POLITICS

Boston and Militarism: The Colonial Era

04/30/2013 12:35 pm ET
Getty Images

(This is part two of a series of posts on the Boston Marathon bombings, the government response, and Boston unique historical perspective on militarism and civil liberties. See part one here.)

The first instance of government militarism in the streets of Boston is a big reason why there's a United States of America in the first place: the billeting of British troops in the city in the 1760s.

England sent the troops to Boston as tension between the colonies and London were beginning to boil over. Worse yet, the crown imposed new taxes on the colonists to fund the operation -- effectively sticking them with the bill for their own occupation. The British troops stationed in Boston backed up the crown's customs agents and tax collectors. Armed with general warrants that needn't identify specific suspects or residences, they had the power to go door to door, to break into private homes, to conduct searches for contraband, and to seize any they found.

Clippings from city newspapers and public journals during the British occupation of Boston document tension between British troops and Bostonians, with clashes beginning almost immediately after they arrived from Halifax, Nova Scotia -- and then only escalating from there. Here's an entry from February 27, 1769:

Our former predictions of what would be the unhappy effects of quartering troops in this town, have been too fully verified: The are now the most wretchedly debauched, and their licentiousness daily increasing; a particular enumeration of instances thereof, would be as tedious, as it is painful. Two women the other evening, to avoid the solicitations and insults of a soldier, took refuge in a house, at the south end of the town; the soldier was so audacious, as to enter with them: The cries of distress, brought the master of the family . . . [when] he received a stroke from the soldier with his cutlass, which brought him to the ground, where he lay senseless for some time, and suffered the loss of a quart of his blood . . . Another woman . . . received a considerable wound on her head with a cutlass; and a 3rd. woman presuming to scream, when laid hold of by a soldier, had a bayonet run through her cheek.

Here's another entry, from July 25, 1769:

A country butcher who frequents the market, having been in discourse with Riley, a grenadier of the 14th Regiment, who he said had before had abused him, thought proper to offer such verbal resentment as led to the soldier to give him a blow, which felled the butcher to the ground, and left other proofs of his violence. The assaulter was had before Mr. Justice Quincy, convicted and fined, and upon refusing to make payment, was ordered to goal; but rescued out of the hands of the constable, by a number of armed soldiers, in the sight of the justice, when they carried their rescued comrade, in triumph, thro' the main street to to his barracks, flourishing their naked cutlasses, giving out that they had good support in what they were doing, and that they defied all opposition.

And another, from December 18, 1768.


There has of late been several smart encounters between the soldiers quartered in this town and the seamen belonging to the men of war now in the harbor, they discover a very particular dislike or rather enmity to each other. This evening a number of soldiers and sailors happened to meet, when a bloody affray ensured; in which it is said the seamen were victors: Several of the parties have lost thumbs and fingers are are otherwise badly wounded . . . It is to be feared the indiscretion and animosity of these people may in the course of the winter be productive of other disagreeable consequences; and further evince that the piece and good order of the town is not like to be preserved or promoted by our military inmates.

British troops and customs agents also took possession of John Hancock's sloop Liberty after Hancock was caught smuggling cases of Madeira. The seizure from Hancock -- the much-beloved civic leader who would famously sign the Declaration of Independence large enough to ensure the King of England could read it -- inspired rioting and, in response to the rioting, deployment of yet more British soldiers to Boston.

Here's the partisan, Revolution-era historian Mercy Otis Warren, commenting on the clashes:

The disembarkation of the king's troops, which took place on the first of October, one thousand seven hundred and sixty-eight, was viewed by a vast crowd of spectators, who beheld the solemn prelude to to devastation and bloodshed with a kind of sullen silence, that denoted the deepest resentment . . .

The experience of all ages, and the observations of both the historian and the philosopher agree, that a standing army is the most ready engine in the hand of despotism, to debase the powers of the human mind, and eradicate the manly spirit of freedom. The people have certainly everything to fear from a government, when the springs of its authority are fortified only by a standing military force. Wherever an army is established, it introduces a revolution in manners, corrupts the morals, propagates every species of vice, and degrades the human character.

