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What the Boston resisters of the 1760s and 1770s can teach us

We Americans, all 330 million of us, could find ourselves on the edge of another epoch, on the brink of writing another momentous chapter in American history.

Boston Massacre
A detail from a famous depiction of the "Boston Massacre" was engraved by Paul Revere (copied from an engraving by Henry Pelham), colored by Christian Remick, and printed by Benjamin Edes.
Wikimedia Commons

The Titans of American history led the nation from resistance to Revolution and the dawn of a great new democracy.  The cutting edge of resistance came from leaders and everyday people in the town of Boston in the 1760s and early 1770s. I have been learning about those people, researching a book I am writing about James Otis and his sister Mercy Otis Warren, as well as their contemporaries, like John Hancock, Samuel Adams and Crispus Attucks. As events unfolded and grand ideas took root in those two decades the men and women of that time grew to see themselves as bringing in a new epoch in history. It was very heady stuff, fraught with danger.

We Americans, all 330 million of us, could find ourselves on the edge of another epoch, on the brink of writing another momentous chapter in American history. To assure the best possible transition to the best possible destination we should be guided by the lessons of the past. The men and women who lived 250 years ago can teach us much.

Lesson 1. Treat me like an enemy and I will ultimately become your enemy.

In the 1760s Bostonians protested various kinds of British acts, be they unwarranted invasions of privacy or unwanted taxes. Finally, in 1768 the British authorities decided to show the Americans who was in charge. They sent 4,000 troops to Boston, a town of 15,000, as a show of force. Benjamin Franklin said with great prescience: “They will not find a rebellion but they may cause one.” And that they did. That British flexing of muscle caused growing resentment, distrust, fear and finally Lexington and Concord.

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Lesson 2.  Ideals and ideas are extremely powerful.

Nobody at that time stated those ideals better than James Otis. His argument in 1761 against the Writs of Assistance (which allowed British customs officials to invade homes and businesses arbitrarily) galvanized the citizens of Boston to resist. John Adams, who heard Otis argue the case, later wrote of Otis’s performance: “Then and there the child Independence was born.” The grand concepts Otis expressed resonated with Bostonians and their personal experiences. They were not abstractions. Ideas and ideals improve lives and drive history.

Lesson 3. Shaping public opinion requires a kind of genius and persistence.

The master of shaping public opinion in Boston was Samuel Adams, a failed businessman and a brilliant political tactician. He was incessant in his protest, even when times were very hard for those resisting the Crown. His master stroke was to describe an unplanned, tragic killing of five citizens of Boston by taunted British soldiers as “The Boston Massacre,” a phrase that stuck. To assure that it would continue to incite people, he created annual commemorations of it until the Revolution began.

Lesson 4. Elites need a broad swath of public support and key leaders.

Every school child has heard of Samuel Adams and John Hancock, two Harvard men, but what about Ebenezer Mackintosh, a humble shoemaker? In a town of 15,000 Mackintosh could generate and control a crowd of 2,000-3,000 to protest and raise hell. Without those masses the words of the elite would ring hollow and weak. Crispus Attucks, an escaped slave whose mother was Native and father an enslaved African, was one of the victims of the Boston Massacre. He was carried in the funeral cortege honored by thousands of Bostonians.

Lesson 5.  Nothing is inevitable.

The American Revolution was not inevitable. History can give the impression that acts and forces lead inexorably to the outcomes that occurred, but at the time many possibilities existed.

Different British leaders could have made different decisions; their local administrators could have acted differently. Had the British been willing to grant certain rights, the simmering resentments could have subsided and Revolution avoided. American leaders could have been less brave, less bright, and more easily bought off. Our forebears were willing to die for their high ideals and beliefs, and many did. The future always rests with those alive and engaged today.

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As our nation sits on the edge of a new epoch, with enormous new possibilities and threats, we have the opportunity to re-envision, to strategize, and to catalyze what could be called The Big Shift. Like tectonic plates under the earth, pressure has been building for years for major changes in our common life. Health care. Income inequality. Racial equity. Climate change. What are the goals and how can they be reached? What can actually be made to happen that serves our people’s needs and the planet’s preservation? How can the lessons from pre-Revolution Boston guide the actions of those leading the change?

