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Riding the Revolution: Populism, once old, may be new again

Posted on 29 November 2011 by John Rippo

by James Call

THE INSURGENCY—A sudden army was camped in Cambridge in April of 1775. A large, unrecruited army. An amateur army. An army without a commander. Farmers and mechanics were getting ready to attack trained, battle tested British troops occupying Boston. Why were these men there, ready to lay down their lives on a such a hazardous mission? How did this army come together? As basic as these questions seem to the story of the American Revolution, the surprising answers are not part of the usual narrative. Calling this army “militia,” as is often done, glosses over a much more compelling story of its creation. The cause they were committed to fighting and dying for had very little to do with taxes.
The most familiar history of the Revolution includes a nearly straight line of leadership, starting with James Otis and Samuel Adams orchestrating the American response to the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, and the Townsend Acts; to John Hancock and John Adams and a growing band of revolutionaries organizing resistance and inventing a government to replace British rule; culminating with an American army under Washington in the field fighting for independence. In reality, that line of leadership is not so straight. The most singular event of the Revolution, indeed, the real beginning of the Revolution, months before Lexington, was a spontaneous, leaderless, uprising of Americans in outrage. The Founders didn’t so much drive the Revolution as ride it. This event accomplished its revolutionary goal in a single summer. The nine years of war following was not England fighting to hold on to its colonies. It was England fighting to win them back.

Trouble had been brewing for some time. The French and Indian War ending in 1763 had left England with a huge war debt. The war had been enormously expensive for the British. And it was a continuing expense. A much larger military presence was being maintained in the colonies after the war than before. There were those in Parliament who, fishing around for ideas to reduce the debt, decided that Americans, the war having been conducted for their security and benefit, should pay their fair share. Of course the primary reason for the war was that Great Britain was guarding its own colonial interests by protecting its western American frontier against French encroachment. Little attention was paid to the high cost of the war already born by Americans in money and blood. Local colonial assemblies had raised taxes for the war effort and many Americans had died fighting along side British soldiers. Nonetheless, Parliament passed the Sugar Act of 1764 and then a year later the Stamp Act of 1765. While the Sugar Act was a trade regulatory duty, the Stamp Act was a tax laid directly on British citizens in the colonies—the first time Parliament had ever done so.

The grumbling started immediately over the Sugar Act. However, it mostly affected Americans producing rum. Smuggling and bribes greatly reduced its impact. The hue and cry over the Stamp Act was much broader. The American leadership that was to prosecute the war for independence a decade later did begin to emerge during this period. However, much of the response to these hated laws was grass roots. It may have been left to leaders to articulate opposition in newspapers and pamphlets and letters to Parliament, but much action was taken in communities thru-out the colonies. Committees formed at the local level to discuss these laws and inform the populace. Some of these committees began to loosely style themselves The Sons of Liberty and take greater and more robust political action. As a result, a line in the sand was deeply etched — No Taxation Without Representation! Americans, as they were to prove over and over again, would not allow that line to be crossed.

They reasoned that if a member of Parliament from Yorkshire or Kent supports an unfair law or an unreasonable tax, the people of Yorkshire or Kent may vote him out. But if those same MPs legislate for Bostonians who have no way to inflict a consequence for an unreasonable law, then nothing restrains the legislator but his own sense of fair play. And a politician’s sense of fair play was trusted as little in 1765 as it is now. If a penny tax, why not sixpence? If a tax on documents, why not bread too? The British in England did not have to suffer laws enacted by legislators unbeholden to a local electorate. Did the colonists suddenly no longer have the same rights as people back home? Were Americans, who had suffered privation to tame a wild land for the benefit of Great Britain, no longer to be British citizens?
The Stamp Act required that all newspapers and pamphlets, all legal documents, and for good measure, all playing cards be affixed with the requisite stamp. It is curious that the British would choose for their first vehicle to directly tax Americans, an act that mostly targeted lawyers, newspaper men, and college students. One could hardly coalesce a disparate group more likely to foment opposition and take effective action. It is a special example of the arrogance and ignorance that characterized British policy at every stage of the conflict and which ended with the loss of their American colonies.

