Nine Failed Uprisings That Changed History

The Boxer Rebellion

[Note from Mark: as I'm stressed out with other film-related duties, my friend Thomas Lakeman returns with another list guaranteed to expand your historical consciousness.] History loves winners, and whenever we talk about big turning points it's easier to point to the revolutions that actually took off - American, French, Russian, Industrial... but what about the ones that never got off the drawing board? As it happens, quite a few upstarts seemed to have made an even bigger splash by losing - and no, we're not talking about the infamous "dotcom bubble" of 1999-2000. Here, then, is a humble list of history's more important fumbles:

  1. The Assassination of Julius Caesar. In 44 BC, a group of Roman patricians decided that the victorious general was about to crown himself dictator and promptly dispatched him. After that, nothing went right for the conspirators: the rebel armies of Brutus and Cassius were routed by Marc Antony at the battle of Philippi - paving the way for the ascension of Octavian (later Augustus Caesar) and the 500-year Roman Empire.
  2. Masada. In AD 73 this mountain stronghold became Israel's Alamo - a noble last stand of 1,000 zealots who chose suicide rather than submit to Roman power. Its fall ended the 1,900-year-old kingdom of Israel; and that, thought the Roman legions, was that. Yet over the centuries to come, Masada became an enduring symbol of Jewish nationalism, culminating in the 1948 establishment of the modern state of Israel... and modern Middle East tensions.
  3. Wat Tyler's Rebellion. In 1348 the Black Death killed nearly half of England's working population, raising the price of labor; the ruling classes responded by taxing the stuffing out of the serfs. Finally, a farmer named Wat Tyler decided he'd had enough: after killing a local tax collector, he left a 100,000-strong peasant army to invade London. Though cruelly tricked and executed by King Richard II, Tyler inspired future rebels who ultimately led England towards a constitutional government.
  4. Shays's Rebellion. The fledgling American republic got its first test of fire in 1787 when Daniel Shays, a Revolutionary war veteran, led a group of farmers in an armed protest against the government's arbitrary taxation and worthless currency. 1,100 of Shays's men were brutally gunned down by Massachusetts militia. Public outrage forced the Continental Congress to admit something wasn't working; that same year, they dumped the flawed Articles of Confederation in favor of our current U.S. Constitution.
  5. The Revolutions of 1848. The French and Industrial revolutions brought vast new freedom and power to Europe's rising middle classes - power that the crowned heads of Europe were loath to concede. In 1848 matters came to a head in a firestorm of revolutions in nearly every part of Europe. Suffice to say the bourgeoisie lost. For the ruling classes, however, it was a Pyrrhic victory. Nationalism and industrial might became the new watchwords for Europe, leading to the socialist revolutions (not to mention two world wars) of the 20th Century.
  6. John Brown's raid in Harper's Ferry. Slavery had been America's proverbial hot-button issue for half a century when John Brown launched his abortive slave rebellion in 1859. Before that, compromise still seemed a viable course. Afterward, Brown's capture and execution sent a deeply divided nation spiraling into Civil War: a course that ultimately brought an end to legalized slavery in America.
  7. The Boxer Rebellion. Okay, so they weren't really boxers; they were the "Righteous Society of Harmonious Fists." The point is that, by 1900, they decided they'd had it with foreign missionaries and other European busybodies. Their attempts to clear China of all foreign influence led to a brutal crackdown by the decadent Qing dynasty and colonial armies from Europe and Japan. The failed rebellion forced China to look outside its own borders - setting the stage for its emergence as a world power today.
  8. The Beer Hall Putsch. In 1924 the leader of a little-known group of Bavarian wackos called the NSDAP - that's "Nazis" for short - tried to seize power by kidnapping the entire Munich government. Adolf Hitler fired the first shot in a local beer hall... then turned tail and ran like a coward when pitted against superior loyalist forces. Hitler managed to turn his trial into a soapbox for his twisted beliefs, bringing national prominence - and new supporters - to the Nazi movement.
  9. Watergate. The motley group known as the Plumbers really weren't looking for much: just the ability to blackmail, arrest, or hound anybody who tried to get in President Nixon's way. Security guard Frank Wills became the unsung hero of America's greatest constitutional crisis when he arrested five of them during an attempt to bug the Democratic party headquarters in 1972. The short-term result: the first-ever resignation of a U.S. president. The long-term result: the irreversible knowledge that somebody has to watch the watchmen.