In his forthcoming book, The Words That Made Us, the Yale law professor Akhil Amar emphasizes that, unlike the Hutchinson mob, the Boston Tea Party was “nonviolent” (it “did not come close to killing anyone”), “proportionate” (“the Sons destroyed no more property than necessary”), and “public spirited and non-piratic” (“the Sons dumped tea to make a legal and political point”). It was, Amar argues, a stylized, highly regulated political protest—the Sons of Liberty even swept the decks of the ships before departing—rather than a violent insurrection. As Kramer notes, they also later compensated one of the ship owners for a padlock they broke to seize the tea.
During and after the Constitutional Convention, those who had endorsed crowd action against the British during the American Revolution argued that violent insurrections against legitimately constituted democratic governments were different. Samuel Adams, a leader of the Boston Tea Party and other crowd actions throughout the Revolution, had become governor of Massachusetts in 1787, and he criticized Shays’ Rebellion as a Tory effort to thwart the principles of the Revolution. Now that the people were represented in and by the government, Adams and others argued, they no longer needed to apply direct pressure on their democratically elected judges and representatives.
Was this rationale merely self-serving, now that Adams and his allies were the ones in power? That conclusion would discount their entire theory of self-government. The American experiment is an attempt to channel the selfish passions of human beings into legitimate politics by creating institutions that promote thoughtful deliberation over the impulses of the moment. The state and federal constitutions ratified from 1776 to 1787 were designed to give we the people (or at least propertied white men) the opportunity to seek a redress of grievances through peaceful assembly, petition, speech, and representation, without resorting to the brutal force of mob action.
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Mob violence became further delegitimized in the years leading up to the Civil War, when it took the form of racist attacks on Black people and white abolitionists. In 1837, a young Abraham Lincoln expressed renewed alarm about violent mobs when he warned that, unless Americans could govern themselves by reason rather than passion, the Constitution would fall to demagogues. Lincoln’s speech “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” delivered to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Ilinois, was responding to mob violence, including a racist murder in St. Louis and the lynching of the abolitionist newspaper editor Elijah Lovejoy. In his speech, which denounced “mobocracy” and mentioned the word mob eight times, Lincoln implicitly blamed the violence on the followers of the populist Andrew Jackson, who was known as “King Mob.” Like Madison, Lincoln warned that the mobs were being egged on by populist demagogues, “men of ambition and talents” who “continue to spring up amongst us,” seeking the “ratification of their ruling passion” by tearing down the government and the laws, rather than “supporting and maintaining” the edifice erected by the Founders. The only way for the American people to ensure that “support of the Constitution and the laws” remained the “political religion of the nation,” Lincoln concluded, was for them to reaffirm their commitment to personal as well as political self-government, to restrain their irrational passions and hatreds with the cool voice of reason..