«C H a P T ER 1 Ye Olde Media containing reflections on nations founded in revolutions—an introduction to our characters—a history of the stamp ...»
C H a P T ER 1
Ye Olde Media
containing reflections on nations founded in
revolutions—an introduction to our characters—a
history of the stamp act—the birth, death, and
resurrection of the newspaper—its dire fate, of
late—and a visit to the green dragon tavern
“Everybody, anywhere I go, always asks me, ‘Where did you
get that hat?’” Austin Hess told me, when we first met, beside a statue of Samuel Adams in front of Faneuil Hall. Hess,
a twenty-six-year-old engineer and member of the steering committee of the Boston Tea Party, was wearing a tricornered hat: not your ordinary felt-and-cardboard fake but the genuine article, wide-brimmed and raffish. In April of 2009, two months after Rick Santelli, outraged by the Obama administration’s stimulus package, called for a new tea party, Hess showed up at a Tax Day rally on the Boston Common.
He was carrying a sign that read “I Can Stimulate Myself.” He was much photographed; he appeared on television, a local Fox affiliate. He was wearing his hat. He got it at Plimoth Plantation. It was made of “distressed faux leather.” You could order it on-line. It was called the Scallywag.1 The importance of the American Revolution to the twentyfirst-century Tea Party movement might seem to have been slight—as if the name were mere happenstance, the knee Copyrighted Material YE OLdE MEdIa 21 breeches knickknacks, the rhetoric of revolution unthinking— but that was not entirely the case, especially in Boston, where the local chapter of the Tea Party bore a particular burden: it happened here. “Everybody in the movement is interested in the Revolution,” Hess told me. He took his debt to the founders seriously: “We believe that we are carrying on their tradition, and if they were around today, they would be in the streets with us, leading us, and they’d be even angrier than we are. I imagine we’d have to politely ask them to leave their muskets at home.”2 “Who shall write the history of the American revolution?” John Adams once asked Thomas Jefferson. “Who can write it? Who will ever be able to write it?” “Nobody,” was Jefferson’s reply. “The life and soul of history must forever remain unknown.”3 The records were murky, the course of events astonishing, the consequences immeasurable. Nobody could write the history of the Revolution, but everyone would have to try; it was too important not to. There was also this dilemma: a nation born in revolution will always eye its history warily, and with anxiety. It’s good that it happened once; twice could be trouble. The Revolution’s first historian, Peter Oliver, was a Loyalist from Boston. Consumed by bitterness, regret, and rancor, he wrote the “Origin & Progress of the American Rebellion” in 1781, from exile in England.
He didn’t think the Revolution should have happened even once.4 The first patriot historian of the Revolution, David Ramsay, a physician who had been a delegate to the Continental Congress from South Carolina and whose two-volume history was published in 1789, stated the problem as well as anyone. “The right of the people to resist their rulers, when invading their liberties, forms the corner stone of the American republic,” Ramsay wrote in The History of the American Copyrighted Material
Revolution, but “this principle, though just in itself, is not favourable to the tranquility of present establishments.”5 Ramsay appreciated the acuteness of the difficulty: celebrating the birth of the nation, and carrying on in its spirit, risked promoting still more revolution, unrest, impermanence, and instability, when what the new nation needed was calm. “A little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing,” Jefferson wrote from Paris in 1786, on hearing word of Shays’s Rebellion, an armed uprising by farmers from Massachusetts struggling to stay out of debtors’ prison. “The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” Jefferson wrote then.6 (This menacing line sometimes appeared on Tea Party paraphernalia, but it was far more popular in the 1990s, among members of that decade’s militia movement. On April 19, 1995, the 220th anniversary of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, Timothy McVeigh, who liked to wear a Tree of Liberty T-shirt, blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, including 19 very young children.)7 But aside from Jefferson, whose enthusiasm for revolution did not survive Robespierre, most everyone else came down in favor of order. “In monarchies the crime of treason or rebellion may admit of being pardoned, or lightly punished,” Samuel Adams wrote, during the Shays crisis, “but the man who dares to rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death.”8 James Madison believed America’s was a revolution to end all revolutions. And the Constitution, of course, sought “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” Domestic tranquility was what was called for. The Constitution helped contain the unruliness of Copyrighted Material
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the Revolution. So did early accounts of the nation’s founding, which tended to emphasize that a revolution had to know when to stop. For the sake of the nation, revolution needed to be a thing of the past.
Meanwhile, though, the Revolution was so brilliant and daring—and, of course, so original and definitive and constitutive—that everyone wanted to claim to have inherited it, especially when running for office or starting a movement or pushing through a piece of legislation. Beginning even before it was over, the Revolution has been put to wildly varying political purposes. Federalists claimed its legacy; so did AntiFederalists. Supporters of Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party said they were the true sons of the Revolution. No, Whigs said: we are. The Union claimed the Revolution; so, just as fervently, did the Confederacy.9 In the 1950s, southern segregationists insisted that they were upholding the legacy of the Founding Fathers by adhering to the Constitution. “There is nothing in the United States Constitution that gives the Congress, the President, or the Supreme Court the right to declare that white and colored children must attend the same public schools,” said Mississippi senator James Eastland. Advocates of civil rights countered that their movement carried the banner of the Revolution. “Our nation in a sense came into being through a massive act of civil disobedience,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “for the Boston Tea Party was nothing but a massive act of civil disobedience.” A lot of people talked about the 1964 Civil Rights Act as realizing, at long last, the promise of the Declaration of Independence. Lyndon Johnson compared Selma to Lexington and Concord. The 1965 Voting Rights Act was said to be an end to taxation without representation. “Black people are rebelling in the same way Americans did in the Boston Massacre,” Stokely Carmichael Copyrighted Material
said in 1966.10 That same year, when Johnson signed into law a bill establishing an American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, he used the opportunity to argue for American involvement in Southeast Asia. “Today, the Vietnamese people are fighting for their freedom in South Vietnam. We are carrying forward our great heritage by helping to sustain their efforts.”11 One year later, at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, King said, “We still need some Paul Revere of conscience to alert every hamlet and every village of America that revolution is still at hand.”12 What all these people meant by “revolution,” of course, was different.
