Strategy to Pre-war Violence?


December 24, 2013
by Editors Also by this Author


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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.

Wayne Lynch


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 …”

John L. Smith, Jr.


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.

Steven M. Baule


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.

Ray Raphael


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.

Gene Procknow


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…”

Don Glickstein


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.

Robert Scott Davis


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.

Benjamin L. Carp


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.

J. L. Bell


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.

Thomas Fleming


From what I have read, my answer would be no. It seems to have been locally organized and more or less spontaneous and reactive.

Curtis F. Morgan, Jr.


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.

Lars D. H. Hedbor


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.

Robert M. Dunkerly


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.

Jim Piecuch


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.

Michael D. Hattem


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.

Derek W. Beck


  • I find it interesting, and somewhat surprising, that no panel member mentioned the Sons of Liberty in this discussion. Operating under a structure of a united front group they seem, in my opinion, to have played an importance role from 1765 to 1775 in moving the struggle from local control of government under England to independence from England.

  • My apology to Mr. Lynch who did mention the Sons of Liberty in his remarks. However, I do feel that organization’s efforts were not adequately considered.

    1. Thanks Ken. I personally feel like there was more coordination between the various Sons of Liberty in each colony than we see today. It has always seemed to me that our focus on Boston tends to obscure the developing Patriot movement in the other colonies. I think the coordination is found in the timing of actions, type of actions, and the limits on action. As Mr. Bell pointed out, these ‘out of control’ mobs always managed to pull up short of killing anyone. I find that level of restraint a clue in and of itself that these actions were planned and coordinated by a group who understood the workings of the public mind.

      1. In my book “Spies, Patriots and Traitors”, due out in May 2014 from Georgetown University Press, I make the case that the Sons of Liberty was a classical united front group from an intelligence discipline perspective. I look forward to further debate on this point at that time.

        Happy Holidays to all, and many thanks to everyone who has made reading the Journal so interesting every day.

  • While I didn’t mention the Sons of Liberty or the Committees of Correspondence by name (in the interests of space), Patriots organized under these names (and likely a few others besides) definitely planned a certain level of direct action, although I remain pretty well convinced that most of the worst excesses committed on both sides were a matter of folks getting themselves worked up into a passion.

  • I think when we discuss the Sons of Liberty we have to define what that group was. In some towns there were groups operating under that name. But in Boston I sense that it was a less formal identification, capable of expanding to include any man who opposed new Crown revenue measures. That meant it wasn’t a well-organized party but a movement that could grow and shrink, speed up and slow down, all without top-down direction.

    1. Mr. Bell, I agree with you in terms of organization and structure. The question worth debating would be the degree of influence the more radical leaders in Boston, New York, Providence, Connecticut, Virginia, etc. had on defining and motivating collective actions. I make an effort to address this in the book.

  • At least from the Southern perspective (my area), there developed a coherent strategy over time, so by 1775 the Patriots, under the leadership structure that included (roughly) Continental Congress > Provincial Congress > Council/Committee of Safety > Parochial/Local Committees implemented a coherent and sophisticated strategy that involved establishing control over populations (particularly loyalists) and demolishing royal authority in the colonies (oftentimes from within the government). They used a combination of violence, intimidation, militia movements, propaganda (particularly regarding British intentions for arming slaves and Indians). They used their positions within the royal government (usually as representatives in the provincial assemblies) to control the message put out by the royal governments, and used the royal purse strings for their own purposes (such as inventorying and repairing the public firearms and other guns only weeks before they broke into magazines and armories as members of the provincial congress to take those weapons for their own use). They also used sympathizers with roles in the royal governments to use their positions to the benefit of the rebellion, taking advantage of the fact that the royal officials were often slow to remove known rebels from positions of authority (like James Iredell, who used his position as deputy customs collector in North Carolina to the benefit of a rebellion that initially centered on non-importation and non-exportation). They seized communications between royal officials and Boston, London, and backcountry loyalists and controlled movements of loyalist groups (through patrols, checkpoints, and sophisticated intelligence networks) to prevent formation of any kind of resistance while at the same time building and developing their own communication networks so they knew about events to the north like Lexington and Concord while royal officials were still trying to figure out what was going on.

    This didn’t all just spring up overnight when war broke out in April 1775. Much of it developed over time, eventually coalescing in a coherent strategy by late 1774/early 1775. By that point, whatever actions that had been mob-driven in the preceding years now came under the fairly strict control of the rebels’ shadow government apparatus that eventually resulted in the collapse of royal government. This even included events that appeared to be entirely mob-driven like tarring and feathering. There were times when individuals stole the property of royal governors who had fled the colony and the Council of Safety made them return that property and go through proper channels to collect any debts owed by the departed governors. There were parochial committees that sent suspected offenders to Savannah, Charleston, New Bern, etc. where it was determined their offenses had been overstated and they were released with a warning or sometimes no consequences at all. The leaders of the rebellion made sure to assert their authority so they could ratchet up violence and disorder when it suited their interests and tamp it down when it didn’t.

    David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency expert who advised General Petraeus and others during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan recently released a book called “Out of the Mountains” in which he argues that modern day insurgent groups function an awful lot like other non-state violent actors you see operating in cities, including gangs, drug cartels, and the like. While these groups are in another universe when it comes to violence today and have many more resources available, they do not act in ways entirely dissimilar from those of the rebels in 1774-onward.

    You have these groups integrating the littoral into their strategies, allowing illicit activities to blend in with the licit, normal every-day goings on. So in Charleston, as the rebels were planning raids on a number of British ships bringing gunpowder to St Augustine and Savannah, you had the Council of Safety instructing the participants of these raids who were coming to Charleston to meet the others involved precisely which wharves to come ashore at and at what time in order to most effectively blend into the crowds. Kilcullen also says these groups focus on achieving their objectives through the use of mass communications. While today that means social media (particularly Twitter), you see the same objective in the Revolution with (as I mentioned before), the rebels using a variety of means to facilitate their own communications while limiting the enemy’s ability to do the same.

    One of Kilcullen’s best observations is the way they use a system of incentives and disincentives to suck in their followers and control their actions by trapping them and giving them no way to get out. This usually involves coaxing them into crossing the line of legality and then telling them they’re stuck because if they left the gang/cartel/etc. and went to the authorities they’d be just as culpable. You see the same actions with the rebels, including many of the members of the provincial congresses/councils of safety, where they get people to commit a seeming non-consequential act that nevertheless would cross British “red lines” (and you do see in the British writings that whatever acts of disloyalty they tolerated earlier, by 1775 they were done giving out free passes) and therefore leave them no choice but to continue.

    In other words, what may have started out disjointed actions of a people that felt themselves aggrieved but weren’t quite sure how to react – through mob violence, through Congresses, through non-importation and other boycotts, or through some other means – by 1774/1775 had evolved into a highly centralized and controlled rebellion with a coherent strategy and sophisticated governing structure.

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