J. D. Heyes
January 9, 2013
There is a scene in Mel Gibson’s movie, “The Patriot,” in which a great battle was brewing between units of the British and Continental armies near the stately home of Gibson’s character, Benjamin Martin.
The evening before the battle, Martin’s eldest son Gabriel, a dispatch rider for the Continental Army, stumbled into his father’s home, wounded. The next day, after the battle took place the British army, having scattered the Continentals, proceeded to advance on the Martin home. There, finding both British and Continental wounded, a despotic British cavalry officer ordered his surgeon to begin looking after the British wounded, while ordered the Continental wounded executed, and the Martin home burned.
“Let it be known if you aid the enemy, you will lose your home,” he said.
Shortly thereafter British soldiers discovered Gabriel, who identified himself to the British officer as uniformed member of the Continental Army. The officer dismissed this, proclaimed him a spy and ordered him back to British headquarters where he was to be hanged.
There’s more to that scene and to the movie itself, of course, but the point is “the King’s army” was very often a brutal, repressive force sent by a ruler who many in the colonies saw as despotic, autocratic and who had little compassion for his rebellious colonial subjects.
History of repression
The primary reason why the American colonists rebelled in the first place was a growing sense of isolation from the British crown thousands of miles away. Academics, business owners and colonial politicians tried in vain to have their voice heard in the English parliament, to be granted some form of representation so they could make their argument for or against rules, regulations and taxes proposed by the crown. When they were repeatedly denied such representation, especially regarding tea and other taxes many colonists and businessmen viewed as highly counterproductive and unpopular, talk of rebellion began.
The first incident that foreshadowed the brutality that was to come occurred on March 5, 1770, in Massachusetts. Labeled the “Incident on King Street,” American patriots called it the Boston Massacre.
“The Boston Massacre was a street fight that occurred on March 5, 1770, between a ‘patriot’ mob, throwing snowballs, stones, and sticks, and a squad of British soldiers,” says a description of the event at USHistory.org. “Several colonists were killed and this led to a campaign by speech-writers to rouse the ire of the citizenry.”
It was bound to happen. The presence of British troops on the streets in Boston was increasingly becoming an unwelcome and unpopular sight. From USHistory.org:
The Boston Massacre was a signal event leading to the Revolutionary War. It led directly to the Royal Governor evacuating the occupying army from the town of Boston. It would soon bring the revolution to armed rebellion throughout the colonies.
From there, discontent grew, as the English Parliament and crown continued to ignore what the colonists believed were their rights as British subjects. The disgruntlement culminated in an event known as the Boston Tea Party, in which a group of colonists boarded English ships and tossed their cargoes of tea overboard in protest. The incident led to the imposition of a number of strict measures aimed at tamping down colonial unrest; among these was a series of laws passed by the British Parliament the colonists called the Intolerable Acts.
“One law closed Boston Harbor until Bostonians paid for the destroyed tea,” said a description of the event by the University of San Francisco. “Another law restricted the activities of the Massachusetts legislature and gave added powers to the post of governor of Massachusetts. Those powers in effect made him a dictator.”
These authoritarian moves led to the formation of the first Continental Congress, which “voted to cut off colonial trade with Great Britain unless Parliament abolished the Intolerable Acts,” the university said. “It approved resolutions advising the colonies to begin training their citizens for war. They also attempted to define America’s rights, place limits on Parliament’s power, and agree on tactics for resisting the aggressive acts of the English Government.”
It seemed the colonists knew what the English crown was capable of.
First shots – more abuses
The first shots of the war were fired between arms-bearing colonial militiamen and British regulars at the battles of Lexington and Concord, in Massachusetts, in which the colonial militia gained the upper hand. The battles did little to the British, however, except strengthen their resolve.
Shortly after the battles British Gen. Thomas Gage, the military governor of Massachusetts and commander-in-chief of the roughly 3,000 British military forces garrisoned in Boston, was ordered to disarm the rebels, who were known to have hidden weapons around Concord, and to imprison the leaders of the rebellion.
As the war progressed, the British clamped down even harder on both the civilian population and the opposing army. According to a biography of Tench Coxe, the authoritarianism of the British Army was evident before and during the war:
Tench Coxe was the twenty-year-old son of a merchant residing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania when the War for Independence broke out in 1775. Coxe’s company carried on a thriving business with Loyalists and the British army when the British occupied Philadelphia –a business which would have been impossible if the British military commanders had decided not to allow it.
And this regarding war-era gun control:
When occupying Philadelphia in 1778, British General Howe had disarmed the population. As reported in Philadelphia newspapers, General Gage had done the same to the citizens of Boston in 1775. Although it is not known how Coxe reacted to the disarmament at the time, his later writings are aligned closely with the political philosophy of vehement opposition to firearms confiscation that Patriots of the time expressed in Philadelphia.
And this from The History Channel:
On the evening of September 20, 1777, near Paoli, Pennsylvania, General Charles Grey and nearly 5,000 British soldiers launch a surprise attack on a small regiment of Patriot troops commanded by General Anthony Wayne in what becomes known as the Paoli Massacre. … With the help of a Loyalist spy who provided a secret password and led them to the camp, General Grey and the British launched the successful attack on the unsuspecting men of the Pennsylvania regiment, stabbing them to death as they slept. It was also alleged that the British soldiers took no prisoners during the attack, stabbing or setting fire to those who tried to surrender. Before it was over, nearly 200 Americans were killed or wounded. The Paoli Massacre became a rallying cry for the Americans against British atrocities…
Some other instances of British atrocities and authoritarianism during the war:
— In 1776 Nathan Hale, a Connecticut schoolteacher, was executed for spying only on the order of Gen. William Howe – no hearings, no trial.
— The British Parliament passed the Quartering Acts – two acts ordering local colonial governments with paying for and providing quarters for British soldiers (hence the inclusion of the Third Amendment to the Constitution, which states simply, “No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law”).
— Citizens of many communities were grossly abused by the occupying British and Hessian troops. Here is an example from Revolutionary War Archives:
Many of the citizens of New Jersey had been grossly abused by the occupying British army and in particular the Hessians. Looting, burning, murder, rape were common place. All this occurring in spite of written guarantees of safety from Sir William Howe, the British Commander-in-Chief…
The war of American Independence taught our founding fathers many lessons, this primarily among them: Resistance to an armed, occupying force – whether it is a foreign army or an abusive domestic government – can only take place if the resisting force is also armed.
This is an important lesson to remember as we hear renewed calls for gun control and disarmament coming from Washington, D.C.
This article was posted: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 at 6:09 am