by Will Katerberg.
Historians of the American West sometimes say that the region is like the rest of the United States, “only more so.” Recent news from Nevada has reminded me of this truth. American politics sometimes is crazy, Nevada politics only more so.
This brings us to Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who this past month has had an old-fashioned, gun-toting standoff against the federal government, specifically the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). He seems to have won the standoff, for the moment, and he was lauded as a patriot by conservatives for taking it. They compared him to Rosa Parks and Mahatma Gandhi and BLM officials to Nazis. Bundy suddenly has a Wikipedia page. True celebrity!
Bundy himself may be nuts. His claims that African Americans today would be better off picking cotton as slaves suggest it and led to his downfall as a popular consevative symbol. But simply dismissing him as a nut would be a mistake. There’s more to the story. Bundy’s standoff had a lot of supporters, including some state representatives, and his political views and style are deeply rooted in the 250-year-old American political tradition.
Is saying this a defense of Bundy? Or to damn that tradition? You decide.
The Bundy family claims to have been grazing cattle on federal land since the 1870s. But since 1993 Cliven Bundy has refused to pay the BLM grazing fees. A federal court gave the BLM authority remove his cattle in 1998; another judge affirmed this authority in August 2013. Bundy says he won’t pay and won’t leave.
In March 2014, BLM officials decided that enough was enough and started rounding up Bundy’s cattle.
Bundy sent letters to local, federal and state officials, warning of a “range war” emergency. He called on people in the region to help him defend his ranch against the government. In April, armed individuals and several contingents from militia groups around the country (e.g., Oath Keepers) joined unarmed protesters in “the Battle of Bunkerville.”
Though no one died in this quixotic range war, minor scuffles did ensue. The BLM closed roads to keep protesters contained in specific areas. But complaints about free speech violations led federal officials to allow peaceful protestors to go where they wanted. A police officer pushed Bundy’s sister, knocking her down. Other officials used a Taser weapon on a protestor. Bundy family members claim to have been Tasered. Federal officials claim that protestors assaulted a police dog and officers.
The standoff escalated with increasingly heavily armed federal officials, including snipers, and warnings from them about using tear gas on protestors. The protesters threatened to put unarmed women at the front of the barricades.
The standoff descalated in mid-April with a cautious BLM suspending the roundup and a promise to return Bundy’s cattle. But the BLM says that is not done with Bundy.
Bundy insists (against historical evidence) that the land belongs to Nevada, not the federal government. He doesn’t recognize the federal government “as even existing,” he’s said, despite the fact that Article 1, Section 2 of the Nevada constitution itself states that a citizen’s first allegiance is to the federal government.
Like the militia supporters that rallied to his cause, Bundy claims to be a “sovereign citizen,” answerable only to “common law,” and so free of the authority or constraints of local, state and federal laws. “Sovereign citizens” believe that conspirators have secretly replaced the federal government set up by the Founding Fathers with a system based on admiralty law. Some point to the Civil War as the time when the conspiracy originated, others to the New Deal.
On a small scale the Bundy standoff echoes the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s, when ranchers, developers and politicians in the West campaigned against federal control of public lands in the region, incited by growing regulations on land use designed to protect the natural environment. This campaign recently has been revived.
The roots of Bundy’s range war go deeper still, however, to the origins of the U.S. in revolution. These include fears of conspiracy and corruption in government that threaten to subvert the people’s liberty and enslave them. American revolutionaries inherited such ideas from Britain, notably in the English Civil War of the 1600s and political debates between supporters of parliament and English freedoms and supporters of the prerogatives of the crown. Apocalyptic traditions of Christianity added to conspiracy fears, by leading people to see ordinary events as part of cosmic battles between God and the devil. Bundy’s racial comments also hark back to the Revolutionary era, in the assumption that white men naturally are meant to be free, while non-whites, especially Africans, are not ready for such freedom.
Such ideas–about liberty, slavery, race, hostility toward government, and the threat of conspiracy and corruption to (white) freedom–powerfully shaped American politics into the twentieth century, in conflicts over slavery that led to the Civil War, the imposition of Jim Crow in the South in the late 1800s, opposition to the New Deal, and the defense of segregation in the 1950s and 1960s.
It is too simple to impose all of this history on Bundy and his armed allies, let alone on all of the exuberant conservatives who rallied to his cause. But Bundy’s views of the federal government and African Americans are part of this long history. Proponents of ideas like these have included leaders of the Revolution, anti-Federalist critics of the Constitution, leading nineteenth century intellectuals, and influential state and federal representatives and senators, even presidents, into the twentieth century century (and occasional presidential candidates into the twenty-first century).
If you want to read about the deep history of these ideas, a good place to start are books by Bernard Bailyn, David Bennett, David Brion Davis, D.J. Mulloy, Gail Bederman, Winthrop Jordon, Edmund Morgon, Robin Einhorm, Eward Blum, and Catherine Stock.
William Katerberg’s areas of focus are the history of ideas, the North American West, environmental history, and world history. He is the chairperson of the History Department at Calvin College.