Can one man create a revolution? While I was working on my novel True Freedom, centering on the causes of the American War of Independence, it seemed to me at times that Samuel Adams came close.
Adams was a joy for a fiction writer: Shaking with palsy (and rage), embittered by years of having to rescue his family from the debt his dreamy father had plunged them into, Samuel Adams was a man looking for a cause to subsume himself in. He was the Robespierre of the American Revolution.
So here is Adams at the Green Dragon, on Union Street, Boston, the revolution’s unofficial headquarters. He is uniting the warring factions of Boston’s North End and South End, who fought a pitched battle every Pope’s Day (November 5). Adams wants them unified to battle the British out of Boston. He achieves that by bribery. The near grotesque figure of Ebenezer Mackintosh, leader of the poorer South End, is offered a bizarre uniform of his own specification. But better, Mackintosh is a cordwainer. Adams is a publican, a city tax collector. As such, he offers Mackintosh one of only four posts of sealer of leather. No tanner or currier could sell leather without the city’s seal on it. Mackintosh the cordwainer could buy leather from himself, to make shoes. The sinecure could make him for life.
Days later there is another meeting. The leader of the North End faction, William Molineux, a clever thug fresh from England, is offered tax abatement, a pause on having to pay taxes. All he has to do is fight alongside Mackintosh and his men for the revolution.
This is caucus politics in action. Small room agreements at the Green Dragon and the Long Room Club – which is significantly above the printing presses of the Boston Gazette – are parleyed up to lever the masses at gatherings of hundreds in the Old South Church and round the Liberty Tree. Here is an extract from the novel that shows Adams’ genius as a molder of the mob, a supreme practitioner of populism, as we would call it today:
To Samuel Adams’s quiet satisfaction, the old days of furtive small-group meetings at the Green Dragon or the Long Room had given way to mass gatherings involving most of Boston. Adams organized the public protest against the Customs Commissioners to start at the Liberty Tree. Despite the rain turning the snow to slush, a crowd of over a thousand gathered there, to be docilely marched to Faneuil Hall, at the other end of Main Street.
No sooner were they settled in Faneuil Hall than Adams decided there was not enough room there. So he got them all up again and marched his obedient army through the drizzle to the Old South Church, which was massive.
It was all Young could do not to burst into applause. The route from the Liberty Tree to Faneuil Hall to the Old South Church took the Bostonians – actually it took them twice – past the Province House, in which cowered the Governor, Francis Bernard, but crucially it also took them past the Town House, where the Assembly sat.
The Assembly was closed when they passed by, thanks to Young and the Liberty Boys disrupting its business at Adams’s bidding. So Samuel Adams had just made a vivid propaganda point without a word – using sight and movement only. As the huge crowd surged past the defunct Assembly under Samuel Adams’s orders to hear him speak, Samuel Adams ruled Boston.
And then Samuel Adams organized the King Street riot. Many years later, this event was promoted, so to speak to ‘the Boston Massacre’ sometimes written in inverted commas. Whatever you call it, this firing by British troops into a crowd of Bostonians on March 5, 1770, resulted in the deaths of five people. It is generally seen as a key factor in the developments that led to war some five years later. A contemporary lithograph is shown on the front cover of my novel. And Samuel Adams was responsible. He paid British sailors who were sailing the next day to fire down into the Boston crowd from the second floor of the Customs House, on King Street.
Can I prove that? No, I can’t. But it is credible. A figure in a red cloak and a grubby grey wig was seen at the scene, inciting the riot. This is thought by some to be Adams. Others say the figure was too tall to be Adams, but then there were three steps leading up to the Customs House and the figure was standing on the steps.
Three years after the events in King Street came the Boston Tea Party, the taxable tea thrown into the sea, which was far more spontaneous than it is often portrayed. And that concludes the story of the causes of the American War of Independence. Except that it doesn’t. It concludes only half the story. The other half took place in Britain.
Britain itself was teetering on the edge of revolution. George III, a sensitive man, so hated being hated – they threw dead cats and dogs at him at the Epsom races – that he abdicated, briefly. He resumed the throne after his wife sent for the Prime Minister, Lord North (who by the way was his half-brother). Then a mob of disaffected weavers and coal heavers came within feet of taking Parliament before they were beaten back by a detachment of (Scottish) troops.
Britain had larger issues on its mind than the American colonies, as they then were. There was a saying doing the rounds of London society in the 1770s – ‘“A robbery on Hounslow Heath would make more conversation than all the disturbances in America.” It is difficult for us now, on both sides of the Atlantic (I am British, by the way) to get our heads around how unimportant the American colonies were back then.
The British left American affairs to a minor official, an Under-Secretary at the American Office, called John Pownall. In a gift, the Gods of Fiction sometimes bestow on fiction writers this John Pownall was the younger brother of the man who had earlier been Governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Pownall. I had the pro and contra arguments of American independence embodied in two brothers as if this were a Hollywood movie. And John Pownall did not disappoint, dramatically. He was the only Under Secretary in British history to draft an entire Act of Parliament alone. This was the draconian Boston Port Act of March 1774 which closed the port of Boston and for which, in my opinion, my countrymen were gravely culpable (Please accept my late apologies!)
A second cause of the American War of Independence from the British side was John Wilkes. I first came across John Wilkes when I wrote about him in an earlier novel, I, Hogarth. I had seven biographies of him on the shelves even before I started research for True Freedom. To me, he is a classic example of how history can get a man completely wrong. He was a debauched, scurrilous, and evil man who caused Hogarth’s early death and whose reputation as a champion of liberty, as I show in True Freedom, is based on a myth.
Wilkes was in constant touch with all the leading Boston revolutionaries, especially Adams. The Bostonians sent him gifts, including a live turtle, and generally behaved like acolytes, if not disciples. Wilkes, in turn, was in touch with an exotic French revolutionary called Charles d’Eon who was later instrumental in vital arms shipments to the American side.
Wilkes provoked an incident even smaller than the Boston Massacre which he managed to get known as the St George’s Fields Massacre. Even the soldiers at this occurrence sported Wilkes revolutionary cockades, which were later worn by the Bostonians at the Liberty Tree. A martyr was created when British troops opened fire at St George’s Fields and part of Wilkes’ advice to Adams was to create martyrs He also advised yearly celebrations of the martyring event, advice which Adams followed, religiously.
But in the end, Wilkes took the money, so to speak. He became Lord Mayor of London. Adams was never venal and turned down late British efforts to bribe him. But Adams and his revolution are unthinkable without the guidance of Wilkes and his almost-revolution.
So can one man make a revolution? Probably not. Not in this case, anyway. But two men can – Adams and Wilkes. Two men did.
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