On a late Winter morning in 1775, William French woke up for the last time. The lively 22 year old lived in the Town of Bennington, a municipality only five years older than the young adult. Self-named by Benning Wentworth, Governor of New Hampshire, the small hamlet lay on the west side of the Connecticut River, nestled in the broad curve of the oxbowing waterway in the fertile eastern valley beneath the Green Mountains. French walked that afternoon of March 13th along King’s Highway until he reached the farm house of an eccentric old patriot by the name of Capt. Axariah Wright. There he met Daniel Houghton and nearly 100 other men. They were there to tackle a pressing problem.
It seemed Wentworth had overstepped his authority when he gave away those New Hampshire Grants. In 1764, King George III ruled in favor of the colony of New York’s claim that it owned the land up to and including the western banks of the Connecticut River. With the King’s edict behind him, New York Lieutenant Governor Cadwallader Colden began issuing land patents for the disputed territory. New Hampshire Grantees had to pay New York to keep their farms.
French and his so-called “Liberty Men” realized the King’s judge, on behalf of New York Colony, would evict many of Bennington’s long-time residents from their homesteads at the court meeting the next day. The Grantees had tried to convince the judge not to hold the session, but the judge refused. This stubbornness left them with but one option – they must prevent the judge from holding court. They had to get into the courthouse before the judge arrived the next day.
At 3:00pm that afternoon, they gathered some wood from a nearby woodpile and headed for the courthouse. They entered the building, content to wait through the night for the judge. But the Sheriff found out and gathered a small posse of armed deputies. They confronted French and the Liberty Men at the courthouse, ordering them to leave. The rebels refused and barricaded themselves behind the solid wood door. Tensions escalated.
No one knows for sure what precipitated it, but at 11:00 that evening, the Sheriff and his men stormed through the door and opened fire on the essentially unarmed men. William French died as two bullets blew through his 22 year-old brain. Houghton lie mortally wounded.
Incensed by the needless bloodshed, the Green Mountain Boys showed up the next day and captured the Sheriff and his men. The nervous judge adjourned without opening the court and fled. No English official ever presided over that courtroom again, but, within two years, it would host an historic event…
The Whigs – those in favor of independence – called this the “Westminster Massacre.” The loyalists called it a “riot,” but Colden called it an outright “insurrection.”
So much depends on one’s point of view. During the American Revolution, there were three competing points of view among the colonists. Histories believe only a third of the colonists wanted to sever ties from Great Britain. This doesn’t mean a majority wanted to stay subordinate to King George. Only a third were fervent loyalists. The remaining third, well, apparently they just wanted to be left alone to get on with life. During the war, though, there was no room for neutrality. You were either a loyalist or a rebel.
Recall the feelings of our Founding Fathers (those would be the rebels, the revolutionaries, the “radical mob”) if you were a Tory, a loyalist. Paul Revere crafted a woodcarving that depicted the British as raping the colonies. Those are some pretty extreme feelings. They saw themselves as subservient to an aristocracy more concerned with feathering its own bed than faithfully representing the wants and needs of the colonists. If you’ve forgotten any of this, reread the Declaration of Independence or Patrick Henry famous “give me liberty or give me death” speech.
It would be more than a century later when Lord Acton, in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton dated April 5, 1887 described those very same feelings so succinctly when he wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Perhaps it’s better to reflect on the full context of that quote, for it makes its meaning more universal. Lord Acton wrote the Bishop“I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
The American Revolution saw an elite aristocracy with absolute power involved in an absolute corruption against the rights of those who desired liberty. It took two wars with England before America truly found its independence (the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812). You might be interested in the fact the Greater Western New York Region, though for the most part unsettled, played an important role in both wars.
John Fund wrote in The Wall Street Journal (“America’s Insurgent Pollster,” August 21, 2010), quoting John Rasmussen, the one pollster that bucked the trend and correctly called Republican Scott Brown’s Senate victory in Massachusetts, as saying, “The major division in this country is no longer between parties but between political elites and the people.” He calls this “a division between the Mainstream Public and the Political Class.”
This was more than six years ago, and, if nothing else, this presidential campaign has exposed that the division between the Political Class (the “loyalists”) and the Mainstream Public (the “rebels”) has grown more divisive. It’s no longer Republicans versus Democrats, it’s the establishment (both Democrats and Republicans) versus the rest of us (both Democrats and Republicans). It helps to interpret what’s going on this year when you view it from the perspective of Rasmussen’s 2006 electoral analysis. We now live in time when a Political Class with absolute power seeks to keep the Mainstream Public from rebelling.
For those confused as to which side of the fence they sit (remember, there is no longer such a thing as “neutral”), Rasmussen offered this three question test in 2006:
- “Whose judgment do you trust more: that of the American people or America’s political leaders?”
- “Has the federal government become its own special interest group?”
- “Do government and big business often work together in ways that hurt consumers and investors?”
According to the article, Rasmussen says “those who identify with the government on two or more questions are defined as the political class.”
So, what are you? A loyalist or a rebel?
This article is based in part on research Mr. Carosa has undertaken for his forthcoming book Greater Western New York a State? Why Not? If you’re interested in learning more about this book, contact Mr. Carosa through this publication.