Revolutionary War

The Boston Tea Party: What happened?

Posted on January 17, 2019. Filed under: Economics, Politics, 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 while they had no official power over the colonial legislature, they had become 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 the American tradition of violence

Posted on January 10, 2019. Filed under: Revolutionary War | 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. In the evening, 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 carried 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, in even a minor way. 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: holding the Tea Party

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The Boston Tea Party–why tea??

Posted on January 5, 2019. Filed under: Colonial America, Revolutionary War | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Happy New Year! We start 2019 by continuing with… the past! which is our thing. Moving on to part 2 of our series on the Boston Tea Party in which 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.

The Tea Party and a tradition of violence

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What started the Boston Tea Party?

Posted on December 14, 2018. Filed under: Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , , |

As we approach December 16, we approach the 245th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. In honor of that round number, we thought we’d re-post our original Truth v. Myth series on this iconic American event.

 

Hello and welcome to our series on the Boston Tea Party. This event, like Washington crossing the Delaware or the winter at Valley Forge, is familiar to all Americans—or at least the name is. Most people are hard-pressed to come up with any details on what happened and why. Here we’ll go beyond the men dressed as Indians and the tea dumped in the harbor and the refusal to pay taxes to explain how events unfolded and we’ll start by showing that one of those three details is all wrong.

Throughout, we’ll be hugely indebted to Benjamin Carp’s fantastic, must-read for all Americans Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America. If you are left wanting more after this series, buy that book and enjoy.

Let’s start, as we must, with taxes. We have all been told that British taxes on everyday American goods like paper, sugar, and tea were bitterly resented by colonists, who refused to pay them. This is an oversimplification and so, inevitably, it’s inaccurate. The issue was more complicated: after the huge expense of fighting the French and Indian War (aka the Seven Years’ War) against France both in Europe and in North America, Britain’s people were taxed to the hilt. They had helped pay for three wars against the Dutch from 1652-1674, as well as several wars with France, including the War of the Spanish Succession (Queen Anne’s War) and King George’s War between 1689 and 1748. By the end of the French and Indian War, Britons living in the British Isles could pay no more without wrecking the economic revolution developing in England at the time (the foundation of modern capitalism).

So the British turned to the Americans for help. The Americans had been the ones clamoring for Britain to put an end to the French and Indian threat on their doorstep, and they had made a lot of money selling supplies at hugely inflated prices to the British Army. Now Britain asked them to help pay up.

Most Americans supported this, with one caveat: they wished that they could have a say in how they were taxed—how much, and on what goods. But since they did not have representatives in Parliament, they could not have a say. American leaders had been petitioning formally and informally for reprentatives to Parliament for years to no avail. So after 1763, when the French and Indian War ended, Britain alone decided the tax rate and the goods to be taxed.

Most Americans would have gone along with this, at least for a while. But the real problem with the new taxation was this: the tax money went, in large part, to pay the salaries of British officials in America. That is, the tax money Americans paid did not a) get directly applied to the war debt; b) did not go to provide any services for Americans, but c) was used to pay the salaries of the royal governors, customs officials, and others.

Think of it this way: today we pay taxes to get services. Our taxes fund social programs like Medicare, Head Start, and others. We may not always like our tax rate, but at least we can say the money is coming back to the people in some important way. But in America in the 1760s, tax money just went to pay politicians. It would be like state taxes going to pay the governor’s salary, the salaries of state representatives, and city mayors, and nothing else—no services.

Worse, in colonial America a large portion of the new taxes went to pay one royal official in particular: the tax collector. So American tax money went to the tax collector who then had every incentive to demand strict enforcement of every tax, and to welcome new taxes.

This was the problem with taxes in post-war America. Americans had no say in how they were taxed, and their money went to enrich the government officials who collected taxes basically as salary.

