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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Sunday, March 11, 2007

Mather Byles, Sr., and "three thousand tyrants"

The Rev. Dr. Mather Byles, Sr. (1706-1788), was the minister of the Hollis Street Meeting-house, in the far South End of Boston. He was unusual among the town’s Congregationalist pastors in siding with the Crown rather than the Whigs. But he refused to leave Boston in March 1776 even as his sons and the other Anglican ministers did. His congregation voted to dismiss him, and the legislature placed him under house arrest. The congregants were never able to get him out of the house they had bought, and his daughters reportedly refused to pay local taxes while they lived in it for a couple more decades, too.

What Bostonians remembered most about Byles was his love of puns. In his autobiography John Adams referred to him as “Dr. Byles of punning Memory.” I suspect that locals in the next century dropped his name the way we say, “As Mark Twain said,...” or “As Will Rogers once remarked,…” to signal that we’re about to recite a joke. Which might mean that Byles didn’t necessarily voice every remark ascribed to him.

Among the most famous of those witticisms was one Dr. Byles reportedly delivered on 8 March 1770, during the funeral for the first four victims of the Boston Massacre. Witnesses estimated that several thousand people participated in the processions that day, dwarfing even the ceremony for Christopher Seider. Watching this crowd, Byles is said to have asked a young companion:

which is better—to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away, or by three thousand tyrants not a mile away?
That remark even got into Mel Gibson’s mouth in the movie The Patriot. But how reliable is the quotation?

Byles’s witticism turns out to be an oral tradition not committed to paper until 1897, more than a century and a quarter after the occasion. But it has an easily traceable provenance. It appeared in an article by journalist James R. Gilmore (1822-1903) in the August issue of New England Magazine. In “Nathaniel Emmons and Mather Byles,” Gilmore described a conversation “early in 1840” with the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Emmons, a ninety-five-year-old Congregationalist clergyman who died later that year. Emmons, in turn, reportedly described a conversation with Dr. Byles in March 1770 when he was a young man like Gilmore. He quoted Byles saying:
throwing out Sam and John Adams and John Hancock and some few other leaders, the majority of our New England patriots were a sorry set.

I stood with Parson Byles on the corner of what are now School and Washington Streets, in March, 1770, and watched the funeral procession of Crispus Attucks—that half Indian, half negro and altogether rowdy, who should have been strangled long before he was born.

There were all of three thousand in the procession—the most of them drawn from the slums of Boston; and as they went by the Parson turned to me and said: “They call me a brainless Tory; but tell me, my young friend, which is better—to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away, or by three thousand tyrants not a mile away?”
Emmons was known for his fervent opposition to Unitarianism, Universalism, and almost any doctrine but evangelical Calvinism. He preached against Thomas Jefferson. The educator Horace Mann, a childhood congregant of Emmons, recalled that he
expounded all the doctrines of total depravity, election, and reprobation, and not only the eternity but the extremity of hell’s torments, unflinchingly and in their most terrible significance, while he rarely if ever descanted on the joys of heaven, and never, in my recollection upon the essential and necessary happiness of a virtuous life.
And if Gilmore recalled Emmons’s remarks accurately, he was also free to express prejudice about class and race. He strikes me as having been a temperamental conservative, disliking any new idea and any person not from his high class. He also seems to have had a talent for pithy quotes.

I can’t help but note that the “three thousand tyrants” quote resembles shopkeeper Theophilus Lillie’s complaint about being a slave to a hundred masters, published in January 1770. So Byles would have had several weeks to improve on Lillie, Emmons seventy years to polish Byles’s remark in his memory, and Gilmore another half-century to touch up Emmons’s anecdote for print. No wonder the quotation works so well.


Anonymous said...

Hi. I only wantto say that I have a genuine painting by Mather Byleswhich I found in a flea market in Nova Scotia 6 years ago. Iv been doign research on him for some time now. Ive been offered som emoney fo rthis painting but have not accepted it.


J. L. Bell said...

Is this a portrait of Mather Byles, Sr., or Mather Byles, Jr.? I ask because the younger man went to Halifax in 1776, and so might have been painted there. Or might have brought a portrait of his father there.

g.s. said...

Sorry for th econfusion. I have a drawing by Mather Byles. Its signed and dated by him and in very good condition. Its authenticity was given by a reputed antique professional.

J. L. Bell said...

My mistake. A grandson of Mather Byles, Sr., (and nephew of Mather Byles, Jr.) was Mather Brown, who became a painter at the court of George III. So there was definitely artistic skill in the family.

