Did principle or pragmatism start the American Revolution?

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Niccolo and Donkey
Did principle or pragmatism start the American Revolution?

The New Yorker

Caleb Crain

December 20, 2010

What did the American Revolution look like? Nathaniel Hawthorne imagined it as an angry face, painted so as to appear divided in two. “One side of the face blazed of an intense red, while the other was black as midnight,” he wrote. This uncanny visage appears in Hawthorne’s tale “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” of 1831; its owner rides on horseback through moonlit Boston streets, carrying a drawn sword and leading a mob of people who laugh and shout as they wheel along a rich elderly man whom they have tarred and feathered.

Hawthorne’s “double-faced fellow” was modelled on a historical figure who went by the pseudonym Joyce Jr. and, in the seventeen-seventies, claimed to lead Boston’s Committee for Tarring and Feathering. In 1777, Abigail Adams recorded the charges against five merchants who were his victims: “It seems they have refused to take paper money, and offered their goods lower for silver than for paper.” During wartime, anxieties about hoarding and profiteering no doubt shortened tempers, and, in the Boston Gazette , Joyce Jr. threatened “Judgment without Mercy” to anyone else guilty of “such nefarious Practices.” Joyce Jr. had little of the dignity that we associate with the Founding Fathers; his tone was bitter, and, more important, his grievance was mercenary rather than ideological.

His method of punishment, however, became iconic. Tarring and feathering was so popular in New England in the seventeen-sixties and seventies that at least one observer thought Americans had invented it, though in fact it has been around since at least the twelfth century. What was it like? Pine tar, used to waterproof ships, is liquid at room temperature and, in most cases, was probably applied unheated. Feathers were obtained either from fowl (the smellier the better) or from cushions. The third and most essential ingredient was exposure. One customs agent was kept outdoors in his “modern jacket” until he was frostbitten. “They say his flesh comes off his back in Steaks,” a woman reported afterward. Victims felt a lingering shame, though the frostbitten customs agent, a resilient personality, petitioned King George III to dub him a “Knight of the Tarr.”

Few victims held the high social status of the elderly gentleman in Hawthorne’s tale, but he, too, seems to have had a historical model. Hawthorne was probably thinking of Thomas Hutchinson, the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, whose Boston town house was destroyed, in 1765, by a mob upset by Parliament’s new stamp tax on the colonies’ newspapers, legal documents, and pamphlets. Hutchinson and his family fled their supper table just minutes before a crowd screaming “Liberty and property!” axed open the doors of their home. As Richard Archer notes, in “As If an Enemy’s Country” (Oxford; $24.95), a lively and sympathetic history of pre-Revolutionary Boston under British occupation, the rioters scattered or stole nearly everything inside, including jewelry, dishes, furniture, paintings, about nine hundred pounds in cash, and an archive of New England history that Hutchinson had spent thirty years collecting. “I see they threatened to pitch and feather you,” George III later observed, during a debriefing with Hutchinson, who by then had served as Massachusetts’s second-to-last royal governor. Hutchinson, a slender, fastidious man who liked to debate political philosophy, corrected him: “Tarr & feather, may it please your Majesty.”

“Insurgencies are not movements for the faint of heart,” T. H. Breen writes, in “American Insurgents, American Patriots” (Hill & Wang; $27), a scholarly, unnerving account of the American Revolution’s darker side—the violence, death threats, false rumors, and extremist rhetoric that introduced a new political order. Breen suggests that Americans today “have come to regard insurgency as a foreign and unpleasant phenomenon” and are now so imperial in outlook that we’d rather not remember that American revolutionaries, too, were irrational and cruel. The implied comparison with the contemporary insurgencies of Iraq and Afghanistan is interesting, but over the past two years the history of America’s first insurgency has taken on a new pertinence, as the Tea Party movement has laid claim to its anti-tax and pro-liberty principles—and has inadvertently reproduced its penchant for conspiracy theory, misinformation, demagoguery, and even threats of violence. Furthermore, in much the way that journalists have begun to ask whether shadowy corporate interests may be sponsoring today’s Tea Party, historians have long speculated that merchants may have instigated early unrest to protect smuggling profits from British regulators—that the start of the Revolution may have been Astroturfed. Archer’s history focusses on the years 1768 to 1770, and Breen’s on 1774-75; Benjamin L. Carp’s assiduously researched “Defiance of the Patriots” (Yale; $30) tackles the 1773 Tea Party itself.
Breen is not concerned with the revolutionaries’ financial motives, and Carp sometimes takes the rebels’ rhetoric at face value. Nonetheless, the three books together offer a chance to ask new questions about the American Revolution, including one that the conventions of political sentimentality usually render unspeakable: Was the Tea Party even such a good idea the first time around?

