Founding Father James Wilson's home, dubbed "Fort Wilson" after Revolutionary War battle
By John F. Di Leo -
America’s War of Independence was striking for many reasons, reasons that are sometimes overshadowed by the shock of a ragtag army defeating the world’s greatest military power. But this striking issue is in fact just as important as the victory itself: As historian Joseph J. Ellis puts it, the American Revolution is famous for the fact that “it didn’t eat its young.”
Consider the French Revolution, and its subsequent Reigns of Terror, followed by the Napoleonic Wars.
Most revolutions go through stages: overthrow the incumbent ruling class, then kill them all, then kill your neighbors, then devolve into dictatorship, usually in quick succession. The fact that this didn’t happen here is one of the stellar moments in world history, and it speaks more highly of our Founding Fathers’ character than do even the battlefield victories or the revolutionary documents.
Let’s begin with an example from 1779, the virtual midpoint of the War of Independence.
Attorney James Wilson was a member of the Continental Congress, representing Pennsylvania, when British forces abandoned Philadelphia, essentially abandoning the local loyalist population too. The patriot government under Joseph Reed immediately started confiscating the lands of British loyalists, who sought legal representation, understandably fearing that an honest court process would be unobtainable.
But their congressman, James Wilson, honorably took the side of the loyalists whose land had been grabbed; Mr. Wilson successfully defended 23 loyalists from the grasping hands of their rebel neighbors, protecting their lands and lives from confiscation and expulsion.
As a result, an angry mob chased James Wilson – along with some 35 of his colleagues – into his home, and laid siege to the Wilson estate, prompting the nickname of his house as “Fort Wilson” thereafter.
The city fathers eventually came to their senses and freed the gentlemen, as the people of Philadelphia grasped the larger point: This was not to be a mob action. Our revolution was AGAINST the lawlessness of an irresponsible king who exceeded his constitutional authority. It was a revolution to replace lawlessness with the rule of law, in respect of the principles of freedom that had been so eloquently declared in the writings of Jefferson, Mason, Washington and Adams. This wasn’t your typical rebellion.
John Adams Sets the Standard
Nine years earlier, on March 5, 1770, a mob of New Englanders attacked a small group of British soldiers in Boston. The soldiers were unwelcome, to say the least; King George III had placed Boston under martial law. But still, unwelcome thought they were, civilians shouldn’t provoke soldiers, pelting them with stones and rocks, and threatening them with worse. Eventually, the soldiers had to respond to the crowd (now in the hundreds); when they felt endangered (after one of the soldiers was knocked down by a big rock!), they fired upon the crowd. No sensible, objective person would blame them, but the Bostonians immediately christened it The Boston Massacre, and charged Captain Thomas Preston and his squad with murder.
No one in Boston had more solid patriotic bona fides than John Adams; a second cousin of Sam Adams, founder of the Sons of Liberty. But John Adams was a lawyer, and he respected the rule of law.
John Adams took the case, defending Preston and the soldiers against the charge of murder. At the time, some accused him of being a turncoat for “siding” with the British soldiers, but in the long term, people began to understand. Six years later, he chaired the Declaration Committee that produced our Declaration of Independence, after introducing motion after motion for independence throughout his time in the First and Second Continental Congress. There was no greater friend to liberty than John Adams, but he knew, and did his best to demonstrate, that liberty is dependent on the rule of law.
A Student and his Dean
Myles Cooper was serving as head of King’s College in New York when revolutionary fervor began. He wrote fiery letters to the editor (unsigned, but known to be his) in defense of the distant government, and in opposition to the patriot cause.
One of his students, Alexander Hamilton, a boy of something less than nineteen (his birth year is in dispute) was the strongest voice of opposition to Cooper’s tracts, but as a student in a Tory-run school, he naturally had to keep his authorship secret for some time.
Despite Hamilton’s clear and potent opposition to his dean’s political position, however, the young man rushed to his defense when the mob came to pay Cooper a visit at his residence. The mob was determined to lynch the loyalist Cooper, or set him adrift naked on the Atlantic, or perhaps tar and feather him – the mob was united only in wishing him ill, apparently.
But Hamilton heard about it, and rushed to the college president’s residence ahead of them, rousing him from his sleep… Best of all, the young man bought Cooper time to prepare and pack, by standing on the balcony of the home and addressing the crowd! Hamilton gave one of his famous long-winded speeches, a principled harangue against the crimes that this misguided patriot crowd had intended, upbraiding the crowd for their clear misunderstanding of the revolutionary principles at issue in our growing conflict.
Myles Cooper survived, and Hamilton went on to serve admirably as an artillery captain, as aide de camp to General Washington, and as one of the unit commanders at Yorktown. Nobody had stronger Revolutionary cred than the young wunderkind from the island of Nevis, but he too knew that the place for bloodshed was on the battlefield, not on the college campus quad.
An Honorable End
Even after the war was over, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, John Jay, and other great patriot lawyers continued their service to the cause of right, by accepting loyalists as clients, protecting them from the greedy paws of neighbors who thought to grab Tory property as the spoils of war.
In our peace treaty with England at the end of the war, and again, more clearly, in the Jay Treaty of the mid 1790s, the Revolutionary Generation committed themselves to respecting the property rights of Americans, regardless of which side the owners had been on during the war.
It took work – LOTS of work. There are natural tendencies to exceed one’s authority as a wartime leader, and since our well-educated Founders knew this well, they were conscious to avoid the temptations. General Washington insisted, for example, on never simply “taking” provisions from farmers and ranchers to feed his troops, though the British did so frequently. This may have kept our honorable troops leaner than they should have been, but it kept the revolution from devolving into lawlessness.
Wherever there was a temptation to abuse the loyalists – and yes, that temptation was there, and was acted on – the Founding Fathers did their best to keep it under control, setting an example that set our Revolution apart from all others that preceded it.
We owe our Founding Fathers so much – for their courage, their wartime bravery, their rhetorical and philosophical magnificence, their willingness to jeopardize, and even sacrifice, their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.
But let us not forget too this wonderful, unsung contribution to the historical record. Our Patriot ancestors resisted so many temptations of power and wartime confusion, imposing the rule of law even when theft and abuse would have been so easy.
Why? Because to our Founding Fathers, the primary obligation was always to do the right thing. If we hoped for the protection of Divine Providence, we had to do our best to deserve it. And so they won the war, and serve all of us lesser generations who follow, as the noblest public servants and role models in the history of mankind.
Copyright 2014 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade compliance trainer. An amateur actor and recovering politician, his columns are regularly found in Illinois Review.
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