Revolutionary War

Why the American Revolution is not a model for gun ownership today

Posted on May 8, 2013. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Colonial America, Historians, Politics, Revolutionary War, Second Amendment, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , |

Often one hears Americans on the news saying that the Second Amendment is necessary to us today because we may need to take up arms against an oppressive government in the 21st century, just as we did in 1775, and that those who anticipate doing so in the near future share the motivations of Americans during the Revolutionary War. Our thoughts on the Amendment can be found here; in this post, we will spell out why our situation in this century is not at all like that on the eve of Revolution in the 18th century, although we have the feeling this should be obvious without our intervention.

—During the Revolution, we fought a foreign government and a foreign occupation.

This is the key item to note. Granted, we overstate a little, so let’s go through it and be clear. The American colonies generally had popularly elected legislatures and royally appointed governors, so laws in the colonies came from two very different sources: representatives of the American people, and representatives of the British crown. Our experience of law was mixed. Legislatures generally made life difficult for governors who betrayed the people’s interests, especially in the realm of taxation, and so the influence of royal governors, who technically reported to no one but the king, was limited. Until, that is, the 1760s, post-French and Indian War, when London began direct rule of its colonies in North America. Parliament passed Acts (Stamp Act, Sugar Act, Tea Act, Coercive Acts) which were to be enforced without any input from legislatures. Indeed, even the governors were bypassed eventually as British soldiers were sent to America to make sure Acts were enforced. Americans who disobeyed Acts were to be sent to London for trial. This is the key moment, in the 1760s, when long-standing doubts about how much the American colonies owed to Britain were crystallized for many into clear convictions that London and Parliament did not consider Americans to be British citizens and did not grant them the rights of citizens, and were thus, through these Acts, imposing a foreign government on the American colonies. By refusing to allow American representatives in Parliament, the British government was confirming this. By sending troops to maintain order, the British government was occupying lands it believed to be hostile possessions; Americans were alien combatants.

It’s very clear that we are not remotely in that position today. Any Americans who oppose the government and/or its actions (taxation, immigration, welfare) are opposing their own government, popularly elected by their fellow Americans and even, perhaps, by they themselves. We don’t need to resort to arms to oppose our government because soldiers from another country are not in our streets and homes enforcing foreign laws. We resort to the voting booth, the referendum, and the ratification process to change or oppose our government. U.S. citizens today have rights that their government enforces and upholds—and if it doesn’t, we work through the courts and the political bodies to make it do so.

—Americans during the Revolution did not fight on their own.

They fought in their locally organized militias, which joined the Continental Army led by George Washington. They fought in the army, not as a vigilante group. Individual citizens submitted themselves and their guns to a government-authorized national army. That’s hardly what people today are picturing when they say they need guns to fight the government if it becomes oppressive. In 1775, Americans were fighting a formal war against a formal army. They weren’t sitting in their homes waiting for someone to challenge them and get blown away.

—Americans during the Revolution were fighting to keep their government alive.

Americans who fought in the Revolution were hoping to see the new government, represented by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, firmly and officially established as the government of their nation. They were not fighting to get rid of government, as so many Second Amendment fans seem to want to do today. They knew that the nation needed a strong government (though not necessarily fully centralized) to survive, and their aim was to make sure that government was fair once it was established—that’s why the Constitution was ratified by popularly elected officials, and why even common people clamored for a Bill of Rights to be added to it. Americans in the 1770s were fighting for government, not against it. They did not believe that armed individuals were a proper substitute for state and federal government.

So we have three good distinctions to draw between ourselves and our ancestors, and hopefully we can put this ridiculous argument to rest. We no longer have to use guns to maintain our freedoms; we have to use our rights as citizens to vote and participate in government to maintain our freedoms.

But what if our government becomes perverted and undemocratic, people ask? What if our political system fails? Then we’ll have to use force to protect ourselves.

it seems clear that the only way this could happen is if the American people fail in their participatory duty as citizens, so we are back to our original argument, which is that as long as we do our duty, the government we elect can never fail to be what we want it to be. It’s only by withdrawing from participation in our democracy that we lose it, and by looking for reasons to rise up in arms that we threaten ourselves with that dire possibility.

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Paul Revere with a cell phone

Posted on April 26, 2013. Filed under: Revolutionary War | Tags: |

We can’t help liking this ad with Paul Revere.

If only he had told them “by sea”. Maybe they called him back.

 

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“I have not yet begun to fight!” John Paul Jones captures the Serapis

Posted on February 14, 2013. Filed under: Revolutionary War | Tags: , , |

This thrilling quote is another most Americans know, and say, but don’t know the origins of. Here is the short but epic story of the defiant line and the man who uttered it, John Paul Jones.

Jones (born John Paul) was a Scot who was apprenticed to a ship’s captain and became a sailor. His elder brother William emigrated to America while John served on a few British ships, including slave ships. He was disgusted by the cruelty of slavery, and stopped serving on those ships, working on merchant vessels and rising to the rank of captain.

While slavery may have revolted John, he seems to have had no second thoughts about meting out violent punishment to his own sailors if he felt they deserved it. He brutally whipped one sailor, who died about a month later, and killed another with a sword. John claimed it was self-defense, but he did not wait to see if a court back home in Britain would agree, and fled to America.

