A mob attacks the dwelling of a citizen known to voice outspoken Right-wing opinions, drags him from his house and threatens him with violence unless he recants. Armed gangs of politically motivated thugs haunt the streets of major cities playing a deadly game of cat and mouse with overwhelmed security forces, while spreading terror among the law-abiding populace. Property of known Right-wing thought-criminals is destroyed. Statues are toppled. Anarchy rules the day, and the Mob rules the streets.
The aforementioned events aren’t descriptions of 2020, although the reader could be forgiven for making such an assumption. Rather they occurred some 240 years ago during the years preceding the American Revolution, as part of a terroristic campaign of political violence carried out by a group of insurgents, sometimes called “Patriots”, against fellow Americans who happened to simply not share their particular set of political beliefs. The story of this mayhem was an integral part of America’s founding: a founding which was far stranger and more violent than the vast majority of Americans have ever been taught to believe. Yet they are not events that can be described by any American alive.
The truth is that, as Thomas B. Allen documented in his 2010 book Tories: Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War, America’s Revolution was as much a civil war as it was a bid for independence from a foreign power. And just like our current cold civil war, friends, neighbours and relatives were pitted against one another in a bloody, zero-sum struggle for dominance and survival. It was a conflict over taxes, representation and property, yes, but it was also over ideas. Radical ideas. A conflict which, upon closer inspection, bears far more of a resemblance to the street violence and political conflict that has gripped contemporary America than many would like to admit.
As the Patriot cause built up steam in the years preceding 1776, the streets of America’s most prominent city bore striking resemblance to those of contemporary Portland, Seattle or Kenosha. Boston was a hotbed of revolutionary fervor and violence which manifested itself in running street battles between mobs and government forces. Arson, destruction of property and repression of religion reigned. Intimidation of local officials was common, as were physical attacks on any citizen foolish enough to dare to publicly dissent from the budding revolution’s radical new ideas.
Like today, much of the mob violence around the time of the Revolution was instigated and directed by what can only reasonably be referred to as a loosely-organised collective of “domestic terrorists” (as always, whether these men should be labeled “terrorists” or “freedom fighters” depends on one’s own political and moral priors). The Sons of Liberty, most famous for masterminding the Boston Tea Party, were essentially the 17th-century version of Antifa.
Founded in New England in 1765 — after the passage of the Stamp Act and the ensuing riots which would see the home of Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson sacked and looted — the group would slowly, and then quickly grow, eventually founding chapters (cells?) in all thirteen colonies. Members would go on to become key instigators of the American revolution itself.
But it wasn’t until three years after their founding that the Sons would truly come into their own, when the passage of the Townshend Act saw the ship of one of their key allies and funders, John Hancock, impounded by Royal authorities on (accurate) suspicion of smuggling.
Hancock was one of the richest men in the American colonies, having inherited a fortune inflated by the profits from his tax-free smuggling operation. He was also a key benefactor to the Sons of Liberty, and later on for the Revolution itself, basically playing the role of a colonial-era George Soros.
As the Sons’ ranks swelled, an initiative was launched by a Patriot committee requiring anyone suspected of harbouring Loyalist sympathies to swear a public oath to the Patriot cause. Soon the Sons began, in what can only be described as an early form of doxxing, to publish the names of merchants refusing to participate in Patriot instigated boycotts against the Crown.
One of those targeted by this 18th century doxxing, Theophilus Lillie, shot back at his persecutors in a pro-Loyalist newspaper, writing a fiery op-ed whose remarkable language could easily have been ripped from any the various open letters recently penned by victims of today’s so-called “cancel culture”.
“It always seemed strange to me that people who contend so much for civil and religious liberty should be so ready to deprive others of their natural liberty,” he wrote: “If one set of private subjects may at any time take upon themselves to punish another set of private subjects just when they please, it’s such a sort of government as I never heard of before… I had rather be a slave under one master (for if I know who he is I may perhaps be able to please him) than a slave to a hundred or more whom I don’t know where to find, nor what they will expect of me.”
Notable in Lillie’s letter is his focus on the obvious hypocrisy of the Patriots, who, while proclaiming their dedication to the natural rights of all men to life, liberty and property, didn’t seem to have many qualms about depriving others of those same rights, so long as said others held political views which they found offensive. Precisely the same species of argument deployed by contemporary conservatives bemoaning the attacks they now face at the hands of Black Lives Matter and its various ideological satellites.
