Despots Near and Despots Far

Which is worse – the tyrant who lives afar or the tyrant who lives next door? Tyranny from local powers is often worse than the tyranny of more distant despots. Yet local tyrannies, as oppressive as they may be,  face limits to their power that larger tyrannies need not fear. 

Man will wield power. Its form may change with time and place, but power will always be sought and power will always be used. Inevitably some will wield more than others.

But how much more? The question soon forms: should we distribute power among the many? Or is it better to concentrate it at the center?

In some ages and in some places this is an academic question. Those least satisfied with current arrangements are often those least able to change it. The most dour among them will ask the question in a more cynical way. Which is worse: the tyrant afar or the tyrant next door?

Adam Elkus tweets:

 Lynn Rees wrote on a similar theme a few months ago:

Dispersal of power is often confused with localization of power. But localized power, if consolidated power, is just as oppressive as remote consolidated power. Dispersed power must be broad and deep. It must be broadly dispersed not only in the large but in the small, not only remotely but locally. 

A local monopoly of power is as dangerous as a remote monopoly on power. [1]

In a recent post he adds:

There is a tipping point between the dispersed strength that favors liberty and the consolidated strength that favors tyranny. Localizing power away from a global center is insufficient. More appeal hurt from private wrongs than public hurt from government. A consolidated local grudge is more tightly held than a dispersed global grudge. Words and activity in private law dwarf words and activity in public law. [2]

These gentlemen have a point. For all of the flak the National Security Agency has taken for violating the rights of the billions of individuals it has collected metadata on, nobody so violated can claim the NSA used explosive charges to break down their front door, stormed their house with a team of men decked out in military gear, shot and killed their dogs, then pulled them across the living room at gun point and forced them to kneel in their underwear on the floor in front of their broken door while ransacking their home. [3]

Local tyranny is tyranny indeed.

But is it the worst type of tyranny? Is systematic oppression more common or more severe when the center holds or when the center gives way?

A trip to America’s past – in a day and age when the center did not hold – may help answer this question.


The deadliest spree of lynch mobbing to mar the Antebellum South occurred in 1835.  The location was Madison County, Mississippi, a county more than 70% black and only a few decades settled. A rumor spread that Madison county slaves were planning an insurrection for the 4th of July. Slaves from the plantation in question were tortured into ‘revealing’ additional details said that the idea sprung from traveling salesmen and preachers who visited slaves while wandering through the county. Deathly afraid of this mass insurrection, the “best” citizens of Madison county convened their own extra-legal citizen’s court and posse to hunt down those responsible for stoking the fires of revolt. At least 24 men died at their hands.  Seven of these were white men, one was a slave holder. The rest were slaves. Others were “slicked” in lieu of capital punishment, “in which the prisoner is stripped naked, laid on his belly, his hands and his feet fastened to four pegs; when with a coleman, he receives the stripes from different hands.” [4] Such unrestrained tyranny exemplified the Antebellum South at its worst.

But it could have been much worse. It almost was. William Freehling explains what stymied the flow of Mississippi blood:

What ultimately stopped this terroristic purification was Madison County’s attempt to purify Hinds County. Among the over 50 alleged insurgents named by Saunders and Cotton were two nortslaveholders who lived across the county line in Hinds, outside the turf Madison County mobs could “legitimately” intimidate. The Madison County Committee of the Respectable, seeking to pass respectable limits, dispatched its cavalry. Armed Madison horsemen, led by a small slaveholder named Hiram Perkins, demanded the right to extradite accused nonslaveholders over the county line. 

At stake in Madison County’s demand on Hinds County was the right to terrorize beyond local limits. At stake in Hinds County’s response was the southern belief that only local folk could coerce each other. Patrick Sharkey, a powerful Hinds County slaveholder and justice of the peace, moved to take care of his folk, black and white. The justice of the peace declared his neighboring whites innocent. He sent Hiram Perkins and friends emptyhanded back to their folk. 

The returning horsemen’s tale enraged Madison County’s Committee of the Respectable. The kangaroo court ordered a beefed-up cavalry to procure the accused “at all hazards.” Patrick Sharkey also must be extradited for “trial.” A man so protective of suspected insurrectionists was probably “soft on slavery” and an “enemy of Mississippi.” 

Patrick Sharkey proved not soft on anything. Such incredible suspicions of such a credible Southron illustrated why democrats demanded restraints on terrorists. Justice of the Peace Patrick Sharkey’s cousin was William Sharkey, chief justice of Mississippi’s highest court. Both Sharkeys exemplified a ruling class determined to rule its turf. 

