March 5, 2011

Watering The Tree Of Liberty

Watching the protests in Egypt last month descend into violence, especially seeing video from the BBC and CNN of pro-democracy protesters clashing with agents of the authoritarian status quo in one of Cairo's most important open spaces near its center of government reminds me of an incident from my own nation's history. It is a reminder that democracy is rarely achieved without paying a cost in blood. Today is a good day to commemorate the anniversary of that awful incident, a reminder of what our freedom is built upon.

In Boston on March 5, 1770, a young man named Edward Gerrish, who was the apprentice of a wig maker, confronted a British soldier, Captain John Goldfinch, near Goldfinch's post guarding the customs house. Gerrish said that Goldfinch had not settled up his bill with Gerrish's master. In fact, Captain Goldfinch's account was good, so he ignored the request for money. Gerrish came back later with some friends and renewed the claim that Goldfinch owed money. A low-ranking British soldier named "Private White" then hit Gerrish, either with his fist or the butt of his rifle. One of Gerrish's friends tried to retaliate, and a fistfight broke out between the civilians and the redcoats.

The fight grew, and attracted the attention of both Bostonians who were already upset enough that there were active-duty military troops in Boston to collect taxes, and the soldiers who felt their paramount duty was to keep the peace. One of Goldfinch's superiors sent a squadron of eight soldiers with fixed bayonets in to the growing fight to try and regain control of a chaotic situation. This did not work, as the crowd responded to the escalation of force from the redcoats by throwing so many snowballs at them that they could not advance to join the other soldiers.

They also taunted the British soldiers as having no right to be in the colonies and said that they should go back to England where they belonged. While crudely expressed in the riot, this mirrored an argument made by patriot leaders like Samuel Adams, who had publicly denounced King George's government for putting a standing army in the peaceful civilian city of Boston. Characteristically, the troops remained stoically silent in response to the jeers of the crowd, but it is hard to imagine that being accused of acting lawlessly had no emotional effect on the soldiers.

Then, a few people in the crowd produced clubs and began physically attacking the relief soldiers. The soldiers responded by using the butts of their rifles to club back, and the situation deteriorated into a general melee. Someone -- it does not seem likely to have been the commander of the relief troops -- shouted "fire!" and five of the soldiers fired their rifles into the crowd. We know that it was at least five, because five people died, three of them instantly. These are thought to be the first casualties of the American Revolution.

After the shots were fired, the crowd sobered up quickly, many running away in panic. The next day, the military commanders withdrew troops from the area to barracks, waiting for the mood of the town to die down. The growing patriot movement, however, was not content to allow the situation to end, and pressed for murder charges to be filed against the soldiers who had used their rifles on the crowd.

It is doubtful that any legal action would have been taken if it were not for Paul Revere. Americans celebrate Paul Revere for his famous "midnight ride" from Boston to Lexington in 1775, alerting people along the way that British troops were moving to secure a cache of small arms and cannon stored in a depot inland. But Revere's biggest contribution to the cause of independence was his creation of a colored woodcut depicting what came to be known as the "Boston Massacre," showing in graphic detail (and with a little editorial license) the moment of March 5, 1770, when the redcoats opened fire on the rioting colonists. Revere's illustration was reprinted, first in newspapers in Boston and over the course of several days, in papers from Quebec to Augusta, and eventually found its way to London. The graphic illustration of a line of British soldiers firing their rifles into a crowd of unarmed American colonists outraged nearly everyone who saw it.

Revere's woodcut is also one of the first uses of the mass media and the distribution of visual arts which mobilized significant political movement -- and an example of the slowness and clumsiness of the government thus challenged in realizing what was going on. The power of a new media expression of such an event to move hearts and minds is immense. Revere's woodcut has echoes through the ages in the graphic photographs of the horrors of the U.S. civil war, FDR's fireside chats, the indelible images of terrified students at Kent State University and the execution of NVA infilatrators in Saigon during the Vietnam War, the Rodney King videotape, and now in twitters and blog posts from the Muslim World throughout the past several years.

In any event, the political pressure brought to a boil in part by this use of a new form of media raised pressure on the government, which agreed to allow the prosecution of murder charges against the soldiers. By itself, this was a significant concession -- the colonial government was admitting that there was a possibility that the soldiers had acted unlawfully. Public sentiment against them was very high and they had to be confined for their own safety during the trial. It appeared that convictions were a foregone conclusion.

That was when John Adams, the man who later would be the second President of the United States, stepped in. He volunteered to defend the soldiers at no cost. He was already a prominent citizen of Boston and was identified with the patriot movement -- which at the time did not want formal independence from England but rather what we would today call "local autonomy." John Adams and his cousin Samuel Adams had a bitter falling-out over the first man's offer to defend the soldiers in the high-pressure trial. The firey patriot Samuel Adams said that this was a betrayal of the cause of freedom; the future President said that the reasons the colonists wanted independence was to free themselves from the lawless actions of the government, so their first duty must be to ensure the rule of law, and that required that the defendants be able to present the best legal defenses to the charges against them that the evidence would support.

In the trial, argued that the confusion of the fight, the initiation of violence by civilians against the soldiers, and the simple fact that the soldiers were being physically attacked all meant that they had the right to defend themselves from immediate attack. Adams put the blame solidly on King George for having sent a standing army to be stationed amongst civilians in the first place -- Adams said that if this incident had not happened, then something else very much like it would inevitably have happened. The fault, he argued, lay not with the soldiers but with the orders they had been given from London.

The defense worked. Of the eight soldiers who were charged with murder, six were acquitted and two convicted only of manslaughter because of their own admissions that they had fired their rifles directly into the crowd. Adams reduced the sentence for these two by invoking the ancient rule of "benefit of the clergy," by having the two soldiers in question demonstrate that they could read from the Bible. While this looks like sort of a cheap trick to modern eyes, it also helped demonstrate the very frivolity of that ancient and outmoded rule -- these men were obviously not priests but soldiers. Nevertheless, Adams' maneuver reduced their sentence from death to a branding of their thumbs. All eight defendants were sent home to England alive.

Along the way, Adams risked a substantial loss of political standing for defending these very unpopular men, and doing so vigorously. It took him some time to recover from many of his friends and clients turning against him in retaliation for having taken the case, and Adams was very sensitive about public approval to begin with. But history has vindicated the lawyer over the brewer. John Adams' defense of the soldiers in the Boston Massacre trial is a powerful example of a man putting principle first, above even his own politics. He made it clear that he believed the soldiers should go home, too, and that the King had no legal right to have stationed the soldiers there in the first place -- but even if George Hanover would not respect the rule of law in London, John Adams would respect the rule of law in Boston, and so should the jury.

Adams demonstrated in the trial that even the military was subject to the rule of law, and that the law demanded that even the King could be criticized in court with impunity if the rule of law were to be upheld. He showed the world that the King's policy of having active-duty troops in a civilian city to maintain order and collect taxes was very bad idea indeed and a legitimate cause for grievance by the colonists against the King. And in so doing, he ensured that the deaths of the five civilians would culminate in the independence of the United States of America and the founding of a Constitutional republic on the western shores of the Atlantic.

Whether a similar result can be achieved on the banks of the Nile in 2011 remains to be seen. Sadly, not all nations can experience velvet revolutions and Egypt will look more like the former colony of Massachusetts than the former Czechoslovakia in that now, the blood of martyrs has watered the tree of liberty. Let us hope that the tree flowers and blossoms, without need of any further nutrition.