Patriots responded to Lillie’s defiance by erecting an effigy outside of his shop to intimidate potential customers, destroying his livelihood. When a local Loyalist attempted to tear it down, an enraged mob of Patriots chased him into his home, where, terrified, the man fired a musket into the crowd in an panicked act of self-defence, inadvertently killing a young boy playing nearby.
Unsurprisingly, the boy instantly became a martyr for the Patriot cause. His funeral drew thousands into the streets, inspired revolutionary poets to compose verse in honour of his sacrifice, and stirred up the smoldering passions of the Patriot mobs. Passions which would boil over a week later when British troops would open fire during a confrontation with a violent and menacing mob — an event that we now know as the Boston Massacre.
Targeted violence against ordinary Loyalists increased. Mobs attacked and vandalised the private homes of suspected Loyalists, sometimes firing volleys of musketballs through their windows. The livestock of suspected Tories were mutilated and killed. Loyalist officials were dragged from their homes by mobs and forced to publicly recant their views while their wives and children looked on in terror.
Mobs of thousands armed with clubs and muskets targeted town clerks, concillars, and other officials suspected of harboring loyalist sympathies, and marched on their homes and offices to demand their resignations — events almost identical to the ones that have taken place since riots began in May of this year, with the private homes of public officials being targeted and defaced by mobs attempting to intimidate them into bowing to their demands. After the terrified officials succumbed to the pressure of the Patriot mobs, they were then forced to march through the mob’s gauntlet while periodically being forced to read aloud an “acknowledgement of error and repentance”.
Just as with the run on guns and ammunition that occurred after the George Floyd riots in Minneapolis, frightened Loyalists began to arm themselves, construct fortifications and assemble into local militias for self-defence, while Patriot tradesmen began to refuse to do business with Tories.
The goal of Patriot groups like the Sons of Liberty was to sow terror among Loyalist civilians and officials, to undermine the legitimacy of the latter’s authority while policing the thoughts of the former. The fact that this approach frequently manifested itself in the form of targeted violence which involved the degradation and dehumanisation of their opponents was a feature, not a bug of the overall strategy.
While contemporary America’s own low-intensity civil war is still in its early stages, the orgy of Patriot-instigated mob violence of the mid-1770s would eventually reach an apotheosis. On 18 April, 1775, with the “shot heard round the world” echoing from the village green in Lexington, Massachusetts, these incidents morphed from a mere series of localised rebellions and disorders into a full scale revolution — a revolution which itself would go on to become a far more brutal affair than is commonly known.
The ensuing “war of independence” would see both sides murder each other with glee while committing horrifying crimes in the process. Whole towns were burned and looted, farmers were cut down in their fields and scalped, women were raped in their homes, and children had their bodies torn apart with Tomahawks and their skulls smashed in with mallets.
Though conservatives, and even some liberals, are likely to instinctively recoil from these parallels, which are hard to interpret as anything other than glaringly obvious, they do so at their own peril.
Denial and self-deception didn’t save America’s Loyalists from being essentially ethnically cleansed from the country of their birth; estimates vary, but up to 100,000 ended up being forced to flee, abandoning their property and livelihoods in order to seek safety in Canada and other royal colonies. Similarly it is unlikely to rescue America’s conservatives from the wrath of their own latter-day revolutionary enemies.
While there are many obvious differences between today’s social justice mobs and those fielded by America’s first revolutionaries, the unseemly truth is that they are far more superficial than the majority of Americans are ready to let themselves believe. The real differences being perhaps no more significant than the physical ones present between the revolutionaries of the 1770s and their modern day descendents: the resemblance may no longer be obvious at first glance, but ultimately, the same blood still flows in their veins.
The most predictable objection to the drawing of these parallels is to claim that, however similar the violent tactics of American’s Revolutionary mobs were to those of today’s far-Left, their ideological motives couldn’t have been more different. At first this point may seem to hold a good deal of water, but a closer inspection starts to reveal noticeable leaks.
