In 1841, Texas vigilantes tied up “Buckskin Bill” McFadden and led him to a tree. As they threw a rope over one of its limbs, McFadden cursed his killers.
“You’ve stolen my life and you’ll wade through blood for it. You fellows that are grinning now will bleed and die to pay for this murder.”
“Do you think we’ll die as you’re dying to pay for murdering Lauer, McClure and Jackson?” one of them replied.
“Oh, damn you, you ain’t worth killing,” McFadden cried. “Here, help me up on this horse.”
Memorable last words, fit to rank alongside what Gary Gilmore told his firing squad: “Let’s do it.” They are related by historian William E. Burrows, who adds, “A minute later, ‘Buckskin Bill’ McFadden’s horse was led out from under him.”
This story is called to mind by the brouhaha surrounding President Donald Trump’s use of the term “lynching” to describe the irregular way in which House Democrats are pursuing impeachment. Others besides Trump have objected to the bias and secrecy of the Democrats, likening their investigation to the infamous Star Chamber of 17th-century England, But Trump’s reference seems to have touched a nerve.
The Associated Press accused the president of “stirring up painful memories of America’s racist past.” Britain’s Daily Mail said he had compared the House proceedings to “the murders of thousands of African-Americans.” U.S. Representative Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) took to Twitter to scold Trump:
What the hell is wrong with you? Do you know how many people who look like me have been lynched, since the inception of this country, by people who look like you.
And so forth.
What’s hypocritical about it is that, as the folks at RedState gleaned from just a few minutes on the Internet, “Apparently Every Democrat In Existence Used the Term ‘Lynching’ To Defend The Clintons.” Those Democrats include Senators Harry Reid (D-Nev.), John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Biden (D-Del.), Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), and even Congressional Black Caucus members Danny Davis (D-Ill.) and Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.).
Plenty of folks are having their say about this. I’d like to contribute something offbeat: Despite the heavy toll taken by racial lynch mobs in the century following the Civil War, the term “lynching” has no necessary connection with black Americans.
Summary executions have been carried out the world over, always unfairly but not always out of racial bias. This Goya painting of French soldiers shooting Spaniards in 1808 illustrates the point vividly. Even in America, the racial factor is limited. According to Tuskegee Institute figures, more than a quarter of the 4,743 Americans lynched between 1882 and 1968 were white.
The word itself comes from Charles Lynch, a Virginia Quaker who imprisoned Loyalists without proper authority during the American Revolution. Later controversy about this gave rise to the term “Lynch law,” meaning punishment without due process. But according to Wikipedia, Lynch himself “was not accused of racist bias. He acquitted blacks accused of murder on three separate occasions.”
A related word, “vigilante,” has even less association with race. The term entered American English in 1856, the year of the second San Francisco Vigilance Committee. According to historian Richard Maxwell Brown, this was the largest American vigilante movement ever. It included in its ranks Leland Stanford, founder of Stanford University, and it had nothing at all to do with blacks. The deadliest such movement, Granville Stuart’s vigilantes of Montana, likewise did not target blacks.
One of the most consequential lynchings in American history, the 1891 murder of 11 Sicilians in revenge for the slaying of the New Orleans police chief, actually was done by a mob that included both whites and blacks. Anti-Italian prejudice was definitely involved, and many if not all of the victims were probably innocent of the police chief’s murder, but the incident had one salutary effect: It made the Mafia wary of violence against the police.
The scene in “The Godfather,” where the Corleones’ consigliere warns them against murdering a New York police captain, is no lie. In 1935, Mafia kingpin Charles “Lucky” Luciano had fellow mobster Dutch Schultz whacked rather than let Schultz carry out a scheme to assassinate New York’s gang-busting prosecutor, Thomas Dewey. One could say Dewey owed his life to the New Orleans vigilantes.
That’s enough about “vigilantes.” As Brown explains, before 1856 the word most associated with lynching was “regulator.” That usage figured in the first great vigilante movement in American history.
In 1765, several thousand South Carolina settlers organized themselves as Regulators to combat the banditry prevailing there. The bandits, who included some runaway slaves but were mostly white backwoodsmen, were flogged or otherwise driven out of the region; 16 of them were killed.
While the Regulators quickly achieved their goals, their increasingly overbearing ways provoked other South Carolinians to organize a countermovement calling itself Moderators. Having expelled the outlaws, and facing opposition from among their honest neighbors, the Regulators stood down. But a pattern had been set that would repeat itself across the Southern frontier.