He went to Fredricksburg, Virginia, where his brother William had lived and recently died. He decided to stay, and it was at this time that John Paul added Jones to his name, for reasons that are unclear but may have had to do with disguising his identity. When the Revolutionary War began shortly after, Jones traveled to Philadelphia to offer his services to the fledgling U.S. Navy. He led several raids south to the Bahamas, to raid British military supplies, and north to Canada, where he was to try to liberate U.S. prisoners of war. He failed to do this, but did capture the British ship Mellish, which was carrying supplies for British General Burgoyne (whose surrender at Saratoga in 1777 was so critical to the U.S. war effort).

While he was successful, Jones clashed with American authorities in Boston, who sent him to France to do whatever might be done there to help the war effort. John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were in Paris at the time persuading France to ally with the United States and enter the war on the American side, and Jones became friendly with Franklin, When France did enter the war, Jones sailed his ship, Ranger, into British waters to see what damage he could do. He fired on ships at the port of Whitehaven, then crossed to Scotland to try to take the Earl of Selkirk hostage at his estate on St. Mary’s Isle. The Earl was not at home, and after restraining his men from looting and burning the great house, Jones slipped away. Jones and his crew then captured the Drake and brought it to port in Brest.

The capture of the Drake was an important symbolic victory for the U.S., and as a reward he was given command of the Bonhomme Richard, a French ship given to the U.S. for the war effort. It was on this ship, on September 23, 1779, that Jones encountered the Serapis, a new British frigate on her maiden voyage, acting as part of a convoy protecting British shipping from piracy. The Serapis and the Countess of Scarborough, on sighting a French ship flying the American flag, turned to protect their convoy. The Serapis was closest, and Jones launched his attack.

The ships began firing on each other, but knowing that the British ship had more and larger cannon than his own, Jones made the bold decision to move closer to the Serapis and try to lash the two ships together, so that the Serapis could not fire its cannon without damaging itself. As his men struggled to maneuver the Bonhomme Richard, another ship sailing with Jones, the Alliance, tried to fire on the Serapis but hit the Bonhomme Richard, which began to sink. At this point, Jones was asked if he would surrender by a British sailor on the Serapis, close enough now to the Bonhomme Richard for the question to be shouted across, and it was then that Jones uttered his famous retort “I have not yet begun to fight!”

Jones finally succeeded in lashing the two ships together, and his men could pick off British sailors with their guns. The British attempted to board the Bonhomme Richard, and although they were turned back, the American flag was shot away. A British sailor on the Serapis called over to ask if the American crew had deliberately lowered their flag in surrender, an act called striking the flag. Jones called out another salty response that is not as famous as his first: “I may sink, but I’ll be damned if I strike!” Finally, a grenade thrown onto the Serapis exploded a cache of gunpowder on the lower deck, and at last the British captain surrendered. Jones and his men left their sinking ship to board the Serapis and sail it to Texel, a port in Holland. The Bonhomme Richard could not be saved, though its crew tried to repair it enough to get it to port, and they were forced to watch it sink.

For his bravery, Jones was made a Chevalier by France, and in 1787 the Continental Congress struck a gold medal in his honor. Like most American naval officers, he was discharged after the war and left with nothing to do but return to private life, which he did not want to do. He served in the Russian navy of Catherine the Great and died in Paris in 1792. He remains were returned to the U.S. in 1905.

Jones is a mix of the valiant and the troubling. On the up side, he was brave and he rejected slavery, and his victories helped the American cause in the war. On the down side, he could be savagely violent, and if war had not come along one wonders what attacks he might have perpetrated against his crew on an American merchant ship. Perhaps he is best remembered today for his service to the United States at a time when it desperately needed bold action.

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Give me liberty or give me death! – an appreciation

Posted on November 27, 2012. Filed under: Revolutionary War, The Founders | Tags: , |

Here we pay homage to Patrick Henry and his speech of March 23, 1775 to the Second Virginia Convention. The speech ends with the well-known line “Give me liberty or give me death!”. but the whole speech is well worth looking at, and makes the ending even more incredibly stirring than it already is.

Henry founded the Virginia Committee of Correspondence, was a delegate to the First Continental Congress, and was a member of the Convention which began meeting on March 20 in St. John’s Church (as it is known today) rather than the Virginia capital at Williamsburg because it had been prevented from meeting by British officials (just as Massachusetts’ Assembly had been outlawed and forbidden to meet in Boston). This was exactly 30 days before hostilities in Massachusetts between British soldiers and patriot milita led to the first battles of the Revolutionary War (see The Revolution did not begin at Lexington and Concord), so the possibility of armed conflict between a colonial militia and the redcoats was not out of the question, even in Virginia, where tensions were not running quite as high as in New England.

Patrick Henry presented a formal proposal to form a militia to Convention President Peyton Randolph. We do not have a contemporary transcription of his speech; no one wrote it down at the time, but Henry’s first biographer William Wirt pieced it together from the recollections of men who heard it, and remembered especially its stirring conclusion, and from notes in Henry’s papers.  Here it is as we have it, until the day that some new finding tells us that this version is all wrong. Frankly, we think that if this isn’t the speech Henry actually gave, it should have been, and whoever wrote it if not Henry was a master of the rhetoric of liberty we wish we could celebrate by name:

“MR. PRESIDENT: No man thinks more highly than I do of the patriotism, as well as abilities, of the very worthy gentlemen who have just addressed the House. But different men often see the same subject in different lights; and, therefore, I hope it will not be thought disrespectful to those gentlemen if, entertaining as I do, opinions of a character very opposite to theirs, I shall speak forth my sentiments freely, and without reserve.”

