Taking law in their own hands Montana Freemen: Have guns, will intimidate judges and neighbors.

April 02, 1996

THE SELF-STYLED Freemen of Montana, holding off federal law enforcement, are in an American tradition as old as the republic. But so is the authority that must in the end prevail. Most of the Freemen were debtors who came to dispute the legitimacy of the political authority enforcing creditors' rights. So were some Chesapeake tobacco planters in the 1770s who became Patriots in the American Revolution.

More relevant forerunners were the farmers of Western Massachusetts who rallied behind Capt. Daniel Shays and the grain farmers of western Pennsylvania who refused to pay taxes on the whiskey they shipped east. These rebels resented high taxes and wanted to prevent foreclosure on their mortgaged farms.

Armed men shut down Massachusetts courts in 1786. They raided a federal arsenal but were repelled. The Massachusetts militia routed them with the death of a few men. That experience argued for a stronger federal government and passage of the Constitution.

The new regime of President George Washington supported itself with taxes on whiskey and other manufactures. Farmers of Western Pennsylvania who could move their crops to market only as whiskey feared for their livelihood. Rioting prevented enforcement. President Washington federalized 15,000 militia and led them over the mountains in 1794. The rebellion collapsed. So if the insurrectionists in Montana can trace their precedents to the whiskey Rebels, the FBI agents staking them out trace theirs to George Washington.

The Freemen have a record of intimidating neighbors and local law officers. They allegedly broke federal law, forging checks to buy weapons and supplies, sometimes sending a check for too much and getting a refund before the check bounced. The debtors who joined the Freemen succumbed to the hate-filled crackpot preaching of anarchic groups that rationalized criminal action.

The federal government cannot afford to lose this one, if laws that govern society are to be upheld. It also must avoid reckless bloodshed alienating more people, hence the patient response so far. Leaders of both Shays' Rebellion and the whiskey Rebellion were later pardoned so as not to martyrize them.

U.S. history affords other precedents for pressing grievances. In the late 19th century, debtors espoused such parties as the Greenbackers and Populists favoring loose money supply. That's the political way provided by the Constitution that the Freemen reject. In so doing, they are not in the American tradition.

Pub Date: 4/02/96

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