The past few weeks have seen an uproar of argument and discussion about the recent deployment of federal troops to Portland in light of ongoing protests there since the murder of George Floyd in May. The social media feeds of both “sides” in this have been inundated with either selective footage of “violent” protesters or selective footage of “police brutality.”
And of course, the debate has become over-simplified and reductive, as all national debates are. The Right keeps saying, “so you think it’s okay to burn down a federal courthouse”? And Trump keeps tweeting “LAW & ORDER!” The Left are talking about Fascism and Secret Police.
Since the Hamilton movie came out, it inspired me to restart my goal of reading through biographies on all the Presidents. Several weeks ago, I re-read Chernow’s Washington biography and am now reading two John Adams biographies side-by-side (David McCullough’s and John Ferling’s) and have come across some fascinating parallels to our current situation. Nearly all of the following footnotes and quotes come from Ferling’s book.
Lessons from the Revolution
The Revolution did not start as an intellectual or political movement, but as as a popular grassroots movement, led by young radicals like Samuel Adams. Many of the Founders, including Adams, Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin, weren’t bothered by much of what Britain did until much later in the process. 
Those who would become Founding Fathers thought the protests were over-reactions, often questioning the motives and efficacy of the grassroots organizations leading these protests (like how commentators talk about the Black Lives Matter organization today).
From their beginning these protests were violent. Some people were injured, tarred-and-feathered, and a handful were killed during clashes. But overall, it was property destruction, and specific, symbolic property at that (including government buildings and courthouses), as well as some private, but still symbolic, property (like the Boston Tea Party).
How did Britain respond? Much like our government with Portland, they sent troops to Boston against the wishes and requests of the local government.
It was in this grim atmosphere of tension and paranoia that a British fleet was spotted entering Boston harbor, carrying the regiments of the “redcoat dragoons,” as the Whig newspapers had taken to calling the soldiers. For weeks the city had known the troops were coming. Instead of their grievances being redressed, they were to be “red-dressed,” or so one Boston preacher wisecracked. (Ferling, p.61)
We forget how much an escalation such actions are. Because of our militarized police looking like soldiers and how long it’s been since we;ve seen significant troop deployments in America, we’ve lost our sense of how serious this is when it happens in places like Portland.
The Error of Sending In Troops
Throughout our history the arrival of military troops from the central government, has tended to create more problems and anxieties than it solves—especially when the unrest is because of government distrust in the first place!
The [British] troops landed without incident, but the presence of the soldiers aroused considerable anxiety among a citizenry bred to look upon a standing army as the monarch’s agent for tyranny…. Local rowdies often tried to provoke difficulty, egging on the redcoats with jeers and curses, and sometimes short-tempered soldiers retaliated….The Sons of Liberty began to document the bellicose conduct of the troops [and] lurid accounts of soldierly outrages in the traditional press[, ] with warnings of the threat to American liberty posed by these invaders. (p.61)
To be clear, Americans still saw themselves as British citizens. By “invaders” they don’t mean by a foreign adversary, but by non-local authorities. The local government tried to speak out and work with the troops to leave, but they would not listen.
“Our city is yet a garrison filled with armed Men,” the Boston Sons of Liberty informed a sympathetic politician in London[,] “America is on the point of bursting into flames.” Uneasiness over the presence of the troops had grown [and] the frequency of troubling incidents was increasing…. The potential for real trouble was always present, although the protesters usually disbanded peaceably. [But] passions in Boston now ran at a white-hot pitch. Fights between local rowdies and soldiers seemed to occur daily, and fresh mobs formed just as regularly. (pp.64-65)
This sounds a lot like our current situation in Portland. Crowd have only swelled since the troops’ arrival. Contrary to what you’re seeing in Right-Wing videos, the federal troops have arrested three people for any sort of violent act.
