Internet giant RealClear History re-posted my latest blog post, namely the piece on the Stamp Act Crisis. You can find the article under my byline by checking out their “History Live” section at the site. Naturally, I am pleased to receive wider readership for my article and grateful to the nice people at RealClear History for the nod in my direction.
Ten years before anyone drunk or sober seriously discussed independence, Americans in the Thirteen Colonies faced a crisis that helped forge their national identity and began the agonizing process of questioning whether they were truly equal to their British brethren. During May 1765, the controversy of the Stamp Act Crisis washed across the colonies like no other event before in colonial political and economic life when news of the tax’s passage on March 22 first reached the shores of North America. Frequently overlooked today except by professional historians, the bitter opposition to the Stamp Act prompted what would eventually become hallmarks of the American Revolution: the cry of “no taxation without representation” (if there had been bumper stickers in the 18th century, this would have been the motto of the Revolution); the Sons and Daughters of Liberty (organized political opposition to British policies among all walks of colonial life); and the riots and aggressive protests of Bostonians against the Stamp Tax (a prelude to similar outbursts a decade later that would trigger Lexington and Concord). The statement that the Stamp Act Crisis lit the fuse that burned toward the powder keg marked “revolution” has merit.
Parliament passed the Stamp Act, a bill that would impose a tax on the American colonies through tax stamps placed on all legal documents, newspapers, commercial documents, and even playing cards. Without the stamps, documents would be invalid and paper products illegal. The logic behind the Stamp Act was impeccable; the politics, deplorable. The cost of the French and Indian Wars to the British taxpayer was £320,000 – roughly equivalent today to a price tag of $266 million. But far worse was the debt the crown incurred during the war, which was one of the most expensive in human history at the time. The British government went into the red to the tune of £130 million, or about $28 billion in today’s inflation-adjusted economy. That is an amount equal to about half of what the United States spent alone to purchase updated fighter planes in 2008, and a large drop in the bucket compared to that year’s Department of Defense budget of about $481 billion. But in 1765 that was more than the British taxpayer had ever spent on national defense, and even though there were tangible benefits to the average British subject in the Mother Country (for example, continued trade with America and a steady stream of commodities and products from the colonies) the fighting had protected Americans who were British subjects. Charles Townshend,
one of the wizards of the account books attempting to develop a comprehensive financial plan for the empire’s defense, asked “… Now will these Americans, children planted by our care, nourished up by our indulgence, till they are grown to a degree of strength and opulence, and protected by our arms, will they grudge to contribute their mite to relieve us from the heavy weight of that burden which we lie under?” Between 1763 and 1775, nearly 4 percent of the British national budget was spent on maintaining an army in North America. The general sense in Britain was the American colonists should pay for their own protection, both past and ongoing.
However, there was fierce opposition from the American colonists, a response that left many in Parliament dumbfounded. The politically tone-deaf response of the king’s ministers to this opposition helps explain why the Stamp Act Crisis has been called the match that lit the fuse of the American Revolution. A post-war depression had left Americans strapped for hard cash – in short, they did not have the money to pay the tax. Standing laws such as the Sugar Act and Parliament’s limits on how much pound sterling could circulate in the colonies compounded the money shortage. The use of paper in a literate, commercial society was almost universal, and a tax on such commonly used items was sure to spark protest from every level of colonial society. Playing cards were taxed, so sailors looking to relax in port (often a rowdy bunch to begin with) would pay more for a friendly game of cards. Lawyers, by definition the most contentious and argumentative people in the colonies, had a new reason to pick a fight with the government. Newspaper owners, the makers of opinion, had cause to editorialize bitterly against the Stamp Act. Colonial merchants, who were the lifeblood of the British economic system, had even more excuses to flout the Navigation Acts through smuggling in order to make up profit losses. There even was the suspicion that the king’s ministers and MPs really believed that the Americans simply had too many economic opportunities, civil liberties, universities, and freedom for a part of the realm that should remember its place and submit to its betters. However, the crux of the matter was simple: They had been taxed without their permission. Even colonial opponents of the Stamp Act acknowledge that Parliament had a right to tax the British people, but the colonists had been allowed for almost 100 years to raise taxes through their colonial assemblies, the source of local government in the king’s name. “No taxation without representation” became the outcry of people whose organized opposition challenged the authority of the most powerful nation in the world at the time.