In Massachusetts, there was a way to fight back. Massachusetts, unlike most of the other English colonies, was founded as an independent colony. It was not under the control of King or Parliament. It elected its own officials, from governor to colonial legislature. In the other colonies, the governor was appointed by the king and and people had no say. This royal governor often appointed members to the colonial legislature. This way, the governor could prevent the legislature from pursuing policies that negatively impacted the crown financially or politically. When Massachusetts was at last brought under direct royal control in 1691, it struck a unique deal: its governor would be appointed by the king, with no input from the people of the colony, but its legislature would remain popularly elected. And in Massachusetts, “popular” had real meaning. Almost every white male was a freeman, with voting rights. Property ownership was not a requirement. So the colony had a truly popular legislature, which took its responsibility of representing the interests of the people seriously. The Massachusetts legislature, called the General Court, would fight the royal governor and tax officials when they attempted to enforce the new tax on tea.

Thus, Massachusetts was particularly able to mount a defense against the post-war taxation, because its legislature actually represented the people. But they were not the only colonies to do so. New York and Pennsylvania launched vigorous anti-tax protests as well, as we’ll see, and criticized Massachusetts for not being radical enough—at least until the night of the Tea Party.

In the next post, we’ll look at the reasons why tea, of all the commodities that were taxed, became the hottest issue, and we’ll explain the customs rules that led Massachusetts men to decide that dumping the tea was necessary.

Next time: why tea?

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Government for the people’s sake in Colonial America

Posted on October 5, 2018. Filed under: Colonial America, Politics, Revolutionary War | Tags: , , , , , , |

Hello and welcome to part 4 in our series on Bernard Bailyn’s masterful description of American political thinking in the transitional decade of the 1760s.

We left off describing the common American conception of government as a purely practical delivery system in which their representatives to the colonial seat of government, meeting in a general assembly once or twice a year, followed their written instructions by asking for things their towns wanted, then came home. There was no sense of government as something larger than the sum of its parts. Government was not something that expressed certain ideals. It didn’t inspire people, it wasn’t generally seen as an instrument that could be used to expand the common good.

Government for most American colonials was, in fact, an ever-present danger. Bailyn spends the first part of his book illustrating that the deepest fear Americans had about government was that it would abuse its power–that it would become tyrannical. If you were to tell representatives that they were politicians, that meant their job was being in the government, working in government, and soon they would do anything to preserve and extend their power. Better to keep reps firmly in place as the dispensable, dependent servants of their constituents, sent to the assembly to do a short-term job for someone else.

This served to restrict the power of government by preventing it, as much as possible, from taking on a life and meaning of its own. As Bailyn puts it,

In effect the people were present through their representatives, and were themselves, step by step and point by point, acting in the conduct of public affairs, No longer merely an ultimate check on government, they were in some sense the government. Government had no separate existence apart from them; it was by the people as well as for the people; it gained its authority from their continuous consent. [173]

That’s why most colonial assemblies only met once a year. The idea of a standing government, like a standing army, always around, always acting, was unnatural and repellent to most Americans. It was the norm in Europe for all national legislatures to meet for short periods only–Parliament met briefly then disbanded. It did not stay in session all year. Government came into being, into existence, when the people came together to make their demands. Then it disappeared again when they left. The people were the government.

We begin to see in this alien state of affairs the seeds of our own familiar American conception of government. The people would accept a colonial assembly coming into being because they made it come into being by sending their reps to the capital. The people controlled their reps, and so controlled the government. Thus the people felt safe consenting to the decrees of the temporary assembly. If their representatives stayed in the capital all year, and talked amongst themselves, and came up with laws on their own,  based on their reading or some other source than their direct voters, then those voters–the people–would not accept those laws or consent to them.

Electing reps each year was a way to ensure that no one stayed in politics so long that they began to pursue their own, or someone else’s, agenda. In this way, short terms in brief assemblies secured consent. Voters had to feel that their positions were represented   in their assemblies, or they would not consent to the laws the assemblies passed. This was government by the people, as much as possible, and for the people (who could vote), not government for government’s sake. Government for the sake of promoting and protecting a leader (a monarch or governor), for the sake of providing people with government jobs, for the sake of enriching politicians and capital cities–this was anathema to Americans.