Nevertheless, the troops then and now only increased tensions and violence, rather than minimizing it. Even the British realized how erroneous this tack was:
Both civilians and soldiers had been predicting trouble, and Gen. Thomas Gage, the commander of the British army in America, long since had concluded that the ministry had blundered terribly in ordering troops to Boston. (p.65)
The Boston Massacre
This all led to the Boston Massacre, an incident much more complex than we were likely taught in school. On that dark snowy night, there was a violent mob of 400 people yelling and screaming at eight troops in a town square, throwing rocks and clubs at them, before the troops opened fire.
(According to the rhetoric of many right-wing talk show hosts and commentators, it seems they likely would have taken the British soldiers’ side in this.)
In fact, John Adams himself was the defense attorney for the soldiers. He successfully convinced a jury of Bostonians to acquit the commander and all the soldiers except two, who were found guilty of a lesser manslaughter charge (their punishment was just having a hot brand applied to their thumbs).
This is important, though: Adams got the men acquitted not by blaming the protesters, but by blaming the central government for sending the troops into such a fraught situation, making matters worse rather than better.
[In Adams’ closing statement in the trial, he said,] “The tragedy was not brought on by the soldiers, but by the mob, and the mob, it must be understood, was the inevitable result of the flawed policy of keeping troops in a city on the pretext of keeping the peace… Soldiers kept in a populous town will always occasion two mobs where they prevent one. They are wretched conservators of the peace.” (McCullough, p.69, emphasis mine)
[Adams] succeeded in shifting to London much of the blame. It had been a mistake for the British to send an army to Boston, he maintained. An army was a notoriously poor instrument for maintaining order; the presence of this army had, indeed, provoked disorder. And in the face of the breakdown of law and order, these soldiers, threatened with harm, had been compelled to protect themselves… (Ferling, p.70)
Armies patrolling the streets of American cities is very much outside the culture, law, and history of America. The National Guard helps in times of emergencies or unrest but by law it isn’t an “army” nor federal troops. They are civilians part of the “Organized Militia of the United States”.
America didn’t have a permanent standing military until after World War II! Before then, the military would be disbanded after each conflict and soldiers would return to civilian life.
That’s because, from the very beginning, America believed that local, domestic unrest was for local authorities to handle. Once you bring in the professional central government troops, things go badly and set the ground for tyranny and a loss of liberties (which we’ve seen in Portland).
To be clear, the federal presence in Portland is technically legal. The feds can defend federal property and even go off-site to investigate crimes against the property. They can do this; but the questions are, should they and is it an effective way to accomplish the goal? The answer to both of those is a clear no.
Similarly, the British had the legal right to defend their property (their “mercantile interests”), but it was precisely by sending troops to do so that caused more protests, brought on more violence, and finally radicalized John Adams against the central government and pushed Samuel Adams to favor full-on Independence:
Adams [now] shared most of the precepts of the radicals. [He] believed, as they did, that once the colonists submitted absolutely to British sovereignty, their freedoms would be imperiled. To him, the presence of the British troops in Boston posed a danger to American liberties. He concurred with the protests against Britain’s stringent enforcement of its mercantile policies….
[And] after 1768 many of the popular leaders had moved to even more radical ground…. [There] was nothing in the writings of Samuel Adams prior to the arrival of the British troops in Boston in 1768 to suggest his desire for American independence. Thereafter, he changed. (p.72)
A Better Way
So if protests are getting unruly, and we don’t send in troops, what can the government do? What’s the alternative? Well, the minutes after the Boston Massacre offer further lessons in this regard.
After the troops fired into the crowd in Boston, the crowd scattered and there was actually about an hour of quiet as the troops were rushed away and the injured were cared for. Then look at what happened:
But, after an hour or so, the situation once again grew ugly. More people had arrived, including fresh British troops. Loose talk abounded. Additional violence seemed certain but was averted largely due to the courage of [British sympathizer and governor] Thomas Hutchinson. Already the victim of one mob, he nevertheless agreed to come to the scene. Someone showed him the frozen blood stains on the snow, and many witnesses, eager to tell someone, anyone, what had happened, spilled out their accounts. He listened patiently, then took charge. Climbing onto a second-story balcony of the Town House, he calmly told the crowd that he would guarantee that [the troops] would be tried. Satisfied, its mottled fury at last spent, the mob dispersed….
