Glenn W. LaFantasie, Professor of Civil War History at Western Kentucky University, writes:
It’s my belief,… that American political violence is a direct legacy of the American Revolution, for the patriots’ victory in that conflict proved to the American people that violence could achieve a positive end: independence and the creation of a new nation. It is a troubling, but inescapable, bequest that stems from the fact that our nation was born in violence, and it derives from the reality that violence has ever since become not only the device of criminals, but also of government and those who disagree with the government. Public officials who condone the use of torture in recent times should, by rights, give pause when they try to condemn the actions of Jared L. Loughner, Timothy McVeigh or the Unabomber. But, typically, our public servants see no contradiction, no hypocrisy, in advocating extreme political violence against our alleged enemies around the globe while condemning political violence when it is aimed against the government — or, more precisely, against them. In other words, political violence is legitimate when the government commits it; but it is appalling when individuals commit it against the government or its representatives. Political violence committed by individuals is explained by marginalizing those perpetrators as crackpots. Political violence committed by the government is justified as guaranteeing national security.
In reckoning with the extremity of the political rhetoric of our own time, a longer view of American political hyperbole and violence suggests that as bad as the dialogue between Democrats and Republicans is right now, it pretty much pales in comparison with the virulence that has characterized American political language since the nation’s founding. That rhetoric, more often than not, has been accompanied by violence. Whether the rhetoric causes the violence is, I think, a moot point — something of a chicken-and-egg proposition. You only need to take stock of the incredibly large number of assassination attempts, aborted or successful, that have been made against our presidents or presidential candidates to understand how endemic political violence has been in our history and culture: Andrew Jackson (assaulted in May 1833; unsuccessful assassination attempt in January 1835), Abraham Lincoln (aborted attempt, February 1861; aborted attempt, August 1864; assassinated, April 1865), James A. Garfield (assassinated, 1881), William McKinley (assassinated 1901), Theodore Roosevelt (unsuccessful attempt, October 1912), Franklin D. Roosevelt (unsuccessful attempt, February 1933), Harry S. Truman (aborted attempt, November 1950), John F. Kennedy (aborted attempt, December 1960; assassinated, November 1963), Robert F. Kennedy (assassinated June 1968); George C. Wallace (unsuccessful assassination attempt resulting in serious injuries, May 1972); Richard M. Nixon (aborted attempt, February 1974), Gerald Ford (two different unsuccessful attempts, September 1975), Ronald Reagan (unsuccessful attempt, March 1981), George H.W. Bush (foiled attempt, April 1993), Bill Clinton (unsuccessful attempt, September 1994; unsuccessful attempt, October 1994; aborted attempt, November 2006), George W. Bush (unsuccessful attempt, February 2001; possible target, September 11, 2001; unsuccessful attempt, May 2005; possible aborted attempt, November 2008), Barack Obama (at least two foiled attempts). Then, of course, one must not forget the numerous political assassinations committed during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, culminating in the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., in April 1968.
Nothing, however, compares to the political violence that climaxed in the American Civil War, when Northerners and Southerners enlisted by the thousands for the sole purpose of killing one another. They turned out to be very successful in what they set out to do. More than 620,000 soldiers died in the war and hundreds of thousands were wounded, many of them maimed for the rest of their lives. No one has ever come up with a reasonable estimate of civilian casualties during the war, but it’s safe to conclude that the Civil War — by any measure — was this nation’s worst episode of political violence.