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Posts Tagged ‘Samuel Adams’

(More b-roll, cut from my forthcoming book Founding Finance. Might have some resonance for those in protest today against government money corruption and high finance.)

We often see 1760′s and ’70′s patriot Boston as especially well-unified, across social and economic classes, against British oppression, and it’s true that, certainly with the occupation, much unity did prevail there. But dramatic examples of conflict in the relationship between Adams and the Loyal Nine and Sons of Liberty, on the one hand, and Boston’s workers and poor on the other, occurred even during one of the most famous Boston riots, the Stamp Act protest of August 1765. In the same traditional styles of protest we’ve seen [or will have seen, in the forthcoming book] in the Regulator riot in Hillsborough, North Carolina, the Boston protest involved attacks on not only on hated stamp-administration offices but also on officials’ homes. A large crowd — which today might have appeal for both the Tea Party and Occupy for being of mixed classes — hanged in effigy Andrew Oliver, the stamp tax official.

But then, at night, Boston’s two most famous street gangs, previously at war with one another, the South End Gang and the North End Gang, burned a property Oliver owned in Boston. Even later that night a smaller crew and entered his house in Cambridge and ransacked it. The attack on Oliver’s home went beyond protest against England. Breaking elegant things seemed to many an assault on extravagance and luxury itself. In that effort, the North End and South End gangs ceased making war on one another.

Some see the gangs’ new unity as responding to a common enemy in British corruption; others see their unity as the formation of a class consciousness that distinguished the workers and poor of Boston not only from British-connected Bostonians like Oliver but also from anti-British upscale Bostonians like Adams, Hancock, and Sons of Liberty. What’s most illuminating to me is that upscale Whig resisters, including Sons of Liberty, tried to distinguish themselves from the gangs even as they hoped the gangs’ violence would pressure and harass British officials. The Boston town meeting didn’t censure the attack on Oliver’s house — but two weeks later, the gangs tore down Governor Hutchinson’s house, and the town meeting, while anything but friendly to Hutchinson, did condemn that action.

Upscale people, however anti-British, now began turning out to protect property. They created their own militias in distinction to the laboring gangs. In revolutionary Boston, rich people on both sides of the taxation question feared the working-class crowd. And the working class knew it.

General Gage of the British Army had an interesting point of view on the situation. Occupying Boston with troops, he lived with the Cassandra curse: always right, always ignored. Gage understood Boston far better than his British masters; ultimately he was recalled to England for offending them by having been so right.

And Gage’s take on the elite-vs.-crowd issue was that Whig gentlemen had begun by arousing crowds, assuming ordinary people had none of what historians call “agency” of their own and would defer to establishment leaders. Then those leaders found, to their dismay, that crowds would rise unbidden. Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty, far from endorsing the crowd’s desire for equality, nevertheless needed the crowds to pressure the British establishment and lend credence to the seriousness of the resistance. So even in Boston, seemingly so unified against England, revolution in America was full of social, economic, and political tension on the part of the revolutionaries.

That’s the story Occupy gets wrong here (see “From the Liberty Tree to Liberty Park”) and the Tea Party gets wrong here (just for example).

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Responding here to a bunch of comments posted during recent months, since I don’t like burying and scattering the discussion:

Elites versus the crowd. Working backward and starting with lacithedog’s comment on my “New Deal 2.0″ post. Laciethedog is reading Declaration and comments further on the “New Deal” post here. I appreciate the interest and support. And I have a concern about the idea that the founding fathers “incited the masses” and then found “the mob” hard to control. In both Declaration and that “New Deal” post, I do discuss tensions — indeed, outright enmity, at times — between the adherents of populist democracy and the adherents of republican liberty who banded together to defeat reconciliation with England in 1776. But I think I also show that I see the alliance as a matter of mutual manipulation, with ordinary people possessing plenty of initiative, intelligence, and what the historians call “agency,” and not of a mindless mob being incited and then imperfectly controlled by elites. Not sure if laciethedog is thinking of it quite that way, but the terminology gives me pause.

War on Christmas. Laciethedog also comments on my “war on Christmas” post. Point taken. Can’t agree that anything would have made either Adams literally a Tory — but even without a time machine, John Adams’s “Good God!” on reading the radically democratic PA Constitution of 1776 (and his predicting that PA would soon want George III back), and Samuel’s calling for the death penalty for the so-called Shays rebels, made many at the time think the Adamses and others had reverted to a kind of Tory authoritarianism. Neither Samuel’s nor John’s disgust with the populism they’d collaborated with in 1776 represents a reversion, however — which is really the well-taken point of laciethedog’s comment. While they differed in influences, emphases, and personal styles, both Adamses remained pretty consistent in their elite Whig republicanism throughout the period. Whigs were not democrats.

Socialist Pilgrims. Michael Pichowsky makes a thought-provoking comment regarding my post on the “Socialist Pilgrim” flap. But even given all of Pichowsky’s nuanced understanding of the Calvinist-socialist problem, I’m still unconvinced that it’s fair to see the very specific Plymouth experience as revealing some big truth about the virtues of free markets versus a centrally planned economy. Bradford does seem to have been reading the lesson pretty much that way, though.

