What Pro-Trump Insurrectionists Share — and Don’t — With the American RevolutionRoundup
tags: Rioting, Donald Trump, insurrection
Jordan E. Taylor is a historian of print and politics in revolutionary America. He teaches history at Smith College.
The insurrectionists who violently stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday aimed to clothe themselves in the symbolism and language of the American Revolution. This was intentional. Revolutions succeed — revolts fail. Revolutions are legitimate expressions of the popular will — revolts are not.
That explains why many were flying the Gadsden Flag with its yellow background, a snake and the caption “Don’t Tread On Me.” This flag dates to 1775 and is often used as a symbol for liberty.
Supporters of this violent insurrection also took to social media to proclaim it was the beginning of a “Second American Revolution.” One rioter explained, “We’re walking down the same exact path as the Founding Fathers.” Another told MSNBC reporter Vaughn Hillyard, “If you don’t hear our voices tonight, you’ll see our muskets tomorrow.”
But while the insurrectionists attacking the hallowed halls of American democracy did share some parallels with the revolutionaries who birthed the United States, there were also crucial differences. In many ways, they are battling against the very things that the American revolutionaries sought.
The American Revolution was not the product of a consensus among colonists concerning high-minded ideals as it is so often portrayed. Instead, to a significant degree, it was the byproduct of a variety of misperceptions, each flourishing among a minority of colonists. During the American Revolution, a small number of highly mobilized people embraced violent direct action on the basis of false beliefs.
The first misperception flourished in the slaveholding South, where many believed that the British government would end slavery. In 1772, the British judiciary found that an enslaved man named James Somerset, who had traveled briefly to England, could not be enslaved in that land for arcane legal reasons. Although the Somerset case was a fairly narrow legal decision, many colonists believed that it prohibited slavery in Britain. News of the case spread rapidly through the colonies and led many American enslavers to conclude that Britons hoped to end American slavery. It was one reason that Virginians were among the most eager proponents of American independence.
Another misconception circulated across the colonies. In the 1760s, colonists believed that British officials were plotting against them, trying to mislead King George and his allies about the state of affairs in the colonies. Massachusetts Patriots accused governors Francis Bernard and Thomas Hutchinson of spreading false news about them to mislead the British government. New Jerseyans and Marylanders held similar beliefs about their own governors. Hoping that the removal of these officials would hasten reconciliation, they chased them out of the colonies.
Colonists also suspected that Parliament and the ministers who led it were scheming to “enslave” them. Historians have debated how literally we should take this rhetoric. Were the American Patriots insisting that the British government wanted to condemn them to lives of perpetual servitude as chattel slavery, or were they merely stretching a point about the deprivation of liberty?
For many Patriots, the fear of slavery was literal. One pamphleteer wrote, “You will become slaves indeed, in no respect different from the sooty Africans, whose persons and properties are subject to the disposal of their tyrannical masters.”
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