Anonymous said...

Hi. I am writing a paper on Mather Byles. Does anyone have any great sources for me?

Anonymous said...

What does the quote "Which is better- to be ruled by one tyrant three-thousand miles away or by three-thousand tyrants not a mile away" mean?

Tucci said...

For the anonymous poster who'd asked the meaning of the quote attributed to Byles ("one tyrant three thousand miles away...three thousand tyrants not a mile away"), it's the key to understanding the difference between democracy and a structured, highly limited representative republic.

There are a lot of Americans who conceive themselves to be "in the majority" one way or another, and therefore entitled to use the government (at whatever level) to ram their preferences down the throats of their neighbors, no matter how those curmudgeonly, "selfish," reactionary, "greedy" few members of the social minority might object.

That kind of attitude is majoritarian tyranny.

You know the other old saying, right? "Democracy is four wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch."

Well, that's what Byles was getting at. The King of England might well have been a tyrant (and Byles probably thought he was), but he was one tyrant and a helluva long way away. Distance mitigated the King's tyranny.

Then there were the hordes of slum dwellers and thugs and rowdies marching to make a political point over the death of Crispus Attucks - a man who'd never earned nor deserved much respect at all in his life, who'd gained apotheosis on no more basis than having gotten himself shot to death by a smoothbore musket in the hands of a soldier who wasn't even aiming at him.

So what was more proximally dangerous to public order and the preservation of individual rights in Boston that day?

The King of England, or a mob of thugs masquerading as "patriots"?

Without something to hold the professional politician (who is, by definition, a popularity contest winner and nothing more) under control and keep him from robbing, raping, and murdering people, a system of limited government is needed to "bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution."

Democracy sucks. It's rule by the mob, and if you suddenly get "unpopular," you're dead.

They ever force you to read Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" in school?

That's what democracy means.

So we've got a republic.

If we can keep it.

J. L. Bell said...

I’ve never been able to figure out what people mean when they say, “We have a republic, not a democracy.”

Sometimes it seems to mean “representative democracy.” Sometimes “unrepresentative democracy which happens to produce results I think are superior, such as when the Electoral College blocks Democratic candidates from the Presidency.”

Rarely have I seen someone use “republic“ to mean “democracy but with guaranteed rights and respect for law in order to protect individual freedoms from the will of the majority.” Is that how you’re using the term, Rich?

Tucci said...

In response to J.L. Bell, "guaranteed rights and respect for law in order to protect individual freedoms from the will of the majority" seems to have been the Founders' objective in creating a republic structured under a prescriptive and proscriptive charter of civil government.

The write-up in Wikipedia* seems adequate in terms of explaining what the Founders were getting at.

Going right to the Hamiltonians' source (Madison, in Federalist No. 48**), we find a caution against the tendencies of legislatures to violate individual rights in spite of constitutional limitations.

("...that a mere demarkation on parchment of the constitutional limits of the several departments, is not a sufficient guard against those encroachments which lead to a tyrannical concentration of all the powers of government in the same hands.")

The Founders were well aware of the "three thousand tyrants not a mile away" problem, and were trying very hard to put a lock on it. That they did not succeed altogether is largely the fault of Hamilton (who called that secretive convention to "revise" the Articles of Confederation) and his successors on the side of what historian Clyde Wilson calls "state capitalism."***

If you've not read much about "a government of laws, and not of men" (John Adams' definition of a constitutional republic) lately, I suggest that it's because the schools in America - under the influence of the educationalists - have purposefully de-emphasized this concept in order to facilitate the imposition of majoritarian tyranny.

The school teacher is the very model of the "velvet fascist."

* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitutional_republic

** http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch10s15.html

*** http://www.lewrockwell.com/wilson/wilson20.html

J. L. Bell said...

Rich, you’ve now inserted the term “constitutional republic” into the discussion for the first time. Were you using the more general word “republic” before with “constitutional” implicit?

In the Revolutionary period, “republic” usually meant a government without a king, but beyond that people disagreed on what it entailed. The Founders indeed distrusted “democracy”—they were, after all, from the top echelon of society, and many of them depended on slave labor for their livelihood. Of course most of those men didn’t want popular government!

We now think of a “constitution” as a formal written document, but British and American men of the eighteenth century had a more vague idea of it as well, akin to our bodies’ constitutions. It referred to the general workings of a stable and balanced system rather than a set of written rules.