One of the most impressive accomplishments that emerged from this colonial unity was the Stamp Act Congress. In October 1765, nine colonies sent representatives to the city of New York. The political energy and momentum that the 27 delegates represented is nearly unprecedented in colonial American history, eclipsed only by the first and second Continental Congress. Strongly motivated by legitimate fear that the Stamp Act threatened colonial self-rule, the Massachusetts House led the way by calling for a colony-wide meeting to discuss a unified response, which eventually included resolutions defining the colony’s right to raise their own taxes and a petition calling on Parliament to acknowledge that body could not govern the colonies because of the great distance between Great Britain and America. Even the colonies absent from the Stamp Act Congress held assembly members who chafed on restrictions to their participation. The only reason Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia failed to send delegates was the royal governors had refused to call the assemblies into session so they could hold a vote to appoint delegates. Faced with the same dilemma, the assemblies in Delaware and New Jersey ignored their governor’s boycott of the Stamp Act Congress, gathered a few members to meet informally, and voted representatives who were sent to the Congress. New Hampshire sent no delegates, but approved of the Congress’ actions after the fact. No wonder Ceasar Rodney, a future signer of the Declaration of Independence and delegate from Delaware, called the Stamp Act Congress “an Assembly of the greatest Ability I ever yet saw.”
Concurrent with this Congress, and rising more rapidly after the submission of petitions from the Stamp Act Congress failed to convince Parliament to rescind the Stamp Act taxes, was the mobilization of the forces of protest. Just as it had led the call for a political solution to the Stamp Act crisis, Massachusetts led the way in organized opposition. Boston was a seaport town loaded with unruly sailors, aggrieved lawyers, struggling merchants, pamphlet and newspaper publishers, and ordinary folk who all had the most
to lose through the imposition of the Stamp Act taxes on paper products, and many of these people were brewing a fight in the streets. Groups such as the Loyal Nine, a committee of men drawn from the ranks of the artisans and shopkeepers, began to plan public protests that would coincide with the first day that the act came into effect. This group soon expanded into the Sons of Liberty, a wildly successful protest movement that saw chapters spring up throughout the colonies, although the group is most associated with Boston. The Sons of Liberty raised political agitation to high art, sponsoring actions ranging from petitions calling for the end of the Stamp Act to boycotts of British goods to outright intimidation of British officials and their families. Their tactics included hanging the royal tax collector Andrew Oliver in effigy; destroying the Boston home of Thomas Hutchinson, the royal governor, by ransacking his residence and then burning it to the ground; and tarring and feathering royal tax collectors, a particularly gruesome form of public humiliation that scalded the naked body of the hapless victim from head to toe with hot tar, then rolled the man in bird feathers. Throughout the career of the Sons of Liberty the organization enjoyed the quiet blessing of the well-to-do and politically active that backed (or participated in) the Stamp Act Congress. In essence, the Sons of Liberty became the enforcement arm of the American cause against Parliament’s taxation of the colonists, exercising extralegal but very effective force on behalf of the aims and goals of the Stamp Act Congress.
Eventually, the protests and petitions had their effects. American boycotts alone drove many British merchants to despair, and they begged members of Parliament to rescind the tax so trade between Great Britain and America would resume. None other than William Pitt the Elder, one of the greatest statesmen in British history, condemned the Stamp Act, reminding his fellow M.P.s America’s true source of wealth to the British Empire was found in trade, not taxes. In 1766, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act with the king’s blessing.
But the Stamp Act Crisis was a prologue to how the colonies would approach the question of independence nearly ten years later. Many colonists kept alive the assertion of their rights that they had claimed during the years 1765-1766, defying the principle stated in the Declaratory Act that Parliament alone had the right to rule them in all cases. The Sons of Liberty remained a viable political organization in the colonies, celebrating the anniversary of the Stamp Act repeal until the beginning of the American Revolution.
In 1775, the men who once went to a congress called because of the Stamp Act crisis had learned their lesson. Much water in the political and historical sense had passed under the bridge by the time the Second Continental Congress met and then eventually considered and approved a Declaration of Independence. Furthermore, the unity Americans achieved during the Revolution and the years after was hardly unchallenged or undermined by the competing factions inside or outside of Congress. (In fact, the search for “a more perfect union” remains a hallmark of the American experiment to this day.) Finally, perhaps 20 percent of the population never supported the Revolution, remaining loyal to Great Britain. However, the supporters of the Revolution and independence knew that their enemies not only expected chaos and disunity when America declared independence – they planned on capitalizing on it as part of their war-fighting strategy. Once the Continental Congress accepted the idea of a Declaration of Independence, proponents of independence realized that only a unanimous vote of approval would be acceptable. If even one colony rejected the Declaration, it would indicate that the American cause lacked the support of an entire nation and that their hopes were fractured from the very beginning. Nothing less than survival hinged on that unity. As Benjamin Franklin reportedly quipped while signing the Declaration, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Today marks the anniversary of the formation in 1775 of the Second Continental Congress, the body of delegates who met in Philadelphia during the American Revolutionary War. The Second Congress was for all purposes a de facto national government of the United States once independence was declared. It is the “Congress of Independence” that drafted and approved the Declaration of Independence, but it also appointed George Washington as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and signed treaties with the foreign powers that supported the revolution. Most notably, the Second Congress issued the Model Treaty with France, our staunchest foreign ally during the war. The document became the guide for all subsequent commercial treaties.
