And their story teaches us an important lesson about what happens when the state abdicates it's duty to uphold the rule of law.
In the Taney County section of the Ozarks, early settlers wanted to maintain their pre-war way of life, based on subsistence agriculture, hunting, and fishing. They were mostly Democrats who had sided with the Confederates. New homesteaders, largely Republicans who had sided with the Union and were drawn by the Homestead Act of 1862, had ambitious plans to develop the region so that it would thrive in the rising American industrial economy.
Outlaws tormented the new residents, but the Democrats in charge of local government, who were sometimes kin to the criminals, usually let them off the hook. Period newspapers claimed that 30 to 40 murders were committed in Taney County between 1865 and 1882, but none resulted in a conviction.
One gang, led by brothers Frank and Tubal Taylor, ran rampant in Taney County, flaunting the cash they’d stolen. After a local businessman criticized the brothers, he found three of his prized cattle starved to death because miscreants had cut out their tongues.
In response to this and two murders that went unpunished by judges who were related to the Taylors, 13 upstanding citizens including merchants, wealthy business owners, and lawmen met to form the Committee for Law and Order. They signed pledges to “respond to the call of the officers to enforce obedience to the law.”
On April 5, 1885, the Committee called an organizational meeting on a treeless ridge (a “bald knob”) known as Snapp’s Bald near Kirbyville, just north of the Arkansas border. Roughly a hundred men listened as Nathaniel “Nat” A. Kinney, a Union Army veteran, delivered a moving speech over the bloody shirt of one of the murdered men. A charismatic jack-of-all-trades, Kinney had settled on a livestock ranch with his family in 1883, started his own Sunday School, and joined fraternal orders. After his rousing oration on Snapp’s Bald, the group voted to elect him “chieftain” of the Committee, which became known as the Bald Knobbers.
Shortly thereafter, one of the Bald Knobbers, a storekeeper whose shop was frequented by Frank Taylor, refused to advance him any more credit. According to Faces Like Devils, Frank smashed up the store. The next day, the storekeeper filed an indictment against Frank, who quickly posted bond before returning to the store with Tubal and a friend, shooting and wounding the storekeeper and his wife.
The Taylor brothers surrendered to the local sheriff, confident they would be released after a brief jail stay. But that night, a Bald Knobber posse rode their horses into Forsyth, broke into the jail, and took the Taylors. The next day, the brothers were found dead, hanged from an oak tree outside of town, with a sign affixed to Tubal’s shirt that said, “Beware! These are the first victims of the wrath of outraged citizens. More will follow. The Bald Knobbers.”
The original Bald Knobbers disbanded in 1886; with surprising swiftness, their vigilantism had transmuted into the leadership of the Republican-run local government, enabling them to punish their enemies the “lawful” way, by jailing them for tax evasion, embezzlement, and minor hunting and fishing violations.
We just witnessed eight years of a presidential administration selling guns to Mexican drug gangs, weaponizing the IRS against their political enemies, and allowing those that committed such crimes to go unpunished, and the use of the administrative rule making power of the federal bureaucracies to harass and destroy those they disagreed with. Couple that with the administration's support for the crazy edge of the culture wars, and their use of the power of the federal state to force that immorality down the throats of the people, and you have Trump.
Very fortunately, we get Trump through the legitimate and lawful electoral process. The great middle class of the country still insists on the rule of law and due process.
Absent that, we could rightly expect to say "hello" to the birth of modern day Bald Knobbers here and there all over the country. As imperfect as Trump is, in the broader view we dodged a huge bullet in this election.
All U.S. vigilante groups are in some way a representation of the American value of self-government. We are a society that was founded, at least in part, on the firm belief that the people have the right to create their own institutions of government, what is referred to as the ‘right of revolution,’ expressed right there in the Declaration of Independence. If the government is not doing what it’s supposed to, if it’s not protecting the people’s liberties, if it’s not serving the people’s interest, we have the right to rise up and replace that government. The problem is, you cannot do that on a continuous basis and have a stable society.”
Some scholars have traditionally defined vigilantes as groups of middle- and upper-class men who want to reinforce “law and order.” However, several vigilante groups were founded by members of poor, disenfranchised classes hoping to gain the economic or political power they didn’t have or to restore traditional morals. Inevitably, most groups fighting lawlessness by going outside the law become the corrupt criminal element they were trying to tamp down in the first place, which is why we should be eternally grateful that the last election had the result it did. We must be eternally vigilant that those political forces that would have continued the destruction of our values and institutions had they been elected never get the chance to gain power again.