Patrick Sharkey placed his fight for local folks’ turf and for private dictators’ noblesse oblige in a strange garrison. Or rather, Sharkey-‘s fort was appropriate for a class sometimes equating mob justice with privies. The justice of the peace barricaded himself and his family in his Outhouse. There he waited to ambush invading horsemen. 

Hiram Perkins and his Madison County gang galloped onto Sharkey’s property. Perkins trotted past an outhouse window. Sharkey fired. Perkins tumbled. The battle of the privy was on.

Madison County cavalrymen poured bullets in the offending window. The offended Hinds County patrician stuck out his gun and returned fire. A blast shattered Sharkey’s gun hand. Shifting hands, he fired, fired, fired. One victim,thigh gushing, tumbled almost atop the dying Hiram Powers. Another invader, collar ripped off his coat, had reason to thank heaven for losing but a garment. Another half-inch and the chief justice’s cousin’s bullet would have ripped the governor’s nephew’s jugular.

Invaders had seen enough of the gunman of the outhouse. Picking up dying commander and wounded fellows, they retreated across the county line. Sharekey knew they would return. He rode over to his county seat to request protection from his folk.

Hinds County’s own “Committee of Safety” moved to “try” Patrick Sharkey, its own alleged traitor. Madison County citizens rode over to demand extradition of the accused. Chief justice William Sharkey moved in to represent his cousin. The chief justice lamented his court’s temporary powerlessness. He urged Hinds County folk to protect “citizens of their own county from trial beyond its confines,” until regular courts could reconvene. Sharkey’s neighborhood, rallying behind its own, armed to defend. Madison citizens armed to lynch. “A civil war must ensue,” cried a handwringing observer.

The imminent showdown, no longer a pitched battle between the chief justice’s and the governor’s folk, would be a brothers’ war between two slaveholding communities. The contest would involve not whether one slaveholder was loyal to slavery but whether folk could violate other folk. The warfare might indicate whether violent means of social control would be narrowly confined to a neighborhood or pass beyond county lines.

The battle became the most significant war never fought in the Old South.Vigilantes never passed that county line. Madison County citizens, although bent on blood revenge, ultimately honored local limits on folk bloodletting. 

They disanned. Hysteria ended. Tyranny over whites could not be extended to other folks’ terrain.

Madison residents subsequently discovered that they had gone further than democratic despotism could sanction. Once Chief Justice William Sharley’s court system resumed operations, justice of the Peace Patrick Sharkey strode inside the courthouse. The commander of the outhouse sued Madison County assailants for damages. Through the legal system, Sharkey could exert leverage across county lines, the very power extralegal mobs lacked.

Sharkey won. His assailants had to pay $10,000. Whether in Mississippi in the 1830s or Tennessee in the 1850s whether victims were disreputable grocers or respectable titans, extralegal terrorists might find violating democratic law to be very expensive. [5]

Madison County’s insurrectionary panic of 1835 is a chilling example of the evils local prejudice of local power can inflict upon local inferiors. Yet it is also an example of the very real limits facing local tyrants. The Madison campaign of terror could not pass the county line. The scale of their tyranny was limited by the scale of their control. The blood shed could only ever be local. 

Economist like to talk about “economies of scale” – the factors that allow the costs of production to decrease as the scale of production increases. In most cases, the larger a business or productive enterprise becomes, the cheaper and more efficient it is. 

Despotism smiles on economies of scale. 

The first and most important  difference between the despot far and the despot near is the scale of his control. Both can perpetuate unspeakable evil and do so without facing opposition. But the consolidated power of the local tyrant can only reach so far. The consolidated power of the global tyrant knows no bounds – and is more efficient because of it. The difference between local tyranny and global tyranny is the difference between a pogram and a Holocaust. To the individuals oppressed these differences are trivial. A dead man is dead, whether he died with ten or with 5 million others. But to humanity the difference between ten men and five million matters. 


Two years before lynch mobs assembled in Madison County to put down a slave insurrection, a mob of a different type assembled in Jackson Country, Missouri. Jackson County was just as rough and just as new as Madison County, but far less black. There were not enough slaves in the county to spark fears of slave rebellion. The declared enemy of the Jackson County public were Mormons.

Mormons began streaming into the county in 1831 when the Prophet Joseph Smith announced that it was the place the Lord had chosen to gather scattered Israel. Family by family and company by company Israel gathered. Some 1,200 Mormons settled in Jackson county between 1831 and 1833. The previous settlers were a poor fit for the new-comers. Missourians were Southerners or Butternuts; the Mormons were overwhelmingly Yankee. The Missourians supported slavery; the Mormons condemned it. The Missourians gloried in the dirty, daring, and free wheeling world of a remote frontier outpost; the Mormon communities were organized under strict hierarchy and strove to hold all property in common. Few Missourians allowed religion much place in their lives; Mormons were united in their desire to build a millennial utopia on Missouri sod. And more Mormons kept on coming.

