Is this a private fight or can anyone join in?
Here’s an odd truth. Human beings love violence — in the abstract at least. Here on the farm, we just finished a video promotion for our “Finnegan’s Wake” program, and whenever I screen this dolly-shot full of jaw-jabs and broken glass, everyone who watches it giggles with delight. Now, a bar fight in real life — with knives drawn and guns chambering — wouldn’t be funny, but when the violence is safely wrapped up in either theater or the distant past, we find all the chest-puffing and temporary insanity hilarious. A part of us — watching a red faced drunk spitting out imprecations — concludes: “we really are lost, ridiculous creatures, aren’t we?”
When Authority Has a Tantrum
As Royal governors of colonial America go, John Murray, the 4th Earl of Dunmore, leaves behind such a record of bombast and bluster that he passes into history as a kind of perpetual tantrum, despised and pitied even by his fellow royalists. The chapters of his life are so outlandish I don’t think even HBO could over-play him. Rattle the saber. Curse like a sailor. Slam the table until it breaks. Nothing is too peevish for Dunmore.
Fighting at fifteen, on the wrong side at Culloden, his family endured house arrest; he saw his father imprisoned in the Tower of London. Pardoned himself at age 20, he joins the British army and is eventually appointed royal governor of New York and then Virginia, where he has the distinction of having a war named after him. Perhaps this memory of having been forgiven for treason, and then reinstated, saddled Dunmore with a royalist zeal, a need to prove and re-prove his fierce loyalty to the crown. It may, too, have colored the way he judged men like Patrick Henry and the rest of the Stamp Act resistance. You can almost hear him thinking, “I’ve been down that road, lads — tilting against princes. It doesn’t end well.”
Whatever his motivation might have been, he always seemed to have executed his will with equal measures of pure panic and full-throated imprecation. At a time when the sons of liberty were legitimately on guard against British garrisons seizing colonial gun powder and weapons, Dunmore ordered the Williamsburg powder magazine emptied by Captain Collins and his marines. (Nothing says, “I really am thinking of shooting you” quite like “…and I think I’ll take your weapons first.”) If there had been any hope for reconciliation, Dunmore’s failure to learn from similar powder alarm debacles to the north put an end to it; within days, Patrick Henry was riding at the head of a militia column — some say 5,000 strong — marching towards Williamsburg, with a simple but Royalist-galling demand: return the powder.
And here is where the story gets semi-hilarious. Picture Lord Dunsmore, at the Royal Palace, pondering the advance of a huge colonial army. He’s so worried he’s evacuated his wife and family. He probably has the sense that he’s alienated even the most conservative of the tidewater gentry, the peace-loving, crown-loyal Virginians who desperately want a simple conversation with their sovereign. He’s so angry, in other words, he’s alienating not only his enemies but his friends as well. The royal palace has, perhaps, 200 muskets, but he’s not even certain he has enough fingers to pull the triggers. He’s feeling more and more alone. So what does he do?
He Scolds the Doctor
In a scene made powerfully alive by Jon Kukla’s Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty the governor takes it all out on a country doctor. Called upon to treat a patient at the governor’s palace, Doctor William Pasteur, a descendent of dissenting Huguenots, attests that he “accidentally met with his excellency.” As the two converse, the governor simply can’t understand why the people are up in arms, simply because he ordered ministerial troops to take their gunpowder and arms. The good doctor responds, “..this was done in a hurry and confusion and that most of them seemed convinced it was wrong.”
Doctor Pasteur: “..his Lordship then proceeded to make use of several rash expressions..” (An example: “..he had once fought for Virginians and that by God he would let them see he could fight against them and declared that in a short time he could depopulate the whole country.”)
What follows (read for yourself) is a promise to reduce the city of Williamsburg “..to ashes.”
The absurdity of a royal governor so beside himself with panic, and rage, that he visits his wrath on a country doctor, is also a picture of authority squandered. It inspires, in subordinates, the unpleasant obligations of virtuous mutiny: someone needs to take the old man’s car keys away from him. It’s the moment where Peter Seller’s Group Captain Mandrake hears General Ripper worrying about precious bodily fluids. Something is very wrong with dear leader, and we may have to do something about it. A simple, gold-standard advice for all presidents, governors, mayors, and police chiefs: calm down. When your authority is questioned, it’s generally NOT a good idea to threaten the root and branch destruction of the entire village, or the nation. (Joe Biden, are you listening?)
Not so funny after all..
Dunsmore never learned his lesson. He booby-trapped the Williamsburg magazine, (setting a spring-loaded musket to go off upon entry and thus injuring two young men.) The outrage from this incident convinced the governor he needed to leave, pronto, but he followed up with even more official incompetence. He ordered a company of British soldiers to their death, attacking a fortified position at Norfolk’s Great Bridge, and then he destroyed the town of Norfolk, with British naval artillery, having been offended by the patriotic marching of Whig patriots in the town.
God moves liberty forward, sometimes, by letting angry idiots in high places reveal their bad character to the people. Pharaoh. Jezebel. Herod. Charles I. Lord Dunmore.
It actually can be a little hilarious along the way, and we can laugh now, because our ancestors kept their heads cool and their powder dry.
This post was written by Jim Riley