Another response to conditions of oppression is withdrawal. Withdrawal encompasses a vast range of possible actions. On one end of the spectrum are acts of personal detachment or refusal carried out by alienated individuals. Entire social enclaves—the inheritors of the Bohemian tradition—are filled with such people. Their goal is not to make broad-based social or political change, but to live “authentically.” We can see the potential problem with this strategy in some synonyms for the word “withdrawal”: abandonment, abdication, disengagement, marooning, resignation, retirement.
On the other end of the spectrum is withdrawal used as a political tactic, targeting specific economic, political, or social practices or institutions. As with legal remedies and direct action, this can be a radical—and successful—attempt to win liberty. It can also dead-end into political irrelevance and horizontal hostility. Horizontal hostility, a phrase coined by Florynce Kennedy in 1970,30 describes the destruction that happens when oppressed groups fight amongst themselves instead of fighting back against the powerful. It’s a predictable behavior, and one against which we must guard. A strategy of withdrawal risks exacerbating this tendency for the obvious reason that if you close off the possibility of fighting up the pyramid of hierarchy, the only people left to fight are each other.
Figure 3-1: Horizontal Hostility
The main difference between withdrawal as a successful strategy and withdrawal as a failed strategy is whether the withdrawal is linked to political resistance or instead seen as adequate in itself. This difference often hinges exactly on the distinction between the liberal and the radical. Remember that liberalism is idealist; it conceptualizes society as made up of ideas, not material institutions. Therefore, a strategy of simply withdrawing loyalty from the dominant system, of individual psychological, intellectual, or cultural positioning, is believed by liberals to be revolutionary. While issues of identification and loyalty are crucial to building the class consciousness needed for a resistance movement, this alone is not enough. The withdrawal has got to go beyond the intellectual, the emotional, and the psychological to include a goal of actually winning justice. “Worlds within worlds” may give solace, but ultimately they change nothing. We need to guard against these impulses, as seductive as they are. The idea that all we have to do is turn our attention to ourselves and our chosen community is appealing, but such actions will never be enough. Divorced from a larger goal of liberty and a strategy of direct confrontations with power, “withdrawn” communities end up irrelevant at best, and unpleasant places toxic with personal criticisms and cultlike elements at worst.
Often, the “withdrawalists” set withdrawal and direct confrontations with power in opposition to each other as strategies, rather than seeing the former as a necessary element for the latter. But living in a rarified bubble-world of the converted is a poor substitute for freedom—and such a world will certainly not save the planet. The distinction between a merely alternative culture and a culture of resistance is so important that we are devoting an entire chapter to it.
identificational withdrawal and the subsequent creation of new personal loci of loyalties to the American colonies as opposed to the British crown;
economic withdrawal and boycotts of everything from tea to wool;
cultural withdrawal and the valuing of American art, products, and sensibilities;
political withdrawal, built around the colonial court system and state- and colony-wide congresses for governance.
All of these forms of withdrawal came together in a culture of resistance that created, encouraged, and supported the revolution. People began to conceive of themselves as citizens of their state and ultimately of those states united. They also took on new political identities as patriots, as “Sons of Liberty,” rather than sons and daughters of England.
These politicized self-definitions merged with cultural and economic withdrawal. The United States is singular as an ex-British colony that is a nation of coffee drinkers, not tea drinkers. This is a direct result of the colonial resistance to the tax on tea, still mythologized in the Boston Tea Party. No patriot drank tea, and the Sons of Liberty were willing to take the necessary measures to make sure no one else did either.
Some background history of the era may be necessary to the discussion. The British Constitution granted that taxation on British subjects could only be by consent of the people. That consent was seen to dwell in Parliament as the representative of the people. This concept was carried forward in the US Constitution, which states that only the US Congress has the power to tax, not the president. Samuel Adams wrote that to be taxed without representation was to be reduced “from the character of free Subjects to the miserable state of tributary Slaves.” The insult of British taxation was felt all the more keenly because the colonists had representation in their own state assemblies, which they believed were the proper governing bodies for taxation.
