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American Golgotha

By (July 1, 2010) No Comment

As If an Enemy’s Country

By Richard Archer
Oxford University Press, 2010

The American Revolution has long been pliant timber for those with ideological axes to grind. And why not, what better claim to legitimacy could there be than the explicit endorsement of the Founding Fathers? Perhaps fortunately, “original intent” is amorphous; we will never know definitively what Washington meant when he said this or what Jefferson’s intended when he declared that. This may be the point that John Adams was driving at when he asked Thomas Jefferson in one of their many letters, “Who shall write the history of the American Revolution? Who can write it?” To which Jefferson esoterically replied “Nobody, except perhaps its external facts.”

Yet some will not be deterred from trying to jam the round peg of history into the square hole of contemporary ideological divides. This is why it’s a welcome change to come across an agenda-free historian whose labor, inadvertently, levels the playing field and reclaims historical fact from misappropriation by abusers such as the 21st century Tea Party movement. Richard Archer’s new book on the British occupation of Boston, As If an Enemy’s Country is just sucha work; Archer discusses Great Britain’s hubris and its bungling attempts at administrating its North American possessions, transforming discontent into revolution via the focal point of it all: the cradle of liberty, Boston.

It all began with George Grenville’s ascent to prime minister in the wake of Britain’s expensive victory over France in a war fought all around the world, but remembered in America as the French and Indian War. Archer describes the state of the British Empire at the time:

the national debt was enormous, and supporting a large military added to the burden. British taxpayers already were taking to the streets and it was politically unwise to increase their obligations. From the vantage point of Whitehall, moreover, colonists were only loosely connected to the empire. Taxing them and cracking down on smugglers would raise revenue and centralize authority, and it seemed reasonable to expect that Americans should contribute to their own defense.

To carry out these goals Grenville crafted a piece of legislation that he hoped would raise revenue, but as an unforeseen consequence it planted the explosive seeds of dissatisfaction in the colonies:

Thus was born what came to be called the Sugar Act… at its core dwelled a revolutionary change in the relations of the mother country and her colonies…. There was no mistaking the Sugar Act was a tax bill. The preamble, declaring its intent to raise funds to help pay for troops in North America, made that clear. Up to this time, Parliament had requisitioned money through colonial legislatures, allowing the constitutional voices of those who were to be taxed to be heard. For the first time, the British government (Crown and all) prepared to tax colonists directly, with no pretense of representation.

And there it is, the context essential to understanding the slogan “No taxation without representation,” and the political philosophy that drove the British Colonies of North America towards Independence. New taxes didn’t please the colonists; the loss of control, or the appearance of control through participation in the governing process, gnawed at them even more.

But why did Boston react so vehemently to new British controls? Archer explains:

new British policies could not have come at a much worse time for the people of Boston. By the mid-eighteenth century, the town no longer was the premiere urban center in British North America. Wars, competition from other seaports, epidemics, and limited exportable produce and goods had all taken their toll. The overall population had diminished, while at the same time the number of poor had increased. Such formerly prosperous industries as shipbuilding declined, and unemployment rose … all of the American colonies experienced a decade-long, postwar depression, but Massachusetts, particularly Boston, was hit hardest. The economic boost from military expenditures disappeared, and unemployment increased as mustered-out soldiers returned. Fewer merchant ships sailed; artisans, shopkeepers, and merchants failed; and the widows and children of fallen soldiers augmented the ranks of the poor.

On the heels of protest and petition from the lower (and more radical) house of the Massachusetts legislature, perhaps in reaction to it, British Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765 on top of the Sugar Act. The Stamp Act was far-reaching indeed and intruded deeply into colonists’ personal lives in unprecedented ways. Archer: “most legal documents, newspapers, pamphlets, college degrees, clearance papers for merchant ships leaving port, appointments to office, land deeds, admission of lawyers to practice law, wine and liquor licenses, playing cards, and even dice required the purchase of a stamp.”

Whereas the burden of the Sugar Act fell disproportionately upon the merchant class, the Stamp Act affected everyone, and the cry of violated rights began to subsume the cries of economic self-preservation. But as Archer is careful to point out, such protests were also an assertion of “Bostonians’ identity as fellow British citizens deserving of the same constitutional protections as those living in England. In short, they should be treated as subjects, not as colonists – as equals, not as subordinates.”