Of course, some men were elected as reps over and over by their towns, for decades. But even these men could be suddenly and swiftly unseated if they crossed their constituents. Men who represented their town for years on end were men who did their town’s bidding.

Underlying this state of affairs, and making it possible, was the lack of a king in America. Yes, the American colonists were servants of the king, just as people in England were. But they did not participate in Parliament, and so their experience of their own government passing laws to please the king, or enrich him, or reflect his religious beliefs, etc., was extremely limited. A series of English monarchs declared war on France, and Americans fought the French in Canada many times. This was the most directly felt impact of having a king for most American subjects. Otherwise, Americans governed themselves to serve themselves.

Bailyn quotes the Tory Anglican minister Samuel Seabury apprehending in 1774 how differently  the American perception was from the British, and anticipating the trouble it must cause:

The position that we are bound by no laws to which we have not consented either by ourselves or our representatives is a novel position unsupported by any authoritative record of  the British constitution, ancient or modern. It is republican in its very nature, and tends to the utter subversion of the English monarchy.

Next time: constitutions and rights

 

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Why did Americans protest taxation without representation?

Posted on September 19, 2018. Filed under: Colonial America, Politics, Revolutionary War | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Welcome to part 2 of our series on Bernard Bailyn’s masterful description of the sea change that American colonists’s ideas about representative government went through in the decades before the Revolutionary War.

(We’re in the middle of a series here; if you’re looking for a stand-alone, quick answer to the question, see Revolutionary War Myth #2: Americans didn’t want to pay taxes.)

We left off last time with Americans living happily with a medieval concept of local representation to colonial legislative bodies: we send our representative with a few, specific, brass-tacks practical requests and the concessions that we authorize him to offer in return for those requests being granted. We want a mill, and we’re willing to help build a local bridge in return.

England, on the other hand, had evolved its political system to include the concept of virtual representation: districts composed of multiple towns and counties, or a populous city borough, elect a representative to the House of Commons who will vote on issues of national importance in a way that he believes best represents his constituents’ views on said issues. This is very abstract. This English rep is not going to Parliament with a piece of paper listing the 1-3 concrete things his town wants to have that he is supposed to ask for. He is not going to Parliament representing a single town. He represents many towns, or, if he represents a city borough, the various inhabitants of that borough. He represents hundreds or (as the 18th century wore on) thousands of people, and he represents their thoughts and feelings about issues, not their physical wants and needs. He can’t leave Parliament once he’s requested the 1-3 things his town want. He sits in on all debates, touching towns he is not part of, and issues that may not immediately impact his constituents. In short, he is a modern representative to a national governing body.

Two other modern conditions applied: first, very few people could vote, so any rep necessarily represented the interests of those who could, and this meant that most people were not truly represented. If someone represented a town, he represented the dozen male landowners who could vote and who chose him. Next, even if someone could vote, there was no obligation on their representative to express that constituent’s individual thoughts, desires, or demands. Think of it this way: does your current Senator or Representative in Congress ensure that all your individual demands are satisfied? Of course not. it’s not possible to do that if you are representing more than one person. A rep has to try to represent the majority, and even that is difficult. If your rep does vote the way you want, English authors of the 1760s would have described that as “accidental and not necessary” representation.

Thus, when England began to claim in the 1760s that it had a right to tax the American colonies because they had virtual representation to Parliament, that made sense to English people.

…the principal English argument put forward in defense of Parliament’s right to pass laws taxing the colonies was that the colonies, like the “nine tenths of the people of Britain” who do not choose representatives to Parliament, were in fact represented there. The power of actually voting for representatives, it was claimed, was an accidental and not a necessary attribute of representation, “for the right of election is annexed to certain species of property, to peculiar franchises, and to inhabitancy in certain places.” In what really counted there was no difference between those who happened to live in England and those in America: “none are actually, all are virtually represented in Parliament…” [p. 166]

This worked in England, Bailyn says, because “the practice of ‘virtual’ representation provided reasonably well for the actual representation of the major interests of the society, and it raised no widespread objection.” [p. 167]  People in the city of Bath, for instance, felt that Parliament did a good job steering the nation, even if Bath itself never came up inside its walls. Bath didn’t have to insert its particular, individual, local needs into national legislation because people in Bath believed that those local needs would be met by general legislation—all towns would benefit from good laws, all would suffer under bad laws. If all towns suffered, the laws would change.

