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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Monday, December 22, 2014

Between Reluctance and Revolution

In From Resistance to Revolution Pauline Maier portrayed American Whigs as gradually becoming disenchanted with higher and higher levels of British government until in late 1775 or early 1776 they gave up on King George III himself and opted for independence.

Even while complaining about royal appointees in the 1760s, American colonists proclaimed their loyalty to fundaments of the British constitution—acting “more British than the British,” as Nick Bunker writes in An Empire on the Edge. While trying to force change in the London government through boycotts in the 1770s, they still raised the British flag on Liberty Poles.

And even as Americans fought against the British army in 1775, they referred to the enemy as “the ministerial troops” and sent appeals to George III to solve the crisis by reining in those government ministers. Complaints about the tyranny of the king himself (as heard at the recent Boston Tea Party reenactment) were exceedingly rare before the war.

That pattern is a big reason why authors like Jack Rakove portray most American activists as “revolutionaries despite themselves.” Such political activists as Samuel Adams ended up producing much more change in their society than they had imagined. In the early 1770s anti-French, anti-Catholic rhetoric was Boston’s common discourse. By the end of that decade the town had hosted thousands of French sailors and soldiers, and by the early 1780s it had a Catholic church. Was that the point of the Suffolk Resolves, with its bitter attack on the Quebec Act?

Bunker argues against that picture of most colonists as “reluctant to rebel.” Indeed, he describes them as ready to discard the whole British system, including the king, early in the 1770s. “Above all, the Americans had come to doubt Great Britain’s commitment to liberty”—not just individual officials’ commitment, or Parliament’s, but Britain’s. “The Tea Party meant rejection of British rule in its entirety.” That characterization seems to fit with Bunker’s picture of the Empire as thin and crumbling, but I think most American colonists before 1775 would have loudly rejected it.

Bunker suggests that “for a rising generation of radicals in New England the events of 1774 were something for which they had been preparing ever since their childhood.” But that paragraph’s primary example of a Boston leader “only too willing to fight” is William Molineux, who spent his childhood far away in Staffordshire and never expressed a clear political program to go with his confrontational temperament.

Dr. Thomas Young left a much larger pile of political essays showing clear radicalism. In a 1766 letter he even praised the new gallery in the Massachusetts legislative chamber as a way for the people to make their views known directly to their representatives—a truly democratic idea. But, like Molineux, Young had moved into Boston as an adult and didn’t represent its dominant views, especially on religious matters.

We really have to ask what John Hancock was saying because he was unsurpassed in sensing Massachusetts’s political mood and positioning himself there. Bunker writes that in his 1774 oration about the Boston Massacre Hancock “came close to accusing George III of waging war against his people.” But Hancock took care to condemn “that villain who dared to advise his master to such execrable measures,” naming “Hillsborough, and a knot of treacherous knaves in Boston.” He closed with a wish to “secure honour and wealth to Great Britain, even against the inclinations of her ministers.”

Both portrayals of American activists—as conservatives sliding into radical measures with radical results, and as radicals ready to fight British institutions and restructure their government—depend on explaining away some contrary evidence. Hancock ended his oration declaring he was confident the struggle would end “gloriously for America” but earlier declined to speak of Britain’s future—was that a dog-whistle hint about the possibility of separation? Samuel Adams, who was also then insisting publicly that he and his followers were still loyal to the Crown, later declared that around 1773 he’d concluded that independence was the only way to preserve his countrymen’s liberties.

On the other side, Bunker writes, “During the second half of 1773, Franklin began to lose his last vestige of loyalty to Great Britain.” Yet he also describes how from December 1774 through February 1775 Franklin engaged in back-channel negotiations with British Whigs seeking a compromise that could keep the American colonies within the British Empire. Was that the work of a man with no loyalty left?

In the end I remain convinced by the portrait of Masschusetts’s Whigs as radical in their methods but essentially conservative in their aims and values up through the beginning of the war. They saw themselves as fighting for the British constitution. Of course, so did their political opponents, from Thomas Hutchinson and his circle on up to George III. Who was correct about what that constitution demanded? Well, that was what the fighting was all about.

COMING UP: Defining the terms of the discussion. But first, some other books.


Jimmy Dick said...

The men like Sam and John Adams wanted a change in government, but not society. Yet, what occurred was a major radical change as Gordon Wood explored in his book The Radicalism of the American Revolution. Revolutions bring change. War brings change. A quick glance at American history shows how war has altered American society on multiple occasions far beyond other catalysts.

Based upon the actions of many, but definitely not all of the leading figures of the Revolution, it is pretty easy to see how most did not want major changes, but when you look at it through a bottom up lens you see something else. This reveals the divided and often conflicted reasons many people supported the Revolution over its length. Then of course we have Tom Paine who put it so eloquently,

"We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the events of a few months. The reflection is awful, and in this point of view, how trifling, how ridiculous, do the little paltry cavilings of a few weak or interested men appear, when weighed against the business of a world."

Paine was onto something. This was not going to be just a political change of government. This was going to be a complete and utter change of everything. He really meant what he said about making the world new again. Considering John Adams and his reactions to Paine's Common Sense, one can see a clash of ideas and visions between those who wanted small changes and those who wanted major wholesale changes. Yet, Adams was one who supported independence by 1775.

