Reprinted in its entirety from Seacoastonline.com
“We were reminded that democracy, as the founders warned, is fragile.” – J. Dennis Robinson
History Matters: American thugs vs. our better angels
By J. Dennis Robinson
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part feature on the way recent events are helping Americans come to terms with our checkered past.
History has a cruel way of branding many outgoing presidents with a single moment they would rather forget. There’s John F. Kennedy’s failed Bay of Pigs Invasion, for example, Bill Clinton’s sex scandal lies, Richard Nixon’s Watergate tapes, and George Bush’s imaginary “weapons of mass destruction.” Generations from now, the legacy of Donald J. Trump may be reduced to the trivia question: Which president was impeached twice?
But the Jan. 6, 2021 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, spurred on by the president himself, has a lot to teach us – if we are willing to listen. Scenes of political terrorists storming and looting a government building are as old as the Portsmouth gunpowder raid in 1774. Had the American Revolution failed, local mob leaders John Langdon and John Sullivan might have been hanged as traitors to the Crown, rather than becoming governors of New Hampshire.
The 1774 attack on Fort William and Mary by hundreds of Seacoast residents, like the Insurrection of 2021, was sparked by fake news. Pro-Trump protestors were misled by false reports – fomented by the president, by Republican legislators, by right-wing news outlets, and by social media, claiming that the 2020 election of Joe Biden had been stolen by massive voter fraud. Seacoast raiders were roused by Paul Revere’s claim that British troops were immediately heading to New Castle to prevent the King’s gunpowder from getting into the hands of rowdy colonists. But Revere’s alarm, too, was based on faulty data.
Sons of Liberty
Our colonial insurgents, now known as “patriots,” instigated a rebellion against what they considered to be a tyrannical English rule. Americans were being taxed (although a lot less than other English citizens) without representation in the British government. Early resistance to the Stamp Act led to mob action in Portsmouth in the 1760s. Stamp officer George Meserve was threatened, burnt in effigy, forced to give up his lucrative commission, and driven out of town.
Roughly one-third of New Englanders, historians estimate, were in favor of going to war with England. But another third remained loyal to the British Parliament and King Charles II. The remaining third were undecided or indifferent.
A Bostonian who joined the clandestine militia known as the Sons of Liberty, including Paul Revere, was threatened with death if he revealed details of their operation. The Sons of Liberty, formed to undermine British rule in America, was only one of a host of rebel organizations. The revolutionary movement in Boston, according to Paul Revere biographer David Hackett Fischer, was not led by a unified group, but rather “a loose alliance of many overlapping groups.”
The Sons of Liberty, spread throughout the 13 original colonies, often operated like street gangs. Many who supported the Crown were stripped naked, coated over the head and shoulders with hot tar, and covered in chicken feathers, a truly painful and humiliating torture. Others were forced to “ride the rail,” were hoisted atop a liberty pole with a dead animal, or strapped to the back of a horse facing the animal’s tail. Others were pilloried, whipped, or had their ears “cropped” by lawless mobs – all in the name of freedom, patriotism, and liberty.
As the war ended In the 1780s, those Loyalists who found themselves on the losing side of the Revolution were beaten up, harassed, and their property smashed or confiscated. All citizens, including New Hampshire Gov. John Wentworth of Portsmouth, were forced to either denounce the King and pledge themselves to a new and unknown government, or be exiled from their homes forever.
“There was a climate of violence and a climate of fear for many Loyalists,” according to Harvard professor of history Maya Jasanoff. An estimated 80,000 Loyalists, including once prominent Seacoast citizens, fled to Canada and other parts of the British Empire.
The men and women in the January 6 mob smashed windows, stormed the U.S. Capitol, stole property, and threatened to harm American legislators. Their goal, like the Sons of LIberty, was to destabilize the working of their own government. Many carried banners, including the 13-star “Betsy Ross” flag or the “Navy Jack” depicting a rattlesnake and the phrase “Don’t Tread on Me.”
A majority of the insurrectionists likely imagined themselves as 21st Century patriots, acting in concert with their Revolutionary War forebears. Newly elected House representative Lauren Boebert, a gun-toting Colorado Republican, made that connection clear when she tweeted “Today is 1776” to protestors at 8:30 am on the morning of the attack. “And to ease everyone’s nerve,” Boebert said later that day in her first speech to Congress, “I want you to all know that I am not here to challenge anyone to a duel like Alexander Hamilton or Aaron Burr.”
