President Trump's decision to send federal agents to Portland and his threat to deploy them to other cities is the latest episode in a long history of federal intervention to quell local unrest. Reviewing that history reveals how much the president’s actions differ from those of his predecessors.
The framers of the Constitution feared an overly powerful central government, especially one with a standing army capable of imposing its will. To counter that threat, they divided power between the states and the federal, government, relied on militias for national defense, and empowered local authorities to uphold law and order with the federal government lending support as needed.
Less than a decade after ratifying the constitution, the new republic faced its first challenge. To relieve debt incurred during the Revolution, Congress passed an excise tax on distilled liquor in 1791. Small farmers and distillers on the Western Pennsylvania frontier refused to pay the tax and attacked revenue agents. Protests escalated to armed insurrection. In 1794, President George Washington sent a force of 12,000 federalized militia from nearby states to suppress what came to be called the Whiskey Rebellion, but only after a getting judicial opinion from Justice James Wilson that such intervention was necessary.
The White House chose instead to use a clause in the 2002 Homeland Security Act, allowing the Secretary of Homeland Security to deploy federal agents and officers to “protect the buildings, grounds, and property that are owned, occupied or secured by the Federal Government,” as well as the persons occupying them. The secretary may use personnel from numerous agencies under the Department of Homeland Security, including the Border Patrol Tactical Unit, for this purpose.
Based on this historical overview, President Trump’s actions set a dangerous precedent. In most cases, Presidents have intervened solely at the request of local authorities and only as a result of far greater levels of violence than what has occurred in Portland. Presidents Washington and Lincoln had to suppress rebellions. Since the Civil War, however, only Eisenhower and Kennedy acted without state approval, but they were enforcing court decisions.