Two months after the January 6 Capitol riot, it’s now obvious that the threat of mob attacks on the government will continue to hang over the rest of the Biden years. That continuing threat was clear on March 4, America’s original Inauguration Day, when the House suspended business following rumors of another armed assault on the Capitol. This time, the mob never materialized, but, unfortunately, with many people continuing to embrace the false belief that the 2020 election was stolen, the question of whether and when online extremism will veer into mob violence again remains an urgent political concern. But where is the line between illegitimate mob violence and a legitimate act of political protest?
As it happens, this was a question the Founders thought about extensively. Their political and moral philosophy was based on what they considered a self-evident truth: Only by using our powers of reason to moderate our selfish, ego-based passions and emotions can we achieve the classical virtues—prudence, temperance, justice, and courage—necessary for personal and political self-government. A mob, by contrast, is animated by vices: rashness, self-indulgence, vulgarity, vanity, ambition, boastfulness, buffoonery, and envy, as listed by Aristotle. These are just the sort of traits inculcated online, with likes and clicks rewarding the worst of human instincts.
The Founders would have been appalled by the attack on the Capitol but not surprised. Their reading of classical history and moral philosophy led them to fear the precise scenario that transpired on January 6: that lying demagogues would incite violent mobs to subvert the republic by putting factional loyalty above the public interest. As one of John Adams’s favorite historians, Thomas Gordon, put it: “When Passion prevails, Reason is not heard.” Passion would lead to the rule of the mob, reason to the rule of law.
So how to create a government based on reason, not passion? That was the question the Framers of the Constitution came to Philadelphia to answer in May 1787. Months earlier, they had watched Shays’ Rebellion in horror, as a violent group of farmers in western Massachusetts mobbed the county courts and the federal armory because they were unable to pay their creditors. James Madison pointed to the Shaysites in “Federalist No. 10” as an example of a mob, or faction, which he defined as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
Madison’s definition of faction is famously slippery—in a democratic republic, who defines the “permanent and aggregate interests of the community”? And who is to judge whether a particular form of crowd action is based on unreasonable passion rather than the cool voice of reason? Moreover, the Founders themselves had not always been averse to mob action as a type of political protest. As the legal scholar Larry Kramer argues in The People Themselves, and in this interview, crowd action, which the Founders also called “mobbing,” was an accepted form of political protest in the Revolutionary era, when it was highly regulated by well-understood rules and customs. In England during the Middle Ages, if a sheriff thought a mob was illegitimate, he would literally read it the Riot Act. The leaders of the mob would then deliberate before deciding whether to proceed.
To the Framers, the Boston Tea Party was the paradigm of a legitimate crowd action. After spending 19 days trying to negotiate a way to prevent the tea from being offloaded into Boston Harbor, which would have triggered customs duties, the Sons of Liberty boarded the British merchant ships on the 20th day, right before the tax was due, and dumped the tea into the harbor. What set the Tea Party apart from Shays’ Rebellion, or from the Massachusetts mob that attacked the home of the colonial governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, in 1765, wrecking his mansion and gardens and destroying his books and papers?
In his forthcoming book, The Words That Made Us, the Yale law professor Akhil Amar emphasizes that, unlike the Hutchinson mob, the Boston Tea Party was “nonviolent” (it “did not come close to killing anyone”), “proportionate” (“the Sons destroyed no more property than necessary”), and “public spirited and non-piratic” (“the Sons dumped tea to make a legal and political point”). It was, Amar argues, a stylized, highly regulated political protest—the Sons of Liberty even swept the decks of the ships before departing—rather than a violent insurrection. As Kramer notes, they also later compensated one of the ship owners for a padlock they broke to seize the tea.
During and after the Constitutional Convention, those who had endorsed crowd action against the British during the American Revolution argued that violent insurrections against legitimately constituted democratic governments were different. Samuel Adams, a leader of the Boston Tea Party and other crowd actions throughout the Revolution, had become governor of Massachusetts in 1787, and he criticized Shays’ Rebellion as a Tory effort to thwart the principles of the Revolution. Now that the people were represented in and by the government, Adams and others argued, they no longer needed to apply direct pressure on their democratically elected judges and representatives.