Opposition to the Stamp Act was swift and occurred at all levels of society. Various of the colonies individually passed in their assemblies resolves against the acts. Committees of Correspondence were established in the various colonies to keep each other up to date on opposition activities within each colony. With representatives from most of the colonies attending, a “Stamp Act Congress” was formed which also issued a statement against the Act. Thus the law united not only commoners and patricians, but also encouraged an unprecedented level of cooperation between colonies more normally prone to competition with each other. On the ground protests and riots occurred almost spontaneously. The Sons of Liberty took it as their special task to prevent the stamp agents from performing their function. They often did this violently, with beatings, tar and feathers, and house burnings. This level of response from common people not only shocked the British, but it also shocked and frightened American leaders.

In the event, it was not so much the letters sent by colonial leaders to king and Parliament that caused the repeal of the Stamp Act. It wasn’t even the protests both in the colonies and in England. More to the point was the fact that this troublesome law was not fulfilling its goal. The Sons of Liberty and other disorganized mobs had been so effective in intimidating the stamp agents that virtually no tax was being collected. The law had simply been made null and void by The People. Less than a year after its enactment the Stamp Act was repealed by Parliament in February 1766.
Americans were jubilant. They had won their point and preserved British liberty in America. They had made the British Government back down. Many members of Parliament however chafed at this upstart rebuke of their legislative power. Arrogantly insisting on their perceived prerogatives, they hatched their next plan to tax Americans.

When they repealed the Stamp Act, Parliament passed at the same time the Declaratory Act which in essence said that no precedence had been set by the repeal and that Parliament retained the right to legislate for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.” The very next year with an abundance of hubris and shortsightedness they began to pass a series of laws collectively known as The Townshend Acts to raise revenue from the colonies, strengthen collection methods, and in general tighten control over the Americans. Each of the acts raised various objections. Each act progressively deepened resentment in the colonies. Troop levels were raised in New York and Boston increasing friction between citizen and soldier. This friction eventually erupted in violence in 1770 with the Boston Massacre which heightened anger on both sides.

Two incredible strains of thought seem to have characterize British thinking, at least in Parliament. One was that they thought they could fool Americans into paying a tax. The other was that greater repression was the best way to deal with growing American unrest — not noticing that harsher laws only provoked increased resistence. However much resentment was caused by all of the Townshend Acts, once again the biggest sticking point was taxation. It was felt in Parliament, erroneously, that while Americans objected to a direct tax, they would not object to an indirect tax. So import duties were placed on several essential items that by law Americans could only import from Great Britain. Not fooled, the American response was evasion, boycott, and protest. Not only was tax revenue once again not being raised, merchants and whigs in England were clamoring for repeal…again. Unchastened and angry at being backed into a corner…again, Parliament nonetheless repealed most of the Townshend Acts and lifted the import duties—all but one.
If it had been the plan to drive the colonies to separation from the mother country, it’s hard to imagine a plan more calculated to that end than the course of actions the British took starting in 1764. Yet, like a bull in a china shop, on they charged. As they tried to figure their way out of the Townshend mess a circumstance occurred that offered a way to kill two birds with one stone. The British East India Company, the largest corporation in England, had a problem. They had a glut of tea. They were having a hard time selling it against cheaper Dutch tea. But being the large company that they were, and as large companies often do, they had plenty of say-so over government policy. Many MPs were heavily invested in the Company. Indeed, many had themselves seen India service with the Company. So the plan was this: remove import duties on the tea by allowing the Company to deliver directly to the colonies without importation to England. That would make it cheaper and more competitive against Dutch tea. Then retain from the Townshend Acts the duty on tea going to America and send over a large shipment. Because of the reduced price the tea would still be cheaper with the tax than previous shipments had been without it. How could Americans object to that? The tea would even be cheaper than smuggled Dutch tea. The Company would sell a lot of tea, and a precedence for taxing Americans would be established. Win win. How clever!

