Where Do Little Terrorists Come From #4 - The American Revolution

George Washington, terrorist?

The first article in this series attempted to kill off the notion that terrorism is motivated by poverty.  It's been repeatedly documented that terrorism is driven by a variety of religious, economic, and political motives having little or nothing to do with poverty.

There have been enough suicide bombers whose backgrounds are known to supply data for statistical analysis.  The book Dying to Win by Robert Pape, Random House 2005 has a chapter which compares the individual characteristics of suicide bombers with other members of their societies.  Mr. Pape sums up his conclusions on p. 216:

The bottom line, then, is that suicide attackers are not mainly poor, uneducated, immature religious zealots, or social losers.  Instead, suicide attackers are normally well-educated workers from both religious and secular backgrounds.  Especially given their education, they resemble the kind of politically conscious individuals who might join a grassroots movement more than they do wayward adolescents or religious fanatics.

Unfortunately, the mere fact that terrorists have more education and more wealth than average citizens of their native lands won't stop liberals from claiming that spending our money fighting poverty will also fight terrorism.  In our second article, we talked about various known historical motivations behind terror and unconventional military attacks, such as profit.

The third article looked at various definitions of terrorism with some historical examples of Islamic terrorism to provide background; this article discusses the campaign that culminated in American independence from Britain.

By the time George Washington's Continental Army defeated the British under Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown in October 1781, the American rebel forces had been recognized as a legitimate government by the French who provided naval assistance and support in a number of combat operations leading up to that battle.  The French supported the American rebels against England for the same reason the United States supported bin Laden's forces against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan - "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."

But in the entire sweep of the American Revolution, French recognition of the nascent American government came much nearer the end than to the beginning.  For most of the war, the revolutionaries had no claim to represent a sovereign government of any kind.  Although most history teachers cover the whole war in about a week, in actuality it took much longer than that, and conditions changed radically throughout the period of unpleasantness.

The Roots of the Revolution

The American Revolution had its roots in the French and Indian war of 1754-1763.  Wishing to give the English a hard time, the French encouraged the Indians, who resented the palefaces plowing up their traditional hunting grounds, to mount a campaign of terrorism against the British colonies.

George Washington was introduced to combat during this conflict which was an early example of state-supported terrorism.  The famous stories of James Fenimore Cooper, most notably The Last of the Mohicans, provide vivid illustrations of such events during the conflict.

Although they prevailed against the French and their Indian allies, the British spent a good deal of money protecting the American colonists, whom they regarded as loyal subjects entitled to royal protection.  The British thought it only fair for the colonists to pay part of the cost of defending them, however, and imposed taxes to collect the money, rather as American towns impose property taxes to pay for the police and fire departments.

Conveniently ignoring the fact that the British Parliament had voted funds to defend the American colonies even though there were no American Members of Parliament, the agitators cried, "No taxation without representation" because they had not been consulted about the new taxes.  It would have been just as valid to argue, "No defense without representation," of course, but that slogan wouldn't have sold as well given the citizens' well-founded fears of renewed attacks by French-sponsored Indian terrorists.

The British viewed the colonists' complaints as simple ingratitude; the Americans viewed the imposition of these taxes as tyrannical oppression.  Several hundred years later, we might wonder why both parties didn't agree to the obvious solution of granting the American colonies representation in Parliament, but they didn't.

Selected Events

The Sugar Act was passed in 1764 to help pay for the war; the Stamp Act came in 1765.  Patrick Henry gave his "If this be treason" speech in 1765, two months after the passage of the Stamp Act, but a decade before the American Revolution "technically" began.

As tension built up between the colonists and the British administration, the colonists resented the presence of the soldiers, who were the stated reason for the new taxes, and harassed them.

On March 5, 1770, a British army private named Hugh White was on guard on King Street in Boston.  A crowd gathered and began harassing him.  He called for help; nine more soldiers came.  The crowd continued to insult the soldiers and to throw snowballs at them.

Someone yelled "Fire," and the soldiers began shooting.  Five citizens were killed and six wounded.  The first to die, one Crispus Attucks, was a black man; his manner of passing earned him a permanent place as a civil rights icon.  The rebel spin doctors immortalized this relatively minor incident as the "Boston Massacre" to try to legitimize their complaints against British rule.

This illustrates what is now recognized as a classical terrorist tactic:

  • Pester the authorities until they overreact
  • Make martyrs out of whomever dies whether they were on your side or not
  • Demonize the authorities
  • Publicize the incident to sway undecided people to your cause - as Thomas Jefferson observed, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.  It is its natural manure."

The Boston Massacre led up to the American Revolution, but it's easy to forget that the start of the revolution was still a full five years off.

The War on Trade

The British also imposed additional customs duties as a source of additional revenue.  Parliament passed laws which forbade British colonies to trade with each other directly; they could trade only with Britain.  This was most inconvenient considering that Britain was on the opposite side of the pond.  Jamaican rum was shipped to England to be taxed and shipped from England to the American colonies.  The increased shipping costs combined with various taxes opened up a number of market opportunities for smuggling.

Thus began the British "War on Trade"; their Navy was charged with intercepting smugglers' vessels and confiscating all cargo on which tax had not been paid much as the modern US Navy attempts to help intercept drug smugglers.

