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On the Rudeness of Mobs

America’s plutocratic love affair with cancellation

In October of 1769, a conservative Boston printer broadsided a bunch of the day’s leading activists. The colonies were in a furor at the time. Rioters and looters, often backwoods settlers angry about the power of gentlemanly land speculators, had grown in number and motive and became fixtures of American political life. Coastal cities were seeing new waves of migrants who’d been disfigured or dislocated in the wake of the French and Indian War, and a postwar depression in trade had brought the first period of economic hardship that many white colonists had ever known. “Mob rule” prevailed as the basic political condition in some cities, where the wealthy aimed to contain the popular energy or to channel it for their own ends—a tension that would dominate the framing of the Constitution. By the end of the 1760s, a large part of Boston’s merchant class had discovered in the mob an expedient political tool: they spent half a decade recasting Parliamentary taxation as an assault on the “liberty” of impecunious colonists, though most moderate Britons (and colonists) were aware that white people in colonial America were governed as liberally as anywhere in the European world. A superheated rhetoric won out; soon it became a patriotic duty to support boycotts of taxed goods. Those who spoke against the boycotts faced social banishment, economic ruin, assault, and humiliation from the fomented crowd.

John Mein, the Loyalist printer of the Boston Chronicle, thought that the gentlemen who whipped up the mob were hypocritical profiteers, and he set out to prove it. He published the manifests of ships owned by leading members of Boston’s merchant circle, showing that some of the loudest mouths rallying popular support for boycotts and anger against British taxes were violating the boycott themselves, using their low-priced, smuggled goods to put smaller merchants who abided by the boycotts out of business. But Mein misunderstood the temper of Boston at the time. He thought that exposing the hypocrisy of men like John Hancock, whom he called the “milch-cow of the well-disposed,” would chasten the men whipping up riots and writing inflamed pamphlets. The Patriot press and its supportive public didn’t care. They attacked Mein, calling him one of those “who have AUDACIOUSLY counteracted the UNITED SENTIMENTS of the BODY of Merchants throughout NORTH-AMERICA,” which was to say, basically, that talking about wealthy Patriots violating the boycott was more of an attack on the unity of the colonies than wantonly violating the anti-British boycotts that the unity was supposed to be in service of. Soon a throng of a thousand came for Mein, who had his head beaten with a shovel before he absconded to England by disguising himself as a British soldier. Hancock bought up Mein’s debts and shuttered his troublesome paper. The Patriots of pre-Revolutionary America did not believe in free speech or reasoned discourse.

It has always been hard for Americans to deal squarely with the fact that we had a revolution.

A quarter of a millennium later, a cadre of mostly older liberalish intellectuals and younger conservatives ignited one of our periodic internet wildfires with an open letter in Harper’s, attempting to defend cultural life against the same forces that led us into the American Revolution. “Censoriousness,” they wrote, is a spreading force in our lives—“an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” The writers of the letter took pains to avoid using the phrase “cancel culture,” though that is what they were writing about, possibly because this censoriousness has become so pervasive that it already feels pointless and passé to even rail against it using the common phrase. For the right’s part, the term-of-choice for this force is “mob rule,” a timeworn expression Tucker Carlson has recently taken to using almost every night as he portrays our ritual online denunciations of the living and the destruction of monuments of our once-hallowed dead as vilely un-American. But mob rule and cancel culture are what made our Revolution, which is to say that they made the America we still, for now, live in.

It has always been hard for Americans to deal squarely with the fact that we had a revolution. The right has trouble admitting that the United States, and a soon-to-form national and social consciousness, were born out of the convulsive and bloody overturning of a social and political order. The left has always had trouble believing that the ouster of that order deserves to count as a proper revolution, since it didn’t look anything like the revolutions that leftists would later celebrate or yearn for: it had no pronounced class basis, didn’t change the basic economic structures of the country, and its leaders were never interested much in pushing the logic of freedom and the equality of humankind to their rightful conclusions. “Why is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negroes?” Samuel Johnson famously wondered, long before anyone on this continent was seriously hoping for a split with the British crown. Even before most people fully understood that a revolution was beginning, observers were pointing out the duplicity in the rhetoric that birthed it.

The people can have a little rioting, in the right circumstances, so long as they don’t unduly threaten the aims of the powerful.