Violence was in the air, and in this white-hot atmosphere further bloodshed must have seemed inevitable. None occurred, however, in part because Hutchinson agreed to use his power to secure the removal of the British troops from Boston to Castle William, far out in the city’s harbor. Order also was maintained because the Sons of Liberty realized that it had a remarkable propaganda victory within its grasp; its leaders did not wish to forfeit their good fortune with misguided action. Indeed, with the streets peaceful, Samuel Adams and his forces waged a furious battle for the minds of the citizenry. (p.66)
What are the takeaways here? Calm was restored when the troops were taken away. Real leadership, even among people who fundamentally opposed the protestors, meant hearing the concerns and responding to them. Not giving in to unrealistic demands, but making sure they were part of the process of redressing what was legitimate in their concerns.
Also note that last part. Samuel Adams turned this into propaganda. He led dramatic funerals for those killed in incident, and published incendiary and outlandish writings and illustrations embellishing what happened, all to foment the movement (see image at the top of this post).
It was the colonial equivalent of “hands up; don’t shoot”, which right-wingers love to harp on as some evidence of bad faith among protesters. But why did Adams do this? Because the goal of the movement was still right and good, regardless of the specifics of the rallying cries.
In a time of protest against government force, it should be obvious that government force is not the best, most immediate answer. Prior to the arrival of federal troops in Portland this courthouse they are using as their legal justification for their presence had only undergone some graffiti and a small fire.
That’s not nothing. And the local authorities should investigate and try any suspects in those crimes. But since Trump sent DHS officers in, there has been more damage to the courthouse, more violence in the streets, and more political and community unrest—all things which the troops were purportedly sent in to lessen. This is just human nature.
But still, the actions of Trump’s administration have been unwise and exhibit deep disregard for the tradition of federalism. Crowd control is not the federal government’s prerogative and should only be employed in the largest and gravest of situations, and even then only as an absolutely final resort.
These historical precedents are so clear, it lends credence to concerns that these deployments are more for show than to actually curb unrest. If the concern is peace or, more importantly, to actually implement justice between police, communities, and minorities, this is the worst, most ineffective, most incompetent, most immoral and suspicious way of doing it.
In summary, the American Revolutionary tradition is on the side of the protesters of today and not the clown car of “LAW & ORDER!” bloviators. So everyone take a breath, get those troops out of Portland, and definitely do not send them here to Philadelphia.
 Adams’s journey to full commitment to the popular movement had been slow and tortuous, but his unwillingness to see despotic motives in London’s actions was not entirely unique. George Washington, for instance, had been so unconcerned by the Stamp Act in 1765 that he had not even attended the sessions of the House of Burgesses in which the legislation was denounced. And at the height of the disturbances caused by the tax, when Adams at least was writing tracts against the measure, Washington’s diary entries read: “Sowed Turneps. . . . Began to seperate the Male from the Female Hemp. . . . Seperated my Ewes & Rams. . . . Finish’d Sowing Wheat.” Benjamin Franklin appeared even less troubled than Washington by Britain’s new policies, trusting the parent state’s wisdom and benevolence. “I am not much alarm’d about your Schemes of raising Money on us,” he told an English friend at the time of the Stamp Act crisis. “You will take care for your own sakes not to lay greater Burthens on us than we can bear.”41 Such a view was never countenanced by John Adams. (Ferling, p.84)
 There can be no question that Adams was philosophically at one with the popular party [and] secretly longed to play a major role in the popular movement, but it was a commitment he could not make at this juncture. Years of legal study and practice had left him not only deeply respectful of the parent state and its institutions but also with a reverential attitude toward the sanctity of the law. To defy lawfully constituted authority was an almost unthinkable proposition….Adams sought, therefore, to play a discreet role in this protest. (p.60)
 Adams’s reticence to fully commit himself to the popular protest stemmed from another factor, too. While he agreed that the Stamp Act threatened “irretrievable destruction” for the colonies, he was troubled by the direction the movement had taken in 1765. Not only did the violence of that summer concern him, but he privately wondered whether the protest was designed more to further the interests of the leaders than to secure the repeal of the objectionable tax. (p.49)