Local uprisings—what would now be considered mob violence—were common throughout England and across the colonies because there was no police force in the eighteenth century. Since the Middle Ages, the government depended on institutions like “hue and cry,” where lawbreakers would be apprehended by the community at large. By the eighteenth century, the preferred method was the posse commitatus, in which the magistrate or sheriff was empowered to call up as many able-bodied men as might be needed. The next line of defense was the militia. Explains historian Pauline Maier, “Both the posse and the militia drew upon local men, including many of the same persons who participated in extralegal uprisings. This meant that insurrections could naturally assume the manner of a lawful institution, as insurgents acted by habit with relative restraint and responsibility.”31
What it also meant was that if the population at large was sympathetic to a cause or directly involved in a disturbance, the local magistrate was left “virtually helpless.”32 This happened repeatedly throughout the period leading up to the Revolutionary War as a groundswell of people felt their rights outraged by British policies.
The Stamp Act was in many ways the beginning of organized resistance. The act was passed by Parliament in 1765 to help pay for the Seven Years’ War. Most official documents, like court records and land grants, and printed materials, like broadsheets and newspapers, had to carry a stamp, and the stamps cost money. The act was despised throughout the colonies, and colonial legislatures sent letters of protest back to England. But more important was the Stamp Act Congress. This was the first collective colony-wide effort to make common cause against Britain. Local groups opposed to the Stamp Act also created committees of correspondence, a network of activists that spanned the thirteen colonies. These committees proved crucial in providing the political infrastructure required to form the revolutionary movement that followed. According to Richard Bushman, “The network of activists meant that revolutionary language by 1773 was sounding in virtually every adult ear in Massachusetts, and that there was a fluid continuum of discourse joining the Boston press and town meeting and the talk in meetings and taverns through the Province.”33
The Stamp Act was never enforced because of the resistance efforts of the common people. Those efforts largely took the form of property destruction and threats of bodily harm. The stamps required distributors, an official person responsible for their sale. Those officials were the leverage point, the easily identified target to stop the dreaded stamps. Street protests swelled in Boston, and then quickly spread to neighboring colonies. The distributors were hanged, burned, and/or beheaded in effigy. The mob then moved on to the distributor’s house, which would be evicted of its residents and then looted or pulled to pieces. Often the distributor would be forced to resign from the duty publicly. As a result, no one could be found who would take up the job. According to Maier, “The solution was infectious. Without distributors the Stamp Act could not go into effect, so the coercion of stampmen seemed rational, even efficient.”34 The Massachusetts stamp distributor resigned on August 15th, 1765. On August 29th, Rhode Island’s followed suit, and the strategy proved so successful that the rest fell in line with alacrity. The last distributor was from Georgia, and he had to be sent from England. On reaching the US, resigning was his first and only official act. By March 1766, the Stamp Act was repealed because it was simply unenforceable.
Boycotts against British goods were strengthened into a formal agreement called the Continental Association. The Association, as it was known, wrote a fourteen-point document, the Articles of Association, which was a pact between the colonies to resist British infringement on colonial rights. Its main goal was a broad-scale boycott. To quote from the document, “a non-importation, non-consumption, and non-exportation agreement, faithfully adhered to, will prove the most speedy, effectual, and peaceable measure.” The ban on tea proved especially so.
