In which we see how consumer activism can be pretty brutal
So we were talking about those angry colonists. Mad about their treatment—the disdain, the rules, (especially) the taxes. But what to do about it? How, if you’re a dependent colony that’s part of the most powerful empire on earth, do you get the government to pay attention to your grievances?
—You ask nicely?
—You blow up buildings?
—You write the Declaration of Independence?
—You do an interpretive dance?
Well, at one point or another in the fifteen or so years after 1765, you do any one of those things (with the possible exception of the interpretive dance, which might have been done in secret). But Sam Adams has another idea.
—Right. Sam Adams. The beer guy.
Yes. Like I told you, Adams wasn’t a very good businessman. But he was a truly brilliant social activist. He came up with a very compelling strategy that’s been with activists ever since: the boycott. Tell me: what’s a boycott?
—That’s when you don’t buy stuff. To protest.
Right. But how does it work?
—Well, it’s like we’ll agree: we’re not going to buy this whatever. And no one does. And then the people who make the whatever have to give in or make changes in what they’re doing.
Can you think of any examples?
—My dad says he used to boycott Nike shoes. To protest the factories. Slave labor. That kind of thing.
Yes, that campaign got a fair amount of attention. As I recall, Nike did change its practices. But the boycotts that Sam Adams led were devastatingly effective. Say, Jonah, are those Adidas shoes you’re wearing?
—Yeah. They’re Stan Smiths. I play tennis.
Oh you do, do you? Hey Em, didn’t we agree that we were going to boycott Adidas?
Sure! You were at the meeting! I saw you! And Adam and Kylie and Brianna and Jonquil. There were dozens of us. We agreed: Adidas is evil. No more Adidas.
—Whatever you say, Mr. K.
Hey, it’s not a matter of what I say. It’s a matter of what we agreed. Right? Though apparently Jonah thinks otherwise. I guess tennis isn’t a team sport.
—It is, though.
Well not as far as Jonah is concerned. It isn’t a team sport for him. Apparently the rules don’t apply to Jonah. He’s special. Are you special, Jonah?
—They’re great shoes. My dad used to wear them. I’m not making a political statement or anything.
Hear that, class? Jonah says he’s not making a political statement. Maybe we need to educate Jonah.
—How we gonna do that?
Well, I think we should pay Jonah a little visit. All of us. At three in the morning. We’ll find him at home then, don’t you think? Then we can make Jonah—and his wife Jill, and his two little boys and that dog of his, Lucky—understand about Adidas. Such a cute dog. Would hate to see anything happen to Lucky.
I see you understand, Yin. You would never make the mistake of wearing Adidas. None of us will. Right?
—Was it really like that?
It was. You ever hear of tarring and feathering?
Tar is a very hot, sticky substance used to patch ships. It’s still used on roads.
—That black stuff.
Yes, the black stuff. The Jonahs who didn’t get the message would have tar poured over their bodies. Then they’d be rolled in feathers to make them look ridiculous. Then they’d be hoisted on long ship masts and paraded around. You ever hear the expression “ride out of town on a rail?” It comes from tarring and feathering.
—What would happen to you when you got tar on you?
A lot of time you’d die.
—That’s disgusting. I can’t believe people did that.
Well, they did. But it didn’t usually come to that. The Jonahs usually got the message. Right, Jonah?
—Got it, Mr. K.
The boycotts against the Townshend Acts, especially in New England, were effective—amazingly effective, really. And they defied British authority in precisely the way that hurt the British the most. The point of the laws was to raise revenue through taxes. But if you don’t buy anything, you don’t pay any taxes. To make matters worse, the British brought extra troops to Boston—in other words, they spent more money— where the boycotts were threatening public order. The Townshend Acts were a bust, and in 1770, the British repealed them. The British were going to have to try again.
—Couldn’t they compromise somehow?
