Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Political Assassination: The Violent Enemy of Democracy

The U.S. likes to pride itself on its regular peaceful transfer of power every 4 or 8 years when a new president is elected.  But our nation also has a long history of political violence.  Whereas Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other former British colonies gained their independence through renegotiating their social contracts with the mother country (and India had a nonviolent revolution), the U.S. defended its declaration of independence by means of a war.  And we began with two huge contradictions: a policy of genocide and assimilation toward the indigenous population (“First Americans” or “Indians”) and chattel slavery toward kidnapped Africans and their descendants–both policies of great structural violence.  So, it is probably not surprising that political violence has had deep roots in U.S. history: Shays’ Rebellion, the Trail of Tears, waves of anti-immigrant violence (directed at different times at the Irish, Jews, Slavs and people from Southern  Europe, Chinese, Japanese, Hispanics, Arabs, Muslims, etc.), the War with Mexico, the military theft of Hawai’i, the Philippines, and much else.  The record is far too large to recap here.

But one example of the dark side of our history that we need to remember today is the history of political assassination in this country.  Political assassination is an act of violence and of domination. It is inherently anti-democratic as it claims to know better than the people who elected someone (or were about to elect someone) who should lead the people–and a willingness to violently impose this “greater wisdom” on the populace.  Democracy is more than elections, but clean, non-fraudulent elections (even in situations with limited choices) are a nonviolent, anti-authoritarian, anti-domination  practice.  The more thoroughly a given society is a participatory democracy, the more it rejects political violence in a very practical way (even if a person or party is elected whom no democrat and no peacemaker would celebrate). Process–practices–matter as much as individual results of elections.

I would argue that a series of political assassinations from my early childhood (Pres. John F. Kennedy in ’63; Malcolm X in ’65; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Sen. Robert Kennedy in ’68) derailed progressive social movements and ushered in a political deep freeze for 40 years–a time which saw the nation repeatedly come close to proto-fascism. I say that not because any or all of these men were saints–each had his own set of major faults.  But their violent deaths greatly damaged the country (and, because of U.S. power abroad, the world).  In 2 cases (JFK and RFK), the assassinations deliberately negated the electoral will of the people. 

The U.S. has lost four (4) presidents to assassination:

  1. Abraham Lincoln (1865)
  2. James A. Garfield (1881)
  3. William McKinley (1901)
  4. John F. Kennedy (1963).


But this is not the whole story, even  restricting ourselves to U.S. presidents.  The list of failed assassination attempts on sitting presidents is much longer.

  1. Andrew Jackson (1835)
  2. Abraham Lincoln (1861)
  3. Theodore Roosevelt (1912)
  4. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–a month before his inauguration!)
  5. Harry S. Truman (1950)
  6. John F. Kennedy (1960, 1961, in addition to the successful assassination in 1963)
  7. Richard Nixon (1974)
  8. Gerald R. Ford (2 attempts in Sept. 1975)
  9. Jimmy Carter (1979)
  10. Ronald Reagan (1981)
  11. Bill Clinton (2 attempts in 1994)
  12. George W. Bush (Feb. 2001, Sept. 11, 2001, 2005)

There are also presidential candidates who have been assassinated such as Sen. Robert Kennedy (1968) or assassination was attempted (e.g., arch-segregationist Gov. George Wallace of Alabama), or threatened with assassination (e.g. Barack Obama).  And some presidents died in mysterious circumstances that may have been assassinations such as:

  1. Zachary Taylor (1850–although exhumation and testing for arsenic in 1991 may have laid this rumor to rest)
  2. Warren G. Harding (1923–Mrs. Harding refused to allow an autopsy to determine cause of death).

Other major political assassinations and attempts in the U.S. include:

  • Sec. of State William Seward (1865) who escaped an assassination attempt by a co-conspirator of Lincoln’s assassin.
  • Anton Cermak, Mayor of Chicago (1933), killed in the assassination attempt on FDR’s life.
  • Sen. Huey P. Long (D-LA) (1935)
  • Gov. John Connally (D-TX) (1963), injured in the assassination of JFK.
  • George Moscone, Mayor of San Francisco and Harvey Milk, Supervisor of San Francisco (1978).  (Milk was the first openly gay man elected to office in the U.S.  Sen. Diane Feinstein’s political career was launched in response to these assassinations, dramatized in the new film, Milk.)
  • Vernon Jordon, civil rights activist (1980).

This is just a small sample of the way that political violence, especially assassination and attempted assassination, have distorted U.S. society and politics, replacing democratic action with authoritarian domination and violence.  It doesn’t even count the long history of lynchings, either. 

This background is a major reason I found the “terrorist” accusations made by John McCain and Sarah Palin about then-Sen. Barack Obama to be so dangerous.  Such demagoguery could well have resulted in nutcases attempting to kill him out of a warped sense of patriotism. (Criticisms of policies are legitimate, hate-speech is not.)

Let us work to put an end to such political violence here and around the globe.

February 2, 2009 - Posted by | assassination


  1. Michael how should our government react when a political assassination occurs? This is not a solely American phenomenon. It has a history of its own.

    Comment by Paul | February 2, 2009

  2. Paul, you’re right that political assassination has a history around the world. I do not have any easy answers to it. However, I think that we should get our own house in order, first, before trying to tell others how they should handle their history of assassination.

    Again, I see no simple solutions. Obviously, the easy access to guns in the U.S. is a factor, but it is almost as easy to get guns in Canada or Switzerland, but both countries have MUCH lower homicide rates in general and political violence has played a much smaller role in both their histories.

    We should begin, of course, with refusing to have government-sponsored assassination in the U.S. The CIA repeatedly attempted to assassinate Fidel Castro during the 1960s. The CIA also helped assassinate Patrice Lumumba, the democratically elected prime minister of the Republic of Congo, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, & Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president of Chile (which led to years of military dictatorship in Chile). It is very disturbing to me that high-profile TV preachers like Pat Robertson have actually called for the U.S. to assassinate several foreign leaders, most notoriously, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela!!

    They say that charity begins at home. So should social criticism. If we change the culture of our churches so that they refuse to support violence (the Religious Right is super warmongering!), if we shut down assassination programs in our intelligence agencies, if our political candidates (e.g., McCain & Palin) and media personalities (e.g. Rush Limbaugh) have to pay a social price for stirring up violence, maybe we will be in a better position to help others address their assassination problems.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | February 2, 2009

  3. Rush Limbaugh is a putz and unfortunately a lot of Americans follow his line. Our record with regard to foreign leaders leaves a lot to be desired too I agree.I recall the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II and the killing of a Catholic Bishop in (I think) El Salvador.In fact murders of religious leaders seem to be on the rise. I have real issues with Castro and to a lesser extent Chavez, but there are ways to counter their actions without killing them. In the recent past Communists used political assassination as a tool of their agenda. Sadly, we have resorted to it too.

    Comment by Paul | February 2, 2009

  4. I would like to see included in this article the assassinations of Sen. Paul Wellstone, Cpl. Pat Tillman and Robert F. Kennedy.

    Comment by Hal O'Leary | April 30, 2009

  5. Mr. O’Leary, if you read carefully, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination was included more than once. I have seen no credible evidence that Sen. Wellstone’s plane crash was an assassination, tragic as it was. As well, Pat Tillman’s death was caused, it seems, by accidental friendly fire, not an assassination, though the military cover up and attempt to turn Tillman into a war hero for propaganda purposes was atrocious.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | October 4, 2009

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