J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

Boston as the Cradle of Violence

Last month Wiley published Cradle of Violence: How Boston's Waterfront Mobs Ignited the American Revolution, by Russell Bourne, and I'm still waiting to see it reviewed in the local press. Or anywhere else, for that matter. Full disclosure rules require that I admit Russ bought me off with some Thai food and fine conversations while he was researching the book, and some kind acknowledgments within it. So this is a shout-out, not a review.

As Russ describes, the decade before the Revolution in Boston was punctuated with riots: against royal appointees, against Customs law enforcers, against troops who seemed to defy local authority, against tea imports. There were also riotous moments in the decades before, and in the decades afterward. As Pauline Maier pointed out in From Resistance to Revolution, eighteenth-century political theorists expected periodic "mobs" and "riots" because they knew that, in a society which still viewed "democracy" as pejorative, the bulk of the populace had few other ways to express their political priorities. If a gentleman agreed with the mob's cause, he saw the uprising as an unfortunate symptom of bad government. If he disagreed, he complained that the unthinking vulgar were being misled by devious troublemakers.

Of course, riots make people uncomfortable; that's what they're supposed to do. During the 1760s and 1770s, Boston's genteel Whigs worked hard to separate themselves from mobs' actions while usually supporting their cause; it was a "good cop, bad cop" approach to demanding change from the appointed authorities. In the 1780s, Bostonians of most classes united against the Regulators in rural Massachusetts in the unrest that came to be called "Shays' Rebellion." And in the 1830s, as Al Young discusses in The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, local politicians and publishers celebrated the destruction of East India Company tea in Dec 1773 because that had been a safe riot: planned, controlled, limited, and about an issue that was never going to come up again.

As for today, basically we are all genteel by 1770s standards. Our homes are more luxuriously appointed than even wealthy gentlemen enjoyed then, and our attitudes reflect that level of comfort and property. The most successful "founders' chic" books of recent years have focused on elite politicians like John Adams and George Washington. They were vital to the Revolution, but they weren't the whole story.

Relatively few Americans today have experienced having no political voice. (Not having every election go your way is not the same thing.) A lot of folks tsk-tsk the excesses of the Stamp Act riots, yet would object to the "taxation without representation" that those stamps embodied. Many blame Crispus Attucks and the rest of the crowd at the Boston Massacre, yet would resist having the army patrol their own towns. Whether we actually believe in "democracy" today or simply pay lip service to it, we've come close to enjoying it only because of mobs and rioters who didn't have it. And that's why Russ Bourne's book deserves to go alongside those handsome founders' biographies.

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