Americans, however, did not have this faith in centralized government. Americans in the 1760s  believed they needed to elect men to represent them in Parliament because they still operated in a direct-representation system where

  1. reps represented their single town,
  2. many people in that town could vote (in many American colonies, all adult males could vote; there was no property-owning restriction),
  3. those people had concrete demands they expected their rep to voice, and
  4. they expected their rep to keep all his business local to their town. He was not at the legislature to conduct colony-wide business.

When Americans were told that men from Birmingham or Leeds or Coventry, London or Bath or Norwich, “virtually” represented them because those men were working for the common good of Britain, which would be the common good of the British colonies, they did not buy it. At all. What did these English men know about life in America, let alone in Massachusetts, let alone in the town of Ipswich? A Norfolk landowner knew nothing about the town of Ipswich’s need for a new bridge. A Norfolk man’s vote on a European trade bill would do nothing to get Ipswich that bridge. Even a Norfolk man’s vote to build more bridges in Britain and her colonies would not guarantee that a bridge was built in Ipswich.

Americans believed in local government because it was immediately accountable for its actions. If your town rep did not do your town’s bidding, he was not re-elected. Any distance from the voters, the constituents, was dangerous. Bailyn records a statement by the American Daniel Dulany in 1765 with which “almost every writer in America agreed, was the extent to which representation worked to protect the interest of the people against the encroachments of government.” This is telling: in America, “government” was  a double-edged sword: necessary, but needing to be tightly controlled lest it free itself from its commitments to specific, local needs and rage out of control.

Next, the problem was that maybe English reps really could provide virtual representation to other English people. But as Bailyn sums up Dulany’s argument,

…”no such intimate and inseparable relation” existed between the electors of Great Britain and the inhabitants of the colonies. The two groups were by no means involved in the same consequences of taxation: “not a single actual elector in England might be immediately affected by a  taxation in American imposed by a statute which would have a general operation and effect upon the properties of the inhabitants of the colonies.”

Once a lack of natural identity of interests between representatives and the populace was conceded, the idea of virtual representation lost any force it might have had; for by such a notion, James Otis wrote, you could “as well prove that the British House of Commons in fact represent all the people of the close as those in America.” [Arthur Lee wrote that’ “our privileges are all virtual, our sufferings are real… We might have flattered ourselves that a virtual obedience would have exactly corresponded with a virtual representation…” [The question was] who, precisely, is the American freeman’s virtual representative in England? [168]

So often we’re told that Americans rebelled in 1775 because they didn’t want to pay taxes. This is so crude and so untrue and so much less interesting than the truth, which is that Americans rebelled in 1775 partly because they believed in actual representative government, despite the impossibility that already existed, at that time, of anyone, even a local town rep, truly representing his local constituents. Even small towns in America had populations in the thousands by 1760. Americans were trying to come to grips with that change on their own, in their own back yards, when suddenly England claimed virtual representation and began taxing them.

This claim would drive American colonists to grapple with, and come up with solutions for, the impossibility of 1:1 local government. But they would have to struggle first—and millions of trees would die to provide the paper needed to argue that struggle out from the 1760s through the 1780s.

Next up: struggling to see politics as more than a job

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Are our politicians supposed represent “we, the people”?

Posted on September 9, 2018. Filed under: American history, Colonial America, Politics, Revolutionary War | Tags: , , , , , , , |

We’ve been re-reading that classic, magnificent, super-charged, and piercingly relevant masterpiece of discovery about the real roots and goals of the American Revolution called The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, by Bernard Bailyn. It was republished last year for its fiftieth anniversary, but there is nothing stuffy, boring, or outdated about this electric book.

