Hudspeth in Wilton: Insurrections old, and new

Stephen Hudspeth

Stephen Hudspeth

Staff / Hearst Connecticut Media

A reader asked if I was planning to do a column on the January 6th, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. I replied that I didn’t have anything to offer beyond what has already been said by others. However, as I reflected on the subject of the Wilton Library’s and Wilton Historical’s joint “Tycoons: Bane or Benefactors?” series beginning on February 27th, I thought I might actually have something different to offer on insurrections.

The first of the tycoons to be addressed in the series is Nicholas Biddle. By the early 1830s, Biddle as the President of the Second Bank of the United States had amassed tremendous power rivaling that of U.S. President Andrew Jackson himself. When Jackson opposed Biddle’s demand that the Bank’s federal charter be renewed (its original charter was soon to expire), Biddle did all in his power to see that Jackson would not be reelected to a second term.

“All in his power” included bribing politicians himself and also using the Bank’s correspondent regional banks around the country -- that relied on the Bank for liquidity and reserve back-up -- to do bribing of their own (with sweetheart loans to politicians a favorite bribery vehicle). It further included making every effort to rile up the public with press that Biddle controlled portraying Jackson as a tyrant and unearthing any dirt on him that Biddle could find or manufacture. All of that failed as Jackson was swept to an overwhelming second-term victory, followed shortly thereafter by the Bank succumbing when its charter renewal was rejected by Congress.

Moving ahead to the end of the 19th Century into the early 20th Century brings us to the subject of the second session of this series: J.P. Morgan. Morgan’s power was such that he was able singlehandedly to put a stop to the Panic of 1907 that convulsed the stock exchanges and then the major banks that had loaned funds for stock investments, threatening to take down the whole financial system a la the financial collapse of 2008. Morgan simply stated that he was putting his own personal wealth behind stabilizing markets, and they were stabilized largely on the strength of that statement.

Yet Morgan was also the central figure in the Northern Securities Trust that came to control all of the railroads from Chicago to the West Coast, crippling farmers and merchants alike with steep increases in rates as competition among the railroads fell by the wayside. The Sherman Antitrust Act had been passed a decade earlier, but Morgan thought that no one would have the temerity to actually use it against him, and he had politicians and even judges in his hip pocket. However, President Teddy Roosevelt did have that temerity. Had he not, the economic fabric of our country would likely have changed markedly with plutocrats running the show. As it was, the trust was ordered dissolved in 1904 in a 5-to-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision, and with it the era of the trusts (cotton, sugar, oil, you name it) came to an end.

Fast forward three decades to the presidency of FDR: a Congressional committee held investigations into whether there was a fascist coup attempt against FDR to replace him with a dictator. Whether that attempt actually had legs or was simply idle musings by a small group of tycoons and disaffected retired senior U.S. military leaders is debated among historians, but a well-respected retired Marine Corps general who refused to participate testified before Congress that it really was in the works. Gray Shirt and White Shirt “militia” irregulars along with a hoped-for mass of military veterans were alleged to be its intended muscle.

These are but a few examples of insurrectionism that has been part of America from Aaron Burr’s secessionist plans in the very early years of our nation forward. Was January 6th serious and should we be concerned about it? Of course, but it’s not the first time, and sadly it probably won’t be the last. The Biddles and Morgans of this world will try to convince the “little guys” that they are being misused by government and that the tycoons are on their side when the reality is, of course, quite the opposite, and the Citizens United decision has provided them more financial power to work their mischief. Nevertheless, we’ve survived some major insurrection attempts taking a variety of different forms yet each ultimately unsuccessful.

That’s probably something to take heart from -- but, as they say, there’s always a first time….