Inalienable rights and God. My Constitution posts are leading me toward an article that would qualify as something other than a post, more like what I call a “work” in this post — whether I end up publishing it here, on another blog, or in a magazine. Interesting comments in this regard included Martin’s, of What Would the Founders Think?. Martin raises the issue of where the in- or un-alienable rights come from and says that Glenn Beck gets it right: from God. Liberal readers may be surprised to hear me say that, in this context, I agree: (more…)

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ho ho ho

Moving on to the next holiday. May we now anticipate an annual revival of the past few years’ flap about the war on Christmas — i.e., how liberal secularism suppresses Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus by removing creches from village squares and forcing everybody to say “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas”?

[UPDATE: Yes, we may. See J.L. Bell's comment on the Inhofe holiday parade, below.]

If so, I’d like to bring back those socialist Pilgrims for a reprise role and credit them with starting the war. For of course Pilgrims, and indeed all of Puritan New England, didn’t celebrate Christmas and would have severely prosecuted anyone who did, or at least did so loudly. They hated Christmas, for all the obvious reasons.

No, not because it requires putting toys together at three in the morning on Christmas Eve and having the family over when you’ve just seen them at Thanksgiving. That’s why we hate Christmas. [UPDATE: That's just a joke.] Pilgrims and Puritans hated it because it was a pagan-based feast of the Antichrist Pope of Rome, a sacrificial revelry, a ceremony of the Harlot, and contrary to Scripture. The whole idea of a “Christ mass” was what they’d been fighting to the death for a long time, the work of the Beast.

The point isn’t, of course, that the Puritans would have been sympathetic to modern secularism. Anything but. The point is that the idea of a “Christian nation” denies the antipathy our founding Christians felt, mainly and most significantly, for other Christians. The Pilgrims came here to get away from Anglicans. If a boatload of Lutherans had pulled into Plymouth harbor, muskets would have come out. And if Samuel Adams came back to life, and were forced to walk past the Roman Catholic churches in today’s North End of Boston, he’d be sure that his entire life’s work had been for nothing, wasted in what had become a horrifying enabling of the forces of utter spiritual evil, staining what he’d once hoped would become a Christian Sparta (meaning to him a Congregational one). The ancestors of Bill O’Reilly and the ancestors of Glenn Beck would have been a lot more interested in trying to kill each other than in trying to kill, say, Jews.

Happy Holidays!

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Over at American Creation, there are a couple of related posts from the always thought-provoking Jonathan Rowe on topics with great appeal for me. One is a link to an older post, on Rowe’s other site The One Best Way, about John Adams’s liberal ideas on religion; the other is on the illiberality of the Puritan tradition that Adams sprang from.

It’s a tradition I admire in certain ways, intellectually, so it’s always good to get a reminder, which Rowe gives in the piece, of the Taliban-like nature of its criminal code. In writing about the fallacy of associating ideas in the Mayflower Compact, say, with ideas in the Declaration of Independence — something Rowe rightly says “Christian Americanists” (and I’d add liberal, consensus-oriented history teachers) are wont to do — he has fun with the stark fact that Adams’s thoughts on religion would have gotten Adams executed in Puritan New England. Good stuff, just the kind of conflict people should be entertained and enlightened by thinking about.

Rowe’s discussion throws new light for me on the importance of Samuel Adams, not John, in bringing about American independence in 1776, and why that importance has been so little explored in a realistic way. That’s what I do explore in Declaration, and an important part of that story turns on the strange partnership between Samuel and John, with John then the junior player, beginning to emerge.

The religious differences between them are only implicit in the book. But now I think it would have been a good move to bring those differences out more fully, as part of my Boston back-story chapter. Samuel’s deep roots in Puritan thinking are key to my story — he famously wanted to make New England a “Christian Sparta.” But I glossed over John’s rationalist, skeptical, possibly unitarian religious leanings, although they are part and parcel of something I did try to bring to life, his more pragmatic approach to politics, his becoming a man of New England’s liberal future, a Yankee, not a Puritan.

It’s occurred to me so many times, and now in a newly focused way, that establishment history has favored the liberal, rationalist, unitarian, Deist, tolerant (yet more or less observant) founders like Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Washington, and John Adams, and has never known what to do with the illiberal ones, like Samuel Adams. Paine is another example. When it comes to supposed outliers like them, religion and politics meet strangely in historiography. And founding history gets distorted. (more…)

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I’m going around saying that the story I tell in Declaration, despite its centrality, is little known. Yet one of the better-known dates, pivotal to the story, is Wednesday, May 15, 1776, when the Congress voted to add a preamble to a resolution it had passed on Friday, May 10. Because John Adams co-sponsored the May 10 resolution, and wrote the preamble that was tacked on its front on May 15, adoption of the preamble was an important moment both in Adams’s emergence as the “colossus of independence” and in the Congress’s movement toward declaring independence. Many founding-father biographers and writers on the Continental Congress have therefore mentioned and even dwelled on that day.

Some have even said that on May 15, America effectively declared independence. Adams certainly liked to think so.

But the context in which the preamble was adopted, and the political work that Adams intended it to do — outside the Congress — has been glossed over, at least in most books for general readers. The inside story, which I try to bring to life in Declaration, raises many issues that certified narratives of events of 1776 have naturally found difficult to cope with. For the Adams preamble isn’t an edifying document, and May 15, though Adams rightly thought of it as “an epoch” in American independence, wasn’t an edifying day. (more…)

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