That being the case, we’re going to devote a few series to this book, beginning here, with Bailyn’s masterful description of how radically… old-fashioned the American revolutionaries’ ideas about representative government were in the 1770s. In fact, they were positively medieval. This is the heart of Chapter Five: Transformation.

We all learn that the Americans (our shorthand going forward for revolution-minded American colonists in the mid-1700s) demanded representative government—government consented to by the governed. But that gloss is tragically incomplete, for it describes where we landed—with difficulty, just barely—by the Constitutional Convention in 1787, and where we as a nation only fully rested after the Civil War.

Bailyn takes us back to the pre-Revolution mindset by comparing the American colonies to medieval England, before the 1400s. At that time, representatives of the common people to Parliament in London were “local men, locally minded, whose business began and ended with the interests of the constituency”. They were given explicit, written instructions about what they were to ask for and what they were allowed to promise in return. For instance, did the constituents want access to a waterway? That’s what their representative would ask for. The was the only reason he was sent to London to sit in Parliament. It was the only thing he would discuss in Parliament. He would not get involved in any other representative’s requests, which were all hyper-local as well. There would be no point. There were no grand debates about larger issues, no votes on items that impacted the whole kingdom—that was restricted to the House of Lords. (From 1341 on the Commons met separately from the Lords. Throughout the 14th century the Commons only acted as a single body twice, to complain about taxes in 1376 and to depose Richard II, with the House of Lords, in 1399).

In return, the local representative to the Commons might be allowed to promise that men from his locality would serve on a work crew elsewhere, or patrol the coast, or something else. The representative was sent to Parliament for that single purpose–to get the new mill–and was not authorized or expected to participate in any other discussion. If he got the mill but promised something he had not been authorized to promise, he would not be sent to Parliament again. Government was pinpoint specific and local, an amalgam of individual grants and favors repaid individually. [Bailyn 162-3]

Over the 1400s and 1500s, this slowly changed. It became something we recognize today as “right” and much more inspiring. Members of Parliament were not “merely parochial representatives, but delegates of all the commons of the land”; as Edmund Burke, the great political theorist (1730-1797) summed it up, members of Parliament stood for the interest of the entire kingdom of England. They were not

…a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests, which [they] must maintain against other agents, [but] Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole, where, not local purposes, not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. [Bailyn 163]

This sounds right to us. That’s the American political philosophy we know and love. We are one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. We’re greater than the sum of our parts. Our members of Congress are in Washington not just to get our individual states things they want, like new roads. They’re not there to write laws that only benefit their individual states. They’re in Washington to write laws that preserve the national trust, that promote democracy for all citizens. They’re supposed to work together for the common good. That’s how we define government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Well, that’s how we define it now. But in the American colonies, the polar opposite was true.

Bailyn points out that this new, universal definition of political representation developed in England as it became more modern. The population grew, and towns and counties were less isolated and less independent, less like small kingdoms unto themselves. There was more of a sense of Parliament representing the English people, not this town and that town.

Just as this concept was settling into place in England, the Thirteen Colonies were being formed, and the situation in America was entirely different. It was a throwback to medieval times: a small population lived in tiny towns that were separated by long distances and therefore basically governed themselves. They were technically bound to follow laws made by the general court of the colony they were in, but those laws were few and not far-reaching. Local town government was much more important and vital and apparent to the vast majority of American colonists than the central, colonial government in the capital city. Each town sent representatives to the general court in the capital, usually once a year, and each town gave their representatives explicit, written instructions about what benefits to ask for and what concrete items they could give in return for the benefits. If a representative violated these written instructions they would not be re-elected by their town.