Conservatives, in the moment before revolution, were terrified to speak out. Patriots began exposing private correspondences, leading one tremulous merchant to warn a friend to watch his language because “the temper of the people is such that misconstructions are put on the most innocent expressions,” as he put it, by “those who call themselves the Assertors of American Freedom.” Mob rule, or cancel culture, was among the forces that drove the formation of America. But it did not, for all that the papers spoke of liberty, birth an egalitarian or even an avowedly democratic America—which can hardly be a surprise, given that financial interests were what produced Revolutionary zeal; by the time George Washington, a slave-owner riding in a chariot with polished silver fittings, took up the presidency, the narrative of the new Revolutionary aristocracy as liberators and champions of the people was almost impossible to challenge. It was with this language that the Federalists soon set about tamping down popular energies and reasserting elite rule. It is a trick that elites would come to use many times in American history. And it is a trick they are using now.

Burned at the Liberty Tree

In June, Amazon Studios posted a billboard on Sunset Boulevard in East Hollywood showing a black woman’s upraised fist with the caption “Amplify Black Voices.” I find this billboard irksome, perhaps because I see it a lot, perhaps because one older woman I know broke her ten-year boycott of Amazon this spring citing to me “all their support of Black Lives Matter.” Everyone, of course, has their pet example of recent corporate hypocrisy—Popeye’s Chicken tweeting out “Popeyes is nothing without Black Lives,” or Jamie Dimon taking a knee in front of an open bank vault to show Chase Bank’s support for equality and justice in America. But anyone, of any political persuasion, looking honestly at this moment can admit that it has been disorienting to watch so many companies, from Uber to Exxon to Rag & Bone, tripping to align themselves with a movement that began as an extralegal and sometimes violent revolt against the system that these companies administer. For their part, conservatives now seem genuinely shell-shocked by how quickly corporate establishments have accommodated themselves to the idea that looting and burning stores can be a legitimate form of protest—or at least to how quickly they’ve turned a blind eye. Meanwhile, the liberal punditry showed itself to be outlandishly terrified by the armed anti-lockdown protests that spread after the arrival of quarantine this spring, and horrified, too, at the way that conservative politicians and media embraced them. But these are both examples of the riotous tendency in American politics, a force that the powerful have only found dangerous when it couldn’t be brought in line with their own interests.

Yet riots were an accepted, or at least tolerated, part of British society in the eighteenth century. Britons prided themselves on having a constitutional order that provided “liberty” far greater than any of the benighted and priest-ridden societies of mainland Europe, and they took for granted that this liberty had been in part won by the threat of violence from common people. “Tho’ innocent Persons may sometimes suffer in popular Tumults,” one observer wrote in 1768, “the general Resentment of the People is principally directed according to Justice and the greatest Delinquent feels it most.” The unwritten British Constitution, a tripartite agreement between King, Parliament, and the common people, made it possible to believe that “extralegal” armed politics could, in fact, be legal when a fair point was being made and the powers-that-be weren’t unduly threatened. This was especially true in pre-Revolutionary America, which lacked the standing military force needed to quash riots. As colonial governor Thomas Hutchinson, in what now sounds like an uncanny echo of how corporations and establishment politicians have embraced contemporary protest movements, wrote in 1768: “Mobs, a sort of them at least, are constitutional.” This produced an effect that was as obvious in the founding days of the republic as it is now: in an unruly and dissatisfied country, mob politics are unavoidable. Which is to say that the people can have a little rioting, in the right circumstances, so long as they don’t unduly threaten the aims of the powerful.

The best indication of how two decades of mob politics in America would look came with the passage of the Stamp Act, which placed duties on printed matter, and more importantly sought to establish a precedent for Parliament’s right to tax Britain’s American colonies. It was passed in 1765, to go into effect on November 1 of that year. On August 14, an effigy of Andrew Oliver, who was supposed to act as the stamp distributor in Massachusetts, was discovered hanging on an elm that would later come to be known as Boston’s “liberty tree.” That evening, a crowd torched the effigy, attacked Oliver’s home, and tore down his office—this opening salvo amounted to the first short burst of the Stamp Act Riots. The mainstream media celebrated them. “Our Brethren in Boston have indeared themselves more than ever to all the colonies in America,” a letter in the New York Gazette declared, wishful that this “Noble example . . . will be unanimously followed by all the colonies.” It was.