When given proper consideration, the aforementioned fact brims with potentialities. I’ve always found it interesting how under-reported the story of pro British sympathies in North America has been. John Adams reported that, even at the height of the Revolution, he couldn’t say more than a third of the population were fervent patriots and numbered the Tories (and the simply indifferent) around the same figure respectively. It really is one of history’s great “what-if’s,” whether or not with a little less stubbornness and a little more creativity the two parties could have found a way towards conciliation. As Archer records throughout his book, for years after they began to scorn Parliament, colonists continued to loudly toast the health of the King at symposiums and in pubs. What a fascinating thought it is, that George III’s popularity might have led, in an alternate set of circumstances, to the United States and Britain forming a union where each country had its own parliament but recognized a single monarch. As fantastic as it may appear on the surface, this is no idle daydream – there would have been precedent for it; King James I was also King James VI of Scotland – he achieved a personal union between England and Scotland in 1603 and to a much diluted extent such an arrangement continues today in the Commonwealth of Nations where 54 states (including Canada, Australia, India, many of the states of southeastern Africa, and a number of Caribbean and South Pacific islands states) all recognize Queen Elizabeth II as their Head of State either symbolically or practically. Separate governments, one monarch.

But of course nothing of the sort ended up happening. Despite some internal debate, (Archer includes a great story of when “Grenville, now [1765] the leader of the opposition in the Commons… questioned when had the colonies been “emancipated” from their obligations, Pitt [the Great Commoner] thundered back, “I desire to know when they were made slaves?”) Britain remained fixated upon its need for the colonists to recognize its imperial sovereignty and unleashed a chain of events that lopped off a huge portion of their empire. As Archer explains,

The refusal of the ministry and Parliament to take colonists’ views seriously, or even to read petitions from provincial assemblies, prompted alternative measures outside the traditional and normal political process. Parliament had taken its stand; Bostonians would respond however they were able… The anger of people caught in an economic depression, victimized by fire and disease, plagued by taxes from an arrogant, unsympathetic, and distant Parliament, and compromised by some of their own, seeming, self-serving leaders was about to explode.

Even when they amended the Sugar Act and repealed the Stamp Act, Parliament simultaneously passed the face-saving Declaratory Act, which in effect said they did in fact possess the authority to tax the colonies, because they said so. Such actions hastened the rise of the popular party over the King’s men and provided a training ground for future leaders, men like James Otis, Samuel Adams, and Joseph Warren.

Predictably this lead to violence (though to be fair to the people of Boston, there were many orderly, nonviolent forms of protest enacted throughout the 1760’s). Stamp collectors were beaten or tarred and feathered, effigies were hanged and burned, and Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Hutchinson had his home ransacked and torched by a mob only minutes after the family fled.

Such actions induced the Earl of Hillsborough, Secretary of State for the colonies, to order the military occupation of Boston as a demonstration of British might. The army was to act as a police force and prop up tax collectors despite the fact, as Archer points out, that the mission might necessitate an almost permanent occupying force at expenses greater than the revenues which could be expected, compounded by the foreseeable further alienation of Boston’s population.

Thomas Gage, commander-in-chief of the British forces in North America, viewed the conflict in stark terms:

Moderation and Forbearance hitherto shewn by Great Britain, has been Construed into Timidity, and serve only to raise Sedition and Mutiny, to a higher pitch… Quash this spirit at a Blow, without too much regard to the Expence and it will prove economy in the End.

In simpler terms, Boston was to be made an example of. Or was it?

Despite Gage’s bravado, the occupation of Boston from 1768 to 1770 was not a brutal and crushing boot-on-the-throat affair like the Nazi occupation of Paris, or even the British occupation of New York City during the Revolution, where their infamous POW ships lay at anchor. There were understandable tensions between civil and military traditions, but secret police were not at work, there were no mass arrests or extralegal executions, few allegations of rape were made, and there’s evidence to suggest the greatest hardship was tolerating the regular drunken disorderliness of the troops. Bostonians were often the aggressors, and though they would never take the suicidal course of direct confrontation, they did act in a noncompliant fashion whenever they could, including resisting providing the supplies and housing for the soldiers as they were required to by the Quartering Act. Archer also records a number of proactive beatings issued to British soldiers unlucky enough to find themselves alone in the wrong alley. The British felt such instances could not go unanswered, thus creating an escalating cycle of violence and resentment.