—Clearly some men have spoken out against forming a militia; Henry will now oppose them as forcefully as possible.

“This is no time for ceremony. The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country. For my own part, I consider it as nothing less than a question of freedom or slavery; and in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate. It is only in this way that we can hope to arrive at truth, and fulfil the great responsibility which we hold to God and our country. Should I keep back my opinions at such a time, through fear of giving offence, I should consider myself as guilty of treason towards my country, and of an act of disloyalty toward the majesty of heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.”

—If only our members of Congress today could harken back to this guiding idea(l) that “in proportion to the magnitude of the subject ought to be the freedom of the debate”; it seems today that the more important the issue, the less real debate is allowed, and only grandstanding and accusations of non-patriotism are allowed.

“Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it.”

—For Henry the situation is very clear: they as Americans are in a “great and arduous struggle for liberty”, even before any battles are fought or any war is declared against Britain. As protectors of liberty, all Americans are called to “know the whole truth” and prepare for the worst—a war with Britain.

“I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided; and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past. And judging by the past, I wish to know what there has been in the conduct of the British ministry for the last ten years, to justify those hopes with which gentlemen have been pleased to solace themselves, and the House? Is it that insidious smile with which our petition has been lately received? Trust it not, sir; it will prove a snare to your feet. Suffer not yourselves to be betrayed with a kiss. Ask yourselves how this gracious reception of our petition comports with these war-like preparations which cover our waters and darken our land. Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled, that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort.”

—Here, when speaking of “our petition”,  Henry is referring to The Declaration and Resolves drafted by the First Continental Congress in October 1774 demanding the repeal of the Coercive Acts (known to us today as the Intolerable Acts). Britain would not respond formally to the petition, and instead sent more and more troops to the colonies.

“I ask, gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission? Can gentlemen assign any other possible motive for it? Has Great Britain any enemy, in this quarter of the world, to call for all this accumulation of navies and armies? No, sir, she has none. They are meant for us; they can be meant for no other. They are sent over to bind and rivet upon us those chains which the British ministry have been so long forging. And what have we to oppose to them? Shall we try argument? Sir, we have been trying that for the last ten years. Have we anything new to offer upon the subject? Nothing. We have held the subject up in every light of which it is capable; but it has been all in vain.”

—When he talks about “the last ten years” Henry is referring to the protests which began with the Sugar Act in 1764. Americans had been protesting punitive British taxes and restrictions of American liberties, both violently and nonviolently, since that date—to no avail, as the influx of troops and the rejection of The Resolves and Declaration proved.

“Shall we resort to entreaty and humble supplication? What terms shall we find which have not been already exhausted? Let us not, I beseech you, sir, deceive ourselves. Sir, we have done everything that could be done, to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne. In vain, after these things, may we indulge the fond hope of peace and reconciliation. There is no longer any room for hope. If we wish to be free, if we mean to preserve inviolate those inestimable privileges for which we have been so long contending, if we mean not basely to abandon the noble struggle in which we have been so long engaged, and which we have pledged ourselves never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained, we must fight! I repeat it, sir, we must fight! An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us!”

—Here is where Henry really picks up steam and gets the blood of a patriot singing. Will Americans “abandon the noble struggle” which they have “pledged never to abandon until the glorious object of our contest shall be obtained”? Or will they—will we—fight for our liberty, for our freedom? We must fight, according to Henry, even if our only ally in that fight is God himself.

“They tell us, sir, that we are weak; unable to cope with so formidable an adversary. But when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or the next year? Will it be when we are totally disarmed, and when a British guard shall be stationed in every house?”

—Again, this was no idle threat or imagining, as the Quartering Act mandated that Americans offer food and lodging to British soldiers, and by this time, about half the population of Boston, Massachusetts was made up of British soldiers who were part of the troop surge to the colonies.

“Shall we gather strength by irresolution and inaction? Shall we acquire the means of effectual resistance, by lying supinely on our backs, and hugging the delusive phantom of hope, until our enemies shall have bound us hand and foot? Sir, we are not weak if we make a proper use of those means which the God of nature hath placed in our power. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country as that which we possess, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. Besides, sir, we shall not fight our battles alone. There is a just God who presides over the destinies of nations; and who will raise up friends to fight our battles for us.”

—One can almost picture those three million people cloaked in the aura of “the holy cause of liberty”, “invincible by any force”; it is a righteous army indeed that Henry conjures up for the Convention. And, as the Bible puts it, if God be on our side, who can be against us?

“The battle, sir, is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave. Besides, sir, we have no election. If we were base enough to desire it, it is now too late to retire from the contest. There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable, and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.”

—By “election” Henry means “choice”. The clanking of the chains of slavery now heard in Boston, cannot be long delayed in reaching Virginia. Henry would be proved right that the war was inevitable by the fighting outside Boston a month later.

