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Monday, December 31, 2012

An Irate Minority?

The people are like the water and the leaders at all levels are like the swimmers...You must go [with the flow] of the water.

 - Mao Zedong


We're still celebrating a time of merry ancient myths, but one need not step too far into the past to confront distorted legends.  Just the other day on yet another FB thread about gun safety, I ran into somebody who based a line of argument on a completely inaccurate and sadly common trope about support for the Revolution.

When I observed that rebellion against Federal tyranny was highly unlikely to succeed with mere small arms--and something that even Scalia notes in Heller--the retort was that we beat a superpower with a ragtag collection of muskets and Kentucky rifles, and with only 1/3 of Americans supporting the effort.  Well, uh...he kinda lost the plot because the weaponry was fairly evenly matched, unlike today, but more importantly he regurgitated the "One Third Myth."

Supposedly, John Adams estimated about 1/3 of Americans were in favor of the Revolution, 1/3 were against, and 1/3 were neutral.  He did in fact employ that formulation a couple times.  But context is king:

Mr. John Randolph had addressed a letter, dated Philadelphia, 15th December, 1814, through the newspapers, to Mr. James Lloyd, of Massachusetts, deprecating a resort to extreme measures by the federalists of Ne w England. He was answered by Mr. Lloyd in a letter published in the Boston Daily-Advertiser, of January 1815. In both letters there were allusions to Mr. Adams, that called forth [this] series of letters:

You say that at the time of the Congress, in 1765, "The great mass of the people were zealous in the cause of America." "The great mass of the people" is an expression that deserves analysis. New York and Pennsylvania were so nearly divided, if their propensity was not against us, that if New England on one side and Virginia on the other had not kept them in awe, they would have joined the British. Marshall, in his life of Washington, tells us, that the southern States were nearly equally divided. Look into the Journals of Congress, and you will see how seditious, how near rebellion were several counties of New York, and how much trouble we had to compose them. The last contest, in the town of Boston, in 1775, between whig and tory, was decided by five against two. Upon the whole, if we allow two thirds of the people to have been with us in the revolution, is not the allowance ample ? Are not two thirds of the nation now with the administration ? Divided we ever have been, and ever must be. Two thirds always had and will have more difficulty to struggle with the one third than with all our foreign enemies.
If I were called to calculate the divisions among the people of America, as Mr. Burke did those of the people of England, I should say that full one third were averse to the revolution. These, retaining that overweening fondness, in which they had been educated, for the English, could not cordially like the French ; indeed, they most heartily detested them. An opposite third conceived a hatred of the English, and gave themselves up to an enthusiastic gratitude to France. The middle third, composed principally of the yeomanry, the soundest part of the nation, and always averse to war, were rather lukewarm both to England and France ; and sometimes stragglers from them, and sometimes the whole body, united with the first or the last third, according to circumstances. The depredations of France upon our commerce, and her insolence to our ambassadors, and even to the government, united, though for a short time, with infinite reluctance, the second third with the first.

The astute reader will note that Adams actually estimated that about 2/3 of Americans supported the Revolution.  And he further estimated that at any given time during his administration--which was, of course, decades later--shifting political sands allied about 2/3 of Americans regarding the FRENCH Revolution and the war between France and England.

And really, could we have been successful against the British if we didn't have at least majority, if not supermajority, support for our endeavors?  Consider our successful petitioning against the Stamp Act (1767), and successful boycotting against the Townshend Acts (1770).  Could those truly have worked had there not been broad support amongst the People?

And what of 1774?

The story of "Paul Revere's ride" needs not only correction but perspective.  One hundred twenty-two people lost their lives within hours of Revere's heroics, and almost twice that number were wounded.  Revere's ride was not the major event of that day, nor was Revere's warning so critical in triggering the bloodbath.  Patriotic farmers had been preparing to oppose the British for the better part of a year.  Paul Revere himself had contributed to those preparations with other important rides...

Paul Revere was one among tens of thousands of patriot from Massachusetts who rose to fight the British.  Most of those people lived outside of Boston, and, contrary to the traditional telling, these people were not country cousins to their urban counterparts.  They were rebels in their own right, although their story is rarely told...