The fascinating point is that the Association had no power of enforcement. Unlike the Crown, they could not arrest, fine, or jail offenders. Offenders could only be named and shamed in print and socially ostracized as “the enemies of American liberty.” According to Walter H. Conser, et al.,
If colonial merchants violated popular sentiments by continuing to import boycotted goods, people not only refused to buy from them but also to talk with them, to sit with them in church, or to sell them goods of any kind. At times, colonial activists conducted regular business in violation of British law by using documents without required tax stamps, by settling legal disputes without courts, and by sending protest petitions to England without the permission of royal governors. They organized and served on local, county, and province committees designed to extend, support, and enforce resistance. In 1774 and 1775, many of these bodies assumed governmental powers on their own initiative, acting as extralegal authorities with powers greater than the remnants of colonial government.35
The Association tried to address the economic hardship that the colonies were sure to endure because of the boycott. Toward that end, they sought to “encourage frugality, economy, and industry, and promote agriculture, arts and the manufactures of this country, especially that of wool.” Some provincial conventions thought through the economic implications and tried to encourage the manufacture of the following: “woolens, cottons, flannel, blankets, rugs, hosiery, coarse cloths, all sorts of dyes, flax, hemp, salt, saltpeter, gunpowder, nails, wire, steel, paper, glass, copper products, and malt liquors.” Massachusetts added “tin plates, firearms, and buttons.”36 Conser, et al., explain that
The real work of the resistance was often carried on in villages and towns, in the country as well as the city, by forgotten patriots. These now nameless men and women were the people who spun, wove, and wore homespun cloth, who united in the boycott of British goods, and who encouraged their neighbors to join them and stand firm. Many came together in crowd actions and mass meetings to protest and served on, or supported, local resistance committees. They refused to obey the statutes and officers of the British Crown, which so short a time before had been the law of the land. It was these various acts of resistance and noncooperation that struck most openly at the authority of the Crown.37
The situation escalated in Massachusetts. With the Massachusetts Government Act, Parliament essentially wrested control of both governing bodies and the judiciary from the citizens. The first provision declared that judges were to be appointed by the governor, himself appointed by the Crown, instead of by the council, which had been under the control of the people. This was to take effect August 1, 1774. What happened instead has been called the first American Revolution.38
The patriots of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the seat of Berkshire County, “proposed a new and more direct method for opposing British policy: Why not close down the courts? Since the weight of governmental authority was experienced most directly and frequently through the judicial system, closing the courts would effectively bring the Massachusetts Government Act to a halt.”39 The Pittsfield Committee of Correspondence circulated the strategy. Boston soon replied, “We acknowledge ourselves deeply indebted to your wisdom.… Nothing in our opinion could be better concerted than the measures come into by your County to prevent the Court’s sitting.”40
The Berkshire County Court never opened again until the United States was an independent nation. On August 16, 1,500 unarmed patriots—farmers, artisans, small business owners—took over the courthouse. As one witness described it, “The Sheriff commanded them to make way for the court; but they gave him to understand that they knew no court or any other establishment than the ancient laws and usages of their country, & to none other would they submit or give way on any terms.”41 The scene was repeated throughout the state. Anyone who had agreed to officiate as judge or magistrate was liable to face social shunning and intimidation at church, at home, and on the street by crowds that reached into the thousands, until they resigned, often in public and in print. Most of these encounters were restrained and even respectful. According to historian Ray Raphael,
These citizens took special care to distance themselves from any intimations that they might be a “mob.” In their view, they acted like model citizens. The crowd conducted all its business according to strict democratic principles: ad hoc delegates were elected to conduct negotiations, while all decisions were put to a vote of the entire body. There were no “leaders” empowered to issue orders from above.42
Indeed, the crowds were so orderly some of them voted on whether to raise a cheer on the Sabbath. Wrote observer Abigail Adams, “It being Sunday evening it passed in the negative.”43
Their strategy of withdrawal—economic, political, and identificational—created a true culture of resistance that successfully supported acts of further resistance. Writes Raphael, “While a group of renowned lawyers, merchants, and slave-owning planters were meeting as a Continental Congress in Philadelphia to consider whether or not they should challenge British rule, the plain farmers and artisans of Massachusetts, guarding their liberties jealously and voting at every turn, wrested control from the most powerful empire on earth.”44 By the time the shot heard ‘round the world was fired, the Crown had already lost control of the colony. The Red Coats’ march to Lexington was a last-ditch effort to gain control of the weapons.