In hindsight, one of the most striking qualities of the Second Congress is its reluctance toward revolution and independence. Most Americans – even many of the Founders who mobilized the Second Continental Congress – continued to cling to the hope even after open warfare broke out that there could be some kind of reconciliation with Great Britain. Although the waffling colonists chafed considerably under the paternalism of the mother country and resented Parliament’s obstinate refusal to compromise, many still believed that British rule was preferable to the return of French power to North America. Americans might hate the fact that the Crown quartered troops in Boston homes, but they hated the threat of French soldiers taking their homes and their women even more. Despite the economic hardships levied on the colonies by the Intolerable Acts in the early 1770s and the shots fired at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, Congress issued the Olive Branch Petition, which professed continued loyalty to the king and love for the mother country.
In the early months of 1776, the advantages of imperial protection still held enough sway that Thomas Paine dedicated a large portion of Common Sense (the pamphlet which widely popularized the idea of American independence for the first time) to fanning the flames of outrage against crown and Parliament. In fact, an entire section of the pamphlet is an elaborate, almost begging entreaty to American readers, asking them to accept the common sense of the matter at hand, namely the need to abandon king and country and listen as “the blood of the slain, the weeping voice of nature cries, ‘TIS TIME TO PART.” Paine needed to apply all of his consummate skills as the most persuasive member of the Revolution’s “chattering class” to the task of convincing readers of the necessity of independence 10 months after the Americans had entered a bloody fight with the 18th century’s global superpower, the same power that many of them hoped would protect them from a traditional enemy.
However, by the beginning of 1776 events accelerated. Ordinary colonists as well as the small but active and vocal minority that advocated separation decided that they were fighting a war for independence.
Towns and legislatures in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Virginia began to debate the wisdom of independence, asking the people for their opinions on the subject and whether they would be willing to support such a radical move with their lives and fortune. Similar discussions soon followed in every colony. This was an unprecedented move in itself: even the history of English rights and liberties contained nothing like a poll for regime change mobilized from the ground up. However, it became obvious that there was significant support for an independence movement. Six months earlier the wide scope of a debate about independence would have been unlikely. Congress could at last be confident that they would not be ahead of the people when it came to a revolutionary war. The “reluctant revolutionaries” at last declared that they were Americans.
Today marks the birthday of Niccolo Machiavelli, father of modern political science. Renowned for his embrace of pragmatic morality as well as his defense of republicanism, he will be forever remembered for The Prince, his guide to practical leadership. History Channel explains how he was more than just a political cynic.
Mr. President, In the Aftermath of the Boston Bombing Call the Fort Hood Shootings What They Are: An Act of Terrorism
Indeed, unexpected events have a way of upsetting the apple cart. After a long hiatus, I planned last week to post an analysis of the contemporary significance of the shots fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775, the event that prompted open warfare between Great Britain and the soon-to-be-born United States of America. But a contemporary event in Massachusetts – the Second Boston Massacre, a terrorist bombing on April 15 that killed three and grievously wounded as many as 170 people – stopped my plans cold. Frankly, April 15 brought back memories of what it is like to wonder if a loved one is dead because of an act of terror.
gathered at the Soldier Readiness Center, Fort Hood, Texas, one of the largest military installations in the world. When I first heard the news, I swallowed hard because my son U.S. Army Sgt. Matthew Wellington (ret.), a combat medic, was stationed there at the time. It’s a big base, I thought. As soon as I could, I called his mother hoping that I would be the first to break the news of the attack and to reassure her. Not long after my call, Matthew sent us both a text message indicating that he was safe. We found out later that he helped treat a dozen casualties; all survived.