More than anything else, we really have to remember how these men all had differing opinions on a lot of things. I think that is why I love this era so much. Making generalized statements just does not work. These people were often divided more than they were united. Often, external forces played major roles in their decision making processes which resulted in some of the ways things occurred. The changes in American society stem from that as well.

Daniel C. Cornette said...

The cause of the American Revolution is an enduring question. For me the turning point was the Tea Act of 1773. More than any other measures, that Act united the interests of Boston's radicals and wealthy merchants. The implementation of the Tea Act, in the four tea ports and especially Boston, revealed the systemic corruption of a kleptocracy willing to manipulate the customs laws to sustain its power and prestige.

The most significant aspect for the merchant class in Boston was the bestowing the tea contracts on a handful friends and relatives of Governor Hutchinson. Once it became apparent that the international trade of New England could be dominated within a few years by four families (i.e., the Hutchinson, Clarke, Faneuil and Winslow families) all the other wealthy merchants either began to support the radicals, or if they were previously loyalists, grew silent and unwilling to defend the crown's interest.

Pacificus said...

If you haven't already, you might check out Jack P. Greene's "Constitutional Origins of the American Revolution" and "Peripheries and Center," which discusses in length the idea of how both sides had good arguments in favor of how the British Constitution was on their side. Both are fascinating books.

J. L. Bell said...

That's the great thing about an unwritten constitution—it's even easier to argue about than a written one!

Pacificus said...

"That's the great thing about an unwritten constitution—it's even easier to argue about than a written one!"

I dunno. There's been plenty of argument and confusion over language with our written one, perhaps just as much or even more so than the British's "unwritten" one. It might be easier to argue over an unwritten one based on custom and so many other things, but I wonder if it's not the case that a written constitution might produce more argument than an unwritten one, since Americans (and much of the world) have something specific to point to and argue about while an "unwritten" one doesn't allow such to happen as much.

I've long considered judicial review a good barrier against usurpations by the other branches of the fed. gov. and state governments. But, be that as it may, I've also come to the conclusion oer the years that it's idiotic to allow the FEDERAL courts to be the "sole" and/or "final" interpreter of the meanings of the a written constitution like ours. This is because when such federal judges, the ones who interpret the document, owe their appointments to their jobs by the other branches of the same fed. gov. (President [executive] and Senate [legislative]) and the creation of their courts to the legislative branch of the same fed. gov. is naturally going to result in the aggrandizement of power in the fed. gov. at the expense of the state gov.'s or the people, where the federal judges tend to "interpret" a written constitution in favor of their sibling gov. branches committing the actions under review, the same sibling gov. branches that create the federal judges' seats of power and appoint them to those seats. That the Constitution expressly or impliedly allows this judicial review as practiced today in the US is very debatable as anyone who has studied historians' and constitutional law scholars' works on judicial review would already know, as opposed to the more believable idea that the American people have allowed it to develop this way over time as the idea of judicial review took hold in the US, Canada, Britain, and elsewhere. But, if the idea behind a written constitution such as ours with specific, enumerated, and limited powers given to the lesser government forms it creates (the fed. gov.) is to limit government in its power and prevent any or all of its branches from usurping too much power, continuing with judicial review and constitutional interpretation in the hands of the federal courts is antithetical to those ideas of limited government and preventing arbitrary tyrants.

John Johnson said...

I wonder how much of the "anti-ministerial" language was an expedient to those who were less committed to change?

By 1773 people in New England at least were certainly itching for a fight, even if their language was conciliatory. I wonder how much of that language was just smokescreen, to placate those in other colonies who hadn't yet come on board with the idea of revolution, and to placate those in New England who weren't fully committed yet?

So even if people were wanting independence by say 1773 (and John Adams was talking about independence that early, even if he was saying that he didn't think it would come in his lifetime--he was still discussing it), political expediency would require that they not directly attack the king, no?

So maybe some of the contradiction in philosophy isn't really a contradiction, but merely people using language that wouldn't get them in trouble?

Jimmy Dick said...

Akhil Amar Reed is teaching a free class on The Unwritten Constitution via Coursera in January. https://www.coursera.org/course/auc While these are definitely not college level credits, I find the lectures to be of value.

Pacificus said...

Interestingly, Greene, in the two aforemention (aforereferenced??) books details how the Colonists of the 17th and early 18th Century mostly had problems with and claims of tyranny against the king, having very little to no struggles with Parliament since Parliament virtually left them alone and the doctrine of Parliamentary supremacy was still developing even up into the period of the American Revolution. Such doctrine was in no means settled and fixed by the time of George III, as Greene claims in those two aforementioned books. H e shows how the colonists went from claims of tyranny solely against the monarchy throughout the 16th, 17th, and early 18th centuries to claims of tyranny against Parliament almost solely in the 1760s-1770s, while petitioning the monarchy for redress, to seeing them both in cahoots together and claiming tyranny against both of them in the mid 1770s, some earlier than others but most avergaing around the mid 1770s. Definitely check out those two books by Greene I mentioned, particulalry the "Constitutional Origins" book if you only have time for one.

J. L. Bell said...

I'm now reading a new book called The Royalist Revolution by Eric Nelson. It argues that American Whigs were so opposed to Parliament's new laws in the 1760s and 1770s that they resurrected old arguments about the primacy of the British monarch, and then that those arguments influenced the creation of the American Presidency in the 1780s.