“It is in vain, sir, to extenuate the matter. Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace, but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

Nothing we can say here adds anything to this mighty conclusion. The men of the Second Virginia Convention remembered rising from their seats in what we might call an adrenaline rush by the time Henry got out the last words, and this time, unlike when he spoke out against the Stamp Act in 1765 in the Virginia House of Burgesses, no one cried out “Treason! Treason!” (That speech was the source of Henry’s other famous ultimatum, in his reply to the shouts—“If this be treason, make the most of it.”)

Patrick Henry’s eloquence ruled the day, but was even more powerful when vindicated by events a month later in Massachusetts. He became a colonel in the 1st Virginia Regiment in August 1775, and served as Virginia’s governor from 1776-1779. He was a member of the Virginia Assembly from 1780-84, and died in 1799.

We are justified in our frustration and disgust at Henry’s slaveholding; it is our cross to bear that many of the men who spoke of and fought for liberty enslaved black Americans. We can only take comfort in the fact that 62 years after his death, Henry’s words sound remarkably like the language of abolitionists, and could well have been used to inspire the men who fought the Civil War to end slavery.

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Puritan law, oligarchy, and the Body of Liberties

Posted on September 11, 2012. Filed under: 17th century America, Politics, Puritans, Revolutionary War, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , |

Part the last of our series on the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties, the first codification of law in Puritan New England, in which we wrap up our look at this groundbreaking American political document with some thoughts on its meaning in its own time, and in ours.

This first codification of Massachusetts law was, as we saw in part 1, not easily drafted, as the people of the colony resisted doing so for two reasons: first, they felt a body of laws should develop naturally over time, as it had done in England, allowing precedent rather than law-makers to rule the day; and second because their colonial charter forbid them to create any laws “repugnant” to the laws of England, and they were not certain whether the laws they drafted would violate that tenet.

The uncertainty sprang, of course, from the fact that there was no written code of law in England at that time—its famously unwritten constitution was composed of centuries of local custom. But the Puritan leaders, and a growing number of freemen, in Massachusetts were worried about following that tradition in the New World. They worried that legal and court decisions would be made based on opinion, prejudice, or personal agenda rather than an objective striving toward justice. Just four years after landing in America, the Puritans began the lengthy process of drafting a code of laws with input from all the towns, and after six years of canvassing, drafting, reviewing, and revising, the Body of Liberties was published, with copies sent to all the towns to be read aloud and voted on.

The Body was only the first of many Massachusetts codes of law. In 1660 the Body was updated and enlarged (and renamed “Laws and Liberties”), with addenda added each year from 1662-6, and again in 1668. The Laws were revised and rewritten again in 1672, and would evolve over the decades into the state law of Massachusetts.

In its own time, the Body of Liberties was daring and innovative. Daring in that it established an independent government for the colony, with laws clearly not part of English law. The Puritans broke their charter to create their laws, and this is just one example of the commitment the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony made to independence almost from the moment of their arrival. As we’ve seen elsewhere in Puritan New England on the Edge, 1637, the people of the MBC feared a royal takeover of their colony, expecting warships from England to arrive in Boston harbor at any moment. Their response was to build forts overlooking the harbor and arm them with cannon, making the decision to fight to the death to preserve their religion, their laws, and their liberty.

The Body was innovative in that it set out a relatively brief yet comprehensive set of laws that reinforce a) the rights of freemen; b) the principle that no one is above the law; c) the right to a fair day in court; and d) the need for buy-in from the people themselves, who  first helped draft and then voted to approve and accept these laws. This was proto-democracy, and it was not being practiced in any other American colony—or many other places anywhere else in the world.

Today, the Body is mostly unknown to Americans. Most Americans, if asked what they think Puritan laws were like, would come up with the most repressive, draconian, irrational suggestions imaginable. (One example: on a recent tour of sites along the Freedom Trail in Boston, an acquaintance was told by the tour guide that Puritans put people in the stocks for sneezing on a Sunday. The Body, as readers of this series will note, contains no references to sneezing.) Modern-day Americans think of Puritans as witch-crazy religious nuts whose only goal was to oppress people. But we see from our study of the Body that to say this image is unfair is an understatement.

Why the Puritans continue to get such a bad rap is fairly clear: very few people actually read their documents. They read The Scarlet Letter in high school, hear the term “city upon a hill” used to refer to smug arrogance, and learn that Anne Hutchinson was persecuted, along with Quakers, for trying to spread religious tolerance. The overall effect is a rejection of the Puritans as unpleasant and even evil people, a fleeting example of intolerance that was stamped out by later Americans who created a fair Constitution.

Those who actually read what the Puritans wrote, and know what their beliefs and ideals and goals were, may not always come away happy and approving, but they have a much more accurate understanding of these revolutionary people, whose laws, and ideas of justice, in having shaped the political consciousness of Massachusetts, played an important role on the road to American independence and the Constitution we revere today.

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Assassin’s Creed III – giving George Washington the cred he deserves!