In pre-Revolutionary Boston, merchants and government officials were often at odds, because economics more or less required some merchants to break the law. Americans spent about a tenth of their income on manufactured goods from Britain, but Britain wanted little that New England was selling. To keep the cash flowing, Boston merchants therefore sold to planters in the French West Indies, who fed New England’s low-quality dried fish to their slaves and made barrels for their molasses from New England timber. Inconveniently, Britain taxed molasses from foreign countries a burdensome sixpence a gallon and, from 1756 to 1763, during a war with France, outlawed molasses from the French West Indies entirely. So merchants smuggled. For a bribe of between half a penny and one and a half pence per gallon, a typical British customs official was willing to shrink the reported amount of non-British molasses on board a ship by a factor of ten. The scale of the deception can be estimated by comparing customs records with insurance records: though smugglers lied to the government, they told the truth to their insurers. The historian John W. Tyler, in his book “Smugglers and Patriots” (1986), identified twenty-three Boston smugglers from insurance records and suggested that there were many more. He also discovered that these illicit traders were highly influential among political radicals.

It seems to have been bad feeling between merchants and magistrates that led to the sacking of Hutchinson’s town house. The seventeen-sixties saw the introduction of two new laws, the universally unpopular Stamp Act and, more damaging for merchants, the Sugar Act, which altered tariffs to discourage smuggling and altered the judicial system to make it easier to win convictions. To fight both measures, radicals like Samuel Adams hit on the idea that Parliament’s laws were invalid if they were “unconstitutional,” then a relatively new word. Adams argued that the traditional British balance of powers and liberties was violated if Parliament taxed Americans, who weren’t represented in it.

In addition to rhetoric, a follow-the-money investigation indicates that Adams took coarser measures. As one of Boston’s tax collectors, he stayed popular by collecting very little, but on August 12, 1765, he uncharacteristically took out a warrant to seize back taxes from a shoemaker named Ebenezer Mackintosh, a rabble-rouser who led an annual parade at which effigies of Satan and the Pope were burned. Around the same time, a club of small businessmen known as the Loyal Nine, with whom both Adams and the city’s merchant élite were friendly, recruited Mackintosh to incite public disturbances against the new laws. On August 14th, Mackintosh’s rioters pulled down an office built by the colony’s appointed stamp distributor, beheaded an effigy of him, and broke into his house. The stamp distributor resigned twice—first by letter, and then, when another riot threatened, a few months later, in person, under an elm that became known as the Liberty Tree. “We do every thing in order to keep this and the first Affair Private,” a merchant in the Loyal Nine wrote to a friend after the second resignation, “and are not a little pleas’d to hear that Mackintosh has the Credit of the whole Affair.” Though Mackintosh never paid his delinquent taxes, Adams returned the warrant against him to the court unused. The Loyal Nine rewarded Mackintosh with a gilt uniform and a speaking trumpet, with money provided by John Hancock—one of the city’s richest merchants and a probable smuggler, and thought by one loyalist detractor to be “as closely attached to the hindermost Part of Mr. Adams as the Rattles are affixed to the Tail of the Rattle Snake.” Mackintosh led the crowd that, two weeks later, destroyed Hutchinson’s home, though perhaps not at the bidding of Adams, who in a letter deprecated the “truly mobbish Nature” of the attack. Mackintosh was briefly detained, but, after a gentlemen’s militia threatened not to defend the customhouse from future mobs, the sheriff let him go.
In the spring of 1766, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act and revised its trade laws, replacing a threepence duty on foreign molasses with a one-penny duty on all molasses—about what a bribe had cost. Now that legally imported molasses was cheap, Boston’s smugglers turned to wine from Madeira and the Azores, which was heavily taxed, and to Dutch goods, which it was against British rules to import directly to the colonies. Although the colonists were still being taxed and still had no representation in Parliament, protest faded. “Were the people of Boston therefore hypocrites?” Archer asks. “There is no simple answer to that question.”

The stamp-tax riots set a pattern, and when, in 1767, Britain further strengthened the customs service and levied new taxes, Boston merchants—smugglers in the lead—again organized the resistance, this time through an agreement not to import British merchandise. The agreement, though ostensibly a matter of principle, was financially very convenient. Easy credit from Britain had glutted Boston with manufactured goods and had tripled the number of the city’s shopkeepers who moonlighted as importers. Non-importation gave more established merchants a chance to restrict supply, sell off inventory, and thin out the ranks of their rivals.