These were not spontaneous uprisings. The August 14 “riots” were planned by the Loyal Nine, a club of well-off merchants and tradesmen who would soon morph into Boston’s chapter of the Sons of Liberty. British officials noted “respectable people” looking “decently-dressed”—sounding much like Tucker Carlson accusing Black Lives Matter protesters of being well-off liberal arts grads—and complained that the mob did not appear as a proper mobile vulgaris—which would have included the unemployed, unpropertied, and free blacks comprising the truly dispossessed of the city. British officials, at the same time, sought to convince the mobs they’d been heard. “You have no need to have recourse to VIOLENT methods any longer,” Hutchinson wrote. “The channel is now open to the ear and heart of the best of KINGS: rely upon it and he will hear you.” Even the English took a kindly view: the protests were “highly approved,” one Briton wrote, “except the acts of violence—the destruction and plunder of private property.”

Personal vituperation and baroque hyperbole became more or less the rhetorical standard for political speech.

But the still-forming intra-continental associations of Sons of Liberty found it advantageous to their mercantile interests to keep passions on medium-high, while preserving the threat of simmering violence. By November 1 of 1765, the rich were firmly in control of the rebellion: “Two Gentlemen . . . the richest merchants in the town” called the leaders of North Side and South Side mobs and hired the proto-mobster Ebeneezer Mackintosh, “with his corps to keep the Peace and prevent mischief,” as Governor Francis Bernard was quoted describing the scene in Pauline Maier’s classic study From Resistance to Revolution. Mackintosh “presided in a blue and gold uniform, wearing a gold-laced hat and carrying a rattan cane,” maintaining a crowd of two thousand, while “allegedly disorder-prone Negroes” were excluded.

After exhausting his usefulness, Mackintosh was himself cast aside by his gentlemen friends and placed in debtors’ prison. Soon enough these same patricians discovered a safer tool than riots, but one that proved just as effective at channeling a species of popular anger that traditional politics couldn’t: social ostracism and public shaming. On October 25, the freemen of Essex County, New Jersey, proclaimed that anyone who adhered to the Stamp Act should be cast out of polite society, that decent people should have “no Communication with any such Person, nor speak with them on any Occasion unless it be to inform them of their Vileness.” This was not an isolated view. One writer to a Pennsylvania paper suggested, in language typical of the time, that a man paying stamp duties should be “branded with eternal infamy and reproach,” and cast out. “Let him be alone in the world—let him wish to associate with the wild beasts of some dark loathsome cave.”

This invitation to shaming wasn’t a social affliction in the eyes of the people who encouraged it—it was deliberate and sound politics, a more controllable, pantomimed violence that placated the mob while containing the energy that led it to burn the homes of rich merchants and loot storehouses. “The central preoccupation of the Sons of Liberty and later the revolutionary movement,” Maier wrote, “was then with winning a mass base, with converting the population at large into Sons of Liberty.” What this meant, in practice, was that while Sons of Liberty groupings were springing up all along the Atlantic Seaboard, the patriotic zeal they embodied was able to appear radical without ever slipping beyond the grip of the merchants who inspired it. Again, it was highly effective: “So universal has been the resentment of the people,” John Adams wrote gleefully, “that every man who has dared to speak in favour of the stamps . . . how great soever his Abilities and Virtues had been esteemed before, or whatever his fortune, Connections, and Influence had been, has been seen to sink into universal Contempt and Ignominy.”

A Taste of Hog’s Dung

It was more than a decade from the passage of the Stamp Act before the flames broke out in earnest. In retrospect the path looks inexorable, but it needn’t have been. British officials and many conservatives, finding themselves suddenly part of a confused and embattled minority, struggled to assuage or even understand the anger of the mob. In 1772, the royal governor of North Carolina took action to free backcountry farmers from the yoke of corrupt if well-connected land speculators, like George Washington, who used their connections to buy up land at cut rates and rent it out in an early form of sharecropping peonage. But this shift toward the interest of the poor and landless never fully took hold—partly because conservatives did not have much genuine care for the poor or the landless, and otherwise because the poor and landless were in many places already firmly in the Patriot camp. The disenfranchised had stopped believing in the capacity of the older order to hear their protests, and the Patriot elite took full advantage.

