The World Keeps Turning: Ending, and restoring, tyranny

Insurrections loyal to President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.

Insurrections loyal to President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. AP PHOTO/JOSE LUIS MAGANA


Published: 04-12-2024 5:45 PM

Modified: 04-15-2024 1:19 PM

A mob of angry men, many recently unemployed, gathered in front of an ornate, stately building, the largest in the area and a symbol of government power. Confident, because the government had taken little action after previous mob attacks, and inspired by a fiery but legally insulated leader, they were primed for violence and carried a variety of demolition tools.

When they attacked, they broke the front door, window glass, and moldings with an ax, and poured inside, intent on destruction as well as thievery. By the time they left about eight hours later, many were exhausted by their efforts: they had destroyed or stolen over $600,000 of property, but fell short of locating and capturing their primary human target.

Did all this occur in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021? Nope. It’s a short description of the night of Aug. 26, 1765 in the North End of Boston, when a mob of “patriots” destroyed the mansion of Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson. They threw furniture out the windows, removed and smashed the cupola from the roof, raided his wine cellar, stole his small collection of silver dishes and utensils along with some household cash, and burned the books from his library (a rarity at the time) along with his legal papers.

The next morning, hotspur Samuel Adams and the leaders of the Sons of Liberty disavowed and condemned the attack, although everyone in the Colonies and England knew they were simply telling another lie and fully supported this attack and others on customs officials.

Street violence was a virulent tool for the Sons of Liberty, and criminal charges were rare against those involved. If they were brought into court, local judges released them and often blamed the victims, especially “bloodyback” redcoats.

For years, Samuel Adams fed Boston and the Colonies exaggerations and lies in a newspaper he founded and numerous others that happily printed his anonymous and false charges. He was a media master influencer, 230 years before Fox News.

While researching my historical novel (in about 50 books and countless articles), I was repeatedly surprised by the willingness of our beloved Revolutionary leaders to manipulate public opinion with misleading or false information and to bend or break traditional rules of governing. Street violence was just one weapon in their arsenal.

Unhappily, I was faced with a logical conundrum: I have joined many others in decrying “fake news” and blatant bias by Fox News, Republican leaders, and Donald Trump (and by their counterparts at MSNBC), while venerating Adams and the Sons of Liberty for their heroic actions leading to the Revolution and, eventually, our democracy.

Along with many other actions, I find it reprehensible that Donald Trump is standing behind the insurrection of Jan. 6 and identifying the nearly 500 people convicted and imprisoned for their actions as “hostages,” vowing to pardon them if elected. But illegal and violent actions spurred Americans toward democracy, and many historians and others consider their actions justified.

In this age of “what aboutism” (“What Trump — or Biden — did might be bad but what about ?”) and false equivalence, I feel compelled to compare celebrated Revolutionary-era lawbreaking with the tactics of far-right MAGA followers (and leaders) who view themselves as fighting against a new tyranny. Both tap a deep-seated anger toward elites which is heightened by economic, cultural and social stress, and include true believers willing to sacrifice their lives to achieve their goals.

But is there any equivalence? Are the Trump legions simply modern-day Minutemen? My answer is a resounding “No!”

Americans in the 1700s were fighting against a government in which they had no representation. What the King and an upper-class Parliament decided was law, without appeal or review by anyone. Colonists were subjects in a monarchy, one form of “authoritarianism” or “dictatorship.”

Their efforts helped create our imperfect attempt at democracy in which all are guaranteed (again, imperfectly) at least indirect representation. Voting for indirect representation at local, state, and federal levels has allowed wide swings of the pendulum between opposing political extremes.

Those smashing the doors of Congress on Jan. 6 were swayed by Revolutionary-era tactics, especially widespread misinformation. But they weren’t opposing tyranny by an autocrat; instead, they were trying to turn back the clock and streamline our messy and barely functioning democracy by installing a new tyranny and a new autocrat.

I hope we can cling to the ideals of our Revolutionary leaders without duplicating their dependence on lies and violence. Otherwise, their dreams of democracy may not survive the coming years.

Allen Woods is a freelance writer, author of the Revolutionary-era historical fiction novel “The Sword and Scabbard,” and Greenfield resident. His column appears regularly on Saturdays. Comments are welcome here or at