So as England was finalizing the concept of the representative as politician, of men skilled in general principles of law who worked with other politicians to create general laws that would benefit the kingdom as a whole, America remained firmly rooted in and dedicated to the concept of the non-professional representative, the local man bound to local interests. Americans preferred their representatives to be local businessmen, which at that time meant most representatives were farmers representing farmers, whose concerns were often minutely focused. As Bailyn notes, “disgruntled contemporaries felt justified in condemning Assemblies composed of ‘plain, illiterate husbandmen, whose views seldom extended farther than to the regulation of highways, the destruction of wolves, wildcats, and foxes, and the advancement of the other little interests of the particular counties which they were chosen to represent.'” [Bailyn 165]

It’s ironic, then, that as the revolutionary age began in America, it was England, not America, that had the attitude of “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”.

How did America move from this medieval concept of government to the vision of democracy and justice for all? We’ll move closer next time.

 

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We are in the very midst of a Revolution: John Adams sets American hearts racing

Posted on July 19, 2018. Filed under: Politics, Revolutionary War, The Founders, What History is For | Tags: , , |

Even at a distance of centuries, the words of John Adams inspire us with zeal to uphold the founding principles of this nation.

In a letter to his friend Judge William Cushing, dated June 9, 1776, from Philadelphia, where Adams was attending the Continental Congress as a member of the delegation from Massachusetts, Adams describes his work in the Congress, which has replaced his old work as a lawyer traveling to courts on the Eastern Circuit, in language that is stirring without being stiff, labored, or seemingly very different from Adams’ usual mode of expressing himself, as he calls no special attention to it—we decided to highlight that language ourselves, in bold. But the words themselves make any reader or hearer sit up and take notice:

It would give me great Pleasure to ride this Eastern Circuit with you, and prate before you at the Bar, as I used to do. But I am destined to another Fate, to Drudgery of the most wasting, exhausting, consuming Kind, that I ever went through in my whole Life. Objects of the most Stupendous Magnitude, Measures in which the Lives and Liberties of Millions, born and unborn are most essentially interested, are now before Us. We are in the very midst of a Revolution, the most compleat, unexpected, and remarkable of any in the History of Nations. A few Matters must be dispatched before I can return. Every Colony must be induced to institute a perfect Government. All the Colonies must confederate together, in some solemn Compact. The Colonies must be declared free and independent states, and Embassadors, must be Sent abroad to foreign Courts, to solicit their Acknowledgment of Us, as Sovereign States, and to form with them, at least with some of them commercial Treaties of Friendship and Alliance. When these Things shall be once well finished, or in a Way of being so, I shall think that I have answered the End of my Creation, and sing with Pleasure my Nunc Dimittes, or if it should be the Will of Heaven that I should live a little longer, return to my Farm and Family, ride Circuits, plead Law, or judge Causes, just as you please.

Why would Adams describe his history-making work in the Congress as “Drudgery of the most wasting, exhausting, consuming Kind”? Because it is! That’s the great lesson to take from this. If you want life, liberty, perfect government, political freedom and independence, sovereignty, and the pursuit of happiness, whatever it may be (for Adams it was to return to his farm and family and law practice), you have to be prepared to work hard for it.

Lately there’s been a push in the U.S. to restrict working for all of those things to the military—a message that only military service makes all of those things possible, that fighting wars alone protects those things we hold dear in America. But that is not the case. Wars are rare compared with the daily struggle that must be endured in local, state, and federal government, in the justice system, in schools and in law enforcement, to uphold, defend, and preserve the life, liberty, and happiness we define ourselves by in this country.

So let’s all do that wasting, exhausting, consuming, and often thankless work that answers the end of our creation. Let’s remain in the midst of a revolution.

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Again, Washington was not a murderer: adieu at last to Adam Ruins Everything

Posted on May 24, 2018. Filed under: Historians, Revolutionary War, The Founders, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Part the last of our series on Adam Ruins Everything‘s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Truth” episode focuses on the concluding statements.

Disillusioned narrator: So George Washington was a wealthy elitist and murderer who led drunks into battle against their will to fight for a cause they could not care less about.