Of course, not all constitutions are the same. Some written constitutions (including some for states in the U.S. of A.) provide for much more direct democracy than the U.S. Constitution of 1787 and the state constitutions of the same period.

And some, such as the original U.S. Constitution of 1787, don’t contain as many limitations on government as they would later. The document Hamilton and Madison were advocating in 1787-88 didn’t include the Bill of Rights, much less John Marshall’s idea of supreme judicial review.

Tucci said...

J.L. Bell, despite your insistence that I've somehow snuck in the word "constitutional," the starting point here is the moment (apocryphal or not) when Dr. Franklin was walking out of Hamilton's star chamber proceedings and a lady waiting outside the hall asked him what sort of government we should have.

"A republic, madam. If you can keep it."

That the Founders were men of substance (some of them slave owners) matters not a damned bit, really. Looking at who they were rather than what they said and wrote is sliding into the logical fallacy of argumentum ad hominem (which is not simple insult, but rather the inclination to color one's examination of voiced argument on the supposition that the identity and character of the person articulating that argument really matters).

If another member of the convention had responded to that lady with precisely those same cautionary words, it wouldn't have been as memorable (we've all got a soft spot for Ben Franklin) - but would it have been any less relevant?

As for the Bill of Rights, you'll have to read up a bit more on what the Anti-Federalists (in the words of Elbridge Gerry, "their names ought not to have been distinguished by Federalists and Anti-Federalists, but Rats and Anti-Rats") were trying to do in responding to Hamilton's constitutional conspiracy.

Remember that prior to the constitutional convention, many of the states had already each set in place its own bill of rights, and these were in full force in the presence of the Articles of Confederation. Under the Constitution, however....

Well, it was not Hamilton's intention that there would ever be a bill of rights in the constitution he was trying to foist upon the nation.

Check out Jeff Hummel's brief article* "The Constitution as Counter-Revolution: A Tribute to the Anti-Federalists" for some better insight into how the Bill of Rights became a political necessity before the Constitution could be ratified.

("Overall, five states coupled their ratifications with proposed amendments, while in two others, the minority issued amendments. The North Carolina convention refused to ratify at all unless a bill of rights similar to the one it drew up was added and Rhode Island would have nothing to do with the Constitution whatsoever.")

As for what a constitution was and was not at the time of the American revolution, you really do need to get a handle on how the Articles of Confederation came to be, and how the various states had crafted their own written (as opposed to Britain's unwritten) constitutions prior to the Philadelphia convention of 1787.

The Founders on both sides - that of Hamilton and that of Patrick Henry - knew damned well what they wanted, and the Anti-Federalists wanted it in writing, with strict controls, or the Constitution would not have been ratified at all.

Moreover, "John Marshall’s idea of supreme judicial review" was something of a "revenge of the Federalists" as one of the last acts of lame duck President John Adams in March 1801.

See Thomas DiLorenzo's recent review** "The Men Who Destroyed The Constitution," in which we read:

"In McCulloch vs. Maryland Marshall enshrined into law Hamilton’s dangerous (to liberty) notion that there were supposedly 'implied powers' in the Constitution. He did this in order to justify a central bank, which is mentioned nowhere in the Constitution under actual powers."

There is much to discommend the Federalists, from first to last, but none of it is predicated on their social status or the source of their personal incomes.

That we have "a government of laws, and not of men" we can better attribute not to John Adams and the Federalists, but to his cousin Samuel and his fellow Anti-Federalists.

* http://www.la-articles.org.uk/FL-5-4-3.pdf

** http://www.lewrockwell.com/dilorenzo/dilorenzo105.html

J. L. Bell said...

One wonderful benefit of an online discussion is that it provides its own historical record. And that record shows how the term “constitutional republic” doesn’t appear in your first comment, Rich. Anyone, including yourself, can do a search of this page to confirm it.

So when I ask you to confirm that your comments about a “republic” all along were intended to refer to the definition of “constitutional republic” that came along later, rather than the more general definition of “republic,” just say yes or no. It makes it easier to understand your points. Flying off the handle and denying the obvious only makes you look even more unhinged than phrases like “Hamilton's star chamber proceedings.”

Clearly you’re angry at lots of people. At Hamilton, at “hordes of slum dwellers and thugs and rowdies” in colonial Boston, at “educationalists,” at the Federalist Party (which, as far as I can tell, hasn’t really threatened anyone for a long time).

And it’s become clear that you’re looking for someone to argue with. So much so that you haven’t noticed that no one here is disagreeing with your main points. I’ve asked questions in a mostly fruitless effort to be sure of how you’re using terms. I made observations about the complexity of constitutional thinking in 1787 and now.

