Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Freemen, a lineal descendent of the Posse Comitatus, is part of the antigovernment "Patriot" movement that sprang to life after the passage of federal gun-control legislation (the Brady Bill) and the violent confrontations between the FBI and the Randy Weaver family at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 and the Branch Davidian religious sect at Waco, Texas, in 1994. In general, "Patriots" believe that the federal government is tyrannical in character and under the control of a malevolent "New World Order" directed by the United Nations or a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. This justifies, in their minds, the formation of armed, private militias aimed at defending citizens against the threat from Washington DC.

A Freeman is, in theory, anyone who claims to be a sovereign citizen. According to the doctrine, the United States consists of two types of citizens. First are the descendants of individuals who were American citizens before the Civil War and whose status was determined by the Bill of Rights. Second are the descendants of individuals whose rights were assigned to them by the Fourteenth Amendment and subsequent legislation. Citizens of the first kind are potentially "sovereign." These Freemen may dissolve the bonds that exist between themselves and the United States by refusing to obtain driver's licenses or automobile registrations, recognize the jurisdiction of state and federal courts, or pay income taxes. In practice, Freemen have grouped together in townships located on property belonging to one or more of the individuals involved. Members of this community then claim sovereignty for the township, a status that places it beyond the law, or so they believe.

The most widely known of these Freemen townships was the Justus Township located on the Clark ranch near Jordan, Montana. In 1996 its members engaged in an eighty-eight-day standoff with authorities who were seeking to evict some members from the premises and arrest others on a variety of federal and state criminal charges. In contrast to the Ruby Ridge and Waco incidents, this event ended peacefully on June 13, 1996, with the surrender of the Freemen. On July 8 a federal jury in Billings convicted the leader of the group of bank fraud and other charges.

Freemen are vulnerable to criminal charges because of their propensity for issuing bogus checks and money orders and threatening to "arrest" judges and other public officials with whose decisions they disagree. In dealing with such officials, it has become common for Freemen to organize their own "common law" courts, which then may issue fake "liens" against the property of the offending public officeholder. On some occasions these spurious "courts" have found individuals guilty of various offenses and threatened to carry out "sentences" against them. Many Freemen are drawn to Christian Identity theology, which mixes unorthodox biblical understandings with straightforward racism. They believe that God has chosen white, Nordic yeomen, much like the Freemen themselves, to rule America.

Prior to the 1996 Justus Township episode, Leroy Schweitzer, Roy Schwasinger, and other Freemen leaders were able to earn a living by conducting seminars in which farmers, ranchers, and other beleaguered rural folk were trained in the techniques of tax avoidance through the invocation of what observers referred to as "legal magic." After the conclusion of the Justus Township standoff and the subsequent criminal prosecutions, the Freemen movement fell on hard times.

Leonard Weinberg University of Nevada, Reno

Dyer, Joel. Harvest of Rage: Why Oklahoma City Is Only the Beginning. Boulder CO: Westview Press, 1997.

Stern, Kenneth S. A Force upon the Plain: The American Militia Movement and the Politics of Hate. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

Wessinger, Catherine. How the Millennium Comes Violently. New York: Seven Bridges Press, 2000.

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