“What do We Mean by the Revolution?” Adams asked Jefferson. “The War? That was no part of the revolution. It was only an Effect and Consequence of it. The Revolution was in the Minds of the People, and this was effected from 1760–1775, in the course of fifteen Years, before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington.”13 Adams, like many people, had no doubt that the Revolution had begun in Boston. Oliver thought Massachusetts was “the Volcano from whence issued all the Smoak, Flame & Lava, which has since enveloped the whole British american continent.”14 Adams believed the Revolution began in 1760 because, in August of that year, Massachusetts’ new, royally appointed governor, Francis Bernard, arrived to find a city in ruins, ravaged, just months before, by the worst fire in any colonial American city, ever. But the city was suffering from worse than fire. Massachusetts had sent more men to fight in the French and Indian War than all of the other colonies combined. Known in Europe as the Seven Years’ War, the fighting had started in 1756. Many Massachusetts men had fallen; many more were still to die, buried in unmarked graves, far from home. Boston in 1760 was a city of widows and orphans and wounded soldiers, of struggling Copyrighted Material
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artisans and smuggling merchants. Its newspapers were filled with notices of runaway apprentices, of slaves for sale, of bankrupted estates.15 That December, Boston’s James Otis Jr., a thirty-six-year-old lawyer, the most brilliant legal mind of his generation, agreed to take a case arguing against Bernard that the government had acted with arbitrary authority in using an instrument known as writs of assistance to search and seize city merchants’ property as part of a campaign against illicit trade.16 (Otis had another beef with Bernard, who had passed over his father, James Otis Sr., to appoint Thomas Hutchinson as chief of the colony’s Superior Court.) The following February, Otis argued the writs of assistance case, which is why Peter Oliver, who also served on the Superior Court, and was Hutchinson’s brother-in-law, started his history in 1761.
The showdown took place in Boston’s Town House (now the Old State House), a three-story Georgian whose east-end gable was topped with gilt statues of the lion and the unicorn, mythical symbols of the British Crown. The Town House sat in the middle of King Street (now State Street), in the heart of the city. The case was heard in the Governor’s Council Chamber, on the second floor, a room that boasted an elegant prospect, a wondrous view, straight down the Long Wharf and across the harbor, looking wistfully and a little desperately back to London. John Adams, who was, at the time, an assistant of Otis’s law partner, sat among the spectators, in a room tricked out with every trapping of luxury—red velvet–covered mahogany chairs and even ornamented brass spittoons—and of royal authority: Bernard had brought with him full-length portraits of George II and George III to hang alongside the king’s arms and a vast map of London.17 Of Otis’s fiery performance that day, Adams later wrote, “American independence was then and there born.”18 Copyrighted Material
Meanwhile, an ocean away, the Phillis, a two-masted, square-rigged ship piloted by Peter Gwin, was cruising the Guinea coast of Africa. After trading English goods for African slaves, Gwin prepared to head to New England. He had sailed to Boston before. He knew how to navigate through the perilous entrance to Boston’s harbor, dotted with rocks and shoals and more than thirty islands, tiny and treacherous. Once he got past Castle William, the water would be calmer and the hazards fewer. And then, what beauty, what depths. Wrote one traveler, “within the harbor there is room enough for five hundred sail to lie at an anchor.”19 A sea captain’s paradise.
The Phillis reached Boston in July of 1761, dropping anchor alongside the Long Wharf, the longest wharf—and the biggest commercial structure—in all of America: 150 feet wide and an audacious 2,000 feet long. On eighteenthcentury maps, it looks like a finger pointing across the ocean, pointing home. Gwin’s first order of business was to carry his bill of lading the length of the wharf, covered with warehouses and shops, and up the hill to the Customs House, built of rough-hewn stone. To get there, he had to make his way through the dockside bustle of sailors and shipwrights, hawkers and shopkeepers, fishwives and whores, artisans and merchants, the sons and daughters of Europe, Africa, and America. In a city of fifteen thousand people, about a thousand were black, and of that thousand, only eighteen were free.20 The day Gwin’s Phillis cleared customs, twenty-two other ships had dropped anchor offshore or tied their leading ropes to the town’s fifty-seven wharves. They had sailed from the north: Newfoundland, Quebec; from the south: Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Philadelphia, Maryland, Virginia, St. Kitts, Nevis, Bermuda; and from the east, all Copyrighted Material
the way across the wide water: Liverpool and London. Gwin went to the print shop of Benjamin Edes and John Gill, on Queen Street, next door to the town jail, to place an ad in the
This notice caught the eye of a tailor named John Wheatley, who kept a shop on the corner of King Street and Mackerel Lane. Wheatley and his wife, Susanna, took a chaise to the wharf, boarded the ship, and inspected the cargo, men, women, and children brought out of the fetid obscurity below decks to squint against the sun glinting off the water. The girl had lost her two front teeth. That put her at about seven years old.
Maybe eight. She was skinny and sick and nearly naked. She was half dead. The captain wanted her off his hands. Wheatley bought her “for a trifle.” His wife named her after the ship.21 That girl would one day chronicle the birth of the United
Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write....
And nations gaze at scenes before unknown!22 Phillis Wheatley’s revolution began in 1761.
The French and Indian War ended in 1763. The imperial coffers were empty: half of Britain’s revenues went to paying Copyrighted Material