If you talk to younger members of America’s progressive Left today — especially those who have participated in this summer’s protests and/or riots and are university-educated — about the philosophy behind their cause, you are likely to be bombarded with a cascade of sophisticated sounding buzzwords and concepts. It is a sloppily assembled collage which borrows isolated insights, terminology and quotes from an array of both past and current Left-wing and liberal thinkers to create a grotesque, and largely meaningless, ideological pastiche. Marx and Trotsky, Foucault and Derrida, Bakunin and Lacan are all likely to make an appearance. Alongside these are the works of prominent 20th century post-colonial authors as well as those of contemporary writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Robin DiAngelo.
However it would be wrong to conclude from this that the ideology behind their unrest is alien to that of America’s Founding Fathers (and founding mobs), as the pieces of this incoherent smorgasbord ultimately serve, in most cases, as little more than a series of garnishes on the plate of radical chic.
In reality, what today’s mob and its fellow travelers in the Democratic Party really want is eerily similar to the ideas of America’s most radical founding father: Thomas Paine. Ideas which found eager listeners among colonial America’s rioters and political terrorists. Paine’s Common Sense — easily the most important rhetorical and literary work of the revolutionary era, exceeded perhaps only by the Declaration itself — sold over 100,000 copies during the first three months of its publication in January of 1776. By the end of the war over 500,000 copies were in print, this in a nation of only approximately two million. The pamphlet had gone viral — with a vengeance.
And Common Sense was more than merely a stylistically brilliant call for independence. It was genuinely radical: attacking hereditary monarchy, embracing revolutionary egalitarian notions and democracy and even urging his readers to abandon their own British heritage in order to “begin the world over again” and spread the light of this new world to the far corners of the earth. By force.
But these ideas are expressed in Common Sense primarily as an angry tirade: Paine glories in his righteous rage, using it to stoke and justify not only hatred of the King, but also of his subjects in America who remained loyal to him. As historian Robert A. Ferguson noted in his book The American Enlightenment 1750-1820: “Paine repeatedly justifies and encourages the fact of hatred… ‘Men read by way of revenge,’ he explains, and his own reading in Common Sense is fueled by images of blood, ashes, suffering, cruelty, villany, corruption, monstrosity and hellishness… The point to remember is that Paine’s natural intended audience is the American mob… Paine writes to give the mob specific direction in the act of independence.”
While John Adams would bemoan Common Sense and its author in the pages of his autobiography, both Washington and Franklin would go on the record praising it. And they were right to do so, for its influence on the course of the Revolution simply can’t be understated. As Adams, a man who would go on to utterly despise Paine after the Revolution, noted: “Without the pen of Paine, the sword of Washington would have been wielded in vain.”
Paine would go on to write prodigiously during the war, writing the famous lines “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Afterwards, Paine would set sail for France, and would later become a participant in the French Revolution. But, just like his modern heirs, Paine was no Jacobin. Rather, he was instead a kind of hyper-radical Lockean who dreamt of spreading the light of freedom abroad, toppling tyrants and despotism worldwide through the use of righteous rhetoric and violence. He would go on to be an early advocate for the development of the welfare state, and a venomous enemy to organised religion as a whole, and Christianity in particular. Positions not so meaningfully different from those of America’s modern day Democratic Party and its progressive allies.
Though today’s mob, when it’s not busy attempting to terrorise and intimidate its political enemies in the same manner as their Patriot forefathers, has developed the habit of vandalising and toppling statues of America’s Founders, it’s likely an action that wouldn’t be frowned upon by Paine. After all, these were the same men that abandoned and made a pariah of him after the war, leaving him to die in poverty and obscurity due to his increasingly vocal and radical views. Men who were ultimately, in Paine’s view, little more than betrayers of the very revolution they had helped to start.
Paine’s personal disputes aside, the actions of today’s mob as it attacks the statues of America’s founders bears much similarity to the actions of the Patriot mobs of New York when they toppled the Statue of King George in 1776. Both were acts, not of a conquering foreign army, but rather of an oedipal uprising of children against their fathers.
In any case, historic motivations (oedipal or otherwise) aren’t relevant any more. For the deeper truth is that these men are no longer in need of monuments to commemorate them. A simple epitaph is now more than sufficient: Si monumentum requiris circumspice.