Public will and public policies are at the heart of the change that needs to occur.

The four domains of the Big Shift are: fair access to health care, reduction of income inequality, vastly more racial equity, and serious steps to mitigate climate change. There are specific remedies already formulated and ready to be enacted. There is no excuse for failing to enact major and lasting reforms. The challenge will be to enable fellow Americans to understand and support a coherent campaign to improve their lives as well as the prospects of their children and grand-children.

Todd Otis
Todd Otis
Leaders with the courage and ability to usher in a new chapter of American history might well start with ideas expressed in Universal Health Coverage; the Freedom Dividend; the Breathe Act; and the Green New Deal. It would be particularly powerful to have advocates and supporters from each of these four issue areas work in concert, not as siloed groups competing for scarce resources. The Leap initiative in Canada has done just that. We need a similar approach in our country.  The odds of the Big Shift occurring to the benefit of all the people, and the planet, will increase exponentially if leaders take stock in the lessons of pre-Revolutionary Boston.

Lesson 1. Treat me like an enemy and I will ultimately become your enemy.

Democrats need to view Trump supporters with respect and understanding. Seeking to understand them, and demonstrating some humility, will be good for the liberal soul and can even create new allies. The cause of major change demands open hands, not self-righteously clenched fists. A vast majority of Trump supporters will benefit from the Big Shift. A portion of them should be viewed as needed allies to enable the Big Shift.

Lesson 2. Ideals and ideas are extremely powerful.

The principles and ideals in our Declaration of Independence are powerful. Leaders of the Big Shift need to keep articulating the proposition that all people are created equal and that each of us is endowed with inalienable rights including the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Putting reforms in the context of our country’s promises to ourselves will add moral force to change. Leaders need to show Americans how being true to those ideals will tangibly help them. That is very doable.

Lesson 3. Shaping public opinion requires a kind of genius and persistence.

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This may be the biggest challenge Democrats must confront. Republicans have shown discipline in their communication, including reducing their agenda to simple, clear, messages. Democrats are all over the map, with each of its constituencies sure that their issue is most important. For the Big Shift to occur the various constituencies must adhere to a very few, simple messages that move people. Framing the policy ideas effectively and persistently, and selling them to Americans, will be a key ingredient to lasting success. Remaining on the offensive is imperative.

Lesson 4. Elites need a broad swath of public support and key leaders.

This lesson is obvious and yet the reasons Democrats lose more elections than they should is because they have allowed economic issues, their natural “home field,” to lose out to issues that revolve around the injured pride and self-worth of citizens who feel ignored or even looked down upon. If they feel respected, citizens will open their arms to the ideas of the Big Shift. Democrats need to be aware of their unconscious arrogance and actually show they care. Organizing and serving diverse groups of people of all stripes between elections is essential.

Lesson 5. Nothing is inevitable.

The new epoch could continue to see chaos, fear, and greed lead to an American dystopia. Or it could usher in a rededication to the Founders’ principles; healthy and civil political conflict; and an effective set of policy changes that improve health care, reduce income inequality, enhance racial justice, and tackle climate change. All of those things will strengthen the fabric of our society and our economy.

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Those who hope to lead the Big Shift need to do these five things:

  • Create and communicate an inspiring shared vision of where America could go.
  • Be clear on policy goals, continue to organize around them, and be pragmatic.
  • Enlist all sectors to confront the four major challenges, including business and faith.
  • Use language that works for persuasion and be disciplined in its use.
  • Show respect for, and reach out to, those who disagree with your politics.

In the end the question we Americans need to answer is this: Are we worthy heirs to the legacy of those who founded our country and those who have since fought and died to achieve its principles and goals?

Todd Otis is a 75-year old Harvard-educated former Minnesota State Representative and Democratic State Party chair who is working on a book about pre-Revolutionary Boston.

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