In 1741, African slaves, Spanish sailors, Irish servants and soldiers, and antinomian Dissenters conspired to burn New York’s Fort George and murder the city’s wealthy and powerful inhabitants. They hatched their plot at John Hughson’s tavern and spread word to the surrounding countryside and down Long Island. At the sight of flames from the city, country slaves and servants should rise up, kill their masters, and move on the city where they would welcome a Spanish flotilla of conquerors and personal freedom.
Brown. Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, 1760-1791, Second Edition. Houghton-Mifflin.
Middlekauf, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789, Revised Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2005.
Nellis, Eric. The Long Road to Change: America’s Revolution, 1750-1820. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2012.
Rediker & Linebaugh. Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Boston: Beacon Press. 2000.
Wood, Gordon. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Knopf. 1992.
Anthony Comegna: For every successful revolution, there may be dozens that fail. For every 1776, there is a 1741. That year, African slaves, Spanish sailors, Irish servants and soldiers, and antinomian dissenters conspired to burn New York’s Fort George and murder the city’s wealthy and powerful inhabitants. They hatched their plot at John Huston’s tavern and spread word to the surrounding countryside [00:00:30] and down Long Island. At the sight of flames from the city, country slaves and servants should rise up, kill their masters, and move on the city, where they would welcome a Spanish flotilla of conquerors and personal freedom.
Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
[00:01:00] At least, that was the plan. The chief arsonist chosen by the conspirators was named Quack, and he set the fires too early. He either panicked, he was angry, or fearful that the plot would be discovered, and he set the fire on March 17th, rather than May. Most people were not ready, certainly not out in the countryside. While Fort George did burn, the revolution failed. Strong winds carried the fire to burn the governor’s mansion, the Anglican church, the army barracks, and the general secretary’s office, [00:01:30] each one left in smoldering ruins.
It terrified the local mercantile elite. In reaction, they burned 13 African plotters alive and hanged 17 others. With them, they hanged four white conspirators. They reexported 70 slaves throughout the empire and impressed five Europeans into the army. The tavern keeper’s daughter was banished, with a newly orphaned child under her care.
The mercantile elite hanged the conspirators bodies around [00:02:00] the city in chains as examples, two of which made the most odd of impressions. John Huston, again, was the tavern keeper, a white man with characteristically white features. John Guinn was an African slave with characteristically African features. But when hanged next to each other, over time, the bodies changed colors. Guinn’s went from a dark black to being a bright white. His hair turned gray, and his nose shrunk in size. Huston’s body turned black, and his [00:02:30] white hair turned black, too.
Spectators of all kinds were forever changed by this event, and nobody knew quite how to explain it. People who read the Bible, Jeremiah 13:23, maybe have come up with an explanation. The verse reads, “Can an Ethiopian change his skin or a leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.” John Guinn’s skin, though, did change, so maybe this slaveholder’s city could be the start of something good, after [00:03:00] all. It would take concerted individual action.
The New York plot was one among many in this time period, and though it was not successful, some others were. At least 80 conspiracies ripped through the Caribbean and Atlantic world between 1730 and 1742. This number was six or seven times larger than the 12 years either before or afterward. The governor of the Leeward Islands identified the responsible party, a dangerous spirit of liberty, spreading across [00:03:30] imperial possessions, the hydra of servile rebellion.
In 1730, there was a plot in the oldest British slave colony, Virginia, and the newest, South Carolina. There was a plot in Bermuda and French Louisiana, which as we’ve seen, was the first slave society in North America. There was another Louisiana rising in 1732, and the next year, in South Carolina, Danish Saint John and Dutch Guiana. In 1734, there were revolts in British New Jersey, the Bahamas, Saint Kitts, [00:04:00] and yet another in South Carolina. Over the rest of the decade, plots developed in Antigua, Anguilla, Saint Martin, Guadalupe, Georgia, Charleston, and Maryland. The Stono Rebellion in South Carolina capped off the decade.