The earliest known use of the word “regulator” in connection with lynching has no racial connection whatever. It involves the punishment of wife-beaters. Burrows cites “what appears to be something like a 1753 version of a Dear Abby letter,” which an abused spouse who signed herself “Prudence Goodwife” wrote to a colonial newspaper:
My Case being happily nois’d abroad, induced several generous young Men to discipline him. These young Persons do stile, or are stiled, Regulators: and so they are with Propriety: for they have so regulated my dear Husband, and the rest of the Bad Ones hereabouts, that they are afraid of using such Barbarity; and I must with Pleasure acknowledge, that since my Husband has felt what whipping was, he has entirely left off whipping me, and promises faithfully he will never begin again.
Tho’ there are some that are afraid of whipping their Wives, for fear of dancing the same Jigg; yet I understand, they are not afraid of making Application, in order to have those dear Regulators indicted; and if they should it might discourage them for the future, to appear to the Assistance of the Innocent and Helpless; and then poor Wives who have the unhappiness to be lockt in Wedlock with bad Husbands, take care of your tender Hides; for you may depend upon being bang’d without Mercy.
Burrows quotes also a report in the New York Gazette of Dec. 18, 1752:
We hear from Elizabeth-Town that an odd Sect of People have lately appeared there, who go under the Denomination of Regulars: there are near a Dozen of them, who dress themselves in Women’s Cloaths, and painting their Faces, go in the Evening to the Houses of such as are reported to have beat their Wives: where one of them entering in first, seizes the Delinquent, whilst the rest follow, strip him, turn up his Posteriors and flog him with Rods most severely, crying out all the Time, Woe to the Men that beat their Wives: — It seems that several Persons in that Borough (and ’tis said some very deservedly) have undergone the Discipline, to the no small Terror of others, who are in any Way conscious of deserving the same Punishment.
’Twere to be wished, that in order for the more equal Distribution of Justice, there wou’d arise another Sect, under the Title of Regulartrixes, who should dress themselves in Mens Cloathes, and flagilate the Posteriors of the Scolds, Termagants, &c., &c.
Leaving colonial wife-beaters to their fate, let’s revisit “Buckskin Bill.” He was a casualty of the Shelby County War, a feud between Regulators and Moderators that lasted from 1839 to 1844. The violence ended only when President Sam Houston and the Texas militia prevailed upon the feudists to put their names to this document:
We the undersigned citizens of the Republic of Texas, in view of the disastrous consequences, anarchy and misrule attendant upon the late attempts in the county of Shelby and elsewhere, to turn the law from its legitimate channels, and to the end that law and order may prevail, peace and quietude restored, do hereby solemnly pledge ourselves to assist the civil authorities in carrying out, enforcing and maintaining the law of the country and to that end:
1st. Be it resolved, that we do hereby favor discarding the odious designation of Regulators and Moderators, and will henceforth be hailed and recognized by no other name than that of Texans.
2nd. Resolved, that we will forever forget and forgive and will frown upon and discountenance any and every attempt to revive the unfortunate divisions which have for so long distracted the country; that we will give the hand of fellowship to every worthy citizen, no matter under which party banner he may have rallied.
3rd. Resolved, that a voice has come to us from our firesides, from our wives and little ones, that its pleading for peace shall not pass unheeded, and we do therefore pledge our sacred honor to the strict observance and faithful performance of the foregoing resolutions.
Those are sentiments we all should take to heart, Republicans and Democrats, pro-Trump and NeverTrump alike.
And to black Americans, I would add this: Things are not always only about you. Don’t let race distort your view of current events, and don’t imagine it’s a virtue to harbor racial resentment.
Consider the fierce Trump critic Bobby Rush, who complained to the president about how “people who look like you” had lynched “people who look like me.”
Is that the standard we want everyone to adopt? “Someone who looks like you did something to someone who looks like me”? Race relations would go south in a hurry if every white victim of a black criminal, together with his friends, family and neighbors, were to take it out on everyone who “looks like” his victimizer.
Let’s say this all together: Due process is good, even when accorded to a despised political enemy. Law and order is good, even when it involves the punishment of “people who look like me.”
I’ve been arguing for years that we need to focus our resentment on actual criminals, not on each other. In particular, we should always distinguish between crime and race. I support Trump because in his rhetoric, at least, he seems to get that. The Democrats may or may not be, as Trump calls them, “the party of crime.” But the best way they could prove they aren’t would be to join him in fighting crime.
They should do as we all should be doing. We should urge Trump to make good on his all but forgotten campaign promise: “The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon—and I mean very soon—come to an end.”