On June 9, 1772, the British ship HMS Gaspee ran aground while chasing an American ship.  The next night, a wealthy merchant named John Brown led a group of men who boarded the stranded Gaspee and burnt it. The British offered a reward for information about the perpetrators but no one came forward.

Our "War on Drugs" offers similar opportunities for magnificent profits to be earned by dodging import controls.  The "Gaspee Incident" would be the legal, if not the moral, equivalent of modern-day drug smugglers burning a Coast Guard cutter to the water line, an act which would be resented by the American establishment.

Could one be forgiven for suspecting that Mr. Brown was motivated more by an opportunity to make it easier to carry out his highly profitable business unmolested by customs duties, paperwork, and other annoyances than by poverty, patriotism, or any such altruistic motive?

The Boston Tea Party came in December 16, 1773 when enough citizens were angry enough about another round of taxes on a previously untaxed crown monopoly to seize a ship and dump its cargo into the harbor to demonstrate their reluctance to pay the required tax on tea.

The Start of the Revolution

The scholarly consensus is that the American Revolution started with the Battle of Lexington and Concord, although there had been casualties on both sides before then.

The colonists had been accumulating guns and ammunition in Concord far in excess of their normal requirements for hunting much as the Weather Underground, White Supremacists, Black Panthers, and other violent groups accumulate explosives.  On April 18, 1775, General Thomas Gage sent 700 troops to destroy the cache much as modern SWAT teams destroy illicit arms caches whenever they can.

The soldiers were met in Lexington by 75 armed Minutemen.  One of the reasons there were so many armed Minutemen was that the British government had encouraged the colonists to arm themselves to be better able to aid the British army in their earlier war against the French.  As we hope the Americans have learned in Afghanistan, no good deed goes unpunished and what goes around always comes around.

The British killed 8 Minutemen and continued on to Concord.  The people of Concord managed to hide some of the supplies and the British destroyed only part of the cache.

By this time, more Minutemen had arrived.  Instead of fighting a conventional battle, the Minutemen fired from fields and from behind trees, harassing the British all the way back to Boston.  As soon as the main British column marched beyond range of the "Brown Bess" muskets carried by the British, the Minutemen came out from behind their trees and finished off the wounded, encouraging the injured men to keep up.  By the time the British reached Boston, 73 British soldiers were dead and 174 more were injured.

By 1776, the Minutemen believed that the situation was favorable enough for them to issue a signed manifesto, the "Declaration of Independence," which claimed that the rebel forces constituted a separate, and legitimate, government.  Unfortunately for the rebels, the French did not recognize them as a government until early 1778.

Thus, from the time of the Boston Massacre in 1770 until their first plausible claim to being a legitimate government based on French recognition in 1778, the rebels operated as non-governmental terroristic guerrilla forces, often out of uniform, and routinely using tactics contrary to the norms of the day.

Although the final three years of the Revolution could be thought of as a conflict between two governments despite the lack of unity on the American side, it is unarguable that the early years were characterized by irregular forces who, based on the applicable laws of the time, were in fact treasonous criminals for most of the revolutionary period.  Benjamin Franklin was all too aware of this when he said "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

The Cast of Characters

Most of the men who were associated with promoting and carrying out the American Revolution were men of wealth.  George Washington owned 5,000 acres of prime real estate near the future capital of the country.  Thomas Jefferson's mansion Monticello is certainly not a hovel.  Benjamin Franklin earned significant profits from publishing and from various inventions.

Whatever motivations one may ascribe to their actions, the revolutionaries were not motivated by poverty.  The terrorist activities which led to the American Revolution were no more motivated by poverty than modern Islamic terrorism.

This is consistent with history.  Tyrants have known for a long time that starving peasants have neither the time nor the energy to rebel; rebellion starts in the middle or upper classes.  Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who united Japan under one government, used to say that the peasants should be taxed just short of starvation so that they couldn't cause trouble.

Was It Really Terrorism?

By now, many readers may wonder where this all leads.  Surely, you ask, Scragged doesn't think that our Founding Fathers were no different from Osama bin Laden?  Consider for a moment the official FBI definition of terrorism quoted from page vii of the book Terrorism in the 20th Century, by Jay Nash, M. Evans and Company, 1998:

Unlawful use of force or violence, committed by group(s) of two or more individuals, against persons or property to coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.

There is no doubt that many actions by the Minutemen, the people whose harassment of soldiers triggered the Boston Massacre, and the people who burned the Gaspee, were against the law.  The American patriots used both force and violence to advance their political objectives rather than the non-violent methods that Gandhi or Martin Luther King might have recommended.

Since there was no American government for the British to be at war with, these acts were crimes, not acts of war.  The only really obvious difference is that our Founders won, whereas bin Laden has not, at least not yet.

There are, however, other issues involved.  If the usual definition of terrorism says that Paul Revere and his associates were terrorists, that doesn't make them terrorists; on the contrary, it makes the definition wrong.

We'll return to this critical point soon.  But before we do, we need to look at modern terrorism in the Middle East.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
Reader Comments
A good book to read is Death in Small Doses if you're interested in hunting terrorist type books.
I like it because it definitely is a possibility that it could happen. I also like it because the author, Bernard Steele is has retired from law enforcement and he must have seen a lot of things. I love reading books by people with experience and gained wisdom over the years.
July 2, 2008 8:24 PM
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