So please stop looking for a fight. And please don’t insult me or other Boston 1775 readers with condescending comments like “you'll have to read up a bit more” and “you really do need to get a handle on...” Especially when almost all of your citations come from websites espousing a political philosophy rather than primary sources or historical studies.

My observation about how the Founders (not just the Federalists) used the term “constitution” is based on reading eighteenth-century political arguments. People in Britain and America used that term before the Revolution prompted the thirteen new American states to formalize constitutions in writing, and the word retained its previous connotations for a while afterwards. I’ve written about those state documents here on Boston 1775, so please don’t suggest that I’m unaware of them. They were part of the historical change I was pointing to.

As for the Franklin anecdote, that comes from James McHenry in 1787. But your paraphrase is inaccurate. McHenry’s words were: “A lady asked Dr. Franklin Well Doctor what have we got a republic or a monarchy. A republic replied the Doctor if you can keep it.” 

That validates my earlier observation: “In the Revolutionary period, ‘republic’ usually meant a government without a king, but beyond that people disagreed on what it entailed.” It speaks to concern about a monarchy, not concern about democracy. (Of course, there’s plenty of other evidence about most Founders worrying about democracy. Democrats like Dr. Thomas Young were rare, and their influence limited.)

Finally, from a historical perspective, it’s impossible to separate the leading Founders’ economic status from their ideas. If you want to claim that Thomas Jefferson would have developed the same political philosophy if he’d been an enslaved farm hand instead of an owner of enslaved farm hands, go right ahead. But that flies in the face of common sense.

Tucci said...

Mr. Bell, by "star chamber proceedings" is meant precisely how Hamilton and his nationalists closed the convention of 1787 to public scrutiny, making the deliberations and discussions secret. What we have of those "star chamber proceedings," in fact, are notes (chiefly Madison's) not published until decades after the charter had been ratified.

If these clandestine plottings are not to be characterized as such, could you provide an alternative to describe them?

Patrick Henry, in the wake of the Annapolis Convention that called for the Philadelphia conference, refused to go because he "smelt a rat in Philadelphia, tending toward the monarchy."

Given the well-machined plan of government presented in Philadelphia by Hamilton - essentially duplicating the British system of government that the Founders had just fought a long and costly war to throw off - Mr. Henry was correct in his suspicions.

Insofar as the issue of a "constitutional republic" and the advantages of conducting an "online discussion" go, I would ask you to please attend upon my first post on this thread, in which I quoted Jefferson from his draft of the Kentucky Resolutions.

I had observed that in order "to hold the professional politician (who is, by definition, a popularity contest winner and nothing more) under control and keep him from robbing, raping, and murdering people, a system of limited government is needed to 'bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.'"

For that reason, your attempt to claim that "the term 'constitutional republic' doesn’t appear in [my] first comment" is a bit silly.

As for Jefferson's political philosophy and whether or not he'd have developed it as a farm hand, let's depersonalize the ideas he espoused throughout his life.

The American Revolution and the system of government that arose from it were phenomena of the Enlightenment, and the roots of Jefferson's thinking go back into the Founders' relatively recent past (within the previous century and a half). I refer to the writings of the Levelers, to the Cabal, to Algernon Sidney, to John Locke, to Trenchard and Gordon, and to a number of other authors both within and without the mainstream of English political philosophy.

If it weren't Jefferson and Madison and the rest of the Founders as we know them, it would've been someone else. The ideas were current, the time had come, and while there is nothing inevitable except death, matters were moving in the late 18th Century toward the outcomes that resulted.

Personalizing the Founders as you seem intent upon doing indicates a hostility on your part as fervent (but much more sly) than my own open contempt for the Federalists and their successors, the Whigs and the Republicans.

And, oh, yeah, the Hamiltonians are still with us.

What's your purpose in this exchange, anyway?

J. L. Bell said...

The Star Chamber, Rich, was a special court of law in Britain that lasted from the late Middle Ages to the English Civil War. It sentenced people to punishments, was closed to the public, and offered was no right of appeal.

The Constitutional Convention was a gathering of elected representatives from twelve of the thirteen American states in 1787. It, too, was closed to the public, but it submitted its draft constitution to the states for public debate and ratification, and it punished no one.

I wouldn’t equate those two historical institutions, but I can see how someone who hates secrecy (except, of course, when it comes to his own full name) might wish to do so. Nonetheless, such phrasing tells us more about that person’s state of mind than about the institutions.

