When We Were Terrorists

The British labelled Ethan Allen “the king of terror” as his mob marched from Vermont up the Hudson. In Boston, August 25-26 of 1765 were known as the “nights of terror” as mobs smashed the houses and businesses of oligarchs and ran their families out of town in the middle of night. In his memoirs, Allen relished the label, confirming that he had been a terror “to arbitrary power.”[1] After the nights of terror, James Otis and Sam Adams stood in the Massachusetts House and promised to find the perpetrators; they would only have required a mirror to achieve that goal.

How did such men transform from wealthy, educated scions of the colonial ruling class to rebels entertaining regicide and treason? The political consciousness of these radicals — who were mostly born between the mid-1720s and late 1730s — was not formed from books or college classes but rather from their experiences as young adults. The events of the 1730s-1740s, particularly in New England, shaped their views on power and politics.

Great Awakening — A Revelation of Agency

By the 1730s, the kids were getting tired of their parents’ hippy attitudes. The world was shifting beneath their feet, and they sought firmer ground. And thus a very animated religious revival swept through the colonies that aligned wealthy young students and poor farmers against an establishment that was, according to the Great Awakening’s most famous warning, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.

The rebels of the 1760s often appealed to people to “save their country” just as Edwards had pleaded for people to save their souls.

Harvard rejected the Great Awakening as irrational, as did most of the establishment. But it’s impossible to underestimate the impact of this first pan-colonial cultural movement. While the Great Awakening was a conservative movement, it unified anti-establishment sentiment in a fervor of individual agency. The core message was that there was no mediation between God and the individual — not church, not clergy, not parents, not schools. The individual had full responsibility and authority to save his or her soul. This potent message left an indelible mark on the minds of college students in the 1730s and 1740s that would transform from religious to political agency in the 1760s.

Land Bank — A Demonstration of Arbitrary Power

The economy (and the population) in the colonies was rapidly expanding, and a perpetual resulting problem was the limited money supply. Farmers and merchants rarely had enough money to conduct business and often had to resort to barter or IOUs. While paper money had been in circulation in Massachusetts since 1690, its supply always trailed demand. The standard currency, gold and silver coins, often only made it to the colonies by pilfered Spanish silver from the Mexico City mint. And Charles II — when he wasn’t visiting playhouse prostitutes — had been hectoring New England to close its only mint, which it did in the 1680s. The result was that a man who grew barley could only ‘sell’ it to a man who possessed something the barley-grower needed. The situation had grown unbearable by the 1720s.

Colonists had long discussed a land bank –a bank collateralized with land (a mortgage is essentially a land bank instrument). Agrarian societies are rich in assets but poor in cash, so establishing credit collateralized with land seemed like an obvious solution to chronic cash shortages.

The merchant princes of Boston (who had strong relationships with the merchant princes of London) hated the idea. Their standard argument was that gold and silver were more stable than paper currency; the former is regulated by the limitations of digging the metals out of the earth while the latter is subject to the vagaries of political whim. The more trenchant yet mostly unspoken argument was that gold and silver were one of the foundations of the extractive feudalism of the rapidly expanding mercantile world. (Conversely, collateralizing land was illegal in traditional European feudalism.) Maintaining a tight grip on money supply meant maintaining a tight grip on the economy, and the merchant princes of both continents weren’t interested in economic mobility for the masses.

Creating a land bank was perfectly legal under U.K. law at the time. And though it was subject to no government regulation, the Land Bank organizers sought and received Massachusetts House approval. And yet, when the wildly popular Land Bank was created, Parliament responded by making it illegal; to compound the problem, Parliament made it retroactively illegal. To the colonists, such an act defied basic decency and common sense. The colonists broke no laws, and the retroactive nature of the law seemed irrational and arbitrary.

Further, the royal governor of Massachusetts sent armed troops to break up Land Bank meetings and removed every Land Bank supporter from government-appointed positions. Young adults such as Sam Adams and James Otis lived through the unreasonable and vindictive behavior of their government and witnessed the legal and financial chaos that ensnared their parents, many of whom were Land Bank investors, and many of whom were rendered ex post facto criminals.

New Englanders landing near the fortress — one of many paintings and prints done at the time to celebrate the victory.