Well, it was complicated, Sadie. There were ideas, even principles, at stake. Actually, there were some taxes colonists wanted to pay. They also claimed there were differences between those designed to regulate trade, which they did consider legal, and ones that were about raising revenue in which they had no say in how the money would be spent, which they didn’t.
—So what did they want to pay?
They wanted to tax themselves to pay for local officials, especially officials like their governors. They figured if such people owed their jobs to the colonists, rather than the British government in London, they would get better representation. Representation: that’s what a lot of this was about. The colonists were supposedly British citizens, and citizens were supposed to be represented in Parliament. But the colonists had no representatives in Parliament.
—What about Benjamin Franklin?
No. Franklin wasn’t an elected official. The British government said the colonists had virtual representation: their interests were taken into account. Nonsense, the colonists replied: you can’t tax us if we don’t get a vote. Another Massachusetts rabble-rouser named James Otis came up with a slogan: “No Taxation without Representation” in 1765. The British government argued that there were parts of Great Britain that didn’t have representation, either. Which was true; parliamentary districts in Britain were a mess in those days. There were lots of them known as “rotten boroughs” where a rich or influential person could buy a membership in Parliament. This sense of corruption was something the colonists were very aware of —very aware of, some would say paranoid about—and objected to.
A pervasive atmosphere of distrust was taking root, and the presence of the British army in Boston was increasingly inflammatory. In 1765, the British Parliament passed the Quartering Act. The law required the colonists to provide lodging for soldiers who were stationed there, and if the barracks where they were supposed to stay weren’t sufficient, the colonists had to put up soldiers in places like inns, taverns, barns or other improvised locations.
—That kinda sucks.
Well, yes, Adam; this wasn’t an ideal situation for anybody, and the colonists—heirs to a longstanding British attitude that was partly the result of England’s luxury of relative isolation from European wars—really disliked the idea of standing professional armies in peacetime. One more way they felt like second-class citizens. The situation went on for years, and was particularly tetchy in Boston, where the Townshend Acts had led the British government to beef up security. In March of 1770, there was a notorious incident involving some boys and soldiers. Apparently the boys started out throwing snowballs at the soldiers. Then they put rocks in the snowballs. Then they dispensed with the snowballs altogether. The facts are a bit murky, but the upshot is that the soldiers fired on the crowd and killed three people and wounded eight. One of the victims was an African American sailor named Crispus Attacks; one might say he was the first casualty of the American Revolution.
—What happened to the British soldiers?
They were put on trial for murder. In a political masterstroke, Sam Adams convinced his cousin John to defend them.
—Why did he want that?
Because he wanted to show that the soldiers could get a fair trial in America. And John Adams did a great job: he won an acquittal, arguing that the frightened soldiers were backed into a corner and that what they did was a tragic mistake, not a crime.
—How did the people in Boston react to that?
Well, they called the event “the Boston Massacre,” which was an exaggeration. There was a silversmith in Boston named Paul Revere, who made an illustration of the event that was very dramatic and became quite famous. (We haven’t heard the last of Paul Revere.) But, overall, things cooled down a bit in the early 1770s. They were still tense elsewhere in New England. In June of 1772, colonials attacked a British ship, the Gaspee, which was cracking down on smuggling off the coast of Rhode Island. The incident was important because it showed that the British were having trouble enforcing mercantilist laws, and that the colonists were increasingly aggressive in resisting ones they didn’t like.
—You said this was in 1772?
—And the Boston Massacre was in 1770?
—So what was happening in between?
Well, Beethoven was born. In December of 1770.
—What does that have to do with anything?
—So why are you telling us that?
Well, in part because I don’t know what else to tell you. There were no big incidents in 1771, I can tell you that. As I told you the other day: time was a little slower back then. Weeks and months for information to go back and forth across the ocean and all that. Here’s one thing that was not happening, though: the British government wasn’t making any money off the colonies. And that remained a problem. Fortunately, there was a new prime minister with a brilliant plan. It would make everybody happy.
Uh oh is right. You’ll see why tomorrow.
Next: Who was right?