Even British loyalists in the colonies drew on the fear of standing armies to urge the colonies to avoid war with England. A war, they argued, would invite a more thorough and abusive occupation. Here's a particularly colorful articulation of that point from James Galloway, a friend of Ben Franklin's and a member of the First Continental Congress, writing in 1775:


Companies of armed, but undisciplined men, headed by men unprincipled, entering your homes--your castles--and sacred repositories of safety for all you hold dear and valuable--seizing your property and carrying havoc and devastation wherever they head--ravishing your wives and daughters, and afterwards, plunging the dagger into their tender bosoms while you are obliged to stand the speechless, the helpless spectators.

The clashes between the troops and colonists in Boston grew increasingly violent, culminating in the Boston Massacre in 1770, sometimes described as the first shots of the American Revolution. The lasting impact of those clashes on the founders, and the debates they had following the Revolution, are a big reason why today we today have the Second, Third, and Fourth amendments. It also imprinted in the country's DNA a lasting aversion to the use of military troops for domestic law enforcement.

But immediately following the Revolutionary War, an uprising of disgruntled veterans quelled some of those fears, and convinced early federalists that the federal government needed more power to crush insurrections. In the fall of 1786, Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays grew disillusioned after losing his savings and eventually his home to creditors, due to debts he had accumulated while fighting. Shays assembled a group of 800 other veterans and supporters to march on Boston. They planned to forcibly close down the city's courthouses to prevent them from foreclosing on the veterans' farms -- and to spring other veterans from debtors' prison. After some initial success, the movement threatened to erupt into a full-scale rebellion.

By January 1787 Massachusetts political leaders feared that Shays and his men would move on a munitions armory near Springfield. Governor James Bowdoin had asked the Continental Congress for help, but under the Articles of Confederation governing the country at the time, the new federal government didn't have the power to provide that sort of military assistance to the states. Bowdoin assembled a small army of mercenaries, paid for by the creditors hounding men like Shays. The rebels were defeated at a battle near the armory. Four of them were killed. A series of skirmishes followed, and by the summer of 1787 the rebellion had been broken.

Shays' rebellion was never a serious threat to overthrow any government, and it was put down relatively quickly. But its success in temporarily shutting down courthouses in Boston convinced many political leaders in early America that the country needed a stronger federal government than the one provided by the Articles of Confederation. "To men like Madison and Washington, Shays's Rebellion was an imperative," write the historians Christopher and James Collier. "It was the final, irrefutable piece of evidence that something had gone badly wrong. For some time these men had known that the deficiencies of American government must be remedied. Shays's Rebellion made it clear to them that it must be done now."

Memories of the rebellion replaced some of the memories of the abuses suffered at the hands of British troops, and many in the new government grew more comfortable with the use of federal force to put down domestic uprisings. In 1792, five years after the ratification of the Bill of Rights, Congress passed the Calling Forth Act, which gave the president the authority to unilaterally call up and command state militias to repel insurrections, attacks from hostile American Indian tribes, and other threats that presented themselves while Congress wasn't in session.

Nervousness about Shays' rebels drove the law, as did concerns about the growing discontent over one of the country's first federal taxes--an excise tax on whiskey. Under the Calling Forth Act, the president could federalize and deploy the militia "whenever the laws of the United States shall be opposed or the execution thereof obstructed, in any state, by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, or by the powers vested in the marshals by this act.”

Two years later, President George Washington used the law to put down the Whiskey Rebellion -- the first instance of a U.S. president using federal soldiers (in this case militia -- the country didn't yet have a standing army) against American citizens.

Tomorrow: Boston falls under martial law after an escaped slave is ordered back to his Virginia plantation.

Radley Balko is author of the forthcoming book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces.

Sources: Mercy Otis Warren, History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution: Interspersed with Biographical, Political and Moral Observations, Volume 1; Manning and Loring, For E. Larkin, No. 47; Cornhill (1805); Oliver Morton Dickerson, Boston Under Military Rule 1768-1769: As Revealed in a Journal of the Times, Chapman & Grimes (1936); Christopher Collier and James Lincoln Collier, Decision in Philadelphia: The Constitutional Convention of 1787, Ballantine Books (1987).

Suggest a correction
Comments

CONVERSATIONS