Verbal Tar and Feathers and the Real Thing

The conversation between the left and right grows more virulent with the passing days.  The snides and snipes are sharp and thus they have ever been.  The commentaries from our past are replete with barbs against the opposition beginning with the Revolutionary War.  The wonder is that the vicious demeanor ever gives way long enough for us to conduct the business of the nation.  But we have managed for over 200 years now.   Indeed a strong argument can be made that we are enhanced by our disagreements and disputations with one another.  As much as I dislike hearing arguments that offend my reason or my cultural sensibilities I would have it no other way.  There are alternatives after all.  You sure wouldn’t have heard many dissenting voices in the Soviet Union in 1950 or 1980.  Reaching a consensus is a messy business and emotionally draining.  I listen to both NPR and Rush and I am glad that both are there to speak their piece even when I get so upset I could throw a shoe at the radio. 

Our nation was born in tremendous controversy and we so often forget that fact of history.  The men who signed the Declaration of Independence were committing treason.  We had a large and vibrant community of Tories (or Loyalists) here and they were vehement in their opposition to the Revolution and those that supported it.  The cross fire of language between the revolutionaries and the Tories was intense throughout the War.  Often the attacks went beyond the verbal.  With all the comments these days about the abuse of prisoners in our war on terror it is useful to remember some of our history and the treatment used to birth this nation.  Wars are never pleasant. 

You have heard of tar and feathering and maybe seen some depiction of it in movie at one time or another.  It did happen from the onset of the War.  It inevitably was done by a mob.  That was not the kind of thing the soldiers did except for some milita types on a few occasions.  You can read some history and learn about  the victims of this treatment.  They were doctors, lawyers, merchants, shipping magnates and any others who expressed continued loyalty to the King or Britain.  They were not spies.  They would be grabbed by a mob of people.  Normally from their home or place of business.  They would be stripped naked.  Then the hot tar would be poured over them or painted on with brushes.  The feathers would be added to that to make a concoction of goo and waste.  Of course the object was humiliation and intimidation so the victim would be paraded around town in a wagon or made to walk.  They would be struck, spit on, whipped or jabbed with bayonets as often as not.  You can find many discriptions of this torture in the histories.  Each was its own event and had its own outcome.   They normally didn’t result in death or serious long term injury.  But you can read that in most cases the victim quickly moved away–either to another city with a greater Tory population or away from the Colonies all together. 

That was about as mild as the attacks on the Tories was during the War.  Often their property was simply confiscated for use by the Continental Army.  Those deemed true patriots would be paid at least with a promissory note but the Tories’ property was be taken without recourse.  There are many accounts of them being hanged.  Usually with only a drum head court martial trial or similar military trial.  This was reserved for those Tories believed to have given aid and comfort to the British troops but it did occur on many occasions.  We not only had to defeat the British army we had to quell our own insurgency at the same time.  Thousands of the Tories  made their way back to Britain and lived out their lives there.  They became wards of the state as it were in many cases.  That was a tall order for Washington and the wonder is that he managed it without so dividing the country that a common goal became impossible to achieve.    War, turmoil, theft, blood and misery were the mid -wives of our nation.  It is truly remarkable that such noble virtues and principles were able to prevail out of that cauldron.  We did discard the worst of those devils in the human soul and have followed our better angels for more than 200 years.  Regardless of our shortcomings now and then we have pursued a virtuous path.  Let’s hope we can sustain it as we travel down the next segment of our journey. 

The expression “loose cannon” is one that we have all used from time to time to describe someone who is unpredictable and bounces about causing damage seemingly at every turn.  The expression for once means exactly what it says.  In the days of the great sailing ships the cannons were very large.  The smallest typically weighed a ton and many of them went to 3200 pounds.  They were on the deck of the ship.  Expect when in actual battle they were lashed down.  A rolling or rough sea could move those cannons if they were loose.  They could and did knock over masts, break  through bulkheads and railings.   They were a very lethal danger to man and ship.  Thus the expression loose cannon came to describe someone we wouldn’t trust and were dangerous.



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Filed under Culture, government, history, military history

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