Through the entire course of the 1730s, there was the Jamaican Maroon War. Maroons on the island’s center were split between Leeward and Windward factions, both making peace with the British in 1739 to 1740. They maintained a sort of semi-independence within the British colony. [00:04:30] In Dutch Suriname, Maroons won similar victories and autonomy. While the arsonist’s flames consumed the colonies in fear, revolution and counter revolution, the great awakening revived the spirit of antinomianism in religious hearts.
The itinerant preacher, George Whitefield, railed against slavery, warning slave owners and slave traders of God’s judgment to come. But established interests were powerful, and most revolutions failed. Those few that were successful enjoyed large numbers and favorable [00:05:00] geography, or their particular parent empire happened to be beleaguered somewhere else on the globe.
These rebellions and revolutions were not nationalist events. They were not aimed at creating new structures to accumulate and wield power. They were devolutionary individualists and relatively spontaneous responses to early modern power. They wanted to devolve power away from the center, away from the monarch’s and parliament’s incorporations, down to the people [00:05:30] who actually occupied space in the world.
There’s much in these events for us to admire and much to admonish. But more than that, they suggest that other revolutions were possible in the 18th Century Atlantic. These earlier models, the ones that preceded 1776, spoke to the most radical members of that first Patriot Coalition, the one that made the American Revolution possible, the one that made it successful.
If we approach the revolution from above, [00:06:00] we see a grand mythological moment in nation building, a tale that springs out of British innovations, plans, and plots against American liberties. But seen from below, the revolution came from the spontaneous local rebellions going back over a century all across the ocean. Only this time, local elites actually joined the ongoing popular effort to transform society.
Seen from below, the revolution existed in the hearts and minds of sailors resisting impressment [00:06:30] since the 1740s. It began with the most radical of antinomian dissenters, those who argued that earthly governments were not binding on liberated loving souls. It was there with the urban workers who joined their individual powers to raise wages. The American Revolution was even there with the workers, sailors, and families of Liverpool, who in 1775, bombed the Mercantile Exchange. The more gentile and aristocratic Sons of Liberty owed their successful world-shaking revolution [00:07:00] to this centuries long, constantly bubbling cauldron of resistance from below.
When white residents of the colonies took their widely accepted place in public protest mobs, they often drew on the more overtly revolutionary examples set by earlier anti-slavery rebels. New Yorkers protesting the Stamp Act in 1765 again attacked Fort George. Sailors and slaves featured highly in major resistance events, like the burning of [00:07:30] the British ship, Gaspee, in 1772. And Crispus Attucks, of course, died at the Boston Massacre.
American nationalism, such as it was in this period, was really created from below through a shared sense of uprootedness, and oddly enough, nationlessness. Yet it was co-opted from above, as local elites tried to pluck power from the monarch. Many of the dispossessed and outcasts that occupied the colonies saw themselves as citizens of the world, cosmopolitans [00:08:00] united by class interests, because all nations of the world had spurned them and declared them criminals, indigents, or outlaws.
When spontaneous colonial mobs won the respect and support of their more elite neighbors, this global spontaneous conflict against concentrated power and capital could morph into a more limited battle for national succession from the empire. The more gentile aristocratic Sons of Liberty presented themselves as the ordered resistance to imperial [00:08:30] policy, as opposed to the disorderly and uncontrollable masses.
An uncontrollable populous, after all, threatened elite Americans’ own plans for the new country. The first patriot coalition was charted, so elites could assume leadership of this spontaneous movement, turning mobs into citizens, and replacing British power with their own local rule through institutions that they would create and manage.
Enter Tom Paine and Common Sense. [00:09:00] The clearest, most powerful expression of these kinds of popular ideas about liberty, but a definite fear of unconstrained rebellion.
Speaker 2: Thomas Paine, Common Sense, Philadelphia, 14 February 1776. The prejudice of Englishmen in favor of their own government by king, lords and commons arises as much, or more, from national pride than reason. Individuals are undoubtedly [00:09:30] safer in England than in some other countries, but the will of the king is as much the law of the land in Britain as in France. With this difference that instead of proceeding directly from his mouth, it is handed to the people under the more formidable shape of an act of Parliament.