Adam: No, you’re exaggerating! The modern myth is designed to inspire us, and that’s valuable. It just blinds us to more important truths.

…this is pretty staggering, considering that earlier in the very same episode Adam Conover said, and we quote, “Support for the war effort was so minimal that Washington resorted to killing his own men just to keep his army of bribed, drunk, confused, and impoverished colonists together to fight for a cause they had no interest in defending–economic freedom for wealthy elites.”

You can’t claim someone was a liar and a murderer, then make a faint attempt to undo it without undoing it just to conjure up a “learning moment.” The episode did say everything the disillusioned narrator claims it did.

Beyond that, what on earth does it mean to say that myths are meant to inspire us, and that’s valuable? What on earth does it mean to say that and then immediately say that these myths blind us to important truths? The writing veers at this point from faulty and harmful to just plain incoherent.

And why? What’s the point of it all? The show has the classic problems of the uninformed, reckless, and non-thoughtful critic: it peddled myths in the name of truth, and chose to denigrate a truly heroic leader in American history with half-cited, mis-cited, and some just plain imaginary sources just to grab viewers’ attention. It fell for the common wisdom that cynicism is always smarter than belief. And it traded on its own reputation for doing research and presenting truth in a way that is either unbelievably lazy or unforgivably cynical.

The end result is that most viewers of the show will walk away depressed about American history, convinced that our founding principles are nothing but a pack of lies. They will join those who believe that attacking America as hypocritical is somehow doing good, and increasing justice in the world.

There are certainly terrible passages in our national history. The Revolutionary War was not one of them. Want to read some truth? Check out Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution, by actual historian Benson Bobrick. Or just read what the men and women who fought for our liberty actually said–all of it, not just cherry-picking to find what you want, to satisfy your prejudices. That’s the only way not to ruin everything.

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The myths are coming! The myths are coming! Adam Ruins Everything gets it wrong about Revere

Posted on May 12, 2018. Filed under: Revolutionary War, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Part 6 of our series on Adam Ruins Everything‘s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Truth” episode wraps up the close-read of one pretty miserable half-hour of fake history.

The show takes on the myth of Paul Revere… except there isn’t really much harmful myth here to be tackled. The two things most Americans remember learning about Revere’s ride are that two lanterns in the Old North Church signaled the British army setting out by sea (see our post “What did ‘one if by land, two if by sea’ mean?”); and that Revere cried out “The British are coming! The British are coming!” as he rode.

ARE tells us that Revere himself never saw the lanterns, which is true. He was alerted to British troop movements by the network of Patriot spies active that night of April 18, 1775. From where Revere waited in Charlestown—where the British would come ashore if they took the sea route (which they did)—he could not see the signals.

The show tells us Revere didn’t say “The British are coming!”  but “The Regulars are coming!”, but of course gets the reason why wrong. It incompletely cites “Jennie Cohen, History, 16 April 2013,” and once again we had to do our own research to find the article, “Eleven things you may not know about Paul Revere,” which says this:

Paul Revere never shouted the legendary phrase later attributed to him (“The British are coming!”) as he passed from town to town. The operation was meant to be conducted as discreetly as possible since scores of British troops were hiding out in the Massachusetts countryside. Furthermore, colonial Americans at that time still considered themselves British; if anything, Revere may have told other rebels that the “Regulars”—a term used to designate British soldiers—were on the move.

Unfortunately, all wrong. First, Revere didn’t use the term “Regulars” instead of “British” because most Americans still considered themselves to be British, he did so because British soldiers were called Regulars (because they were in the regular army). Revere most likely shouted “The Regulars are coming out” to let people on the road from Boston to Concord know that the army was “coming out” of Boston to attack the Massachusetts Provincial Congress meeting illegally in Concord.