Legally, the merchants couldn’t enforce compliance, so they set about turning public opinion against those who resisted. The non-importers published the names of holdouts and called on Bostonians to boycott them. (Embarrassingly, a loyalist newspaper retaliated by printing the ship manifests of the non-importers, some of whom turned out to be importing after all; Hancock, for example, had brought five bales of fine linen into Boston four months after the agreement went into effect.) A series of street actions was also arranged. This time, the merchants’ populist intermediary was William Molineux, a smuggler, embezzler, and sometime hardware merchant who became known as “the first leader of dirty matters.” Windows were smashed, homes were smeared with feces and urine, and one holdout merchant was carted through town with a supply of tar and feathers until he requested permission to leave Boston forever. Customs agents were manhandled and hanged in effigy—those who seized a sloop of John Hancock’s were stoned—and in October, 1768, British troops moved into the city and occupied it for a year and a half.

All in all, the campaign worked so well that the merchants found it difficult to extricate themselves when Parliament, in April of 1770, repealed all the duties except one, on tea, which George III thought Parliament should retain so as to “keep up the right.” The tea tax had become a symbol, and it infuriated the populace. But the businessmen thought they could live with it; by 1770, supplies were beginning to run low and prices of most goods were pleasantly high. The merchants began to hold private meetings; one complained that it wasn’t fair for non-merchants to prevent merchants from dissolving an agreement made among themselves. In October, the merchants scrapped non-importation, and some non-merchants felt betrayed. “Great Patriots,” a Worcester man sneered to John Adams, Samuel Adams’s then less famous cousin, “were for Non Importation, while their old Rags lasted, and as soon as they were sold at Enormous Prices, they were for importing.”
Niccolo and Donkey

For the next three years, Americans ostensibly boycotted the tea of the East India Company, Britain’s licensed monopoly provider, though in practice they drank what they liked. Indeed, for consumers, anger over the tea tax had never made much economic sense. For one thing, many drank Dutch-supplied tea, which was smuggled and therefore tax-free. Benjamin Woods Labaree, the most attentive scholar of the Colonial tea trade, estimates that three-quarters of the 1.2 million pounds of tea that Americans consumed each year was smuggled. Meanwhile, the tax on legal tea was largely offset by a tea-tax refund passed the same year. But in 1772 that tax refund shrank, making British tea more expensive and enhancing smugglers’ price advantage. Tea piled up in the British warehouses of the East India Company, which owed money to the British government and also needed to ask it for a loan. Someone had an idea: why not raise cash by dumping the company’s surplus tea on the American market? Parliament agreed to help by restoring the old refund in full and by allowing the company to export tea directly rather than through merchant middlemen. With the new measures, the price of legal tea was expected to halve. Consumers would save, Parliament needn’t lose quite so much on its bailout of the East India Company, and smugglers would be driven out of business.

Boston’s big businessmen felt threatened. Not only might smuggling cease to be profitable but, if the experiment of direct importation were to succeed, it might cut them out of the supply chains for other commodities as well. Clearly, it was time for Sam Adams and William Molineux to rile up the public again. At the start of November, 1773, a public letter summoned merchants expecting tea consignments from the East India Company to the Liberty Tree. When they failed to appear, Molineux led five hundred people to the store where the merchants were huddled, and its doors were torn from their hinges. A second letter warned the consignees not to take it for granted that the colonists would remain “irreconcilable to the idea of spilling human blood.” Amid the populist fervor, only a few noticed that the working-class Bostonian stood to gain little from the protest. Joke in a Boston newspaper, November 4, 1773: Colonist No. 1, hurrying to the Liberty Tree, says he hopes that a mob will force merchants to lower the price of tea, which has risen to a dollar a pound. Not exactly, Colonist No. 2 says. The mob is going “to make those who expect to sell at half that price send it back again.”

