WWII American Japanese Internment, Kent State, Abu-Ghraib, and their Roots in Revolution Era Patriotism
The American Revolution was undertaken by many colonists because they felt their liberty and personal freedoms were being violated by the British government. They desired to create their own government free from the tyranny they saw in the British Empire. They were very successful in doing this. Today we have a stable government and have the protection of the Constitution almost guaranteeing us due process, the right to vote, and many other important freedoms. American society unfortunately carries another legacy from the era of the rebellion that is not worth being proud of. In the course of carrying out the revolution the revolutionaries committed acts far more tyrannical than the taxes they were originally concerned about. Not only did our nation’s founders violate their own moral code this kind of irresponsibility has become pervasive throughout US history.
When confronted with the Stamp Act and other taxes and laws they found objectionable, many colonists organized the means to retaliate economically. The colonial boycotts and other measures were admirably effective responses to the British impositions. By organizing and working together the colonists began building the foundation for greater cooperation and eventually national government. Unfortunately these diplomatic and economic responses were not the colonists’ only reaction to the offenses of the British. Mob violence and legislative discrimination focused on the loyalists, colonists who did not wish to separate from Britain, began immediately.
At first such attacks were focused on individuals who were involved in the actual business of taxation such as the acting lieutenant governor and chief justice of Massachusetts Thomas Hutchinson who, along with his family, was nearly killed when an angry mob attacked; destroying and looting his home, library, and the home of his brother in law. Other early targets were outspoken individuals such as Major Thomas James who vowed to force the contentious stamps down New Yorkers throats and soon thereafter came under attack from an angry mob that ended in the destruction of his home.
Soon however anyone who dissented or spoke out against revolution became a target; in addition to the destruction of presses printing loyalist material and other means of silencing the opposition to the war; loyalists were subjected to a variety of public tortures such as tarring and feathering, tying dead animals to them and hoisting them into the air on liberty polls, being ridden on a rail, or even straight up acts of barbarism such as cutting off their ears. Often Loyalists were simply lynched outright. These incidents were not isolated nor were they the work of an extremist minority, which is the true root of the problem. These violent acts were well known and encouraged; when one of his subordinate generals attempted to end a procession with a loyalist being ridden on a rail George Washington himself said, “to discourage such proceedings was to injure the cause of liberty in which they were engaged, and that none would attempt it but an enemy of his country." For one of the countries most revered hero’s to say that not torturing dissenters is tantamount to treason indicates that the much glorified patriots of the revolution firmly believed that inherent rights of man only apply to the dominant majority and never during times of war.
Such support for torturous activities was given not only in private personal opinions and acts but officially as demonstrated by the provincial congress of New York which, In 1776, paid for any tar the public might need to continue their harassment of loyalists. The fact that individuals were having trouble affording enough tar speaks volumes about just how pervasive such acts were.
Perhaps the most ironic episode in the persecution of the loyalists was the effect the passing of the declaration of independence had on Tories. The revolutionaries proudly proclaimed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” And claimed that the English king was a despot for, “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.” And, “depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury.” Immediately after this historic proclamation the Test Laws were enacted. The Test Laws required all residents to swear an oath of loyalty to the state in which they lived and renouncing their allegiance to the crown. These laws made loyalty to the British treason and any loyalist who refused to take the oath became an outlaw; all his possessions were taken from him and he had no right to trial of any sort, a loyalist had less legal protection than a foreigner. That these acts violated the very heart of the philosophy espoused in the Declaration was not the least bit relevant. Loyalists in the colonies had no right to life, liberty, or happiness, no right to a jury trial, and were regularly attacked in their homes. The patriots became the very image of what they were rebelling against.
Not only did this systematic and blatant persecution of a minority occur, it was glorified as the work of patriotic Americans. The tendency to persecute dissenters during a time of conflict became a recurring habit of American politics and society and remains largely ignored. In 1942 During World War II when President Roosevelt had 110,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals arrested and held in internment camps little was done about it. The president imprisoned 110,000 people without a trial and he is one of our most respected leaders. Decades passed before an interred individual received acknowledgement from the Supreme Court that the Constitution had been violated. In World War I Italian and German emigrants who recently arrived in the US were rounded up and locked away until the end of the war; many were sent to terrible camps in Alaska and Montana where they were unprepared to deal with the harsh cold.
Oaths of loyalty were ended when the treaty of Paris ended the codified persecution of Tories. Unfortunately the concept of the loyalty oath has been revived not once but twice, on both occasions the nation was embroiled in a conflict. Retroactive loyalty oaths were required of southerners during reconstruction after the Civil War. They were also used during the Red Scare in the late forties when President Truman made such oaths a requirement for certain individuals and positions.
Even today America continues to drop all pretense of adhering to the philosophy it prides itself on in times of conflict. The general public knows that our government is holding individuals without any sort of trial yet little is done to swiftly end such a violation of our own laws. Someone accused the individuals of being terrorists and that is all the jittery post 9/11 United States needs to feel justified in imprisoning them.
The circumstances of the revolution made it inevitable that there would be conflict between those who wished to revolt and those wanting to remain loyal to the crown. Even if there had been no Test Laws or lynch mobs the loyalists would have suffered. Loyalists made up Approximately 20% of the colonies white population; a minority too small to have prevented the revolution. Once the revolution began and the colonies formed their own government those still loyal to the crown would have, in affect, been invaded. Someone overthrew their government against their wishes. That the invaders were also inhabitants of the colonists made fighting back somewhat awkward because no matter which side might end up winning they will still need to deal with each other.
The fact that Americans continue this kind of behavior is not a uniquely American problem, all peoples have these behaviors. It is human nature that during times of conflict the public seeks assurance of their safety; an instinctual urge that makes taking the moral high ground political suicide. As long as people in conflict continue to dehumanize their perceived enemies they will continue to sacrifice abstract ideals. Human nature is something that no document or system of government can be proofed against Americans will simply have to work to keep from repeating old mistakes, but in order to do this we must first acknowledge these old mistakes. United States citizens feel their Constitution will somehow protect them from any violation of their rights without realizing numerous elements of this constitution are routinely violated or flat out ignored by the entire country; there are good reasons for this but we absolutely must acknowledge we can and will abandon it, often when it is most needed.
Declaration of Independance.
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Foner, Eric. Give Me Liberty!, Second Edition (One-Volume Hardcover Edition). New York: W. W. Norton, 2007.
Lohrenz, Otto. "Thomas price, a loyalist parson of revolutionary virginia." The Historian 60 (1998): 561-77.
Martin v. Hunter's Lessee. United States Supreme Court. 20 Mar. 1816.
Middlekauf, Robert. "Jonathan Edwards: A Life." The Historian 67 (2005): 125-26.
Paine, Thomas. Common Sense. 1776.
"Travails of a Loyalist Wife and Mother, 1777." Letter to Phillip Van Cortlandt. 19 Feb. 1777.