Do you think there was a greater strategy behind most of the pre-war violence, or was it primarily raw emotion and vengeance?
There was a greater strategy but, unfortunately, that strategy routinely used raw emotion and vengeance against its opponents. As early as the Stamp Act Crisis, the Sons of Liberty learned to target the Loyalist leaders and single them out for extreme intimidation tactics. From Lt. Governor Hutchinson in Boston to Thomas Browne in Augusta, mobs learned to channel their power in just the right times and places. The spread of and uniformity of tactics leaves the impression of coordination across the colonies. A single night of terror for one instantly transformed into obedience from entire groups or sections of the country.
For this, I go to the wonderful world of fractions. It seemed like the pre-war violence was one-third strategy and two-thirds raw emotion. In other words, for each British punishment dealt out to unruly provincials it seemed like a group of “dangerous and ill designing men” (as His Britannic Majesty called them in his 1775 Rebellion Proclamation) would more-or-less state the strategy of non-compliance (such as boycotts) and set up the committee infrastructure to communicate and monitor the non-compliance up and down the seaboard. Pre-war violence was an obvious outcome when the rebellion genie was loosed in the two-thirds part of the fraction – the peoples’ raw emotions. Tarring and feathering pesky tax or stamp agents, taunting Boston regular soldiers, burning revenue schooners, closing Royal courts, meeting in defiance of orders and so on were the liberty snowball rolling downhill. John Adams in 1818 affirmed, “The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people …”
There was definitely a strategy behind the pre-war violence particularly in Boston where Samuel Adams seems to have been the man behind the curtain much of the time. The British seem to have seen much of this as a continuation of the more legalistic violence in Canada and New York after the French and Indian War tied to quartering troops, etc. It doesn’t appear the senior leaders saw Independence as the ultimate goal, but the company level officers in Boston seem to have been more perceptive.
The deep south seems to have been less strategic and was more likely to respond emotionally on both sides of the issue.
Neither. Pre-war violence was not predicated on some “greater strategy” that would lead in the end to independence. That reads history backwards and presupposes a level of leadership that treats the people as mindless followers. Yet to say the actions stemmed from “raw emotion and vengeance” is even more disrespectful. People perceived injustice and took appropriate actions to oppose it. Each event had a logic of its own. In 1774 in Worcester, the 4,622 militiamen who closed the courts might have been emotional, but they were not a mindless mob. They acted carefully and responsibly within their 37 militia companies. Participants in pre-war protests were thinking historical agents who knew the power of collective action. The overall direction of the pre-war period, its evolution from resistance to revolution, stemmed more from basic geographic reality and mismanagement of the Empire by British hardliners.
A significant portion of pre-Revolutionary war violence emanated from tax and commercial trade issues which impinged on the economic well-being of the colonists. To the extent that different parts of the colonies suffered comparable impacts, there were similar retaliatory and sometimes violent reactions were taken which could appear today to be taken in concert. Time and distance constraints made concerted planned actions difficult among the colonies.
Initially, major acts of violence were carried out months from each other with Rhode Islanders attacking British ships in 1764 (HMS St. John), 1769 (HMS Liberty), and in 1772 (HMS Gaspe) and the Boston Tea Party occurring on December 16, 1773.
Violence intensified with the patriot enforcement of the December 1, 1774 boycott of British goods. Local committees within each colony enforced this boycott, sometimes by mob rule and extreme violence. These communities were reacting to economic and political issues consistently, but independently.
If the rebels had lost, the prewar violence would have been considered premeditated and terroristic, designed to cow and polarize the civilian population, and thwarted only by British peacekeeping missions into the interior with the objective of stopping the rebels’ ability to use weapons of mass destruction, such as artillery. You don’t practice torture, such as tarring and feathering, on a whim. To borrow a line from the musical South Pacific, “You got to be taught to hate and fear…”
For most of it, I would say “no” although there were certainly men like Herman Husband who seem to turn up time and again in the troubles. Harlow Giles Unger argues in American Tempest that much of the pre-war “dissent” across American was staged and propaganda by John Hancock out of his personal motives for profit. George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, however, were steadily pushed towards the Revolution before 1775 without Hancock’s influence.
This is a trick question: it asks (in old-fashioned, Progressive Era terms) to cast the revolutionary movement as either the unruly emotional reaction of a slavering mob, or the cynically manipulated machinations of a puppetmaster like Samuel Adams. Neither of these characterizations is correct, because both interpretations deny the reason and agency of the broader American populace (whether they supported the Revolution or not). Historians like Pauline Maier, Dirk Hoerder, Barbara Clark Smith, and Wayne Lee have more nuanced views. Local leaders like Samuel Adams had to negotiate with their neighbors, from all walks of life, in order to build resistance against Britain. These leaders believed they were trying to forestall violence, not incite it—and they condemned violent acts at every opportunity. When violence did erupt, there were norms that guided crowd actions. Americans believed that they turned to violence only as a last resort.
