In July 1776, George Washington ordered the brand-new Declaration of Independence read aloud to a jubilant New York City crowd. A small group opted to continue their celebration into the evening. Led by an artillery officer, the revelers toppled the colossal, gilded statue of King George III at Bowling Green.
Like so many Confederate monuments today, the statue had been something of a late arrival. Commissioned to reinforce colonial loyalty in the wake of the unpopular Stamp Act, it had landed in New York in 1770. Now, six years later, it was decapitated. King George sustained a shot to the face. Much of the statue’s lead was turned into musket balls — 42,088 of them, to be exact. Imperial authority could truly be said to have been subverted: The king’s troops should, as one New Yorker put it, expect to meet with “melted Majesty.”
In the history books we tend to sidestep the statue-toppling, as we generally sanitize the violence that preceded the Declaration. Even before de Tocqueville, it had been preferable to subscribe to his account of the Revolution, a contest that “contracted no alliance with the turbulent passions of anarchy” and that proceeded “by a love of order and law.”
De Tocqueville gave Boston a pass. Well before the 1760s, imperial officials were run out of town. Effigies hung from trees and fueled bonfires. Townspeople broke windows and hurled stones. They tarred and feathered. They smeared the homes of their enemies in dung. In 1765, amid the Stamp Act protests, a “lawless rabble” dismantled most of Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s Georgian mansion in a matter of hours. The cupola alone resisted them. With axes, they labored over it until dawn. Hutchinson’s papers and valuables, bedding and tableware afterward littered the streets. The house was a mere shell. Not a book remained. “Such ruins were never seen in America,” wailed the lieutenant governor, who appeared the next day in borrowed clothes. Crowds turned up for weeks to gawk at the wreckage.
Called to account for the vandalism, patriot leaders like Samuel Adams denounced the destruction, as General Washington would denounce the attack on the king’s statue. On the one hand, a people’s rights were under siege. Looking ahead to future generations, Adams labored to define what John Lewis would two centuries later term “good trouble.” If the Bostonians remained silent, Adams warned, they assented to their losses. On the other hand, he urged discipline. “No mobs, no confusions, no tumult” became the slogan. It was important to protest without mangling the law.
Adams also downgraded much of the violence. Those were not well-directed mobs, he argued, but mischievous adolescents. When an official’s orchard was plundered and his garden flattened, the act was written off as “a frolic of a few boys to eat some cherries.”
The idea was to minimize the terror while invigorating the resistance, a balancing act made more difficult when Britain — having heard accounts of the lawless dystopia that was Boston — dispatched troops to the restive town. To many that seemed an overreaction if not an instigation. In February 1766, when the House of Commons grilled Benjamin Franklin about the wisdom of dispatching a military force to obstreperous Boston, he predicted: “They will not find a rebellion; they may indeed make one.”
Indeed the introduction of soldiers did nothing to preserve the peace. An agitated, exacerbated people who felt their rights trampled and their voices unheard suddenly found themselves occupied, challenged by intruders at every turn. Was it really necessary for a sentinel to demand that all persons out walking after dark identify themselves? They were not, after all, under military rule. And did the people not have just as much right to be out at night, armed, as the soldiers?
One side felt it was enforcing order. The other believed that any disorder had been misrepresented, so as to further undermine their rights. The administration had invented and exaggerated the unrest “to stifle the complaints of this loyal and suffering people.” It churned trifling disturbances into “riots, outrages, robberies.” Every action yielded an opposite reaction. Each ratcheted up the tension. As John Adams observed, troops occasioned two mobs for every one they prevented. The intimidating uniforms hardly helped.
The Bostonians roundly abused the soldiers. One was informed the crowd intended to tar and feather him. They would afterward affix his head to the highest post in town. Others were pelted with stones and dirt and pieces of brick, dragged by the hair, punched in the face, struck with bludgeons. Or so they reported. The insults flew in both directions. “They returned,” according to a former judge, “compliments for compliments, and every blow was answered by a bruise.” Townspeople were abused and assaulted, women harassed. Bloodshed ensued, as might be expected between an armed force and a people who felt they had nothing to lose other than their self-esteem, their freedom and their future.
Already the British knew the drill: A bonfire would flare; a whistle would sound. And out of nowhere 400 or 500 youngsters would materialize. On the night of March 5, 1770, they pelted soldiers with ice and oyster shells, bricks and broken glass bottles. No one thought to dance naked in the street — it was winter, in Boston — but they could hardly have been more provocative. “Damn you, fire, fire if you dare,” they taunted. “Damn them, where are they, knock them down,” a soldier was heard to swear.
Ultimately someone pulled a trigger. Five townspeople lay dead. Blood stained the street. A Black American was the first victim. For the most part the soldiers would be acquitted of wrongdoing. They had acted in self-defense. More important, the scuffle turned not into the Boston Riot or the Boston Uprising, but the Boston Massacre.
Several years later, after long December days of town meetings, after endless speeches and equally protracted negotiations, over a thousand colonists headed, early on a damp evening, to Griffin’s Wharf. Three hundred and forty-two troublesome chests of East India tea sat aboard the ships on which they had sailed from England. Hatches were opened, holds entered, chests hoisted on deck. In a few hours, every leaf of tea steeped in Boston Harbor. By 9 p.m. the town was still. Boston had not known a quieter night for some time.
No one was hurt. No gun was fired. No property other than the tea was damaged. The perpetrators cleaned up after themselves. In the aftermath, the surgical strike was referred to plainly as “the destruction of the tea.” To the indignant Massachusetts governor, it constituted nothing less than a “high handed riot.”
He had a point: There is a difference between burning a draft card or toppling a statue and tossing someone else’s goods overboard. This was an assault on property rather than on a symbol. Expertly choreographed, it qualified as a blatant act of vandalism. It was difficult to dress up, though John Adams would privately declare the dumping of the tea the grandest event since the dispute with Britain had begun. He thought it sublime.
To the occupiers it proved to be a particular mortification. The king demanded an immediate prosecution. It did not seem too much to ask: After all, thousands had watched the tea rain into the water, even if only several dozen men had actually boarded the ships. No one, however, seemed to have seen a thing. In all of Boston only one witness could be found — and he refused to testify unless transported out of the colony.
The patriots swabbed the decks afterward and history reciprocated, turning a riot into a tea party. The tidying is necessary to the exercise. The acts of defiance are meant to shine as sterling symbols of patriotism. Over time they take refuge under their principles: We prefer to remember not that we were making a mess but that we were making a point. In a protest movement, we like to be able to distinguish the villains. Or as Samuel Adams put it after what he was never to know as the Boston Tea Party: “Our enemies must acknowledge that these people have acted upon pure and upright principle.”
It seems wiser all around to focus on ends rather than means, to defer to heroes rather than to the indecorous details. For years Boston hesitated to erect a monument to the rabble-rousers of 1770. We do not care for the revolutionary spirit to survive the revolution. The revolution, however, goes nowhere without it.
Toppling a two-ton King George could not have been easy. As an Iranian monument-wrecker told a modern journalist, the job required experience. It was not for amateurs. It blistered the hands. You had to know where to hook your grapple, which way to pull. But to be clear: “It wasn’t work. It was duty.”
Sometimes the more targeted gestures speak every bit as loudly. On the night of Oct. 5, 1768, a week after British troops marched, muskets loaded, into Boston, a vandal took a knife to the portrait of the royal governor that hung at Harvard. He excised a neat, heart-shaped piece of canvas from the chest. And he left a note. His was, he explained, an act of mercy. This way the governor would find it easier to look back upon his loathsome administration. Which seems precisely where we are today.