Blogs > Cliopatria > False Premises in a False Narrative Built on False Evidence

Sep 30, 2010 9:02 am

False Premises in a False Narrative Built on False Evidence

There may not be enough words to adequately explain the falseness of this essay from Thomas J. DiLorenzo about the history of violence in the American West. About that violence: there wasn't much. But the government did it.

"The civil society of the American West in the nineteenth century was much more peaceful than American cities are today, and the evidence suggests that in fact the Old West was not a very violent place at all," DiLorenzo writes."History also reveals that the expanded presence of the U.S. government was the real cause of a culture of violence in the American West."

In particular, he argues, the transition from a culture of peace to a culture of violence reflected the" change from militia to a standing army" during and after the Civil War, since militiamen were ordinary people who benefitted from peace:"Trade and cooperation with the Indians were much more common than conflict and violence during the first half of the nineteenth century."

I have more objections to that claim thanIcancount, but let's not make this a book-length blog post.

As one piece of evidence for the role of the federal government in creating a culture of violence, DiLorenzo describes the Sand Creek Massacre, an 1864 attack on peaceful Cheyennes camped in the Colorado Territory under army protection -- and under the U.S. flag. DiLorenzo writes that Colonel John Chivington"raided the village with 750 heavily armed soldiers," ordering his troops to kill everyone they encountered.

But there are a few things DiLorenzo never mentions in his four paragraphs on Sand Creek, which appear in the context of an essay about a culture of violence that developed because of a transition away from militia-derived peacefulness to the brutality of the federal army:

First, Colonel John Chivington was the commander of the 3rd Colorado Cavalry, composed of 100-day volunteers. The violence at Sand Creek was largely the violence of local, temporary militia. This somehow proves that the only significant violence in the American West was the result of federal brutality. As DiLorenzo writes elsewhere in the same essay,"The real culture of violence in the American West of the latter half of the nineteenth century sprang from the U.S. government’s policies toward the Plains Indians." Chivington's attack was not a manifestation of U.S. policy.

Second, militiamen who refused to participate in the massacre were themselves subjected to violence. Silas Soule, a captain present for the attack on Sand Creek who ordered his company not to fire, was shot to death in the streets of Denver --"not a very violent place at all," remember -- after giving evidence against Chivington to federal investigators. The army sent a lieutenant in pursuit of the murderer, but there was a problem: the lieutenant was found dead in his hotel room before he could make an arrest.

Third, the federal government condemned the Sand Creek Massacre, with an army court of inquiry concluding that Chivington and his men had engaged in" cowardly and cold-blooded slaughter."

So put all that together: does it add up to proof that militias, being drawn broadly from productive society, tend to be inclined to preserve the peace, while standing armies and federal policy generate a culture of violence?

In DiLorenzo's world, government makes violence, and civil society makes peace. But the reality is that both make both. Government surely organizes violence more effectively, and more government will often equal more violence -- neighborhood social groups didn't firebomb Dresden -- but government doesn't originate violent culture at a remove from civil society. The culture of violence in the American West was a long mutual production, generated and fed widely.

Look again at DiLorezno's phrasing of this argument:"History also reveals that the expanded presence of the U.S. government was the real cause of a culture of violence in the American West."

History reveals. The real cause.

History is a clean narrative that tells one clear story about causation.

And it really does work that way, if you take care to omit the inconvenient facts.

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More Comments:

James McNally - 10/4/2010

Both before, during, and after the Civil War, violence along the Kansas Missouri border was rampant. It was not the government that caused the violence, rather the fight between those who were against slavery (Kansas) and those who supported slavery (Missouri).

Andrew D. Todd - 10/1/2010

You might be interested in Richard Maxwell Brown (_American Violence_, _No Duty to Retreat_, and, I believe, also, _The Carolina Regulators_, though I haven't read that one). Brown deals with things like Texan range wars, lynchings, gunfights, etc., and develops the notion of a "Western Civil War of Incorporation," a continuation of the Civil War into the 1870's and 1880's in the form of shoot-outs, etc. between different social groups, which were either Union, connected with industry and railroads, or Confederate, primarily agrarian.