For the fate of Charles I hath only made kings more subtle, not more just. Wherefore laying aside all national pride and prejudice in favor of modes and forms, the plain truth is that is wholly owing to the constitution [00:10:00] of the people and not to the constitution of the government, that the crown is not as oppressive in England as in Turkey. Mankind being originally equals in the order of creation, the equality could only be destroyed by some subsequent circumstance. The distinctions of rich and poor may, in a great measure, be accounted for, and that without having recourse to the harsh ill-sounding names of oppression and avarice.
Oppression is often the consequence, but seldom or never the means, of riches. Though [00:10:30] avarice will preserve a man from being necessitously poor, it generally makes him too timorous to be wealthy. But there is another and greater distinction, for which no truly natural or religious reason can be assigned, and that is the distinction of men into kings and subjects. How [erasive 00:10:48] men came into the world so exalted above the rest and distinguished like some new species is worth inquiring into, and whether they are the means of happiness, or of misery, to mankind.
In the early [00:11:00] ages of the world, according to the Scripture chronology, there were no kings, the consequence of which was there were no wars. It is the pride of kings, which throw mankind into confusion. Holland, without a king, hath enjoyed more peace for this last century than any of the monarchial governments in Europe. Antiquity favors the same remark, for the quiet and rural lives of the first patriarchs have a happy something in them, which vanishes away when we come to the history of Jewish royalty.
Government by kings [00:11:30] was first introduced into the world by the heathens from whom the children of Israel copied the custom. It was the most prosperous invention the devil ever set on foot for the promotion of idolatry. The heathens paid divine honors to their deceased kings, and the Christian world hath improved on the plan by doing the same to their living ones. How impious is the title of sacred majesty applied to a worm, who, in the midst of his splendor is crumbling into dust?
Anthony Comegna: Tom Paine and Common [00:12:00] Sense helped make the revolution happen, but more than that, they helped make it successful. Yet even Paine had his fears about what would follow. Like Oliver Cromwell in the English Civil War, and Governor Berkeley during Bacon’s Rebellion, Tom Paine feared Massianellos everywhere. By referencing this 17th Century Neapolitan radical leveler, Paine indicted all sailors, slaves and natives who might recklessly destroy inequality, along with imperial power.
To Paine, there were two types of inequality. [00:12:30] There was natural inequality and state-made inequality. While natural inequality was beneficial, it was the source of the division of labor and so much of the wealth of the modern world. State-made inequality produced tension and war between peoples. Paine feared that people also would misuse their power, just like states and kings had. He feared that violent Massianellos were everywhere, just waiting. If the elite refused to allow true republicanism, they would strike. State-made [00:13:00] inequalities gave these Massianellos their power, and it must be dismantled if natural inequalities could survive and thrive.
Speaker 2: Whereas it is more than probable that could we take off the dark covering of antiquity and trace them to their first rise, that we should find the first of them nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang, whose savage manners or preeminence and subtility obtained him the title of chief among plunderers, and who, by increasing [00:13:30] in power and extending his depredations over all the quiet and defenseless, to purchase their safety by frequent contributions. Perhaps what at first was submitted to as a convenience was afterwards claimed as a right.
England, since the conquest, hath known some few good monarchs but groaned beneath a much larger number of bad ones. Yet no man in his senses can say that their claim under William the Conqueror is a very honorable one. A French bastard landing [00:14:00] with an armed banditti and establishing himself King of England against the consent of the natives is, in plain terms, a very paltry, rascally original.
It certainly hath no divinity in it. However, it is needless to spend much time in exposing the folly of hereditary right. If there any so weak as to believe it, let them promiscuously worship the ass and lion and welcome. I shall neither copy their humility nor disturb their devotion. Yet I should be glad to ask how they suppose kings came at first. [00:14:30] The question admits but of three answers, vis either by lot, by election, or by usurpation.
If the first king of any country was by election, that likewise establishes a precedent for the next. For to say that the right of all future generations is taken away by the act of the first electors in their choice, not only of a king, but of a family of kings forever, hath no parallel. As to usurpation, no man will be so hardy as to defend it and that William the Conqueror [00:15:00] was an usurper is a fact not to be contradicted. The plain truth is that the antiquity of English monarchy will not bear looking into.
