December 13, 2010


Tea and Antipathy: Did principle or pragmatism start the American Revolution? (Caleb Crain, December 20, 2010, The New Yorker)

Tarring and feathering was so popular in New England in the seventeen-sixties and seventies that at least one observer thought Americans had invented it, though in fact it has been around since at least the twelfth century. What was it like? Pine tar, used to waterproof ships, is liquid at room temperature and, in most cases, was probably applied unheated. Feathers were obtained either from fowl (the smellier the better) or from cushions. The third and most essential ingredient was exposure. One customs agent was kept outdoors in his “modern jacket” until he was frostbitten. “They say his flesh comes off his back in Steaks,” a woman reported afterward. Victims felt a lingering shame, though the frostbitten customs agent, a resilient personality, petitioned King George III to dub him a “Knight of the Tarr.”

Few victims held the high social status of the elderly gentleman in Hawthorne’s tale, but he, too, seems to have had a historical model. Hawthorne was probably thinking of Thomas Hutchinson, the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, whose Boston town house was destroyed, in 1765, by a mob upset by Parliament’s new stamp tax on the colonies’ newspapers, legal documents, and pamphlets. Hutchinson and his family fled their supper table just minutes before a crowd screaming “Liberty and property!” axed open the doors of their home. As Richard Archer notes, in “As If an Enemy’s Country” (Oxford; $24.95), a lively and sympathetic history of pre-Revolutionary Boston under British occupation, the rioters scattered or stole nearly everything inside, including jewelry, dishes, furniture, paintings, about nine hundred pounds in cash, and an archive of New England history that Hutchinson had spent thirty years collecting. “I see they threatened to pitch and feather you,” George III later observed, during a debriefing with Hutchinson, who by then had served as Massachusetts’s second-to-last royal governor. Hutchinson, a slender, fastidious man who liked to debate political philosophy, corrected him: “Tarr & feather, may it please your Majesty.”

“Insurgencies are not movements for the faint of heart,” T. H. Breen writes, in “American Insurgents, American Patriots” (Hill & Wang; $27), a scholarly, unnerving account of the American Revolution’s darker side—the violence, death threats, false rumors, and extremist rhetoric that introduced a new political order. Breen suggests that Americans today “have come to regard insurgency as a foreign and unpleasant phenomenon” and are now so imperial in outlook that we’d rather not remember that American revolutionaries, too, were irrational and cruel. The implied comparison with the contemporary insurgencies of Iraq and Afghanistan is interesting, but over the past two years the history of America’s first insurgency has taken on a new pertinence, as the Tea Party movement has laid claim to its anti-tax and pro-liberty principles—and has inadvertently reproduced its penchant for conspiracy theory, misinformation, demagoguery, and even threats of violence. Furthermore, in much the way that journalists have begun to ask whether shadowy corporate interests may be sponsoring today’s Tea Party, historians have long speculated that merchants may have instigated early unrest to protect smuggling profits from British regulators—that the start of the Revolution may have been Astroturfed. Archer’s history focusses on the years 1768 to 1770, and Breen’s on 1774-75; Benjamin L. Carp’s assiduously researched “Defiance of the Patriots” (Yale; $30) tackles the 1773 Tea Party itself. Breen is not concerned with the revolutionaries’ financial motives, and Carp sometimes takes the rebels’ rhetoric at face value. Nonetheless, the three books together offer a chance to ask new questions about the American Revolution, including one that the conventions of political sentimentality usually render unspeakable: Was the Tea Party even such a good idea the first time around?

All the King’s Men: a review of TORIES: Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War By Thomas B. Allen (DAVID WALDSTREICHER, NY Times Book Review)
Was the Revolutionary War a “civil war,” as Allen’s subtitle puts it? It depends on what the term means. For Allen it means what the loyalist general William Tryon called “desolation warfare,” and others called “intestine” warfare, where civilians found themselves drawn into what, for later generations, would be “total war.” In an American context, however, “civil war” usually means a war that somehow involved slavery. Allen plays down the ways in which the Southern strategy — and previous frontier conflicts — led the British into a harder kind of war while encouraging the patriots to identify Africans and Indians as their enemies, along with any and all white men who did not swear allegiance to the new states.

Civil war, reprisals,'s all so familiar....

Against Rebellion: Why did some colonials remain loyal to the king? (THOMAS FLEMING, 11/17/10, WSJ)

Why did some colonials remain loyal to the king while most did not? Mr. Allen does not dwell on the subject—he is more interested in what happened than why. But others have considered the loyalists' motivations. Historian Leonard Labaree, in a pioneering study in 1948, found seven psychological reasons, including the belief that a resistance to the legitimate government was morally wrong and a fear of anarchy if the lower classes were encouraged to run wild. Another important factor: Unlike the rebels, who tended to come from families that had lived in America for several generations, many loyalists were born in England. These first-generation immigrants brought with them a sense of British liberty, steeped in obeisance to the king and his aristocrats, while in the colonies a longing for a "more equal liberty"—John Adams's declared goal for the rebels—had already taken hold.

One of the book's themes is that the conflict between the loyalists and rebels amounted to "America's first civil war." But not until the later pages, when the fighting with the British shifts to the South, does a semblance of civil war become evident. The Irish Presbyterians of the Southern backcountry had a history of feuding with wealthy coastal planters, who supported the insurrection. The ingrained antipathy for the planters, more than any fondness for King George, prompted the backcountry boys to ally themselves with the British—leading to vicious seesaw fighting.

A climax to this war within the larger war came in late 1780 with the battle of Kings Mountain in South Carolina, a purely American versus American, loyalist versus rebel fight. The rebels won a total victory, and in the process quashed British dreams of creating a native-grown loyalist army that might provide a decisive advantage.

The best section of "Tories" deals with black loyalists, the thousands of runaway slaves who responded to a British offer of freedom in return for military service. The British used these men largely as laborers, not fighters. In making peace at war's end the politicians agreed to return the runaways. But Gen. Guy Carleton, the last British commander in America, refused to do so. About 3,000 blacks were among the 80,000 loyalists who retreated to Canada and the West Indies when hostilities ended.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 13, 2010 6:39 PM
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