For that reason, your attempt to claim that "the term 'constitutional republic' doesn’t appear in [my] first comment" is a bit silly.

And yet undeniably correct. I regret that my question asking for clarification so people understood what you meant by “So we've got a republic” prompted defensive hostility. Which is entertaining in the short run, but gets old.

It remains difficult to know what you mean by “republic” or “constitutional republic” since you obviously don’t like the Constitution created for the republic of the U.S. of A. in 1787. There was a republic with a constitution, but apparently not—by your standards—a “constitutional republic”?

Did the Bill of Rights redeem the Constitution for you? Or the later Amendments, which finally let most Americans enjoy those rights? Or the enforcement of those Amendments by Supreme Court order in the 1900s? But you don’t seem to like the precedent that the Supreme Court relies on to overturn laws infringing on individuals’ rights. Maybe you just don’t like much.

And yet you feel that “we've got a republic.”

As for Jefferson's political philosophy and whether or not he'd have developed it as a farm hand, let's depersonalize the ideas he espoused throughout his life.

No, let’s not. I can understand how someone uncomfortable dealing with other people might wish to retreat to an abstract realm where pure ideas are all that matter. But history involves looking at people’s ideas in action, meaning how Jefferson (or any of his contemporaries) worked out his ideas and tried to live them. Jefferson’s personal lifestyle, his political work, and his acts as chief executive of Virginia and the U.S. of A. are at least as significant as his abstract philosophy.

When it comes to the Founders’ fear of “democracy” and “monarchy,” those were widespread, consensus feelings for American politicians. They crossed party lines. And it’s no coincidence that the vast majority of those Founders were neither royals nor poor. You’re right that if Jefferson had died as a child, other American politicians would have come up with much the same ideas as he did—other white men of means.

Frankly, it looks hypocritical and snobbish for you to insist on ignoring the elite Founders’ real lives after you devoted a full paragraph in your first comment to denigrating Crispus Attucks. You brought up personal circumstances about one man, and then you suggest I’m wrong to acknowledge them about an entire class.

Your fondness for liberty from government oppression seems to break down when it comes to a working-class man of color protesting, at the risk of his own freedom, a military presence and tax collectors that his local community had no chance to vote on.

What's your purpose in this exchange, anyway?

It’s my website. I have to deal with the crazies.

Incidentally, the anonymous comment you initially responded to appeared many months back. I suspect it came from a student looking for easy homework help.

Tucci said...

Oh, it's your Web site?

Then you can play argumentum ad hominem games all you please.

My comment "denigrating Crispus Attucks" was correct inasmuch as it reflected the context of Mather Byles' quotation (even if the account thereof is apocryphal). Attucks was no deep thinker by even the most distortedly "PC" account of his life, and modern forensic evaluation of the available evidence regarding his death seems strongly to indicate that the musket ball that killed him had passed first through the body of someone in front of him, so he wasn't even in the front rank of the mob threatening those British soldiers.

I think I've got your number, and thanks for the chance to biopsy yet another fascist excuse for a brain.

See ya.

J. L. Bell said...

Sometimes I worry that my name appears on Boston 1775 webpages too often: nine times as of this typing. But then a visitor as remarkably obtuse as Rich comes along and is surprised to find that J. L. Bell maintains this site. I guess I can leave those references up.

Rich’s remarks on Crispus Attucks are arrogant as well as obtuse. We have very little evidence about the man, and no writing from him. Nevertheless, Rich feels confident about proclaiming how Attucks thought. Nobody can know that.

As for the “modern forensic evaluation” that Rich refers to, that’s obviously a reference to a cable television show full of basic errors and flaws from a few years back. Eyewitness testimony, the autopsy report, and Paul Revere’s map of the scene all indicate Attucks was at the front of the crowd.

Anonymous said...

You can read one of his sermons on my web site. Go to: http://www.18thcenturybibles.com/Read_pamphlets/Vile_Body.html

18th Century Bible Man

rebekah said...

mather byles is an ancestor of mine and it's really cool to read this and find out about him, thx!

- rebekah byles

J. L. Bell said...

In assessing the anecdote in this posting, I’m having trouble finding confirmation that Emmons was in Boston in early 1770. According to his much later biographies, he spent the years between his graduation from Yale and his ordination at Franklin, Massachusetts, in Connecticut, New York, and New Hampshire. Emmons could have been in Boston to witness the massive funerals in late February and early March 1770, but it would have been a coincidence.