Well, far less than clever as it turned out. The plan completely misunderstood the attitude in America. When a large shipment of tea arrived in Boston on 3 ships American leaders discussed schemes to prevent tea brokers, some of whom were loyalists, from purchasing the tea and paying the duty. The general plan was to try to get the shipment sent back to England. However, The Sons of Liberty effectively made the negotiations moot. They rowed out and boarded the ships, smashed the crates and dumped the tea into the harbor. It was a lot of tea. 300 tons. It changed the color of the bay. Tea washed up along the shoreline for several miles. It was the most expensive act of collective lawlessness the Americans had yet committed. When news of the action reached England, British East India Company executives were livid. The loss of the tea hurt. It put a serious crimp in the Company’s bottom line. Boston must pay! It was not difficult for the Company to lobby Parliament to pass a series of punitive measures aimed at Boston and the Massachusetts Bay Colony to punish them for the destruction of the tea and to make them pay for it.

It wasn’t just Company advocates in Parliament who rushed to support a law to make Boston pay for the tea. American sympathizers in England and even many patriot American leaders thought The Sons of Liberty had gone too far. This lack of general support amongst sympathizers in England and the vehemence of the opposition led to a quick passage of the draconian set of laws called The Coercive Acts that Americans came to refer to as “The Intolerable Acts.” These laws went much farther than merely to make Boston pay for the tea. Two acts in particular riled Americans. The Boston Port Act closed the Port of Boston until the tea had been paid for and “order restored.” The Massachusetts Government Act dismantled local government in Massachusetts Bay Colony.

To back up these tough new measures a large force of troops was sent to Boston and a military man, General Thomas Gage, was appointed governor. When he arrived to take his post on May 31, 1774 Gage brought with him the Boston Port Act which took effect June 1st. The Massachusetts Government Act took effect a month later. It was a one, two punch. If many Americans had been angry and determined over taxation without representation, the escalation of feeling in reaction to the news of the Port Act was seismic. It aroused the countryside in outrage. Gage had arrived with 3000 soldiers to enforce the closing of Boston Harbor. In addition to idling Boston shipping, merchants were denied import trade, sailors, warehouse men, mechanics and everyone employed by any aspect of shipping suddenly had no work. A significant percentage of the population in this busy seaport town lost their jobs. Newspapers thru-out the colonies, not only Massachusetts, suddenly exploded with an angry righteousness that did not exist before. Wounded exclamations accused Parliament of “rapine and cruelty,” and of subjecting Americans to “slavery.” Vows to defend liberty with a “glorious death” if need be, suddenly shot thru the colonies with previously unheard vehemence.

It is the hugest irony that the very act that the British thought would bring the colonies to heel, instead infuriated Americans to such a degree that they suddenly became united against British rule in a way unthinkable just a couple of months before. Especially when Parliament dropped the other shoe—delivered the second punch—and dismantled Massachusetts colonial government. The divorce was complete. The Massachusetts Government Act essentially replaced all elective office in the colony with representatives appointed by the crown or the governor. The Colonial Assembly was disbanded and the activities of town counsels severely restricted. In their place was established the office of mandamus councillor. The holders of this appointive office were to rule local districts virtually by decree.

But that’s not the way it went down. Instead, Americans in Massachusetts, turning the tables, dismantled British rule. Completely. None of the mandamus councillors were permitted to be seated for long. They were very quickly run out of their jurisdictions. Tar and feathers once again employed, as were house burnings. Those councillors still in Boston stayed there. They would not have been safe anywhere else. Not only were mandamus councillors denied their mandate, existing judges and sheriffs were also sent packing. American officers in local militias resigned their commissions under British authority. The militias then began to act under their own authority. Locally collected tax monies were also kept from representatives of the government. Except in Boston where the army was, British rule in Massachusetts evaporated like a morning mist. Further, news of the occupation spread quickly thru-out the other colonies in outraged sympathy. Several months before Lexington and fully 2 years before the Declaration of Independence Great Britain lost control of her American colonies.