But it is not so much the absurdity as the evil of hereditary succession, which concerns mankind. Did it ensure a race of good and wise men? It would have the seal of divine authority, but as it opened the door to the foolish, the wicked, and the improper, it hath in it the nature of oppression.
Men [00:15:30] who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent. Selected from the rest of mankind, their minds are early poisoned by importance, and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests. When they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions.
Anthony Comegna: [00:16:00] Paine’s bold new solution to the early modern class war was a synthesis from below. Government must include the revolutionary rabble. Indeed, government must begin from the bottom up. Popular republicanism should be practiced in every village, and people should act as their own rulers, undercutting violent egalitarians and leaving the gifted free to uplift the rest of us. There would be no more pirates, because there would be no more emperors.
Speaker 2: [00:16:30] But where, says some, is the king of America? I’ll tell you, friend. He reigns above and doth not make havoc of mankind like the royal brute of Britain. Yet that we may not appear to be defective, even in earthly honors, let a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter. Let it be brought forth, placed on the divine law, the word of God. Let a crown be placed thereon by which the world may know that so far as we approve [00:17:00] of monarchy, that in America, the law is king. For as in absolute governments the king is law, so in free countries, the law ought to be king, and there ought to be no other. But lest any ill use should afterwards arise, let the crown at the conclusion of the ceremony be demolished and scattered among the people whose right it is.
A government of our own is our natural right. When a man seriously reflects on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced that [00:17:30] is infinitely wiser and safer to form a constitution of our own in a cool, deliberate manner, while we have it in our power, than to trust such an interesting event to time and chance. If we omit it now, some Massianello may hereafter arise, who laying hold of popular disquietudes, may collect together the desperate and the discontented, and by assuming to themselves the powers of government, may sweep away the liberties of the continent like a deluge.
Should the government of America return again [00:18:00] into the hands of Britain, the tottering situation of things will be a temptation for some desperate adventurer to try his fortune. And in such a case, what relief can Britain give? Ere she could hear the news, the fatal business might be done and ourselves suffering like the wretched Britons under the oppression of the conqueror. Ye that oppose independence now, ye know not what ye do. Ye are opening a door to eternal tyranny, by keeping vacant the seat of government.
There are thousands and tens [00:18:30] of thousands who would think it glorious to expel from the continent that [Barbars 00:18:34] in hellish power, which hath stirred up the Indians and Negroes to destroy us. The cruelty hath a double guilt. It is dealing brutality by us and treacherously by them. Ye that tell us of harmony and reconciliation, can ye restore to us the time that is past? Can ye give to prostitution its former innocence? Neither can ye reconcile Britain and America. The last cord is now broken.
The almighty hath implanted [00:19:00] in us these unextinguishable feelings for good and wise purposes. They are the guardians of his image in our hearts. They distinguish us from the herd of common animals. The social compact would dissolve and justice be extirpated the earth, or have only a casual existence, were we callous to the touches of affection. The robber and the murderer would often escape unpunished, did not the injuries, which are [inaudible 00:19:27] provoke us into justice.
Oh ye that [00:19:30] love mankind, ye that dare oppose not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth. Every spot of the old world is overrun with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted around the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. Oh, receive the fugitive and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.
Anthony Comegna: Historian Carl Becker famously said there were two questions [00:20:00] at play during the American Revolution. First, shall there be home rule? Will the British or will the Americans rule over the colonies? Then, who shall rule at home?
The first Patriot Coalition provided the critical mass to answer the first question, and the second Patriot Coalition quickly formed ranks to chain down potential Massianellos. They used Paine’s methods to acquire power but decided that holding onto it for themselves was [00:20:30] worth the risks.
State by state, new combinations of elites answered Becker’s second question. They turned corporate charters into state constitutions and replaced the traditional rights of the mob with the utterly civilized constitutional convention. The second Patriot Coalition nationalized the right to revolution during and after the war, stripping it from the cosmopolitan rabble. In confining it, they hoped forever to the realm of patriotic founding myths. Then who shall [00:21:00] rule at home? The Federalists answered. “We will, and you can like it or leave it.”
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