Under the pressures of occupation Boston found its political landscape changing: anti-British nonimportation agreements amongst merchants brought together former economic rivals, and the increasingly radical attitudes among the general population was reflected in the increased number of respectable bourgeoisie now identifying themselves as members of the Sons of Liberty. Archer notes this sermon from a formerly moderate preacher:

I have sometimes given offence by opposing some measures among us which I thought rash, but I begin to think I have been mistaken. Every step the ministry takes, serves to justify our warmest measures – and it is now plain that if they had not had their hands full at home, they would have crushed the Colonies, and that , if we had not been vigorous in our opposition, we had lost all.

The situation was unstable: a radicalizing, increasingly bold population in close contact with a habitually maligned occupying force that increasingly felt besieged itself. All that was needed to bring the situation to a head was for the wrong thing to be said to the wrong person, for a glare to be misinterpreted, or a mumbled insult to be unintentionally heard:

By early March 1770, many Bostonians were openly expressing their frustration, anger and resentment at the representatives of British might. They had lived through seventeen months of military occupation, more than two years of the presence of the commissioners and the enforcement of the Townshend Acts, and a decade of economic hardships. They increasingly realized that British authorities viewed them as subordinates rather than as equal members of the empire… And the troops, like those in New York City, resented being stationed among a people who showed them too little respect and too much animosity. Political rivalries, strife over maintaining nonimportation, and competition for jobs compounded the general discontent. It wouldn’t take much to ignite a lethal explosion.

On March 5, 1770, the stars aligned. An angry mob surrounded a handful of British soldiers, who discharged their weapons into the crowd, killing five people.

Surrounding the “Boston Massacre” are ambiguities and questions aplenty; Where was Captain Preston standing? Why did the church bells begin to ring out in the first place? How much time elapsed between the first (perhaps accidental) shot and the subsequent ones? Were those wounded or killed intentionally picked out as retribution for previous insults? Why were there almost twice the number of musket balls extracted from the scene than eyewitness accounts suggest were fired? But raising the question is as ambitious as Archer gets; our author is clearly more comfortable playing it conservative. With nothing, in his opinion, concrete enough to draw any definitive conclusions, he happily leaves such questions up in the air, keeping his evidentiary standards of historical research impeccable and his method unscathed. Some ambitious prosecutor may come along one day and parse the events more closely. And that will be fine by Archer.

As if An Enemy’s Country is many things, but it’s not a vehicle for its author’s ego. It’s a canvas of a place in time, illuminating historical facts and showing where incongruities or contradictions in our understanding of these fundamental events exist. In that it rehearses facts that will then be picked up and refined by others. It’s an academic work, one undergraduate students will no doubt find useful.

But it’s not artful. There is no great prose, no sweeping passages that bring home the event’s epic sweep. The author’s lack of narrative skill (or refusal to display it) gives rise to occasional doldrums – the reader has to exert some mental muscle to work their way through these. Yet the book’s vanilla simplicity is refreshing.

The greatest disappointment in As if An Enemy’s Country is its limited scope. The narrative ends too early; in the wake of the violence, the British withdrew to Castle William and raised their occupation, but the tensions only increased, and the situation remained fluid: no shortage, in other words, of material for Archer to explore had he wished. He might have prefaced his main story with a detailed discussion of the Boston Tea Party and the resulting Intolerable Acts that closed the port of Boston. Although it’s clearly beyond the scope of his carefully chosen plan, our sense of drama would have been better satisfied if Archer’s account had ended, say, with the boom of Fort Ticonderoga’s big guns, brought to Dorchester Heights by Boston bookseller Henry Knox, forcing the British to raise their occupation and withdraw at last. That occupation cast long shadows; perhaps a sequel is in order.

Thomas J. Daly is a frequent Open Letters contributor living in Boston.