Examination of American rhetoric before and after the Coercive Acts makes clear that taxation was not the issue that so inflamed the countryside. It was what the British thought of as a “little show of force,” the occupation of Boston. Of course, it is a mistake that super powers frequently make—military might is the deciding factor in every contest. The reality is that in the face of a determined insurgency mere military might often doesn’t count for much in deciding the final outcome. Nonetheless, with unwarranted confidence, the government blundered on. This colossal hubris was not unanimous in Parliament. A prominent member, Edmund Burke, amongst others, argued eloquently against The Coercive Acts. To no avail.

The variety of the American response points to the leaderless spontaneity of the reaction. One newspaper in Massachusetts, The Essex Gazette, published in its pages the vow signed by 100 men “united in the firmest bonds” to oppose, “every civil officer now in commission in this province, and acting in conformity to the late act of Parliament.” It further stated, “If any of said officers shall accept a commission under the present plan of arbitrary government, or in any way or manner whatsoever, assist the governor or administration in the assault now making on our rights and liberties, we will consider them as having forfeited their commissions and yield them no obedience.” The effective date of this vow was July 1, 1774, the same effective date as The Massachusetts Government Act. The Essex Gazette also reported early in July, “The News-Papers from all Quarters, in every British American Colony, so far as we have yet received Intelligence, are chiefly filled with Accounts of Meetings and Resolutions of Towns and Counties, all to the same Purpose—complaining of Oppression, proposing a Congress, a Cessation of Intercourse with Great Britain, and a Contribution for the Relief of the Poor of Boston.” Letters and diaries, and other newspaper accounts from this time confirm the generality of this sentiment not only thru-out Massachusetts, but in all of the colonies. By September the beleaguered Governor Gage acknowledged in a letter to the home government that “Civil Government is near its end, the Courts of Justice expiring one after another.” No central authority had ordered the dismantling of the courts. This action was taken independently by community after community as they had done with the mandamus councillors.

The dismantling of government by loosely organized mobs made local leaders very nervous. The fear of anarchy and chaos was very real in their minds. As noted earlier in the Essex Gazette, among the individual resolves of the towns and counties were calls for the formation of a congress. By September The 1st Continental Congress had been formed and the members meeting in Philadelphia. Delegates were chosen by the colonial legislatures of 12 of the 13 colonies. Whether or not these legislatures had yet been disbanded, calling for this congress was an extralegal act. That this action was taken so quickly and so universally may indicate the nervousness of colonial leaders observing mob action.
While the 1st Continental Congress was meeting in Philadelphia a remarkable occurrence helped push developments. It has come down to us as the “Powder Alarm.” In response to the collapse of British authority in the colony outside Boston, Gage decided that gunpowder, shot, and armaments stored in various spots around the colony should be brought to Boston to be put more firmly under his control. The first such mission was mounted by 260 soldiers on September 1st to a magazine just outside nearby Charles Town. The powder and armaments were successfully removed to Boston. The troop movements however seemed to have sparked a rumor that Boston was being razed by bombardment and its citizens slaughtered. This was entirely untrue but that did not stop the response that followed.

As the rumor of the destruction of Boston spread from town to town, men in these communities instantly flew into action. Whether on their own or with the local militia, armed men from Massachusetts and Connecticut marched converging on Cambridge just outside Boston where they found out that the alarm had been false. Nonetheless, the response from both sides to this gathering was profound. Estimates of the numbers of men on the march ranged between 15,000 to as much as 100,000. Ezra Stiles, an educator soon to be president of Yale College, investigated the alarm and its causes and put the number around 30,000. In any case these numbers vastly outstripped British troop strength in Boston of under 4,000. Greatly alarmed Gage wrote immediately to England asking for reinforcements. “if you think ten thousand men sufficient, send twenty; if one million is thought enough, give two; you save both blood and treasure in the end,” a request which subjected Gage to much ridicule back home. (They sent him 400 marines.) Plans to gather munitions from other locations were cancelled. Another such expedition was not mounted until 7 months later — the fateful one to Concord in April of ’75. Delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, first alarmed at the rumor, then relieved that it was false, were surprised that such a large, leaderless army had so spontaneously gathered in response to it. It presented them with options and responsibilities that they had not had when they originally had arrived in Philadelphia.