There was definitely a greater strategy behind the violent demonstrations, or demonstrations of violence, from 1765 to 1775, but it’s a mistake to believe that upper-class political leaders like Samuel Adams orchestrated that violence. Rather, those crowds were usually acting on their own, motivated by their own goals and expressing their genuine displeasure with individual or government action. Sometimes they were also acting out of broader class resentments that a gentleman like Samuel Adams wouldn’t have countenanced. For all the violent acts that American crowds carried out, however, I don’t think they killed anybody before the war. (In contrast, Crown officials and soldiers did kill colonists—because they felt outnumbered.)
In From Resistance to Revolution the late Pauline Maier wrote about how political theorists of the eighteenth century understood mobs as part of society. Most people didn’t have any formal political voice in the societies of the time, and political leaders saw that as a Good Thing. But those leaders also recognized that if the government wasn’t providing adequately for the populace, there would be riots. Samuel Adams didn’t praise the most violent riots in Boston, but he was quick to tell royal officials, “Well, you should have expected this.”
Finally, we should recognize that the sometimes-violent demonstrations up and down the North American coast in 1765 prompted the repeal of the Stamp Act and a change in government in London. The boycotts of the late 1760s, enforced by crowds, convinced Parliament to repeal most of the Townshend Acts. (Ironically, the ministry introduced that bill on 5 March 1770, the same day as the Boston Massacre.) Any American Whig observing that situation in 1773 would have concluded that the combination of formal political protest, nonimportation, and violence worked. So that approach was not only a strategy—it looked like a good strategy.
A lot of the prewar violence was disorganized and spontaneous. But behind a lot of it was the devious brain of Samuel Adams, who long before most people saw his destination, was aiming for independence. He was checked at crucial moments by his more intelligent cousin, John. The Boston Massacre violence was an Adams’ overreach for which he might well have been hanged. But John won the acquittal of the British soldiers and their commander and simultaneously artfully concealed Sam’s role as the architect.
From what I have read, my answer would be no. It seems to have been locally organized and more or less spontaneous and reactive.
I think that there were cases of each, and on both sides. When the Patriots targeted the homes of Loyalists who had accepted positions as tax and duty collectors, with attacks ranging from rock-throwing to completely burning them down, the initial targeting may have been a matter of strategy, but the more extreme actions were likely a case of raw emotions getting the better of a crowd that had worked itself up into a lynch mob mentality.
The British Colonel Tarleton’s famous excesses seem to have been strategic, as he was trying to pacify a large and unruly region, and acts designed to instill terror in the hearts of Patriots were an easy means of doing so. His unrelenting destruction of Patriot forces at Waxhaws may have been exaggerated as a means of whipping up a thirst for vengeance — again, though, as a matter of Patriot strategy.
I think it depends… not to be difficult, but its a complicated issue. In some places violence and protests were clearly born out of passion, without any (or much) pre planning or coordination. Other times there clearly was a strategy. I feel that once things began to heat up in the mid 1770s, the protests and violence became more premeditated, geared towards a purpose.
The strategy was mostly at the local level, but it was basically the same everywhere. Colonists who opposed British policy believed that they had to do whatever was necessary to preserve their political rights against perceived oppression, even if that included violence. Of course, some individual participants were more concerned with avenging personal grievances than with imperial politics.
I don’t think there was a grand strategy to pre-war violence. It occurred (and was coordinated) on a local level and grew out of a long Anglophone tradition of mob action. So, while there may have been no overarching strategy throughout colonies, it didn’t occur without a purpose. The best example perhaps was the violence against stamp collectors in 1765. The riots from the fall of 1765 into early 1766 were intended to force their resignations and intimidate others from taking the position, thereby making it impossible for the Stamp Act to be enforced in the colonies.
No. I think the primary fuel was just an escalation of emotion and then action in response to a flurry of stupid decisions and poor administration on the part of the British government. In fact, it was British pride that was ultimately to blame for the Revolution. For, just as the British were enforcing the so-called Coercive Acts in Boston in 1774 and 1775—a stupid legislative move done mostly to prove the might of the proud British Ministry in response to the Boston Tea Party, the British were also enacting the Quebec Act in the Fourteenth Colony (Canada). Of the four key provisions of the Quebec Act, one allowed for Catholic worship, a necessary provision to appease the formerly French inhabitants, but contrary to the beliefs of the intolerant Protestants in the Thirteen Colonies. Another of the four key provisions set up English law for criminal matters, but allowed for the “custom of Paris” for all civil affairs. The result for the Canadians was a benevolent and liberal government, one of religious tolerance and recognition of their French heritage. The Quebec Act was far in advance of its time. So as Britain was showing great tolerance to French Canadians, they were growing overly strict with British Americans, and the Coercive Acts, a product of British pride, was what ultimately kicked off the Revolution.