U.S. History of Reactionary Politics

The United States of America has a proud military history. Those who serve swear allegiance to a document, rather than to a person or piece of land. U.S. soldiers have fought, bled, and died for the inalienable rights laid out in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

From the siege works of Yorktown, to the rocky slope of Little Round Top, and the unforgiving jungles of Vietnam, our country has relied on the courage of U.S. soldiers to give their last full measure of devotion. However, the same government and society that has relied on the U.S. soldier to give their all has oftentimes given much less in return.

Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays and his “Shayites” being repelled by the private militia at Springfield, Massachusetts, 1787. Taken from Wikimedia Commons.

This repeating trend had its beginnings in the Revolutionary War, with the Continental Congress’s inability to properly feed, supply, and pay the young nation’s loyal soldiers of the Continental Army. Almost a century later during the U.S. Civil War, Black soldiers of the United States Colored Troops received significantly less pay than their White counterparts. After the First World War, veterans who went to D.C. in the tens of thousands to protest for the bonus payments promised to them by Congress were driven from the streets by tanks in the summer of 1932. For those who have given so much, the U.S. soldier has often been met with broken promises.

What, then, is the legacy of veteran political activity throughout U.S. History? How, if at all, does it connect to the events of January 6th? In short, an understanding of the events of the past only complicates what we think we know about veteran political activity. The convoluted legacy of Thomas Jefferson provides a unique perspective into the mindset of the “rebellious” rioters at the Capitol. Manifesting Jefferson’s words on the “tree of liberty,” and U.S. History as a political tool, many of the rioters believed they were being patriotic. It is perhaps here that we can better understand why these veterans were there that fateful day.

I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.

Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, January 30, 1787.

This striking photograph captures the political use of the American Revolution. Blink O’fanaye via Wikimedia.

From the Continental Army soldiers of the Pennsylvania Line to Vietnam Veterans Against the War, United States soldiers have a notable history of engaging their government through both protest and violence. The timeline below highlights a few select events throughout U.S. History when veterans took political action using violent or nonviolent means. It aims to contextualize different moments in U.S. History which have involved veteran political activity and, through doing so, provide a foundation for understanding the events of January 6th by grounding the viewer in the past.