Claiming that Trump was the best president in American history, Boebert voted to block the election of Joe Biden, even though he had won both the Electoral College and the popular vote. As protestors vowing to “Hang Mike Pence” were trying to break into the Congressional chamber, Boebert turned to Democrat Nancy Pelosi and added: “Madam speaker, I have constituents outside this building right now. I promised my voters to be their voice.”
Driven into hiding and crouching fearfully in the chamber balcony, members of Congress returned to the floor after the mob receded. They officially accepted the Electoral College results and validated Biden’s election by a vote of 93 to 6 in the Senate and 330 to 121 in the House. Americans and the world watched in horror as the attack played out on television.
A culture of violence
The Riot of 2021 was quickly followed on Jan. 13 by the second impeachment of Donald Trump by the House of Representatives “for incitement of insurrection.” Exactly one week later, President Joseph BIden and Vice President Kamala Harris were sworn in during a heavily guarded, but peaceful inauguration. America’s “better angels” of democracy and law triumphed over violence, but it was a close call. What President Biden called the nation’s “uncivil war” continues.
Like the Sons of Liberty, the January 6 rebels were a diverse and loosely organized group. While some, deluded by the lies of a charismatic and once powerful leader, may indeed have been motivated by patriotism, many others are simply thugs. Some were white supremacists, conspiracy theorists, anarchists, or attention seekers. Others are lost, confused, misinformed, disheartened, angry, oppressed, or merely followers seeking something to follow. Their flags, chants, militia gear, weapons, and websites bring them comfort and purpose in a confusing world, but dressing up does not make them patriots.
The great paradox of America is that we are a nation that embraces justice and liberty, but also practices violence and inequality. America began with the kidnapping, selling, and enslaving of an entire race. We carried out the near genocide of the indigenous population that had been here more than 10,000 years. The nation that created the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, also gave us the Civil War, the KKK, McCarthyism, and the Proud Boys.
The men and women who stormed the Capitol, as clueless as they may be, got one thing right. Americans live in a culture of violence. If it isn’t in your neighborhood, your school or your family, just turn on your television. Todays movies and TV shows are dominated by serial killers, mafia dons, anti-heroes, super villains, vigilantes, hitmen, cynics, drug smugglers, movie monsters, zombies, courtroom dramas, domestic warfare, spies, World Wide Wrestling, contact sports, road races, CSI autopsies, natural disasters, cops and robbers, and the nightly news. We are, everyone of us, marinating in the American obsession with evil.
In addition to “Old Glory,” flags carried by pro-Trump protestors represented racist, xenophobic, fringe religious, paramilitary, and conspiracy theory advocates. They even included the strange “Rambo flag.” It shows the head of Donald Trump grafted onto the muscular body of action film actor Sly Stallone. The grim-faced president is holding a grenade launcher with the slogan “No Man, No Woman, No Commie can Stump him.” The flags are still on sale for $9.99, but the stumped former president – angry, resentful, and banned from social media – now lives in Florida awash in lawsuits and another impeachment trial.
Of course, Americans have done kind and awesome things over those same four centuries. President Biden was right to claim in his inaugural speech last week that the United States has been “a beacon to the world.” But Biden also claimed, “We have never, ever, ever failed in America when we have acted together.”
Yet we have failed as a nation, again and again. We are, after all, a nation of people, not super heroes. Currently we are failing to feed and house the poor, to overcome racism, to protect the planet, to treat one another with kindness and equality, to turn the other cheek, and to teach our children to tell fact from fiction. We can, as the president says, be better, but only if we acknowledge our problems.
The raid on the Capitol was a wake-up call on many levels. We were reminded that democracy, as the founders warned, is fragile. It is perpetually at risk, especially when lies trump truth and half the population is unable to tell democracy from demagoguery, or discern a strongman from a con man. The insurrection is evidence that, when we cannot face up to the past, our greatest threat comes from within our own borders.
Copyright 2021 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson is the author of a dozen books on topics including Strawbery Banke Museum, Wentworth by the Sea Hotel, and the 1873 Smuttynose ax murders. His new book, “Music Hall,” has been named best 2020 history book by the Independent Book Publishers Association. Look for it at a bookstore near you or visit Amazon.com. He can be reached at dennis@mySeacoastNH.com or visitjdennisrobinson.com online. The views expressed are those of the writer.