Louisbourg — A Lesson in Betrayal

The French had long menaced colonial shippers and fishers, and home base of French harassment and piracy was Louisbourg, a fortress on the eastern tip of Nova Scotia. After suffering decades of Louisbourg-supported provocations, Massachusetts launched an attack in 1745. Largely colonial funded, the 47-day siege of Louisbourg combined a Royal Navy assault with colonial troops attacking from land. Fortress Louisbourg, capitol of the French province and widely considered impregnatable, fell on June 27, which was also Harvard’s commencement day.

The colonists, particularly those in Massachusetts, were exceedingly proud of their contribution to the expanding British empire. They had sent their best boys and all the weapons they had, every fishing boat was made available, and they seized France’s prized North American possession. Printing presses churned out praise, speeches were given across Massachusetts, parades were easy to find in that summer of ’45. Massachusetts had proved its loyalty and established its importance in the Empire. Of course, Massachusetts also finally freed themselves from the menace of French piracy.

Then in 1748, the Ministry in London returned Louisbourg to France in exchange for Madras, India (which the French had captured).[2] The sentiment in Massachusetts went beyond disappointment and confusion to betrayal. New England was, apparently, of less importance to London than was Madras. Noted.

These experiences taught a young generation of colonists about agency, arbitrary government, and betrayal. And yet this picture is incomplete without an understanding of the Congregational Church (as the Puritan churches were generally called). Up to the 1740s, ministers in the Congregational Church were ordained by the congregation, which is a group of people with shared interests channeling the will of God. Only a congregation’s consent transformed a person into a minister. This conception of church governance is the model for the rebels’ view of the validity of any government: its authority is derived from the consent of the governed. (This church governance model was modified after the Davenport debacle.)

And as Great Awakening fervor transformed into political action, the distinction between rights and privileges became crucial. The hallmark of Great Awakening theology is the immediacy of God; there is no mediation between the individual and God. This transformed revolutionary thought; while privileges are granted by the state (and revoking them may be unreasonable but not theologically violative), rights are granted by God. The rebels of the 1760s filtered this through the Great Awakening, and the result was that rights were not mediated by anyone — not state nor king nor politician.[3]

The rebels, further informed by Sidney, Grotius, Pufendorf, transformed rights violations beyond a right to revolution. As a violation of rights was an act against God, revolution became not a right but an obligation. Interfering with natural rights was interfering with God’s will, which is something of an enlightenment transformation of the feudal rights of kings. And from this line of thinking we find nebbish aspiring patrician John Adams writing, “The right of a nation to kill a tyrant in case of necessity can no more be doubted than to hang a robber, or kill a flea.”

In the 1750s, James Otis was quickly becoming the most revered lawyer in the colonies, so much so that the King hired him as his attorney in Massachusetts. Otis had received two degrees from Harvard, to which he was admitted at 13; he’d apprenticed under the colony’s most famous attorney, and his family was one of the colony’s wealthiest. And yet in December 1765, as the royal governor was referring to Otis as the “King of Massachusetts” with anxious sarcasm, Otis met with the governor in Boston’s fort, to which the governor had retreated in fear of Otis and his men. Otis explained to the governor that if the government abdicated its responsibilities to the people, then the people were within their rights to establish their own government.

Mayhew, a Harvard lecturer and church leader, inspired the nights of terror by giving a sermon on revolutionary obligations on August 24. The Sons of Liberty took to the streets the next day.

In Otis, the governor saw Oliver Cromwell. His argument made clear that he was channeling the killer of kings. In order for a people to establish their own government, they must first remove whatever government or power resists their efforts — or, as the sons of the Great Awakening would have argued, God’s efforts.

In 1750, Reverend Mayhew — another Harvard graduate and close friend of Otis — took the pulpit in his Boston church to commemorate the execution of King Charles. His argument was that the people have not the right but the obligation to resist tyranny; more broadly, his sermon can be summarized as “we’ve killed a king before, and we’ll do it again.”

Mayhew’s sermon was printed and widely disseminated, and its argument found fertile ground in a land that had experienced the seemingly arbitrary tyranny and betrayal of the Land Bank and Louisbourg. By December 1765, Otis stood before one of the King’s men asserting Mayhew’s argument. For King George, the nights of terror had just begun.

[1] Written in 1779. Narrative of the Capture of Ticonderoga: And of His Captivity and Treatment by the British (1849. Goodrich & Nichols). Pg 8. They didn’t actually use the term “terrorist” in the colonial era.

[2] These were all part of the various global War of the Austrian Succession shenanigans.

[3] “endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights”




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