Posted on June 22, 2012. Filed under: Revolutionary War | Tags: , |

An acquaintance played me the preview trailer for the new Assassin’s Creed video game coming out in October. Why? Because it includes an edited excerpt of George Washington’s thrilling speech to his army before the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776 (he also included the stirring passage in his General Orders of July 2, 1776). Here is the actual text:

“The time is now near at hand which must probably determine, whether Americans are to be Freemen, or Slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own; whether their Houses, and Farms, are to be pillaged and destroyed, and they consigned to a State of Wretchedness from which no human efforts will probably deliver them. The fate of unborn Millions will now depend, under God, on the Courage and Conduct of this army—Our cruel and unrelenting Enemy leaves us no choice but a brave resistance, or the most abject submission; this is all we can expect—We have therefore to resolve to conquer or die: Our own Country’s Honor, all call upon us for a vigorous and manly exertion, and if we now shamefully fail, we shall become infamous to the whole world. Let us therefore rely upon the goodness of the Cause, and the aid of the supreme Being, in whose hands Victory is, to animate and encourage us to great and noble Actions—The Eyes of all our Countrymen are now upon us, and we shall have their blessings, and praises, if happily we are the instruments of saving them from the Tyranny meditated against them. Let us therefore animate and encourage each other, and shew the whole world, that a Freeman contending for Liberty on his own ground is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth.”

…how this man had no part in writing any of our founding documents would be beyond us if we didn’t remember his great modesty, which led him to leave the writing of those documents to men considered expert writers and statesmen. Washington consistently expressed the purpose of our revolution and the highest ideals it embodied, and his eloquence and passion should be burned into our minds all throughout our education, but they are not.

Since video games reach where school cannot, here’s hoping that ACIII will lead some people to study Washington, who seems to be portrayed as the action hero he truly was in this trailer (you are following a hooded character who is the assassin of the title; at 44 seconds Washington’s speech begins to play): Washington speech – ACIII

 

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The Boston Tea Party: what does it mean today?

Posted on December 1, 2011. Filed under: American history, Colonial America, Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , |

Part the last of our series on the Boston Tea Party considers its legacy in U.S. history, memory, and mind. With the rise of the Tea Party political party after the 2008 presidential election, this question of the meaning of the original act of protest is particularly important.

We’ve seen in this series that the original Tea Party (which was not called by that name, incidentally, until decades after the fact) sprang from a complicated and not very appealing tradition of using physical violence to achieve political goals. The governor of Massachusetts himself, Thomas Hutchinson, was forced to flee for his life with his wife and children in 1765 when a mob destroyed his home—literally ripping it to pieces—in protest of the Stamp Act.  The men of Boston who supported the Body of the People carried out many attacks on tea commissioner’s homes, families, and persons in the months before the  night of the Tea Party, attacks which we cannot approve of today. Using violence to get people to do what you want, especially in the name of justice, is the polar opposite of democracy, the representative democracy the U.S. is founded on. None of us would want to see mobs of people burning down the homes and businesses of people whose policies they didn’t approve of.

But we also see that patriot leaders in Boston realized that mob violence was not a long-term solution to Americans’ problems with British rule, and that it would not work as a political tool. Men like Samuel Adams and John Hancock knew that their goal—democratic self-rule—had to be based on civil political debate, freedom of conscience and speech, and rule of law. A war would have to be fought, perhaps, to gain independence, but after that rule of law must win the day.

That’s why the men who rallied the common people to protest were not the ones who ended up drafting the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. John Adams, not Samuel Adams; Thomas Jefferson, not Paul Revere: the men who enshrined rule of law through representative democracy were ones untainted by association with violence (except for John Hancock, an exception which proves the rule). So we can think of the Tea Party as the last act of colonial mob violence before the inauguration of the era of American democracy.

Today the Tea Party has become a synonym for “no taxes”, but we have seen that the protest against the tea was not a protest against the principle of taxation. It was a protest against a) taxation without representation, and b) taxes levied simply to fund government, with no benefits accruing to the people being taxed. No one wants to pay taxes that go only to fund the office of tax collection. Taxes are meant to better society, to provide services to those who can’t afford them on their own, not to entrench the government’s power to tax. The men who organized the Tea Party, the men who carried out the destruction of the tea, the women who boycotted tea even when they considered it vital to their families’ health all did so to establish the ideal of taxation for the general welfare. Warping that democratic goal by saying that all of those people actually wanted no taxation, that they didn’t want their money going to anyone else no matter what, is a cynical and unacceptable lie.

Let’s remember the Tea Party as it was: a gauntlet thrown down to set in motion the necessary violence of a war for independence that would, if successful, create a society where violence had no part in politics, and taxation represented a bit of freedom and justice for all.

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What happened at the Boston Tea Party?

Posted on November 29, 2011. Filed under: American history, Colonial America, Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth | Tags: |

Part 4 of our series on the Boston Tea Party examines the protest itself. We looked last time at the tradition of violence in Boston, which would lead us—and people at the time—to believe that the final protest against the tea waiting in Boston Harbor to be unloaded according to the terms of the Tea Act would be bloody. The people of Boston were exasperated by their battles with the British government over tea, and, as Thomas Jefferson said, “An exasperated people, who feel that they possess power, are not easily restrained within limits strictly regular.”

But the Tea Party itself was not violent. Here’s how it played out. Like our earlier posts, this one is deeply endebted to Benjamin Carp’s fantastic book Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America (from which the Jefferson quote comes). 