On November 28th, the first of three ships carrying East India Company tea arrived in Boston Harbor. If the tax on the tea was not paid within twenty days, customs had the right to seize it, and, because tea had grown scarce in Boston, it was sure to find its way into teapots once ashore. The next day, Boston’s radicals invited anyone with a stake in the city’s commerce to a meeting. Five thousand people showed up, and the group resolved that the tea should be sent back to Britain with the tax unpaid. The day after that, when Governor Hutchinson ordered the group to disperse, one of its leaders declared that they needn’t obey, because they had reverted to “a state of nature.” On December 16th, the last day of the first ship’s grace period, the group ordered the shipowner to trek to Governor Hutchinson’s country home, seven miles away, and ask, once and for all, for permission to leave the harbor with the tax unpaid. It was nearly six in the evening before the man returned with Hutchinson’s refusal. On hearing it, Sam Adams declared, “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country,” and someone yelled, “Boston harbor a tea-pot tonight!” By six-thirty, three teams of men, some in Indian disguise, were hoisting tea chests onto the decks of all three ships, hatcheting them open, and dumping the tea in the harbor. Between thirty and a hundred and fifty men took part, possibly, according to the historian Dirk Hoerder, under the supervision of Molineux, and in less than two hours they destroyed nine thousand six hundred and fifty-nine pounds’ worth of tea—some ninety thousand pounds by weight. The Massachusetts Gazette noted with approval that “such attention to private property was observed, that a small padlock belonging to the captain of one of the ships being broke, another was procured and sent to him.” Such an efficient and disciplined mob was unlikely to have been a spontaneous one. Indeed, Carp, who has identified a hundred participants, reports that eight of them were employed by a single radical merchant.

George Washington disapproved of the Tea Party, and Benjamin Franklin called it “an Act of violent Injustice on our part.” But the Revolution was not yet in the hands of the Founders, although it had left those of the merchants, who now dodged and stalled as the people—passionate and heedless of economic niceties—called for a ban on all tea, even what was smuggled from the Dutch. The merchants were also losing their ability to control crowd violence. Breen reports that, in early 1774, a New Hampshire supporter of Parliament bled to death after a mob forced him to ride a sharp fence rail, which left a four-by-six-inch hole in his groin.

Britain overreacted, closing the port of Boston, restricting town meetings in Massachusetts, and giving the King the power to appoint the upper house of the Massachusetts legislature. British troops arrived in Boston in May. A Salem newspaper called Britain “more cruel than Sea-Monsters towards their young ones,” and a meeting in Wrentham declared that Britain seemed to want to reduce colonists “to nothing short of the miserable and deplorable State of Conquered Slaves.” A few merchants still hoped that Boston might pay for the tea and reconcile with Britain, but they were too intimidated by the outbursts of popular anger to give voice to their proposal at a Boston town meeting.

Sympathy for Massachusetts broke out in other colonies, and radicalized colonists across the region threw off the guidance of the merchant class. “These sheep, simple as they are, cannot be gulled as heretofore,” the wealthy New York City lawyer Gouverneur Morris wrote to a friend. “The mob begin to think and to reason.”

In Philadelphia in September, 1774, as representatives from twelve colonies met for a Continental Congress, bells tolled throughout the city for Americans killed during a British assault on Boston.
In fact, the British hadn’t assaulted Boston or killed anyone; the bells tolled for a false rumor.
Nonetheless, tens of thousands—about a third of New England’s able-bodied men, according to one contemporary estimate—mustered to reclaim Boston. Breen observes that “no one seems to have expressed the slightest skepticism” about the truth of the rumors of British atrocity. A loyalist of the time put it more bitterly: “If the Faction had told their deluded Followers, that an Army of 30,000 Men were crossing the Atlantick in Egg Shells, with a Design to roast the Inhabitants alive & eat them afterwards, the People would have first stared, & swallowed down the Tale, whole.”
Breen argues that the emotions roused by the false rumor emboldened the delegates, who soon passed the Continental Association, an agreement not to import or consume British goods. They voted not to let colonists export to Britain, either—though only after an interval that allowed Virginia to sell off its latest tobacco harvest. In addition, Americans were not to drink any taxed tea after March 1, 1775; sheep were to be preserved from slaughter, for the sake of a native wool industry; and no one was to indulge in cockfights, horse racing, theatre, or fancy dress at funerals. Soon the local committees charged with enforcing the Continental Association patrolled for thought crimes, too. They read private mail. They ordered loyalist pamphlets burned or tarred and feathered.

Tea abstention and consumer sacrifice, Breen writes, “created a climate that encouraged other people to adopt more coercive ways to preserve liberty”—a phrase of Orwellian depths. Since the local committees lacked legal authority, their chief tools were intimidation and ostracism. As for violence, the committees forswore it “except so much as is necessary,” as a Worcester group nicely explained. In Wilmington, North Carolina, a committee went door to door for signatures to a new loyalty oath. According to its own minutes, the committee gave holdouts six days to reconsider before it published their names and ordered fellow-citizens to shun and boycott them—a stern but legal measure. In the journal of a visiting Englishwoman, however, Breen found another version. In downtown Wilmington one day, the woman saw a number of her American friends on the street: “I stopped to speak to them, but they with one voice begged me for heaven’s sake to get off the street, making me observe they were prisoners . . . and that in all human probability some scene would be acted very unfit for me to witness.” Probably, they expected a punishment like tarring and feathering, which would be more humiliating if a woman they knew was watching. Militiamen said the Englishwoman’s friends were free to go if they signed the loyalty oath. She waited in a house nearby while her friends held out, and sometime after two in the morning they were released.

