Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Massacre Day

Today is the 239th anniversary of the Boston Massacre. This horrible tragedy, in which British soldiers killed five men and wounded six others, brought hostilities in Boston from a slow burn to an open flame. That fire would burn steady for the next five years, until it erupted in a blaze that spread throughout Massachusetts and across the colonies. The fires of an actual fight for freedom and not just an appeal to the Government for liberty were first stoked by the Massacre.

In many ways, the Massacre allowed the colonists to maintain the moral high ground, despite the fact that only two of the soldiers were convicted, and their punishment was extremely light. In the eyes of the public, the British had drawn first blood, and now the colonists were acting in self-defense against their agressor. It's an argument that Thomas Paine used in Common Sense, the tract that would turn the fire of freedom into the white hot blaze of support for independence in the early days of 1776. In the larger political and philosophical battle, the patriots also didn't see themselves as the agressor, but insyead saw themselves asserting their rights as Englishmen. The Crown and most members of Parliament simply saw it differently. They viewed the colonies as asserting a right that simply didn't exist. After all, the colonies had been under British control for 150 years at that point, and this idea of representation had never come up before, despite the fact that the colonists had been paying taxes all along. They didn't get what was so different about a direct tax for purposes of revenue as opposed to the regulation of trade. A tax is a tax is a tax.

That was the British argument; the taxes were not encroachments on a right, but were instead just a new policy based on an existing principle. The British thought they were simply doing what had to be done to maintain the policies that made the Empire strong.

The Americans, ultimately, decided that their rights as individuals were more important than their place in the British Empire. They started us on the long road to the equal opportunity to exercise our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They made it possible for us to create a more perfect union, which also gave us the opportunity to fail at that task.

The patriots of Boston never doubted the success of their cause. In 1774, John Hancock gave the address at the gathering to commemorate the anniversary of the Massacre. He closed his speech this way:

I have the most animating confidence that the present noble struggle for liberty will terminate gloriously for America. And let us play the man for our God, and for the cities of our God; while we are using the means in our power, let us humbly commit our righteous cause to the great Lord of the Universe, who loveth righteousness and hateth iniquity. And having secured the approbation of our hearts, by a faithful and unwearied discharge of our duty to our country, let us joyfully leave our concerns in the hands of him who raiseth up and pulleth down the empires and kingdoms of the world as he pleases; and with cheerful submission to his sovereign will, devoutly say: "Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labor of the olive shall fail, and the field shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls; yet we will rejoice in the Lord, we will joy in the God of our salvation."

He wasn't the only one. In 1775, just weeks before he was killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill, Dr. Joseph Warren said in his Massacre Day address, The man who meanly will submit to wear a shackle, contemns the noblest gift of heaven, and impiously affronts the God that made him free.

These were people who knew they had God on their side, and that regardless of whether they won or lost, they had a moral right to fight. At that point they weren't seeking independence, just equal rights under the law. They weren't afraid to speak their mind, and in fact continued to make their case, both legally and philosophically. They were careful not to be the aggressor, though things got a little out of hand when patriots took a couple of undermanned British forts by force, though without violence. In the eyes of the patriot population (anywhere from a third to nearly half the population, and much higher in Massachusetts than in other colonies), it was important that the British were unquestionably the more aggressive of the two sides. The colonists, after all, just wanted to be left alone, or if taxed, a seat at the table. They weren't predators, but rattlesnakes ready to defend their territory.

The Gadsden Flag is one of the more memorable flags of the patriot cause, and it featured that rattlesnake. I couldn't help but think of that flag when I heard about the Hoboken Tax Protest held last night. Here's a slightly updated version.

It'd make a great poster for any Tea Party protests this weekend. You can pay tribute to your forefathers and your fellow angry Americans! There's also a smaller version to display on your blog.

Benjamin Franklin was the first patriot to use the rattlesnake as a symbol. His reasoning was this:

I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids—She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.—As if anxious to prevent all pretentions of quarrelling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenceless animal; and even when those weapons are shewn and extended for her defence, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal:—Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.—Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?

Well... was he?

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