Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The First Martyr for the Cause

Some of the material in William Benemann's Male-Male Intimacy in Early America seems excessively digressive and speculative to me, but sometimes even the digressions are suggestive in ways Benemann probably didn't consider.  Late in the book he devotes a chapter to forms of political protest the English colonists brought with them from the Old Country, including men who cross-dressed and blackened their faces with burnt cork before engaging in vandalism, sabotage, and riot: some of the Boston Tea Party vandals, for example, chose to masquerade as women rather than Indians.  This was not necessarily, as Benemann points out, because they really expected to pass as female or Indian, but also to symbolize the breakdown of social and political order.  What this has to do with male-male intimacy, even on Benemann's account, isn't clear to me, but it is interesting.

Even farther from Benemann's ostensible theme is his account of the use of boys in American revolutionary agitation and outrages.
Little attention has been given to the fact that prepubescent boys were deliberately employed as agents provocateurs in the years leading up to the rupture with Britain.  Many of the Stamp Act rioters in Boston were “Boys and Children,” and when a crowd attacked the home of Thomas Hutchinson, the scapegoat for the colony’s anger, the assailants were described as “a number of boys from 14 to sixteen years of age, some mere Children which did a great deal of damage.”  In New York the Stamp Act was protested by “a great number of boys carrying Torches & a scaffold,” and in the succeeding weeks hundreds of boys “frequently tramped the streets at night shouting ‘Liberty and No Stamps!’”  By 1769 boys were regularly employed to harass merchants who failed to comply with the nonimportation embargo.  Boys were even viewed as the vanguard of the Continental Army.  A song published in New York in 1776 gleefully boasted, “Our Children rout your Armies, our Boats destroy your Fleet!”

The use of boys was a deliberate policy followed by the Revolutionary leaders, but the reasons for the policy are somewhat complex.  Certainly one motive was to create a public disturbance and deliver a political message without provoking a strong response from the colonial government [256-7].
This immediately brought to my mind the role played by boys of the same age during the First and Second Intifadas, though Palestinian adolescents often suffered a stronger response from the colonial government.  I seem to recall some indignation among American pro-Israel commentators that the Arabs would use their children in this way; probably they were unaware of this aspect of American history, which allowing for differences in technology was surprisingly similar.  Even to this:
On February 22, 1770, a group of “many hundreds” of boys picketed the shop of Theophilus Lilly, a Boston merchant who refused to acknowledge the nonimportation boycott.  The boys were confronted by Ebenezer Richardson, a customs informer, who in turn became the target of the mob.  Richardson retreated to his home, and when the boys began to break in, he fired his rifle into the crowd, killing eleven-year-old Christopher Seider.  Seider was given a grand ceremonial funeral.  School was adjourned for the day, and a procession of 500 boys marching two by two, followed by more than 2,000 adults, wound its way from the Liberty Tree to the place of burial.  It was one of the largest funerals ever witnessed in colonial Boston.

Revolutionary leaders seized upon Christopher Seider’s death for its symbolic value.  Poet Phyllis Wheatley called him “the first martyr for the cause” [260].
Can it really be that I've never heard the story of Christopher Seider before?  It seems not to have played any part in my own schooling about American history.  I wondered if it might have been considered a bad or disturbing example for American's children, but apparently Seider's martyrdom is still being taught in Boston schools, even (see the photo above) to the point of reenacting it.  And its relation to male-male intimacy in early America is murky to me.