February ARF Serial: Political Violence

POLITICAL VIOLENCE: The Truth About  National Unity.

Some level of Political Violence has been an aspect of most all revolutions throughout history. However, it was brought to a very well planned, coordinated and executed level in the American Revolution: Targets are designated through propaganda, Threats are made systematically, militias are organized and small parties of thugs are continually active (1).  This level of violence against any and all opposition parties is intentionally executed to gain the compliance or expulsion of those who disagree through a state of fear, and to encourage a continued support by those who may be lukewarm supporters of the party.

Attacking and threatening Government officers in the conduct of their duties, inciting riot, destroying the property and lives of political rivals, and instigating armed insurrection are only a partial list of the acts committed in the name of “Liberty.”  These actions were mostly performed and coordinated by the Sons of Liberty, a loose organization of those with rising or established commercial interests which were being undercut by royal government.

For the period of one year alone, there are several examples of these activities. The attacks on Mein and Fleeming, Boston Printers, who were clearly in support of the British Government due to their publication of shipping manifests embarrassing to those who had signed the Non-Importation agreement were a clear example of such threats escalating to beatings and then resulting in the departure of loyalists (or any other opponents of the Whigs) from the Colonies. A similar target was Patrick McMaster, a Boston Merchant who had refused to sign the Non-Importation agreement, was to be tarred and feathered due to his reticence in regards to importation.  This came after a full year of vandalism, attacks upon his character and other minor affronts (2). 

In addition Henry Houlton, a Commissioner of Customs, and his Family were attacked on the night of 19 June 1770.  As Crown officials, they would clearly be against the Whig agenda.  During the attack windows were smashed and the occupants of the house terrorized. After this incident, the family moved to  Castle William in Boston Harbor to avoid further assaults. They had fled Boston before due to worries about their personal safety at the hands of such targeted Mob Violence (2).

The Gaspee Incident, outside Providence, Rhode Island in June of 1772 was a prime example of political violence targeting Crown Officials. Planned and put into action by a prominent Merchant of the town, the Customs schooner Gaspee was burned after it ran aground.  Such attacks on Government officers and offices were commonplace, and frequently organized by those with the most to gain from the revolution.(1)

Attacks upon other government figures were commonplace. Some well known incidents occurred in 1765, the Royal Stamp collector in Boston was tarred and feathered while carrying out his duties, while in New York, armed parties confiscated Stamps before they could be landed from the ships.(4)  Countless others happened, and with such frequency that going over all of them would drag out this paper Ad Infinitum.

The attitude of the Separatist party was lampooned accurately by a Loyalist Satire writer from New York. In a broadside entitled At a meeting of the true sons of Liberty, the attitude of the Separatists is clearly represented in the last lines of this scathing satire: “RESOLVED, lastly, That every Man, Woman, or Child, who doth not agree with our Sentiments, whether he, she, or they, understand them or not, is an Enemy to his Country, wheresoever he was born, and a Jacobite in Principle, whatever he may think of it; and that he ought at least to be tarred and feathered, if not hanged, drawn and quartered; all Statutes, Laws and Ordinances whatsoever to the contrary notwithstanding.”

Aside from these, there were outright attacks on the British Army perpetrated by the Separatist party.  The Boston Massacre is a prime example.  It describes the so-called massacre as a premeditated action on the part of the British troops against peacefully assembled, concerned citizens, mostly young persons, occasionally throwing snowballs.  After a short time, so it claims, Capt. Preston, the Commanding Officer of the guard detachment gave the order to fire on this assembly.  The account entirely fails to mention the crowd was armed with clubs, staves, and similar weaponry, and was in a riotous posture.  That the crowd had assaulted the lone guard initially posted at King Street, to the point where he felt obliged to call out the reserve guard under Capt. Preston, was also conspicuously absent from the account.(5)

Also of Note, from the same time as the Boston Massacre, is the “Battle of Golden Hill” in New York. Occurring in January of 1770, the “Battle” resulted in one civilian killed and one wounded. Caused by a mob harassing British Soldiers removing a Liberty Pole, the small skirmish was a local affair which was calmed over quickly, but was still a blatant attack on Government Forces. (1)

Political Violence should not be listed as solely physical attacks. Destruction of property, threats, and other forms of Mental and Physical Violence fall under the same heading.

