How History Turns Riots Into Tea PartiesRoundup
tags: historical memory, Protest
Stacy Schiff is the author of, among other books, A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America.
In July 1776, George Washington ordered the brand-new Declaration of Independence read aloud to a jubilant New York City crowd. A small group opted to continue their celebration into the evening. Led by an artillery officer, the revelers toppled the colossal, gilded statue of King George III at Bowling Green.
Like so many Confederate monuments today, the statue had been something of a late arrival. Commissioned to reinforce colonial loyalty in the wake of the unpopular Stamp Act, it had landed in New York in 1770. Now, six years later, it was decapitated. King George sustained a shot to the face. Much of the statue’s lead was turned into musket balls — 42,088 of them, to be exact. Imperial authority could truly be said to have been subverted: The king’s troops should, as one New Yorker put it, expect to meet with “melted Majesty.”
In the history books we tend to sidestep the statue-toppling, as we generally sanitize the violence that preceded the Declaration. Even before de Tocqueville, it had been preferable to subscribe to his account of the Revolution, a contest that “contracted no alliance with the turbulent passions of anarchy” and that proceeded “by a love of order and law.”
De Tocqueville gave Boston a pass. Well before the 1760s, imperial officials were run out of town. Effigies hung from trees and fueled bonfires. Townspeople broke windows and hurled stones. They tarred and feathered. They smeared the homes of their enemies in dung. In 1765, amid the Stamp Act protests, a “lawless rabble” dismantled most of Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s Georgian mansion in a matter of hours. The cupola alone resisted them. With axes, they labored over it until dawn. Hutchinson’s papers and valuables, bedding and tableware afterward littered the streets. The house was a mere shell. Not a book remained. “Such ruins were never seen in America,” wailed the lieutenant governor, who appeared the next day in borrowed clothes. Crowds turned up for weeks to gawk at the wreckage.
Called to account for the vandalism, patriot leaders like Samuel Adams denounced the destruction, as General Washington would denounce the attack on the king’s statue. On the one hand, a people’s rights were under siege. Looking ahead to future generations, Adams labored to define what John Lewis would two centuries later term “good trouble.” If the Bostonians remained silent, Adams warned, they assented to their losses. On the other hand, he urged discipline. “No mobs, no confusions, no tumult” became the slogan. It was important to protest without mangling the law.
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