As for the statement that Revere did not actually shout anything, renowned historian of the Revolution in Boston and eastern Massachusetts J. L. Bell references the thrilling story of Revere making so much noise, in fact, as he reached the house of the Rev. Jonas Clark in Lexington, where John Hancock and Samuel Adams were staying, that William Munroe, who headed the guard of eight men watching over Hancock and Adams, felt obliged to rebuke Revere:

About midnight, Col. Paul Revere rode up and requested admittance. I told him the family had just retired, and had requested, that they might not be disturbed by any noise about the house. “Noise!” said he, “you’ll have noise enough before long. The regulars are coming out.” We then permitted him to pass.

More importantly, Cohen is wrong about Revere keeping quiet because most Americans were Loyalists who would have turned him in. Earlier in the episode ARE (incorrectly) referenced an article in the online Journal of the American Revolution. If the show’s researchers had revisited this site, they would have found an article by J.L. Bell that would have done two things: told them that most Americans on that road from Boston to Concord were indeed Patriots, and that there is a bigger, actually important, myth to bust about Paul Revere’s ride than what he shouted.

In “Did Paul Revere’s Ride Really Matter?” Bell tells us this:

The biggest myth of Paul Revere’s ride may not be that Revere watched for the lantern signal from the North Church spire, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem described. Nor that he was a lone rider carrying Dr. Joseph Warren’s warning all the way from Boston to Concord. Nor even that Revere yelled, “The British are coming!”

Instead, the biggest myth might be that Paul Revere’s ride was crucial to how the Battle of Lexington and Concord of 19 April 1775 turned out. Rural Massachusetts Patriots were already on alert, especially after they spotted British officers riding west through their towns. Other riders were spreading the same news. Hours passed between the first alarms and when the opposing forces actually engaged, giving Patriots time—more than enough time in some cases—to assemble in militia companies. The broad militia mobilization did not actually stop the British from returning to Boston. Thus, Revere’s warning might not have been necessary to how things worked out at the end of the day.

…Indeed, some militiamen were already active. “Early in the evening” Sgt. William Munroe had mustered an eight-man guard at the parsonage where Hancock and Adams were staying, having heard from a young local named Solomon Brown that there were “nine British officers on the road,” carrying arms.

Furthermore, there were at least four hours between Dawes’s arrival and dawn. The Lexington militia and the people at the parsonage discussed the news from Boston at length. They sent messengers out to other communities. Brown and two other riders headed west to Concord (British officers stopped them). Other men rode east to confirm whether troops were coming along the road from Boston. Capt. John Parker had more than enough time to assemble his men. In fact, at some point between three and four o’clock he dismissed them to catch some sleep nearby.

Concord was already on alert. Revere had brought militia colonel James Barrett a general warning from Boston a couple of days before. The Barretts were already moving the cannon, gunpowder, and other military supplies from their farm to more remote hiding-places.

To be sure, the whole Concord militia didn’t assemble until Dr. Prescott rode into town around two o’clock in the morning. However, as at Lexington, there was a significant stretch of time between the first alert at Concord and when its militia company had to face the British troops. In fact, when those regulars arrived between eight and nine o’clock in the morning, the Concord militia companies pulled back to Punkatasset Hill, a mile north of the town center, before moving to a field above the North Bridge.

Paul Revere didn’t have to keep quiet to avoid being arrested by Loyalists. Bell’s point is that the countryside was already on the lookout for a British attack on Concord, making preparations for an armed confrontation with the Regulars, and in many cases well ahead of Revere.

This fact is so much more important than whether Revere said “the British are coming.” If ART wants to bust myths, why not bust the myth that most Americans did not support the Revolution? Why not use Bell’s article to teach Americans today that hundreds of families in eastern Massachusetts had already fully committed themselves to an armed defense of their traditional liberties by the time the first battle of the American Revolution took place?

The show can’t do that because it is at such pains to debunk the Revolution as a scam and a sham. “Every story we tell about the Revolution is useless,” mourns the fake narrator in  the episode. “Not useless,” says Adam; “just not history.” If ever the pot called the kettle black this has got to be it, coming from a show devoted to presenting myths as real history.

Let’s wrap up next time with what the Puritans would call the “application”—why does it matter if this show gets so much so wrong?

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