This period was not a time of earnest appeals or reasoned discourse. Personal vituperation and baroque hyperbole became more or less the rhetorical standard for political speech. Riots and disorder calmed for a while in the early 1770s, after the repeal of the Stamp Act and the subsequent Townshend Duties led to boycotts and smuggling of the sort that lined the pockets of men like John Hancock. But a new colonial sub-elite, an entire class born, like John Adams, with an “enormous chip on his round shoulders,” as Alan Taylor put it in his American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804, was not appeased by this power structure. Engaged in a fight over control of the colonial system, they wanted a respect that had long eluded them. And so the colonies became a zone of contest between rich men, with the mob serving as a weapon, or at least an instrument. “Rather than denounce all of the rich as a predatory class,” Taylor wrote, “Patriots encouraged laboring people to focus their animus more narrowly on a few gentlemen who seemed especially menacing because of their imperial connections.”

The Stamp Act was repealed in 1766, but the politics it inaugurated had been institutionalized. The inter-colonial Continental Association was formed, and the tactics its leaders used to enforce its boycotts and political conformity now look positively Maoist. Long before the war began, the “mobs singled out suspected Loyalists, subjected them to elaborate interrogations, and urged them to sign confessions of guilt and repentance,” wrote Gordon Wood. Americans who drank British tea or spoke out against the Continental Association were forced to sign oaths of “Fidelity” in elaborate ceremonies of contrition. One observer complained that their methods were “really infamous,” and put opponents of the Association in “real danger of their lives. Their property was actually unsafe, their Signs, Doors and Windows, were daub’d over in the Night time with every kind of Filth, and one of them particularly had his person treated in the same manner.”

By the mid-1770s, the traditional aristocratic order had not been upended, but it had been sundered. Rich men who avoided the ire of Patriot diehards were paid the usual deference, which bordered on worship, offered to gentlemen of the age. But those who crossed the line were subject to almost comical extremes of social opprobrium. A Connecticut doctor, Abner Bebe, was “stripped naked & hot Pitch was poured upon him,” one friend wrote, “which blistered his Skin. He was then carried to a Hog Sty & rubbed over with Hog’s Dung. They threw the Hog’s Dung in his Face, & rammed some of it down his Throat. . . . His house was attacked, his Windows broke.” Taylor added: “Going door-to-door, committeemen urged every man and woman to sign the association or suffer the consequences. Inviting everyone to spy on their neighbors, the committees ferreted out, seized, and burned stashes of tea and conservative books while a crowd gathered at the county courthouse to hoot at the culprits. After confessing, the suspects had to ignite the condemned items in festive bonfires that rallied public support for the new committees and intimidated the wavering.”

The Patriots called those who pleaded for freedom of speech traitors to liberty. The Philadelphia committee proclaimed that “no person has the right to the protection of a community or society he wishes to destroy” by writing or speaking in ways that “aid and assist our enemies.” A Maryland conservative plaintively asked a friend, “What think you of this land of liberty, where a man’s property is at the mercy of anyone that will lead the mob!”

Though, to be clear, it was not just anyone who could lead the mob now. “Liberty,” as a concept, had gone from a vague good shared by the subjects of a modestly enlightened slaveholding Empire to a concrete force that happened to align neatly with the business interests of speculators and merchants, which is to say it had nothing at all to do with free speech, the liberation of the twenty percent of Americans who were then enslaved, or the rights of colonists to be free of the powerful planters whose land-degrading farming practices and corrupt speculations were forcing Americans into landlessness. The amorphous British ideal of liberty was being given a concrete American definition, one that equated freedom with economic rights.

This new and violently enforced consensus had effects that were to prove almost unfathomably disastrous for the lives of untold millions, and for the political future of the new republic: a perverse logic that equated political freedom with property-holding reached its reductio ad absurdum when, almost a century later, rich, Southern men went to war claiming they were fighting for personal liberty by defending a system of human bondage. And in a society where owning land was the ultimate expression of freedom, and where rich landholders had seized most of the good land east of the Appalachian Mountains, it was inevitable that the poor and landless would push across the Boundary Line and enter into generations of genocidal war in the West. The land had to be taken from someone, the thinking went, and the colonial baronets much preferred that it be taken from Natives than from the rich, lest the rapacious economic and population growth of the new nation be throttled. The histories of this period are curiously bereft of any discussion of broader egalitarian potential amid all this shallow rhetoric and coopted violence. It makes sense, given that anyone who spoke against the Patriotic vanguard could find themselves on a scaffold beneath the Liberty Tree. A rebellion had formed, and then it had been contained. Now a Revolution needed to be finished.