The Congress now had some teeth. That so many armed men would be in the field at a moment’s notice, however untrained, was something the British would have to consider in its responses to the extralegal Continental Congress. Congress could make its demands with much more authority. The other side, however, was that the demands of Congress had better have some bite, or a people who had already effectively dismantled British government thru-out the colonies would not recognize the Congress as truly representing their interests. Congress did indeed, however, step up to the plate.

Least significantly, Congress sent a letter to Parliament demanding a repeal of the Coercive Acts. More importantly they planned a boycott of British trade goods unless and until the repeal of the hated acts. But far more importantly, they authorized “The Association” to enforce the boycott. The Articles of Association described in detail what was to be on the non-importation list. More vague, tho, was a description of how the boycott was to be enforced. It was to be loosely based on the committees already in place; committees of correspondence, committees of safety, committees of observation. Congress described that a committee selected by those eligible to vote for the legislature be put in place in each community to watch for any persons who maybe breaking the boycott. The committee was to encourage transgressors to come into compliance by shaming them—publishing their names in the newspaper and by ostracizing them from “fellowship” within the community. Beyond that, what other forms enforcement would take would be left up to each community. It was left up to the Association in each locality to identify the ideologically impure and take corrective measures. A “rough justice” did take place. Members did terrorize perceived loyalists into flight or conversion —the ever present tar and feathers always at the ready. Some communities were rougher than others. What was plain however was who was in political control of the countryside. Overwhelmingly, it was the insurgents. Loyalists were forced to shut up or leave. With very few exceptions, the only safe places for Loyalists were Boston and New York. By legitimizing the committee activities already in place Congress demonstrated its solidarity with The People. And for their part The People were both empowered and to some degree restrained by the mandate provided to them by a central intercolonial authority. A nascent “United States” had been formed in September 1774. The Association represented insurgent law before the Articles of Confederation.

The Congress did one more very important thing. In Suffolk County, Pennsylvania a set of resolves were written up. This document provided “that no obedience is due from this Province to either or any part of the Acts above mentioned, but that they be rejected as the attempts of a wicked Administration to enslave America.” This sentiment, radical then as it would be now, that The People may decide whether or not to obey a law, is one repeated in the Declaration of Independence, and later again, opposing the authority of the US government, in the Kentucky Resolution (both written by Thomas Jefferson). Congress adopted The Suffolk Resolves seemingly as an answer to The Declaratory Act. To paraphrase, Parliament may propose, but The People dispose.

When the Congress adjourned on October 26 they agreed to reconvene in May 1775 if the Coercive Acts had not been repealed. Rule by committee and The Association continued thru this period. The militias and their leaders began to plan for engagement with the British Army. Strategies were discussed and training mounted but even this effort was pretty ad hoc. Nonetheless, on April 19, 1775 when 700 British troops marched out to seize munitions in Concord and arrest John Hancock and John Adams, the Americans now had advance intelligence and were already mobilized before they got there. Before the Powder Alarm the British had been able to accomplish their mission and get back to Boston without incident. The enormous American force that had come together afterwards had done so because of completely erroneous intelligence. Americans were now more coordinated and ready. Munitions in Concord had mostly been moved to safety, as had Hancock and Adams. Even tho the British drew first blood at Lexington, the march back to Boston was a hellish free fire gauntlet that resulted in many more casualties for the British than for the Americans. Nearly every able bodied patriot in the vicinity, whether under command or not, had descended upon the retreating British to join in the turkey shoot. And the Americans still had no central command.