Violence unlicensed by committee was wilder. In Plymouth County, Massachusetts, a drover who bought an ox from a royally appointed legislator was carted for miles inside the belly of its partially dressed carcass. In East Haddam, Connecticut, a loyalist doctor was tarred with hot pitch, feathered, and rubbed with pig dung. Deaths at the hands of American insurgents were rare, though. For their part, British troops did kill a few of Americans over the years, but even the so-called Boston Massacre, Archer shows, seems to have been a case not of malice but of soldiers panicking in the midst of a crowd throwing snowballs and sticks. Tempers were high, but it wasn’t yet clear to most people that the stakes were high, too. It had all happened so many times before: a British tax, an American fuss, British repeal, American calm. Until the Battles of Lexington and Concord, in April, 1775, neither side imagined that the other might not back down.

Breen thinks that most Americans didn’t feel licensed to kill British soldiers until they learned of American deaths at Lexington and Concord, and began to read reprints of “The Crisis,” a series of vitriolic anonymous essays thought to be the work of a radical essayist named William Moore. “The Crisis” (not to be confused with Thomas Paine’s work of the same name) is spiteful and unhinged, and it’s dismaying that it spoke to the American spirit at the moment of independence. The author described the British Prime Minister, Lord North, as being “engendered in the womb of hell”; imagined George III eagerly plotting “the people’s ruin”; and claimed that the King’s friends in Parliament were planning “to plunder, butcher, starve, or enslave” first the colonists and then the British themselves. The author flirted with calling for the assassination of George III and wished death on both houses of Parliament. He could write as violently as he liked, he taunted, because under British law conspiracy to make war on the king didn’t qualify as treason unless accompanied by an overt act. As Breen notes, the author “did not worry a lot about evidence.”

In 1974, the historian David Ammerman wrote that it is obvious in retrospect that America wasn’t going to play second fiddle in the British Empire indefinitely. “What is not so clear,” Ammerman continued, “is that the pursuit of equality need have included violence or that the equality sought necessitated independence.” Spend a little time with the venality, misinformation, hysteria, and violence that led up to the Revolution, and the picture becomes murkier. As Breen notes, “No evidence survives showing that the king or his ministers contemplated a complex plan to destroy American rights,” yet a significant proportion of the American populace became convinced that this was the case. The confusion might have been deliberately induced, if merchants were pulling strings. But then why did the puppets keep waving their hands even after the merchants tried to yank the strings in the opposite direction?

In the mid-twentieth century, historians trying to make sense of the paranoid style in American Revolutionary politics suggested that it derived from essayists on the fringe of the Whig Party in England who saw themselves as heirs of the men who had launched the English Civil War.

Though marginal in England, these conspiracy theories seemed cogent in America, where colonists lived under governors with strong executive powers but no local constituency. Still, historically informed descriptions of what people believed don’t explain why colonists stood up for their principles only some of the time, and why they disagreed so acrimoniously that they were willing to dip one another in tar barrels. In a 1972 article, “An Economic Interpretation of the American Revolution,” Marc Egnal and Joseph A. Ernst suggested that the Revolution may have been triggered by the growth of British capitalism, which for decades flooded the colonies with easy credit and with manufactured goods that were better and cheaper than Americans could make themselves. The British were doing to us in the seventeen-sixties more or less what China is doing to us today. Merchants were the first to make their discontent political, because they were the first to see that the economic predicament could be eased if the colonies had the autonomy to, say, print paper money or trade with other nations. The people, for their part, may have hoped that boycotts of imported luxuries would limit their personal spending and encourage American manufacturing, which might, in time, employ them. But the people’s enthusiasm for the boycotts far outran the merchants’. In banning such items as funeral scarves and elaborate mourning dress, the colonists seem to have been admitting to powerlessness, as if their desire for British goods were itself the instrument of their subjugation.

Maybe that’s where the paranoia and the rage came in. The British never forced John Hancock to ship fine linen to Boston, after all. He just suspected that Americans wanted it in spite of themselves, however loudly they said they preferred independence. Even today, Americans don’t want a revolution against their own consumerism—not for all the tea in China. ♦