Propaganda was used much like that of the fascist parties of the first half of the Twentieth Century, to advertise and mark “Public Enemies” or Enemies of the State.  Such tools were the main distinguishing features of such “Internal Enemies,” as they otherwise appeared identical to the rest of the population. Marking these targeted persons, through publishing their names in newspaper advertisements, visually marking their residences, stores or persons, or through exposing them by other means, they can be kept in a state of fear and anxiety which is intended to cause compliance.(6)

The advertisements were occasionally only very thinly veiled threats. Knowing then the Sons of Liberty were the persons posting such advertisements, it must have been quite disconcerting to hear that one “shall be deemed Enemies to the Colonies, and treated accordingly.”  With the precedents established for treatment accorded enemies of the colonies by the Sons of Liberty, this is clearly a threat to life, limb and property. It was (and still is) in fact considered better to leave subjects in a state of fear to gain compliance, as actual pain or attacks are more likely to be overcome.(6) However, a target must first be marked before it can effectively be exposed to public abuse or threatened by mob violence, which was the purpose of these pieces of propaganda.

At the time of the Boston Tea Party, Clear, public and unmistakable threats were made against the captains of ships laden with tea should they allow any tea to be landed.  Further, to prevent any tea from being landed secretly, or in violation of the resolutions mentioned therein, a guard of 25 men was appointed to stand at the wharves of the ships until they left the harbor. Another Resolution was that any person shipping or receiving tea into the colony should be treated and esteemed “an Enemy to his Country.” 

During the time period under consideration, those thus marked were frequently attacked, publicly ridiculed and targeted for general harassment, as seen with the examples in this chapter. Many were subsequently forced to relocate, or publicly comply with the publishers’ demands. As can be seen in the non-importation and Stamp Act crises, some of those targeted by the Sons of Liberty caved under the weight of such fear, publicizing their compliance to avoid violence.

There are dozens more examples of such acts, generalized against any and all persons opposed to the Whig viewpoint. The burning of the Peggy Stewart in Maryland, which carried tea into Annapolis serves as an example.,  (7) A Large mob forced the owners into burning the ship and cargo to save their lives, as explained in the Virginia Gazette for 6 April 1776 (3).  As early as 1770, Voters were being suppressed in their attempts to gain a secret ballet.   Such actions are clear evidence, and were so prevalent as to make many areas entirely unsafe for Loyalist sympathizers.

To point out the range of these acts, there were even Loyalist executed in multiple states for their political affiliations. The Virginia Gazette archives from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation contain dozens of reports of their executions, from though out the colonies. (3) Some of these executions were also of men taken under arms, who had the right to be treated as prisoners of war, as mentioned in the Virginia Gazette of 20 June 1777. (3) 

To consider the other side of the coin, there was some limited violence from the Loyalist party as well. Armed societies did rise throughout the colonies, essentially associations for their mutual defense.  These militias, however, were not nearly as active as those of the Separatists. With the exception of impoverished tenants on Cortlandt, Livingston and Claverack Manors in New York, who rose in a Jacquerie in early 1777 (7). 

The similarities of these activities to those of the Fascist parties in the 1930s should need no Documentation or explanation. Using Generalized violence to silence opposition has been a hallmark of every oppressive regime based upon a lack of rational principals since the dawn of time.


  1. Schlesinger, Arthur M. “Political Mobs and the American Revolution 1765-1776” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 99 No. 4 (30 August 1955) pp 244-250  www.jstor.org (Accessed 24 February 2011)
  2. Nicolson, Colin “A plan “to banish all the Scotchmen”: Victomization and political mobilization in pre-revolutionary Boston.” Massachusetts Historical Review, Vol. 9 (2007) pp 64 Jstor.org (Accessed 24 February 2011).
  3. Virginia Gazette Archives Online, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Http://research.history.org/DigitalLibrary/VirginiaGazette
  4. Gerlach, Don R. Philip Schuyler and the American Revolution in New York 1733-1777. (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1964)
  5. York, Niel Longley “Rival Truths, political Accommodation and the Boston ‘Massacre'” Massachusetts Historical Review Vol. 11, pp 60. Jstor.org (Accessed 24 February 2011)
  6. CIA, Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual-1983 http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB122/index.htm#hre (Accessed 25 April 2011)
  7. Allen, Thomas B. Tories: Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2010)

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