Although the two events are not part of a larger conspiracy, I can’t help but notice some disturbing similarities. Authorities say Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Chechen brothers accused of detonating two bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, were motivated by extremist Islamic beliefs inflamed by information they obtained through the Internet. Concern about possible radical ties between Islamic extremists and Tamerlan apparently prompted the Russian security service to contact the U.S. government several times for information about him, and there are still questions about whether he was trained or mentored by foreign terrorists. In the months preceding his attack, Maj. Hasan exchanged e-mails with Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaeda talent scout once nicknamed “the bin-Laden of the Internet” who was linked with two of the 9-11 hijackers. The Tsarnaev brothers benefited from American generosity ranging from a scholarship to a prestigious public school to welfare payments from the commonwealth of Massachusetts. Maj. Hasan earned degrees in medicine and public health at taxpayer expense from the Defense Department’s Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. Both the Tsarnaevs and Hasan called the United States their home; all three eventually embraced an ideology dedicated to the destruction of the United States.
However, there is one infuriating difference between the two events. Federal law enforcement officials and President Obama are calling the April 15 bombing what it obviously was: an act of terrorism. However, despite overwhelming evidence that Maj. Hasan spent years in the military while espousing terrorist ideology, despite the fact the FBI knew for months in advance of the Fort Hood shootings that Hasan had contacted al-Awlaki repeatedly before slaying his fellow soldiers, the official verdict from the Army’s investigation was the event was an act of workplace violence. In other words, Hasan was not an Islamic extremist dedicated to jihad. The report does not even mention Islam — he simply was the U.S. Army equivalent of an office worker who blew his stack and decided to “go Postal.” As of this writing, Hasan is in a jail cell awaiting his court martial on May 29, facing charges of 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted murder.
It is human nature to seek meaning or even “the good” when faced with terrible events. I am blessed. My son was not killed during the Fort Hood shootings. The families in Boston grieving their dead and caring for their wounded carry a burden far greater than any I faced after Fort Hood. But I say the following with all respect to the people of the city of Boston: If Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s actions and goals match the actions and goals of the Tsarnaev brothers – and in my opinion they do – it is time for President Obama to correct the record and call the Fort Hood rampage the act of terrorism it was.
Undoubtedly, there are those who will say that by making this demand I am comparing the proverbial apples and oranges. Or I am attempting to capitalize on the suffering of others. Or that I have a partisan political agenda. Fine: If it resurrects discussion about the worst terrorist attack ever on a U.S. military base I will gladly bear the heat. If it offers peace to the soldiers and their families who have given the last, full measure of their devotion to the cause our nation’s safety, so much the better.
There are multiple reasons for President Obama to correct the record.
1) Many members of our armed forces feel betrayed by an administration that ignored clear evidence that Maj. Hasan was a radicalized Muslim who was not only tolerated, but promoted. Calling the Fort Hood attack what it was would be the first step in restoring their confidence in the Department of Defense and the commander-in-chief on this issue. In fact, by deeming the shootings workplace violence the victims receive lower priority for treatment and fewer financial benefits from the government than they would if the Pentagon acknowledged Hasan’s attack as “combat related.” Currently, many victims and family members are suing the government in an effort to overturn the decision. President Obama could settle the issue quickly through an executive order overturning the report.
2) It would restore the confidence of the American people in a government that seems maddeningly dedicated to ignoring the obvious and defending the indefensible. For those who wonder why this nation is rife with conspiracy theories, look no further for reasons than two administrations that seemed dedicated to denial. While still in the Army, Hasan began to vocalize his radical ideology during the George W. Bush administration. He was on active duty when he made repeated contacts with a known terrorist recruiter during the Obama administration. Yet, for reasons swirling in double-talk and mystery, the Pentagon either ignored or tolerated the situation.
Perhaps this is because both administrations have a policy to avoid supposed offense to the Muslim world at all costs. The result is the Bush and Obama administrations have done so in a way that often seems to imply terrorism against our citizens is the nation’s fault. I was floored by President Obama’s comments on April 19:
“That’s why we take care not to rush to judgment – not about the motivations of these individuals; certainly not about entire groups of people. After all, one of the things that makes America the greatest nation on Earth, but also, one of the things that makes Boston such a great city, is that we welcome people from all around the world – people of every faith, every ethnicity, from every corner of the globe. So as we continue to learn more about why and how this tragedy happened, let’s make sure that we sustain that spirit.”
Excuse me, Mr. President, but what else have Americans been doing for the last 12 years? In the wake of 9-11, this nation opened no internment camps and then packed them with Muslims. There have been no pogroms, no purges, no punishment for simply being a Muslim. Mosques have not been burned to the ground by angry mobs of Islamophobic Americans. I heartily agree that Muslims have faced bigotry from ignoramuses. I emphatically state it is the duty of every American to speak out against that kind of behavior while treating people with the decency inherent in a political system that includes freedom of religion. But rude behavior is not the same as systemized persecution, or even a “rush to judgment.” Neither should religious liberty somehow inoculate individuals from scrutiny if they hide behind their faith while working for the destruction of the United States or the death of its citizens. The right to preach violence in the name of religious liberty ends where your jihad touches my right to life and liberty. That applies to anyone of any faith in this country whether Christian, Jew, Muslim, or a member of the militant wing of the Salvation Army. Our president and commander-in-chief, his administration, and the federal government should recognize nothing less.