 A crowd gathered that morning to demonstrate before the offices of a merchant suspected of having transgressed the trade embargo with England. All was calm until the arrival of Ebenezer Richardson, an informer for the customs service who had previously called attention to himself by openly denouncing the popular faction. Injudiciously, Richardson, a man with a reputation as a foolish loudmouth, shouted epithets at the impassioned protestors. Predictably, they turned their fury upon him, chasing him into his nearby home. The armed mob then pelted his residence with garbage and stones, one missile even striking his terrified wife in the head. Richardson retreated to the second floor, soon to appear at an open window, brandishing a musket. That only added to the crowd’s frenzy, prompting a few zealots to attempt to break down his front door. Richardson, angry and panicky, fired into the crowd. A young boy of eleven or twelve, Christopher Seider, was killed. Men raced up the stairs and overpowered Richardson. Some were for lynching him immediately, but the mob leaders prevailed. Richardson was turned over to a justice of the peace for trial. (p.64)
 On the morning of August 14, Samuel Adams brought his first crowd into the streets. It listened to speeches, then hanged effigies… The demonstration could not have been more orderly. That evening Adams and his confederates organized a second rally…. This crowd, composed largely of unskilled laborers, soon got out of hand, tearing down a building owned by Oliver and about to set to work on his mansion when its organizers reestablished control. Two weeks later the mob struck again. This time Hutchinson [a judge in the British court] was the target. His house was looted and demolished; when the sun rose the following morning, all that remained of this once handsome mansion was the frame. By that time, moreover, a badly shaken Andrew Oliver had resigned as stamp collector….(p.46)
 [John Adams] was part of a team that instructed Boston’s representatives on the General Court to vote against appropriations for the maintenance of the British troops within the province. In addition, he probably helped draft a petition of the Boston town meeting to King George III, a somewhat qualmish document urging the monarch to recall the troops. (pp.61-62)
 On Monday, March 5, a raw, late winter night, mischievous crowds gathered at three separate locations. One throng congregated at the redcoats’ barracks near the Draper’s Alley-Brattle Street intersection [and] began to engage in a noisy—though nonviolent—altercation with the soldiers. It was a tense scene. The British soldiers formed a semi-circle and wielded bayoneted muskets at a jeering, taunting crowd of perhaps four hundred. Several anxious minutes passed. While some ignoramuses in the crowd dared the soldiers to shoot, more sensible bystanders… talked with the British commander, urging him not to give the order to fire. Preston seemed dazed and frightened, caught in a nightmare that he hoped soon would end, and end peacefully. It did not. A hothead in the crowd threw a club, which struck a soldier. Immediately a shot rang out, followed by a pause of about six seconds, followed in turn by a round of shots. Several men in the mob were hit, five mortally. Preston, enraged that his men had fired without orders, ran down the line screaming for the shooting to cease.
 Several points can be made here. First, the Whiskey Rebellion was an actual rebellion, not violent protests. They had forcibly removed and dismantled all local government and was setting up their own government and even about to begin trials when Washington arrived. Second, Washington did not bring in federal troops to bring order. He called forth local militias and brought them to the Rebellion area in order to then negotiate with the rebels. There was no battle, no deaths, and only two leaders were tried for treason. They were found guilty and sentenced to die, but Washington pardoned them. Third, there was a lot of disagreement among Washington’s cabinet about this endeavor. It was more or less a Washington and Hamilton (then Secretary of the Treasury) special project. Washington’s Secretary of War didn’t even take part, and both Madison and Jefferson railed against Washington’s actions, saying he was making up how big this rebellion was in order to create a standing army. Lastly, as Chernow’s Washington biography says, “Because the whole point of the expedition [to put down the rebellion] was to establish the sovereign principle of law and order in the new federal system, he warned his men that it would be ‘peculiarly unbecoming’ to inflict wanton harm on the whiskey rebels and that [local] civil magistrates, not [federal] military tribunals, should mete out punishment to them.”