In truth, the country folk...staged their own Revolution more than a half a year before.
The Massachusetts Revolution of 1774 was the most successful popular uprising in the nation's history, the only one to remove existing political authority.  Despite its power--or possibly because of its power--this momentous event has been virtually lost to history.
The very strengths of the Revolution of 1774 have insured its anonymity.  The force of the people was so overwhelming that violence became unnecessary.  The handful of Crown-appointed officials...when confronted by 4,622 angry militiamen, had no choice but to submit.  Had opposition been stronger, there might have been violence; that would have made for a bloodier tale but a weaker revolution.

To ignore the mass mobilization that made our Revolution possible is to make the exact same mistake the British themselves did:

Not wanting to grant legitimacy to any form of protest, conservatives in the 1760s and 1770s maintained that all the troubles in Boston were the machinations of a single individual.  In the words of Peter Oliver, the Crown-appointed chief justice who was later exiled, the people themselves "were like the Mobility of all Countries, perfect Machines, wound up by any Hand who might first take the Winch."  Mindless and incapable of acting on their own, they needed a director who could "fabricate the Structure of Rebellion from a single straw."

According to this mechanistic view, one man led and everyone else followed...the role of puppeteer was supposedly assumed by Samuel Adams...The Stamp Act riots of 1765, the Liberty riot in 1768, the resistance to occupying soldiers, the Boston Massacre in 1770, the Tea Party in 1774, and various lesser-known demonstrations were all orchestrated by Samuel adams, master Revolutionary strategist.
By attributing all rebellious events to...Adams, disgruntled Tories...exhibited the classic conservative denial of social protest: the people, if let to their own devices, will never rise up on their own.  Without ringleaders, organizers, rabble-rousers, troublemakers, or outside agitators, the status quo will not be challenged because nothing is basically wrong.  All protests and rebellions can be dismissed; demands and grievances need never be taken seriously.

The real heroes of the Revolution were the militia, composed of the whole body of the People:

The militia never failed in a real emergency to provide reinforcements and even reluctant draftees for the State and Continental regular forces. From the British viewpoint, the militia was the virtually inexhaustible reservoir of rebel military manpower, and it was also the sand in the gears of the paciļ¬cation machine.

But the myth that a minority of Americans armed with modest-but-extremely-lethal weapons fought off tyranny is necessary to maintain the fiction that the sole purpose of the 2nd Amendment is for us to keep the Feds honest and thus, we need our Bushmasters.  Sadly, the debate isn't helped much by mythmaking on the other side of the equation, where "clearly" the Framers never meant regular folks should be armed.  

There's nothing new under the sun.  As Adams wrote a bit later in his letters to Lloyd:

One party reads the newspapers and pamphlets of its own church, and interdicts all writings of the opposite complexion. The other party condemns all such as heresy, and will not read or suffer to be read, as far as its influence extends, any thing but its own libels...

Each party is deliberately and studiously kept in ignorance of the other. Have naked truth and honest candor a fair hearing or impartial reading in this or any other country ? Have not narrow bigotry, the most envious malignity, the most base, vulgar, sordid, fishwoman scurrility, and the most palpable lies, a plenary indulgence, and an unbounded licentiousness? If there is ever to be an amelioration of the condition of mankind, philosophers, theologians, legislators, politicians and moralists will find that the regulation of the press is the most difficult, dangerous, and important problem they have to resolve. Mankind cannot now be governed without it, nor at present with it...

Parties in politics, like sects in religion, will not read, indeed they are not permitted by their leaders to read, any thing against their own creed, nor indeed to converse with any but their own club. The Bible is forbidden to the vulgar by all parties.

If we're to solve any of the serious problems facing us--whether it be gun safety or climate change--we need to break out of this epistemic closure that appears rampant in the Body Politic.  No, I'm not making a false equivalence because it's certainly worse overall on one side, and we're still going to have a lot of disagreements about the Constitution, policy, etc, but we have to start from some common facts.  Perpetuating myths is not helpful in the slightest.


December 31, 2012 | Permalink


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