man in his own country. It is even common to hear some whites claim today that “Blacks” or “Mexicans” have “taken over” in this country. Any little step taken by the government to reduce white privilege and redistribute wealth or resources to non-whites is viewed by Euro-Americans as attacks on America itself.
Our analysis has shown that the current climate of distrust and hostility by whites towards the federal government has deep historical roots. These sentiments originated first in the South during the Civil War, when the Union government conquered, occupied, and imposed its will on the former confederate states. A radical program of Reconstruction was implemented by the federal government, which disenfranchised a large number of white confederate loyalists and enfranchised the former colonial subjects, that is, the slaves at the same time. Whites responded to these government transgressions with a sustained campaign of terror directed against Blacks and whites who supported Reconstruction. These reactionary measures managed to bring about the collapse of the Reconstruction governments and a restoration of white supremacy in the South in the form of Jim Crow segregation.
Starting in the 1950’s, Blacks embarked upon a campaign to attain their Civil Rights, calling on the government to apply the law equally to all citizens and demanding that it protect their rights. The government reluctantly passed legislation in the 1960’s that granted Blacks full civil rights and undermined the rule of white supremacy. These steps caused whites in the South to again view the federal government as a tyrannical power intent on “destroying America.” Following the Civil Rights struggle, the government then adopted Affirmative Action policies that further eroded the basis of white supremacy, triggering widespread white hostility towards Uncle Sam.
In all this we can see that when white Americans say that they are afraid of “Big Government,” what they really mean is that they are opposed to the government intervening in social or economic life on the behalf of non-whites. This is because whites instinctively know that in order for others to get more, then whites will have to get less, that is, will have to lose the privileges of being white.
3. John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Charles Kesler, The Federalist Papers, “Federalist #3,” (Signet Classic, 2003), p. 82
4. John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Charles Kesler, The Federalist Papers, “Federalist #11,” (Signet Classic, 2003), p. 346
5. J. Sakai, Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat, (Chicago: Morning Star Press, 1989), p. 16.
6. W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America,1860-1880, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 23
7. Sakai, Settlers, p. 29
8. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, p. 45
9. Jefferson Davis’ Resolutions on the Relations of States, Senate Chamber, U.S. Capitol, February 2, 1860, From The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Volume 6, pp. 273-76. Transcribed from the Congressional Globe, 36th Congress, 1st Session, pp. 658-59.
10. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, p. 47
11. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, p. 101
12. Sakai, Settlers, p. 29
13. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, p. 305
15. Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons. Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort, (New York: Guilford Press, 2000), p. 60
16. Sakai, Settlers, p. 41
17. Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism, p. 60
18. Sakai, Settlers, p. 41.
1. Berlet, Chip and Lyons, Matthew N., Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort, New York:Guilford Press, 2000
2. Du Bois, W.E.B., Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880,Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
3. Hamilton, Alexander, Jay, John, Madison, James and Kesler, Charles. The Federalist Papers,“Federalist #11,” Signet Classic, 2003
4. Jefferson Davis’ Resolutions on the Relations of States,Senate Chamber, U.S. Capitol, February 2, 1860, From The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Volume 6, pp. 273-76. Transcribed from the Congressional Globe, 36th Congress,1st Session.
5. Sakai, J., Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat, Chicago: Morning Star Press, 1989.