Thursday, March 8, 2012

Soft on Crime, Sons of Liberty Edition

I'm no fan of the anti-labor laws making their way through the Georgia state legislature at the moment, but Zaid Jilani makes a less-than-convincing argument against prohibiting protestors from picketing in front of private homes:
Prior to the Revolutionary War, Sam Adams and other Founding Fathers formed a group called the Sons of Liberty to protest the Stamp Act and similar oppressive legislation. The Sons of Liberty regularly protested outside of the homes of British colonial officials, including the homes of tax collectors. If Balfour and Georgia’s Big Business titans have their way, these protests would be illegal, and Adams and many of the other Founding Fathers would’ve been arrested.
That's an awfully charitable reading of the protests in Boston between 1765 and 1770. The Sons of Liberty did not just protest "outside of the homes of British colonial officials" — they tore those homes to pieces, sending the officials and their families fleeing into the night to escape the mobs of armed looters.

When the Sons of Liberty came calling on August 26, 1765, Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson was having dinner with his children:
In the evening whilst I was at supper and my children round me somebody ran in and said the mob were coming. I directed my children to fly to a secure place and shut up my house as I had done before intending not to quit it but my eldest daughter repented her leaving me and hastened back and protested she would not quit the house unless I did. I could not stand against this and withdrew with her to a neighbouring house where I had been but a few minutes before the hellish crew fell upon my house with the rage of devils and in a moment with axes split down the doors and entered by some being in the great entry heard them cry damn him he is upstairs we'll have him. Some ran immediately as high as the top of the house others filled the rooms below and cellars and others remained without the house to be employed there. Messages soon came one after another to the house where I was to inform me the mob were coming in Pursuit of me and I was obliged to retire thro yards and gardens to a house more remote where I remained until 4 o'clock by which time one of the best finished houses in the Province had nothing remaining but the bare walls and floors. Not contented with tearing off all the wainscot and hangings and splitting the doors to pieces they beat down the Partition walls and altho that alone cost them near two hours they cut down the cupola or lanthern and they began to take the slate and boards from the roof and were prevented only by the approaching daylight from a total demolition of the building. The garden fence was laid flat and all my trees &c broke down to the ground. Such ruins were never seen in America. 
In 1770, another group of "protestors" gathered outside of Theophilus Lillie's shop in broad daylight. Lillie's neighbor, Ebenezer Richardson, tried to destroy an effigy they had constructed, so they attacked his house, throwing so many rocks, bricks, and handfuls of feces that they tore the window casements from the walls, leaving ragged holes. After his wife was hit in the head with a rock, Richardson loaded his gun with birdshot and fired into the crowd, killing 11-year-old Christopher Snider.

Which is all to say that if you are trying to defend people's rights to protest peacefully, it's probably not a great idea to use the Sons of Liberty as your example.


Anonymous said...

My favorite misuse of history here in Lexington is those who insisted we should not have a creche on the Lexington Green because our ancestors would never have allowed any religious display on the Battle Green because they believed in the separation of Church and State. Of course, the meeting house of the established Church of Massachusetts, was on the Battle Green.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

In all fairness, many of the people who built the Congregational meeting house would have regarded a creche (along with any public celebration of Christmas) as heathenish popery.

Anonymous said...

Yes, quite right but my point was that they thought there would never have been _any_ religious use of the Green at all because they attributed a belief in the separation of church and state to those people who belonged to a state church.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

It's really not that simple. The original settlers of Massachusetts did believe in a form of separation of church and state, which is why graveyards were administered by municipalities, not churches, and ministers could be fined for performing marriages. In general, though, I think it's a bad idea to argue that modern Americans should show much deference to the policy positions of 17th- and 18th-century colonists. If you are interested in reading more about these issues, I recommend the group blog American Creation.