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Patriots or anarchists?
The eternal question of outdoor politics
Boston had been rumbling for months when news arrived from London that Parliament had finally passed the tax bill it had been considering. Thomas Hutchinson, a native of Boston and now the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, had argued against the bill as likely to produce more trouble in the American colonies than revenues. His arguments persuaded some members of Parliament but not the government as a whole, and the tax measure—called the Stamp Act, for the stamps that would show that the tax had been paid—became law in the spring of 1765.
The rumbles in Boston grew louder when the news of the act’s passage reached the city. An earlier act that crimped smuggling had sparked anger among the smugglers and their beneficiaries, but the anger gave rise to only minor public protest, lest the protestors thereby convict themselves of smuggling. The Stamp Act, by contrast, could be condemned in clear conscience as a violation of the right of Englishmen not to be taxed except by vote of their elected representatives. The American colonies elected no representatives in Parliament; therefore the Stamp Act was unconstitutional and illegitimate.
The protests put Thomas Hutchinson in a tough spot. He agreed with the protestors that the Stamp Act was bad legislation, but as the king's man in Boston he was bound to enforce it.
The protestors had no patience for Hutchinson’s difficulties. They formed a mob that roamed the streets of the city. They hanged an effigy—a dummy—of Andrew Oliver, the local collector of the stamp taxes, and they tore down Oliver’s office. They might have burned the building, but fire was a scourge of urban life in those days, and these protestors didn’t want to burn down the whole city.
Several days later they came after Hutchinson, who happened to be Oliver’s brother-in-law. “In the evening, whilst I was at supper and my children round me, somebody ran in and said the mob were coming,” Hutchinson wrote to a friend a few days later. “I directed my children to fly to a secure place, and shut up my house as I had done before”—during the earlier protests—“intending not to quit it.”
Hutchinson's daughter Elisha had other ideas. Elisha had inherited the stubborn spirit of her great-great-great-grandmother Anne Hutchinson, who had been banished from Massachusetts for her nonconforming religious views. Having at first obeyed her father's order to flee, Elisha determined to face the mob with him.
“My eldest daughter repented her leaving me, hastened back and protested that she would not quit the house unless I did,” Hutchinson explained.
Hutchinson was willing to risk his own life, but not his daughter’s. “I couldn’t stand against this, and withdrew with her to a neighboring 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,” he said.
The rioters shouted for Hutchinson, vowing they would seize him and make him answer for the sins of his government. They searched his house thoroughly. “Some ran immediately as high as the top of the house, then filled the rooms below and the cellar, and others remained without the house to be employed there,” Hutchinson recounted. “Messages soon came one after another to the house where I was, to inform me the mob were coming in pursuit of me.”
Hutchinson knew the neighborhood, and he slipped through gardens and backyards to refuge at another home farther away.
Meanwhile the mob, more incensed than ever at having missed him, took out their anger on his house. “Not content with tearing off all the wainscot and hangings, and splitting the doors to pieces, they beat down the partition walls,” Hutchinson wrote after surveying the wreckage the next day. “And although that alone cost them near two hours, they cut down the cupola or lanthorn 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 house was laid flat, and all my trees, etc., broke down to the ground. Such ruin was never seen in America.”
Personal items, too, were ransacked. “Besides my plate”—dinnerware—“and family pictures, household furniture of every kind, my own, my children, and servants, apparel, they carried off about £900 sterling in money and emptied the house of everything whatsoever, except a part of the kitchen furniture, not leaving a single book or paper in it, and have scattered or destroyed all the manuscripts and other papers I had been collecting for thirty years together, besides a great number of public papers in my custody.”
The Boston riots against the Stamp Act were reproduced in other American colonies; the violence served to enforce a boycott of the stamps and of imports from Britain. The American actions persuaded Parliament to repeal the act; at the same time, though, Parliament reaffirmed its right to legislate for the American colonies as it wished.
The lesson the Americans took was that politically motivated violence could be effective. A decade later the violence took the form of war against Britain, which resulted in American independence.
Political violence became a feature of American life. Sometimes it accomplished what the protestors wanted; sometimes it didn’t. Rebels who followed Daniel Shays in the 1780s received not the tax relief they desired, but a bolstered federal government, which they didn’t. The armed secession of eleven Southern states in the 1860s—the single largest act of political violence in American history—failed spectacularly, protecting neither the proclaimed independence of the Confederate states nor the slavery which that independence was intended to preserve.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s comprised both a nonviolent wing and a violent wing. The former featured marches, the latter the burning of large parts of American cities. The nonviolent protesters were mostly responsible for the end of the Jim Crow system of segregation; the arsonists and looters contributed to a backlash against further progress on civil rights.
Violent protest remains a basic fact of American political life. During recent years, protests against police brutality have often turned violent; protests against the outcome of the 2020 presidential race produced an assault on the U.S. Capitol in which several people died.
Thomas Hutchinson would be distressed but not surprised.