History will not soon forget the 1,500 disgruntled Americans who set out on a cold January morning with the goal of overthrowing our government. They believed the system was “rigged.” Months of semi-peaceful protests hadn’t given them what they wanted. So, led by former military members, they armed themselves and surrounded a federal building as a first step toward a coup.
But the date was not January 6, 2021. It was January 25, 1787. That’s when a group of farmers and war veterans organized by Daniel Shays staged an attack on a U.S. armory as part of an effort to overthrow the government over high taxation.
The still young American republic was without a central military and was, thus, too weak to quash Shays’ Rebellion. A hastily organized Massachusetts militia ultimately put it down.
In the wake of the one-year anniversary of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, the lesson to remember isn’t that there was another divisive U.S. insurrection in our history. The lesson to take away is America’s different response.
Former first lady Abigail Adams, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, called the Shaysites “mobbish insurgents” and “ignorant, restless desperados, without conscience or principles.”
Political leaders didn’t rush to move on from the episode; they resolved to learn from it. They recognized that the attack reflected a deeper sickness in the country, even if there was reasonable disagreement on the remedy.
That rebellion was a catalyst for the replacement of the ineffective Articles of Confederation with the U.S. Constitution in 1789. America not only needed a stronger U.S. government capable of quelling insurgencies and repelling invaders, but, more crucially, it also needed one that was responsive to citizen demands, didn’t cause them to lose faith in democracy or, even worse, seek to subvert it.
The rebellion was enough to force a reluctant Gen. George Washington out of retirement and back into the spotlight to rally Americans behind federal reforms that would ensure the American Revolution hadn’t been fought for nothing.
That swift, decisive action likely saved our fledgling republic.
We again face pivotal questions about the future of American democracy. Despite the extensive one-year anniversary commentaries about January 6, we still haven’t had a national reckoning about why it happened, nor have we come together to take stock of the discord disrupting our civic lives.
No George Washington has emerged to unite us. All we have are the lessons—and warnings—of history.
Several months after Shays’ Rebellion, James Madison warned about the danger of populist “factions” and mob rule. In a then-anonymous opinion piece advocating for the Constitution, he offered up the recourse for this menace: “There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.”
Madison considered only the second option viable. America couldn’t get rid of the root cause of mob-like behavior. The source was human nature, he argued, and rectifying it would require snuffing out liberty itself.
That left only one method: shaping a healthy democratic process as a pressure-relief valve against the mob, that is, making factions compete against one another.
Our focus should be the same today.
The attack on the U.S. Capitol was not a fluke act carried out by a small band of misfits. It was the violent manifestation of broader, seething discontent inside our political system.
The numbers tell an alarming story. The majority of Americans have lost faith in the two dominant political parties, and last year between January 21 and February 2, an unprecedented number—50 percent—reported that they were neither Democrat nor Republican but political independents.
That alone might not be a cause for concern. Growing political independence might even be considered virtuous in a healthy democracy, but that’s not the phenomenon we are witnessing.
Instead voters are sending a signal that the political marketplace is not supplying the goods they want. They only have two choices, and in many places, thanks to years of partisan electioneering, only one of those choices has any hope of winning at the ballot box.
A historic number of these consumers support blowing up the marketplace altogether. Studies show a spike in the number of voters who support political violence, including a recent poll that finds that roughly 23 million American adults believe force would be justified to restore Donald Trump to the White House. At the same time, millions express support for militias and domestic extremist groups that espouse similar views.
In short, Americans are upset with the democratic process, and a significant number of them support short-circuiting it.
If Madison is right, we won’t be able to resolve this malaise by trying to control its source. The power of human nature cannot be wrangled, only redirected, which means we have to find ways to breathe new life into the political process by injecting more choice. Only then will people feel inclined to re-engage in it rather than tear it down.
To be clear, we don’t need a new constitutional convention, but we need vast reforms that could prove in time to be similarly momentous.
U.S. leaders and ordinary Americans must consider serious state-by-state reforms to make our system more competitive, from eliminating the scourge of partisan gerrymandering to making it easier for independent and third-party candidates to get on the ballot, not to mention making voting itself easier and more secure.
While these reforms will not happen overnight, such a generational undertaking is necessary if we want America to reach its 300th birthday.
If we don’t act, January 6 won’t be a day that lives in infamy but a day of ignominy—of public shame—for our collective failure to protect that which brought us together in the first place: democracy.
Michael Steele wrote this piece with Miles Taylor, cofounder of the Renew America Movement and the former chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.