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, June 05, 2020

“The Militia…would never act against the Rioters”

In August 1765, eighteen years after Gov. William Shirley struggled to deal with anti-impressment riots, his successor Francis Bernard faced a similar challenge.

This time the people of Boston were upset about the Stamp Act. On 14 August, there was a full day of public protests under what was later dubbed Liberty Tree, followed by an attack on the office and fence of stamp agent (and province secretary) Andrew Oliver.

The next day, Gov. Bernard wrote to the Board of Trade from Castle William:
I sent a written order to the Colonel of the Regiment of Militia, to beat an Alarm; he answered that it would signify nothing, for as soon as the drum was heard, the drummer would be knocked down, & the drum broke; he added, that probably all the drummers of the Regiment were in the Mob. Nothing more being to be done, The Mob were left to disperse at their own Time, which they did about 12 o’clock.

The next day I called a Council, having summoned all the Members within 10 Miles of Boston. I asked their advice in general, & particularly recommended to them, the Protection of Mr Olivers House & Family from further Attacks. They lamented the Impotence of the Government, & said that it would be to no purpose to attempt to raise a Military Force; as the Militia, the only force we had, would never act against the Rioters, if they would assemble at all, which was much doubted.
This was the same lesson Gov. Shirley had to learn. Despite being commander-in-chief of the provincial defenses, a governor couldn’t call the militia out to suppress a large crowd when the men in that crowd were also the men in the militia.

In Britain, common men had few formal ways to express their political and social grievances, and such riots were common. Violent disturbances might have been less frequent in the strange corner of the empire called New England, with its mix of more democratic governance and stricter religious culture. But common enough that political thinkers and actors had to anticipate them.

In From Resistance to Revolution, the historian Pauline Maier wrote:
Eighteenth-century Americans accepted the existence of popular uprisings with remarkable ease. Riots and tumults, it was said, happened “in all governments at all times.” To seek a world completely free of them was vain; it was to pursue “a blessing denied to this life, and reserved to complete the felicity of the next.” Not that extra-legal uprisings were encouraged. They were not. But in certain circumstances, it was understood, the people would rise up almost as a natural force, much as night follows day, and the phenomenon often contributed to the public welfare.
The quoted phrases came from the political philosopher Algernon Sidney (1623-1683). John Adams quoted them in one of his “Novanglus” essays.

COMING UP: What the governors saw as solutions.

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