Corps de l’article

On 27 June 1967, in the midst of the counter revolution against the Civil Rights Struggle in America, H. Rap Brown said: “Violence is as American as cherry pie”.[1] America conducted a revolution to free itself from rule across the Atlantic at the end of the Eighteenth Century. Its Declaration of Independence stated that: “All men are created equal”, seemingly oblivious to its use of persons seized from Africa as slaves. The American Civil War resulted in the killing of 750,000 Americans.[2] During the Nineteenth Century, there was what Mark Lause describes as the “ethnic cleansing” of indigenous peoples (p. x). To this, we can add the lynchings of African Americans after the ending of slavery, the Civil Rights Struggle and the killings associated with the more recent Black Lives Matter, the violence of labour struggles,[3] and the never-ending killings, now mass killings including school children, linked to America’s gun culture.

Hollywood has glorified cowboys and the West as simple morality stories between “good” and “evil”, in abstracting from what, in fact, happened during this era of bloodshed and murder. The point of Mark A. Lause’s The Great Cowboy Strike: Bullets, Ballots and Class Conflicts in the American West is to put an end to such abstractions and investigate the struggles for power and domination which occurred on the prairie. He demonstrates that violence was used by the rich and powerful to enhance their position and tame dissent against those who resisted their domination. Private armies were employed against small farmers and ranchers as well as cowboys who utilised strikes to seek improvements in their economic position.

The title of the book suggests a focus on strikes by cowboys. While Lause clearly explains the background to and events associated with a wave of strikes which occurred in the years 1883 to 1886, his work is really an account of radical politics, or the ferment of ideas, movements and political parties, in short what he refers to as Third Parties during the decades after the Civil War. His book reflects extensive research on events on the prairies and in the meeting places of those pursuing a radical agenda and those hell-bent on ensuring that this did not occur, and those “charged” with the responsibility of killing off those who got in the way of “progress.”

One of the major points made by Lause is that these events in the West have been generally ignored by American historians. He rejects the supposition that radical ideas emerged in the East with baggage brought to America by immigrants in the latter decades of the Nineteenth Century. He maintains that they were “homegrown,” a response to the repression experienced by those who found themselves dominated by ruling elites from the East or in England.

Cowboys were invariably successful in their strike endeavours in either resisting cuts to or obtaining increases in their pay. The bosses were unable to find an alternative workforce to perform the arduous tasks associated with four of fifth month, sixteen hour a day cattle runs. But those cowboys who were involved with strikes were not offered jobs after the run, were blacklisted and, if they sought to establish their own cattle herds, were accused of being ‘rustlers’ and became targets for hired killers.

Lause devotes a number of chapters to how violence was employed against political opponents or those who challenged the powerful. He examines how a bombing was used by Republicans to frame an opponent prior to an election in Coffeyville, Kansas. He also documents how a judge in Woodsdale had his bodyguard kill a political opponent on the doorsteps of the court house in Woodsdale, Kansas in front of witnesses; the assailant was never charged. He provides another example of where locals sought to bring to justice persons who had killed four unarmed men. Their prosecution was overturned by the US Supreme Court on the basis that no court had the jurisdiction to make such a prosecution.[4] Lause, whose writing has a nice sardonic touch, comments: “That a Gilded Age Republican high court could place something as basic as the prohibition of murder beyond the responsibility of government has delightfully anarchist implications” (p. 213).

In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner delivered a speech on the role of the frontier in American history. He maintained that American democracy “gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier” (p. 246).[5] Lause demonstrates the disjuncture between this claim and the reality of what happened on the frontier. As new frontiers were found, powerful elites used violence to slap down those who resisted their attempts to dominate and control economic and political life. His major conclusion is: “The use of violence became inseparable from an inversion of the responsibility for its employment. Exaggeration of actual or misinformation about violence aimed at whites by Indians, insurgent political movements against the armed minions of the state, or strikers against employers became an issue only because it justified violent repression. What the mythology celebrated as ‘law and order’ or ‘civilization’ required brutal feuds and range wars, which treated as ‘savage’ any serious movement of workers or radical criticisms of capitalism” (p. 249).

Lause forces us to rethink the West and the role it has played in American history. It was in the West that American employers learnt the arts of taking on and corralling cowboys, uppity farmers and ranchers that got in their way, and Third parties and thinkers outside the mainstream who sought to challenge their hegemony. Lessons learnt on the prairie were adopted by owners of railways and mines in the West, and then by steel, car makers, manufactures and others in the East with the increasing industrialization of America. In the South, violence was used to keep African Americans and do-gooders under control and naturally morphed into retaliation against the struggle for Civil Rights. Mark A. Lause concludes his account with the clarion call for the essential role of historical scholarship: “The past is not buried simply by the sedimentation of passing time, but also by the desire to entomb a living history beneath iconic and lifeless statuary. Ultimately, though, without excavating the past, no rational or coherent future can be likely” (p. 269).