Was this rationale merely self-serving, now that Adams and his allies were the ones in power? That conclusion would discount their entire theory of self-government. The American experiment is an attempt to channel the selfish passions of human beings into legitimate politics by creating institutions that promote thoughtful deliberation over the impulses of the moment. The state and federal constitutions ratified from 1776 to 1787 were designed to give we the people (or at least propertied white men) the opportunity to seek a redress of grievances through peaceful assembly, petition, speech, and representation, without resorting to the brutal force of mob action.
Mob violence became further delegitimized in the years leading up to the Civil War, when it took the form of racist attacks on Black people and white abolitionists. In 1837, a young Abraham Lincoln expressed renewed alarm about violent mobs when he warned that, unless Americans could govern themselves by reason rather than passion, the Constitution would fall to demagogues. Lincoln’s speech “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” delivered to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Ilinois, was responding to mob violence, including a racist murder in St. Louis and the lynching of the abolitionist newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy. In his speech, which denounced “mobocracy” and mentioned the word mob eight times, Lincoln implicitly blamed the violence on the followers of the populist Andrew Jackson, who was known as “King Mob.” Like Madison, Lincoln warned that the mobs were being egged on by populist demagogues, “men of ambition and talents” who “continue to spring up amongst us,” seeking the “ratification of their ruling passion” by tearing down the government and the laws, rather than “supporting and maintaining” the edifice erected by the Founders. The only way for the American people to ensure that “support of the Constitution and the laws” remained the “political religion of the nation,” Lincoln concluded, was for them to reaffirm their commitment to personal as well as political self-government, to restrain their irrational passions and hatreds with the cool voice of reason..
Social media, of course, have exploded many of the cooling mechanisms that Madison assumed would ensure the rule of reason by slowing down the formation of violent mobs and impetuous factions, much as telegraphy did in Lincoln’s day. Madison assumed that mediating elites—such as representatives, senators, and a class of enlightened journalists he called the “literati”—would deliberate with their constituents and readers and persuade them to be governed by reason and fact rather than emotion and anger. But algorithms on social-media sites have a negative loop, recommending more and more extreme versions of related content that inflame passion over reason in precisely the way the Founders feared. As a result of algorithms’ radicalizing power, Madison’s dynamic has been reversed: Today, senators with previous Supreme Court clerkships pander to the irrational passions of their most conspiracy-theory-minded constituents.
Some Founders feared that ordinary citizens would never be able to govern their partisan passions with reason sufficiently to be capable of personal and political self-government. When John Adams read Adam Smith’s account in The Theory of Moral Sentiments of the “passion for distinction,” or the desire to be admired and approved of by others, he became despondent about whether leaders (including himself) could resist the lure of courting popularity with the mob. For that reason, Adams decried universal suffrage and came to conclude that all offices should be hereditary, writing to his son in 1795: “The Mob must ever be in the Power of Government—Government never in the Power of the Mob.” Nevertheless, Adams’s wife was more optimistic. In 1780, Abigail Adams wrote to her son John Quincy Adams, warning him to use his powers of reason to subdue what she called “the passion of anger.” “Behold your own Country, your Native Land suffering from the Effects of Lawless power and Malignant passions and learn betimes from your own observation and experience to govern and controul yourself,” she wrote. “Having once obtained this self government you will find a foundation laid for happiness to yourself and usefullness to Mankind.”
In the end, the American experiment was a wager that Abigail, rather than John Adams, was correct about the ability of citizens to govern themselves through reason rather than partisan passion. In his farewell address, warning that the “spirit of party” might undermine the republic, George Washington noted that “it agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.” Washington’s solution to the spirit of party was to promote “virtue or morality” through “institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge,” including a national university that would lead to a more enlightened public by teaching history, constitutional principles, and the habits of deliberation. STEM education alone is not enough to save people from algorithmic rabbit holes and echo chambers that can culminate in mob violence. What’s needed is civic education about American history, digital literacy, skeptical deliberation, and emotional self-discipline. The Founders called this “virtue” and believed that it was the foundation of personal and political self-government and happiness.