Patriot protesters had developed the habit of gathering at the Old South Meeting House in Boston, where they heard speeches by patriot leaders like Samuel Adams and John Hancock. They called themselves “the Body of the People”, and they had no official power over the colonial legislature but they were the real power in town. Their meetings were important for two reasons: first, they presented a powerful threat to the Loyalist governor, tax officials, and tea commissioners. Because the Body was not elected, the governor could not control it by dismissing its members. Second, the leaders of the Body realized that, if talk and diplomacy failed, the Body could continue to make public statements of diplomacy and non-violence while authorizing certain of its members to take bolder action on the side.

So the Body passed a resolution saying that “the use of Tea is improper and pernicious,” a relatively mild and impotent statement that they hoped official town meetings would honor and turn into law, thus putting pressure on Boston and the governor… while certain of its members cried out “informally” that they would haul the tea ships up from the Harbor to Boston Common and burn them right there [Carp 120]. Members of the Body cheered, but its prudent leaders did not record this sentiment in the official minutes.

Thus when the last political effort to get the tea sent back to England failed, the Body officially dropped the matter. The hundreds of men gathered in Old South heard the leaders officially abandon the attempt to turn back the tea. And then they began to melt away, slipping out the back exits into the night. Fifteen minutes later, the room was surprised by troops of Mohawks with axes.

Of course, these men had met amongst themselves beforehand to decide what course of action to take if the tea ships could not be turned away and sent out of the harbor. Since we cannot name many men with certainty as perpetrators of the Tea Party, it’s hard to get a lot of data on how they decided on throwing the tea into the harbor (since, as we saw, other protests were suggested, including burning the tea). But once the plan of boarding the ships and destroying the tea was hatched, things moved quickly. “They determined that it would take a few dozen men with knowledge of how to unload a ship, and so the men who signed on for the task included a mix of traders and craftsmen. Each man would disguise himself as an Indian and swear an oath of secrecy… Everyone agreed on the ground rules: no one would steal or vandalize any property except the tea itself, and not one would commit any violence or mayhem. If the destroyers worked quickly and efficiently, the job would only take two or three hours” [Carp 117].

As these men now gathered back at Old South, the Body tacitly approved what it knew was going to happen. One man remembered that the last thing he heard before heading for the wharf was  John Hancock shouting  “Let every man do what is right in his own eyes!”

Once at the ships, the men worked like professionals. The commissioners occupying each ship were identified and told to leave on peril of death. They did so. One Captain Bruce asked what the men were going to do. He was told the plan and ordered below decks with his men, and told they would not be harmed. They did so. [Carp 127] Then the Mohawks expertly hauled the tea out of the holds, working very quickly considering the huge weight of the tea chests. They knocked off the bindings, smashed the chests, and threw them overboard. Despite the allure of the tea, and the price it would bring in the morning, only two men attempted to steal any. They were instantly stripped of their clothes and beaten, and sent on their way.

The men made as little noise as possible. This was not the raucous rioting of Pope’s Day or the attacks on the tea commissioners’ homes. This was business, and it had to be done and done quickly before any soldiers discovered the men. It was imperative that the tea be destroyed, because if it was not it would be unloaded the next morning and it would be impossible to stop its distribution, and then Boston would be the town that let the Patriot cause down after the successful rejections and boycotts in New York and Philadelphia.

By 8:00 or 9:00 PM, the party was over. Everyone went home quietly and followed orders to turn out their pants cuffs and socks and shoes and sweep any tea leaves gathered there into the fireplace. In all, about 92,000 pounds of tea—over 46 tons—had been destroyed [Carp 139].

Reaction was swift. The Tea Party was a complete rejection of British rule. Anything less than a severe punishment would be condoning rebellion. That punishment came in the form of the Coercive Acts: the port of Boston was closed to commercial shipping, ruining its economy; Boston was to recompense the East India Company for the total value of the lost tea; the Massachusetts Government Act set in motion the destruction of the popularly elected General Court (all positions in the colonial government would now be appointed by the king); the Administration of Justice act moved trials of government officials to other colonies or to England; and the Quartering Act made housing British soldiers mandatory for all citizens.

Boston had been acting in concert with New York and Philadelphia, but it bore the brunt of the King’s wrath all on its own. It’s no surprise, then, that the Revolution was kindled in the hearth of Massachusetts. Next time, we’ll wrap the series up with reflections on the meaning and impact of the Tea Party today.

Next time: What does the Tea Party mean today?

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The Boston Tea Party and a Tradition of Violence

Posted on November 21, 2011. Filed under: American history, Colonial America, Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , |

Part 3 of our series on the Boston Tea Party focuses on the protest that patriots eventually carried out against the 1773 Tea Act. The actual act of dumping the tea was, in its nonviolence, unusual in Boston history.

When you read about the events leading up to the Tea Party, you quickly become a little uncomfortable with the readiness of Bostonians to physically attack people and destroy their property as the first means to their ends. Violence was sanctioned in odd ways in colonial Boston. “Pope’s Day” was an annual holiday, observed on November 5th, during which boys roamed the city knocking on doors and asking for money; if denied, they broke all the windows in the house. Later, older boys and men carried effigies of Satan and the pope, the two groups heading from North and South End and celebrating their meeting in the center of town with an enormous fistfight; the winning group then took the losers’ effigies and burned them.

