The New Yorker
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.”