The conflict between the two cultures came to a head in July, 1833. When the Mormon newspaper Morning and Evening Star printed an editorial savaging slavery the old denizens of Jackson County decided they had had enough. 400 assembled and proceeded to burn down the Mormon printing press and general store, tar and feather the Mormon bishop who lead the community, and then threatened more violence if the Mormons did not leave Jackson County.

So they did. They fled to where their enemies would not hurt them: next door to Clay County.

 The story would repeat itself several times in the decades that followed. The Mormons would move from Clay to Caldwall County in 1836. By this time they numbered some 12,000, and that was enough to upset the balance of Missouri state politics as whole. When fighting between Mormons and Missourians broke out in nearby Davies County,  Govenor Boggs (himself an old Jackson County man) issued an order that the Mormons needed to leave not only the county, but the entire state. If they did not they would be  “exterminated.”  The Mormons fled once again, finding safety on the other side of the Mississippi in the state of Illinois. Out of the swamps they built a new city, and by 1845 its size rivaled Chicago. Once again the mobs assembled, and this time they succeeded in murdering Joseph Smith. Figuring they were no longer welcome in Illinois, the saints once again left their homes, heading towards the barren and empty Great Basin. Tens of thousands made that trek West. They were glad to find that no mobs, no militias, and no governments could persecute them there. This held true until the 1880s, when the Edmunds-Tucker Act gave federal agents the power to disincorporate the LDS Church, confiscate all of its buildings and property, jail all of its leaders, fire all sitting Mormon judges and prohibit Mormons from sitting on juries, disenfranchise Utah’s women voters, annul territorial inheritance laws, and end the use of Mormon books in community schools. At this point there was nowhere else to flee to.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints survived this dark trial and thrives in the present day. What concerns us here is not the Church’s current state, but the primary strategy the Mormon people used when faced with oppression: escape. While the Mormons occasionally attempted to fight back or to appeal to a higher federal power, Exit was always their most secure defense. In the localized world of 19th century America it was a strategy that could succeed. If one county terrorized, then they would leave for another. If one state exterminated, then they would escape to another. If no place in the Union could promise protection, then they would leave it, tramping off into the wilds of Mexico. As long as tyranny was limited in scale, they could escape from it.

Exit has ever been the friend of liberty. Those of us born in an age where all men are born with a government number attached to their name sometimes forget this. Many immigrants and refugees from less ‘developed’ lands know better. Many of America’s internal migrants knew the same. The most stunning response to the entrenched racial oppression of the American South was exit. When reconstruction ended and Jim Crow laws began to proliferate in the South, blacks began to leave. Their exit was not dramatic; they made this decision to one family and one person at a time. More than 6 millions left their homes for freer lands before the Civil Rights Movement swept the South.

It is easy to look at the American Civil War or the Civil Rights Movement and conclude that centralized power operating on the large scale serves as a shield for the oppressed and a hope for the under trodden. If only this was true. Power in the center can be used just as easily to defend tyrants as those tyrannized; for every Civil Rights Act and Brown vs. Board of Education of American history there is a Fugitive Slave Act or Dred Scott vs. Sanford to match it. It is much harder to escape from this kind of tyranny. Those 6 million black men and women had somewhere to exit to. The 110,000 Japanese Americans interned in the Second World War had no such asylum.  

Despotism is wicked no matter who the despot may be. Tyranny is to be fought, be it local or  from the global center. But if the choice is offered two words are worth remembering: scale and exit. When the pursuit of liberty and happiness is at stake, they can make all the difference.


[1] Lynn Rees. “Its the division of power, stupid.” Committee of Public Safety. 11 April 2013.

[2] Lynn Rees. “Heavy Breathing on the Line: Wheel of the Mandala” 10 July 2013. Less I misconstrue either of these fine posts, I shall note that one of the major problems with localized power, as Mr. Ress presents it, is that it leads those weak to appeal to centralized power to defeat the local power which opposes them. The end result is only one power – at the top and center. Both posts are worth reading.

[3] This account is based off of the experience of Chaye Colvo when the [Maryland] Prince George’s County Police Department raided his home. To read a full account please see Radley Bakko. “Militarized police overreach: “Oh, God, I thought they were going to shoot me next.” Salon 10 July 2013.

[4] Edwin A Miles. “The Mississippi Insurrection Scare of 1835.” Journal of Negro History, issue 42. 1957 p. 52

[5] William Freehling. The Road to Disuion: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854. (New York: Oxford University Press). 1990. p. 111-113.

[6] See “Missouri” and “Missouri Conflict” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism. ed Daniel H. Ludlow. (New York: Macmillan Publishing). 1992.

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