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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Friday, December 14, 2012

The Shifting Tides of “Terrorism”

The question of whether America’s Revolutionary Sons of Liberty were terrorists, made briefly controversial this Thanksgiving season, is actually rather old and uncontroversial. Many textbooks and basic studies of terrorism cite the Sons of Liberty’s more violent actions as historic examples while acknowledging that Americans tend to be uncomfortable with the “terrorist” label.

Popular writers have raised the same issues. Todd Alan Kreamer’s essay “Sons of Liberty: Patriots or Terrorists?” appeared on EarlyAmerica.com back in the fall of 1996. Ten years later, a student in Pepperell wrote a short essay in Teen Ink concluding that the Sons of Liberty were terrorists and “unacceptable.”

I always want to add that the Sons of Liberty were not murderers. They destroyed property. They inflicted corporal punishment, sometimes brutally. They intimidated and frightened their opponents. But I can’t think of any Crown official, employee, or political supporter in New England who died as a result of political violence until the North Bridge on 19 Apr 1775. (By writing “in New England,” I’m sidestepping the possible example of Royal Navy lieutenant Henry Panton, killed at sea by sailor Michael Corbet while resisting impressment in 1769.) It might have been sheer luck that none of the Sons of Liberty’s victims died, but that’s how it worked out.

Back in the fall of 2001, when terrorism was on everybody’s minds, I took part in discussions on H-Net, a network of email lists for historians, about whether recent events had useful parallels in the Sons of Liberty or the Barbary States. [That was so far back I was still using a Compuserve email address.] H-Net organized a resource page for teachers that mentioned my comments, among others.

I was skeptical of those parallels, partly because people were stretching the evidence or working with incomplete information to construct them, and partly because of that lack of killing. I thought it was more useful to consider how terrorism had changed over time. On 15 Oct 2001 I wrote:
The word “terrorism” was coined in 1795. Originally it referred to Revolutionary France’s Reign of Terror: an angry urban populace and an ideologically fervent government using their control of the streets and the courts to punish many enemies, real and perceived. We can draw a parallel between that behavior and the Sons of Liberty, especially after the Revolutionary War began, though the Americans didn’t use their gallows to the same extent. Certainly historians of the Loyalist community like James Stark drew that parallel.
Stark’s The Loyalists of Massachusetts (1910) uses the phrase “reign of terror” three times, suggesting that the Sons of Liberty’s behavior presaged the worst of the French Revolution. Loyalists themselves had used similar language. Gov. Francis Bernard wrote of “the terror which the troops of the faction have occasioned” in Boston (19 July 1768) and “the terror of the mobs” (6 Aug 1768).

Though Bernard called his political opponents “the faction,” he acknowledged that their power came from their numbers (“the troops of the faction,” “the mobs”). Eighteenth-century terrorism usually consisted of violence performed by crowds and supported by the majority of the populace. The Boston Tea Party fits that pattern, but because it was so tightly controlled and targeted, it was actually exceptional. When experts speak about the Sons of Liberty’s terrorism, they usually point to riots, the tarring and feathering of Customs employees like John Malcolm (as shown above), and the destruction of upper-class officials’ houses.

COMING UP: What changed terrorism since the Revolution?

BUT FIRST: Answers to the Deck Calendar Challenge!


Anonymous said...

I think the question of what constitutes "terrorism" is still useful. It seems to be the modern way of labeling the enemies of our democratic values. Perhaps because it is such a loaded term we go through contortions to see that it is only used against certain (usually religious) enemies, and get uncomfortable when it's used in the context of environmentalists, and animal rights and antiabortion activists--and especially our founding fathers.

G. Lovely said...

There is nothing I can say about terrorism, beyond echoing Justice Potter Stewart's description of 'obscenity', that "I know it when I see it", but I doubt the affluent in America around 1770 saw it as anything else, whether they had a handy word for it or not, as these posts on North, Wedge and Freeman's "In the Words of Women" blog attest:


Franklin's wife even uses the phrase "...terrify his wife and Children to death..." That no one actually died seems, to me, a rather arbitrary distinction.

J. L. Bell said...

The problem with a subjective definition of terrorism, I think, is that it depends entirely on the perceptions and emotions of one side of the conflict.

In 1740 the population of New York was certain there was a conspiracy among slaves to burn the town, and people were terrified. They executed dozens of black people, but from this distance the evidence of a plot seems minimal. The New York authorities perceived terrorism.

During the siege of Boston, George Washington became convinced that the royal authorities were deliberately trying to spread smallpox among his troops by sending infected refugees out of town. Again, there's no evidence of that; people had only a rudimentary understanding of how smallpox spread, anyway. If causing fear is our only yardstick for terrorism, then Washington was facing bioterrorism rather than a public-health challenge.

Chris said...

This is a valuable discussion about terrorism. In modern times, we tend to lump all types of attacks by non- nation states against the US interests as terrorism. You have a more comprehensive view of the activities of the Sons of Liberty than I do, but I would consider the act of the Boston Tea Party an act of civil disobedience. My definition of terrorism would need to include the fact that the intention of the act is to create fear and intimidate a population. It would appear that the Boston Tea Party was to send a message, but not strike fear into the British.

J. L. Bell said...

There are some more classic, non-violent forms of civil disobedience from the Revolutionary period. For example, in 1774 it was known that the Boston organizer William Molineux had refused to sit on a jury under a judge accepting a royal salary, and there was still some question about whether he'd be jailed or fined when he died.

Since the issue for most of the protests was some sort of new Customs duty, that made civil disobedience harder to perform. A merchant refusing to pay the tax while continuing to do business was hardly acting disinterested in his own revenues. Merchants and consumers joined in boycotts, but then there was pressure on everybody else to join in, too, prompting attacks on folks exercising their individual choices.

The battleground just didn't lend itself to civil disobedience in the form that Thoreau, Gandhi, and King later made famous.

G. Lovely said...

Whether the Sons of Liberty were a protest group or just an angry street mob was, and is, I believe, in the eye of the beholder. That they used property violence, in the implied threat of far worse to effect change seems clearly established, and since their actions depended on coercion based in a fear of bodily harm, not persuasion, I must deem them terrorism. Since I whole-heartedly approve of the results, however, this puts me in the deeply uncomfortable position of having to accept terrorism as a legitimate form of protest under some circumstances.