3) It would provide the rationale for a search for radical Islam’s fellow travelers in the government and the military. Yes, I can hear it now: I am calling for a new age of McCarthyism. Hardly – I want due process, I want innocence until proven guilt is established, and I want the kind of non-publicity seeking investigations that true law enforcement and intelligence personnel excel in. What I call for are policies based on common sense: If an individual is actively pursuing or supporting the violent overthrow of the United States or the death of its citizens, he or she should not receive aid from federal entitlement programs. He or she should not remain in the employ of the U.S. government. He or she should certainly not remain in the U.S. armed forces or the intelligence community. If you are a jihadi, you just lost your eligibility for food stamps. There is a precedent. During the Cold War, Soviet spies and agents penetrated the U.S. government. Vigilance and the FBI stopped most of them; after the Cold War, former-KGB officials conceded that the U.S. target was exceptionally difficult to penetrate more deeply because of a policy of watchfulness. We can repeat what worked and avoid the mistakes of the past while keeping the nation safe. If the future of terrorism in the United States is homegrown jihadis, then look for them and stop them before they carry out their attacks. That makes more sense than cowering in fear of cries of “intolerance” or other kinds of politically correct claptrap.
4) The words “honesty” and “president of the United States” are becoming more and more rarely linked. When the average American understands that the Fort Hood attack was perpetrated by an Army officer long motivated by jihad against his fellow soldiers, but sees his or her government decide Maj. Hasan simply suffered from “issues,” there is really only two possible conclusions. One is, “My government is run by idiots.” The second is, “My government is run by liars.” As tempting as it is to solely blame Conclusion No. 1, many Americans simply believe that their lawmakers from the president on down are liars. Recently, President George W. Bush inaugurated his presidential library by stating it would help reveal the truth; from the beginning, President Obama promised the most transparent administration ever. Both could keep their word to the American people by explaining why Hasan was kept in the Army despite his obvious radicalism.
I understand a change in labels on a report won’t bring back the dead, either in Boston or at Fort Hood. But justice and honesty can help reduce the pain terrorists caused and prove to the world we are a nation that lives by one of the best ideas expressed in that national creed called the Declaration of Independence: “Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” I still believe that the government of the United States works for me and you and every other citizen of this nation. That relationship includes the responsibility to all citizens to present the truth without shying away from the facts of the world we live in. Only then can we stand confidently as a nation that knows the justice of our cause and care for those who have suffered. Mr. President, now is the time to act on behalf of the soldiers who call you commander-in-chief. In the name of a United States that stands for every decent thing that radical Islam would destroy, call the Fort Hood attack what it was: An act of terrorism.
Today marks the anniversary of the skirmish between British troops and American militia members that resulted in the fight at Concord Bridge in 1775. It is considered the beginning of the shooting war between Great Britain and the Americans, the beginning of the War of American Independence. An analysis of the “shot heard ’round the world” is here.
Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present made the Boston University professor a rock star among political liberals, Hollywood actors, and long-suffering AP U.S. history students searching for an “alternate view” of American history. It’s not every historian who gets Matt Damon to produce a History Channel special based solely on his book. Rutgers professor David Greenberg is among many critics of Zinn now emerging after his death who are pointing out one nagging fact: Zinn never let the facts get in the way of his historical interpretations. Granted, this news is no news. He may have been a celebrity among zealots with radical causes, but Zinn faced criticism for years from colleagues who shared his political beliefs but abhorred his habit of reducing “historical analysis to political opinion.”
However, in the guise of a book review Greenberg produces one of the most damning portraits of Zinn I have ever read. So much for speaking no ill of the dead, although the essay is hardly just an exercise in kicking the corpse of a famous scholar. I have criticized Zinn’s flagrantly simplistic and ideological interpretations of the American Revolution because of his almost naive desire to avoid examining influential men and women (the “elites”) without conceding they are part of the story no matter what you think of their behavior, as well as his desire to selectively write a narrative that furthers a political cause rather than illuminates the past. History should not be an exercise where scholars “have only to pick out such letters as we want, arrange them as we like, and say nothing about those which do not suit our purpose.” Perhaps the tide is turning and Howard Zinn is losing his luster as a folk hero of the institutionalized left — or at least, his status American historian to the stars. Note that the essay is in The New Republic, which is hardly a bastion of right-wing thought.