Once again, as they had at the rumored destruction of Boston, a large American body of men rushed to Cambridge as news spread with amazing speed of bloodshed at Lexington. A new level of outrage inflamed the countryside, engaging fence-sitters and former moderates along with newly enraged patriots. Pouring into Cambridge were militias under their local commands, men not part of any militia, and wild, nearly ungovernable frontiersmen. In the meantime, the 2nd Continental Congress came together on May 10 as per their agreement the previous October. They immediately began to function as an American national executive and legislative body. They hadn’t planned and started the war. They inherited it. The populace was literally “up in arms.” Observing the daily growing number of insurgents near Boston with some alarm, the Congress chose Washington to lead them, calling him, somewhat euphemistically, Commander-in-Chief of the “Army.”

Before Washington could get there to take charge, this sprawling mob decided to mount an attack on Boston on their own. Under the loose leadership of a Connecticut militia general, Israel Putnam, and some other militia officers they accomplished a rather remarkable military feat against trained British troops. Stealthily, under cover of darkness, 1200 Americans dug in on Breed’s hill overlooking Boston. The British awoke to Americans looking down on them from fortified positions within firing range. Reacting to this untenable situation the British attacked. They charged up the hill twice and twice fell back against withering American musket and rifle fire, and huge losses. On the third charge they were able to drive the Americans, low on ammo now, off of Breed’s Hill and nearby Bunker Hill. The patriots took most of their casualties in the disorderly and inexpert retreat. The British “won” but it was a win that had General Gage reeling. They had lost nearly a thousand killed and wounded—nearly a third of the entire occupation army. Against farmers. He was stunned. As were officials in England. Discounting American determination, commitment, and resourcefulness, many blamed Gage with incompetence. He was soon replaced.

As Washington took control of the “army” and Congress took control of the war, the Revolution became incrementally less populist. But it was clearly The People that had taken them to that point. It was The People who had dismantled British authority. It was The People who had stood up to British military aggression and started the war. Many founders were shoulder to shoulder with The People. But many were more timid. Reconciliation was a theme that continued even after Lexington. The 2nd Continental Congress sent The Olive Branch petition for peace. It was ignored by the British. It probably would have been ignored by American patriots too. But some founders, like Patrick Henry, stood with The People from the beginning.

In March ’75, several weeks before Lexington, Virginia delegates were meeting to discuss their positions in anticipation of the Congress in May. A major topic was whether or not to declare for independence. Most were leaning against. That’s when Patrick Henry stood up and gave his famous “Give me liberty or give me death” speech. He began softly, in a low voice, then gradually rising in pitch and emotion like a fire and brimstone preacher. Near his conclusion he said in exasperation, “Gentlemen may cry, ‘Peace, Peace’—but there is no peace. The war is actually begun!” [Remember, this is weeks before the first shots in Lexington.] “The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field!” [keeping the British bottled up in Boston] “Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet,” [raising his hands over his head, wrists together in mock bondage] “as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” [raising his voice to a shout] “Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, [dramatically breaking apart his hands but leaving one aloft as if clasping a dagger] “GIVE ME LIBERTY” [then plunging the imaginary dagger down into his heart] “OR GIVE ME DEATH!”

The effect on the delegates in the room and on people outside listening at the windows was electric. The story goes that one old man standing outside cried, “When I die let me be buried on this spot!” The delegates were moved too. They took a vote to declare for independence at the coming Congress. It now passed. This speech so spoke for The People that it became a battle cry of the coming war. The People were not moved to lay down their lives by intellectual arguments over taxation. Americans were incensed over the unfairness of punishing an entire colony for the actions of a few people. They were outraged at the dismantling of representative government. The language and emotionality of Henry’s speech caught the mood of The People pitch perfect.

The fascinating details of this too little told tale, putting The People back at the forefront of their Revolution, may be seen in T. H. Breen’s excellent book, American Insurgents, American Patriots.

2 Comments For This Post

  1. Bill Romero Says:

    Timely reminder of what we were & are wanting and needing in this country.

  2. mancalledclay Says:

    such an outstanding read. thank you for a uniquely comprehensive and obviously studied piece….not to discount the eloquence and flair with which it’s delivered!

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