Canceling the Tories

The Revolution took shape more quickly than its authors could have expected. A large part of all societies on the brink of political upheaval believes that such insurgencies are too radical to effect. It’s a basic mistake of any historical analysis to see events unfolding as part of an inevitable plan or process, but after a decade of charged political divisions and deranged hyperbole on the part of Patriot activists, it is difficult to see what else could have come of it all. In 1765, writers were already describing the Stamp Tax in language that could not be answered by reasoned politics, declaring that it would “occasion an entire stagnation of trade, discourage every kind of industry, and involve us in the most abject slavery.” “Slavery,” in a hemisphere with an economy that was deeply involved in the most literal form of abject slavery, was a watchword for Patriot activists during a decade in which they enjoyed many of the choicest liberties anywhere in the world. But the self-pitying paranoia trafficked by white colonists didn’t conform to any real-world threat, and therefore couldn’t be assuaged by any real-world compromise. It was only natural for the Patriot gentlemen to finally forget, in 1776, the kindly affection that only months early they’d expressed for King George. “As the symbol of British sovereignty the king had to become the great villain,” Alan Taylor wrote. “In a pivotal transmutation, the formerly beloved king became a despised tyrant.”

The amorphous British ideal of liberty was being given a concrete American definition, one that equated freedom with economic rights.

And “revolution” is the proper word for what the war unleashed in the colonies. Conservatives and Loyalists had long observed the new Patriot consensus with an uneasy mix of sputtering confusion and acute understanding—a rising generation of Patriot gentlemen, brought up reading Locke and Cato’s Letters and other new radical theory, wanted to sweep away the old British aristocratic order and replace it with a new one that happened to be led by them, one where their interests on the frontier and at the customs house would be well-served. They didn’t care what values they swept aside. The Tories charged with putting the “community at variance, father against son”—leaving “no law, no friendship, no alliance, no ties of blood” left in the face of their “specious show of an exalted kind of virtue.” They were “indeed trying to destroy the ligaments of the older society,” Wood wrote, “and to reknit people together in a new way.”

The Patriots upended timeworn social hierarchies without making an egalitarian revolution, and that was the point. Later republican leaders, like Thomas Jefferson, did write with some passion about how democracy could not exist in the face of deep wealth inequality, but they merely wrung their hands over the “question” of slavery. Federalists like Alexander Hamilton won ratification for an unpopular constitution by using the press, which they largely controlled, to create what Taylor called a “useful fiction” that We the People, and not a set of new aristocrats, had authored it. To this day, many Americans believe the Federalists saw that our system of checks and balances was designed to protect the people against the abuses of government, and not that the system was designed to prevent mob rule by an overly democratic legislature. The revolution had been made manifest—a social and political order had been overthrown, and the people who had made bitter noise about the values of social decency and reasoned debate had been forced to flee to Halifax and London, if they’d been lucky enough to survive the war. But the mob had been carefully controlled, and our long national story—the story of a nation where the rote language of popular liberty has almost always served to protect the interests of oligarchs and businessmen—had begun in earnest.

“The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation,” wrote the signatories to the Harper’s open letter against cancel culture. “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.” This is a nice sentiment. But in sum it’s a radical misunderstanding of our moment—revolutions, whether peaceful or otherwise, create their own logic. They do not conform to societal values, they remake them. Statues of the leaders of our founding Revolution are falling by the dozens. The popular myths inaugurated by our originary acts of mob rule have fallen out of currency, and millions upon millions of Americans no longer believe that this was ever truly a land of liberty. They are right. And now a new coterie of corporate gentlemen and aristocrats are circling, aiming to gain from a moment of popular revolt that began with demands for equality and challenges to the very system that enriched them in the first place. If we’re going to have another revolution, we should be careful to watch who is leading it.