This kind of “playful” violence was all too easy to organize into political violence. Here are just a few examples, again from Benjamin Carp’s fantastic Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America:

—August 1765: effigies of a British minister and an American stamp distributor (of the unpopular Stamp Act) were hung in the South End; at dusk the effigies were taken down by a crowd who then completely destroyed a building owned by the stamp distributor, went to the man’s house and threw rocks at the windows, broke in, and destroyed some furniture. When Governor Hutchinson tried to reason with the rioters, they threw bricks at him. The stamp distributor resigned the next day.

—June 1768: When smuggler John Hancock’s ship was held by authorities who suspected it had smuggled goods, a group of over 300 Bostonians attacked the customs officers, throwing bricks and stones at them, and then went to the house of one officer and broke all the windows.

—March 1770: a group of men and boys were throwing rocks at British soldiers who were competing with them for jobs (many soldiers moonlighted to enhance their income); this turned into the Boston Massacre when the soldiers opened fire, afraid for their lives as the crowd grew in size and malice.

—November 1771: customs officials seize a boat carrying smuggled tea; another boat comes up alongside and thirty armed men attack the customs officials with clubs, swords, and guns. They forced the British captain into the hold, where he nearly died of his wounds, while they took the tea and left, wounded men lying on the decks of two boats.

—November 1773: a crowd gathered outside the house of a man who had a commission to sell tea from the EIC, shouting and beating down his gate. The commissioner yelled at them from an upper window to leave, and fired a shot. The mob shattered all the windows of the house and were only turned away from assaulting the owner by the pleas of some patriots that there were women in the house.

Tea commissioners were routinely summoned to public meetings by anonymous letters which threatened their lives as well as their jobs if they did not show up. Commissioners and others deemed hostile to the patriot cause were tarred and feathered—the “American torture.”

When the tea that the Tea Act mandated be sold in America arrived in November 1773, the governor knew he could not protect the men commissioned to receive and sell it from the people; those commissioners (one of them an elderly man) fled to the British Fort William on Castle Island in Boston Harbor, and there they stayed for many months after the Tea Party, justly feaful of their lives.

This willingness to use violence got mixed reviews from patriot leaders. Some felt it was justifable because it was in protest of an unfair government. Others felt it gave the patriot cause a bad name, and attracted lowlifes who weren’t fighting for democracy. All knew it had to be carefully managed to keep it under control: at any moment a mob nominally in the service of colonial leaders could become a force that knew no loyalty and could not be controlled by anyone.

It is certainly unsettling for modern-day Americans to read about the tactics our ancestors were ready to use when they believed themselves to be crossed. Mob violence is not something we condone today, and so much of the violence in colonial Boston seems to have been based not in righteous anger but in personal habit and popular tradition that it’s hard to see it as truly patriotic.

Patriot leaders like Samuel Adams knew they would have to keep violence out of their official platform,  disassociating the decisions of the General Court from the purveyors of mob violence. The Tea Party would be a triumph of this difficult position.

Next time: planning the Tea Party

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The Boston Tea Party: Why was tea so important?

Posted on November 17, 2011. Filed under: American history, Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , |

In part 2 of our series on the Boston Tea Party, we ask, why tea? Why was this commodity so symbolic, the one which American patriots chose to make a political stand over?

Until the 1700s, tea was a luxury item, very expensive and looked on with a little suspicion. But  by 1765 tea trade represented 70-90% of the imports of the powerful British East India Company. For a very interesting description of the EIC, its role in the British government, and the debt that threatened to destroy it, all of which have a large role to play in the Boston Tea Party, see Benjamin’s Carp’s Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, an invaluable book to which this Truth v. Myth series is deeply indebted.

Tea came to the Americas legally, through the EIC, and illegally, through American smugglers. By the mid-1700s, the price was low enough to move tea from exotic luxury to daily drink, but it retained its mystique. Tea-drinking was the center of domestic rituals in households high and low, and owning all the accoutrements of tea-making and drinking was to have status—status that was recognized on both sides of the Atlantic. As Carp describes it,

“During the eighteenth century, tea became the drink of respectable British and colonial households everywhere. The wealthiest families adopted tea ceremonies first, giving tea immense cultural cachet. …tea was a regular family event. …The woman of the house oversaw the  making of tea and assigned a series of tasks and errands to other family members, bringing the family together under her direction. …Tea became a ritual of family solidarity, sustenance, and politeness. To master the tea ceremony was to announce your own virtue… The striving ‘middle class’ of tradesmen, professionals, and landowners couldn’t resist the chance to partake in this elite pastime. You didn’t have to have a hereditary title, or even be particularly wealthy, to sip respectably at the tea table. …tea had become a new necessity. Addictive, stimulating, lightweight, and easy to prepare, [tea] could conquer sleep and thereby make a person more productive: in this way tea was contributing to the growing empire’s economy.” [55-6]

We see, then, that tea was many things: it was classy; it was a shared experience; it was family togetherness; it was caffeine addiction; it was a way for people of all economic classes to show their respectability. Poor families drank tea to get them through the long work day and to show they, too, could appreciate the finer things. Middle-class families drank tea to show the rich that they were sophisticated, too. Wealthy families drank tea with expensive porcelain tea services from Europe or China itself (where the tea came from) and silver utensils to show that they were just as good as people in England, too. All this sophistication was important to Americans, who were always self-conscious about looking provincial in front of their cousins back in England. Americans wanted to show that they were just as good as English people, just as trendy, just as well-mannered.

Of course, there were naysayers. Pamphlets were published on the negative effect tea had on people’s morals, as they did whatever they had to do to pay for tea and the sugar that went with it, and basically sold their souls for fancy tea-sets. Doctors deplored spending money on something that had no nutritional value. Tea, like gin, was seen as a gateway drug to a life of laziness, vanity, vice, and immorality. Valuing any material thing so highly was bound to cause trouble.

On the political side, some Americans worried about contributing so much money to the East India Company. They knew about the Company’s track record in India, where the lives and economy of the native people were held in little regard. American suspicions about the EIC were confirmed in 1769, when a famine hit Bengal, India, which was controlled by the Company. Over 1 million Bengalis died of starvation, the EIC  refused to share its stockpiles of food, and actually raised taxes on the survivors to make up for lost revenue. “As Chatterji wrote, ‘People could die of starvation, but the collection of revenue didn’t stop.’ Warren Hastings, the new governor of Bengal in 1772, reported to London in chilling terms that revenue collection had been ‘violently kept up to its former standard.'” [Carp 11-12]

Such was the source of tea in America, and there were Americans who hesitated to put their own country in thrall to the EIC. (News of the famine and the EIC’s response to it would fan the flames of anti-tea rebellion during the 1773 protests against the Tea Act.) What would happen if America, too, became “enslaved” (as they put it at the time) to the Company? It was not as far-fetched a notion as it seemed. To pay off its mounting debts, which threatened the British government itself (because the government was heavily invested in the EIC and depended on its profits for a large part of its operating budget), the Company shipped more and more tea to the colonies. Europe and England had already had their markets saturated. Now tea rolled into America in ever-larger amounts, which brought the price down nicely for consumers, but also threatened American security because the option to purchase tea was seeming more and more like an obligation to do so. Ships that came into port carrying tea were legally required to unload that cargo—it was illegal to ship the tea back to England. It had to be sold. American commissioners, men who had signed contracts with the EIC to sell imported tea in America, were legally obligated to fulfill those contracts. If they failed to do so, the governor himself had to issue a clearance to send the tea back, but the governor would not do this without receiving clearance from the customhouse that said there was something wrong with the tea. If the tea was fine, there was no option but to unload it for the commissioners to sell. If the commissioners would not accept the tea, it was seized, along with the ship it came on—a ship usually owned by the commissioner himself. So men selling tea in America were in a bind: if they did not accept and sell the tea in America, they would lose their commission to sell tea in the future, lose their valuable ship, and lose the money they had spent to get the tea.

This smacked of coercion to many Americans. Did they really have no choice but to buy EIC tea? What would the Company do to them if they refused to buy the tea?

Granted, much, perhaps most tea for sale in America was illegally smuggled by traders unaffiliated with the EIC, men who had no commission from the British government to sell tea (legally, only the EIC was authorized to sell tea to the Americas). You didn’t have to buy Company tea. But as the Company fought for its life financially, a crackdown on smuggling began. Now Americans faced the prospect of being forced to turn in smugglers to the Company or being punished by the British government. They had to help the EIC maintain a monopoly on American tea sales, strengthening a company that had no respect for human life, as Americans saw it, and which would not hesitate to destroy America as it had destroyed Bengal if necessary. If the Company had a complete monopoly, what price might it begin to charge for tea, which was now seen as a necessity? What political power might it be given in America?

So we see why tea became the flashpoint for rebellion in America. When the 1767 Townshend Acts first put a tax on tea, it was seen as outrageous for a few reasons: a) tea was a necessity and raising the price through a tax would put it out of the reach of many; b) the Company was already making a good profit on tea; c) the new tea tax went to pay the customs officials who forced tea to be unloaded and sold in America.

Americans boycotted tea to protest the Townshend Acts. By now you realize what a huge move this was. Giving up tea was very difficult. It threatened the status of the rich and the energy of the poor. On the most basic level, the boycott led to caffeine-withdrawal headaches that confirmed peoples’ notion that tea was medicinal (since drinking tea again would soothe the headache). Given all this, it is telling that although smuggled tea was available, people did not drink it on principle. Violence escalated, and in 1768 Boston was occupied by British troops, whose presence led eventually to the 1770 Boston Massacre (more on violence in Boston in the next post).  The Townshend Acts were partially repealed, but the tax on tea remained because the EIC was sinking further into debt (in part because it had flooded every market for tea). It had 18 million pounds of unsold tea in its warehouses that it could not sell. And so the Tea Act of 1773 was introduced, on top of the existing tea tax, mandating that the surplus tea be shipped to America and sold at a steep discount. Americans who were trying to keep the tea boycott alive, who knew that many Americans were dying for a chance to return to tea-drinking, were furious. They knew that if the American market was flooded with extra-cheap tea Americans would not be able to resist it, the boycott would end, and the tea tax would be entrenched—the first, perhaps, of many harmful taxes that offered no services to the colonies but simply helped the British control them more tightly. America would be enslaved to the EIC after all.

Now it was paramount to overthrow this tea scheme. In the next post, we’ll see how protest began.

Next time: a tradition of violence

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