Opinion | From Samuel Adams to Tulsi Gabbard, blasting ‘elites’ is a U.S. political tradition

Opinion | From Samuel Adams to Tulsi Gabbard, blasting ‘elites’ is a U.S. political tradition

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"Flight of Thomas Hutchinson Before the Rioters, Boston, Massachusetts, 1765" (circa 1880).
“Flight of Thomas Hutchinson Before the Rioters, Boston, Massachusetts, 1765” (circa 1880). (Print Collector/Getty Images)

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Stacy Schiff is the author, most recently, of “The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams.”

If you want to get ahead in American politics, you might be wise to paint your opponent as a rich, clueless plutocrat. Wisconsin Lt. Gov Mandela Barnes took that line of attack in his Oct. 13 debate with Republican Sen. Ron Johnson. Or , if you’re striking out in a new direction, you might dismiss your former colleagues as an “elitist cabal” — Tulsi Gabbard’s phrase when the former representative from Hawaii announced on Oct. 11 that she was leaving the Democratic Party.

Politicians know that for an aspirational people, Americans have little patience for a ruling class. Appealing to their aversion can be politically useful. In the contest between patrician John F. Kerry’s windsurfing and patrician George W. Bush’s brush-cutting, we know who wins .

The nation’s allergy to aristocracy has been on display from the start, nowhere more vividly than in pre-Revolutionary Boston. Through the 1760s, wealth and power seemed to have migrated into a few familiar hands. Private and public business overlapped. Government answered to the interests of the elite. It appeared deaf to those of everyone else. The public believed their rights were being disregarded. Political discourse had coarsened. Common civility had departed the scene.

In and around Boston — the most unruly town in America at the time — the face of privilege was Thomas Hutchinson’s. Tall and fair, Hutchinson was an urbane, fifth-generation son of colonial Massachusetts. At 26, he took his place in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, a family tradition. He had married into a family with which his forebears had done business for decades. In the coming years, even as the Massachusetts economy faltered, both dynasties thrived.

Hutchinson was not the only rising star in Massachusetts. A Braintree farmer’s son, John Adams had barely begun his brilliant legal career when he voiced his first suspicions of rich, clueless Hutchinson. Soon thereafter, John made the acquaintance of his older cousin, Samuel. The two agreed that Hutchinson — by then a member of the upper house of the Massachusetts legislature, as well as the colony’s lieutenant governor and chief justice — posed a greater threat to American liberties than “any other man … in the world.”

That was not altogether obvious; to most, the greatest threat to American liberties seemed new British legislation. Hutchinson himself objected to the Sugar and Stamp acts, new British taxes, though given his posts, he could not openly disavow imperial policy. Popular resentment had occasionally welled up against him, but nothing could have prepared him for the fury that vented itself in the summer of 1765.

On Aug. 14, a mob vandalized the home of the Massachusetts stamp master. Twelve days later, angered by (false) rumors that Hutchinson had encouraged the Stamp Act, rioters descended on his mansion with axes. They split open doors and demolished walls. They hacked beds to pieces. Over the course of eight hours, they reduced one of the most beautiful homes in New England to a sorry shell. Hutchinson turned up in court the next morning in a borrowed coat, tears glinting in his eyes. He had only the clothes on his back.

Days before the mansion’s sacking, John Adams had ranted in his diary about “this amazing ascendancy of one family, foundation sufficient on which to erect a tyranny.” As Samuel pointed out, Hutchinson enjoyed “every honor and favor” the colony could bestow. The existence of the 1 percent was only part of the problem. Much of the 1 percent also happened to be related.

Colonial offices reliably descended from father to son, but the Hutchinsons had made an art of the practice. Three Hutchinson children married Olivers, the family of the unlucky stamp master. After 1760, every colonial Massachusetts lieutenant governor was named either Oliver or Hutchinson. When one died, snorted John Adams, another simply stepped in to “rule and overbear all things as usual.”

John had plenty of company; any number of other prominent Bostonians, including the history-writing Mercy Otis Warren, found Hutchinson self-serving at best, scheming at worst. Those positions he did not assume for himself he distributed among cousins, brothers and in -laws. No one had ever stockpiled so many positions, protested Samuel Adams, who doubted anyone would again and who waged a vigorous campaign to cast Hutchinson’s privilege as despotism.

Samuel downplayed the Stamp Act violence: “Under cover of the night,” he wrote, “a few villains may do much mischief.” He opposed compensating Hutchinson for the damages. He decried Hutchinson’s hold on ranking posts in all three branches of government. He hinted at collusion against provincial interests. He arranged for clouds of suspicion to trail Hutchinson about town.

Educated at the same institutions, Samuel Adams and Thomas Hutchinson came away, like Ted Cruz and Elena Kagan after Harvard Law School, with radically different convictions. Adams believed that government should answer to ordinary Americans, not to a political elite. He trusted an educated , engaged populace. A friend reduced his politics to two maxims. “Rulers should have little, the people much.” And privilege should step aside to make room for genius and industry.

The collision course with Hutchinson intensified after 1771, when Hutchinson became governor. (One brother-in-law stepped in as his lieutenant, another as chief justice.) Samuel Adams turned for the airing of grievances to town meetings — assemblies that Hutchinson dismissed as “Meetings of Tom, Dick, and Harry.” He scoffed that “anything with the appearance of a man” was admitted.

At the same time, Hutchinson was baffled. How were “inferior people” stealing an administration out from under men with fortunes a hundred times as great? To his mind, Samuel Adams and his friends kept the people in their deluded thrall. They were carried away “with the sound of tyranny and liberty and other big words the force and meaning whereof they do not comprehend.”

The contempt proved one of Samuel Adams’s best weapons. Hutchinson could not bring himself to take Adams and his basket of deplorables seriously. It seemed natural to him that an informed elite should lead. It seemed equally natural to him that of the six agents appointed to sell East India Company tea in Massachusetts in 1773, two should be his sons, two his relatives, and two his close friends. He knew he was not plotting against America. He did not understand why anyone should think he was.

In large part Hutchinson had his privilege to blame. It kept him from the streets, obscuring the view. He had little idea of ​​the resentment against him, which made it easier for him to seem the villain of the piece. No one in his circle was able to explain what was afoot. Their world felt alien. They all waited for it to return to its familiar shape, as they assumed it would. The people had succumbed to a spell. They would wake from it soon enough.

Hutchinson would be reimbursed for the damage to his house but went on to suffer greater indignities. Samuel Adams blocked his reelection to the upper house of the legislature. He contested Hutchinson’s mere presence in the House. He deconstructed, reassembled and printed Hutchinson’s private correspondence — after widely advertising it as criminal.

Adams had on his side the one entity not controlled by Hutchinson and his cronies: the press. In the most-read paper in New England, Adams turned the governor into an “oily-tongued” monster, one who had never met a man he believed his equal. It had been Hutchinson’s highhanded principle since childhood, charged Adams, that “mankind are to be governed by the discerning few, and it has been ever since his ambition to be the hero of the few.”

Hutchinson finally sailed for Great Britain in June 1774, though not before he was burned in effigy in New York and Philadelphia. On his London arrival, he was spirited off to an interview with King George III. Hutchinson attributed Massachusetts unrest to Samuel Adams and his “pretended zeal for liberty.” Adams was, Hutchinson informed the king, the first to advocate for independence. For his part, Adams never lost sight of Hutchinsonian arrogance. As he saw it, American rights had been undermined as much by corrupt, conniving crown officers as by clueless, conniving authorities abroad.

In July 1776, Adams ecstatically reported that “the aristocratic spirit” seemed defeated at last. Democracy had prevailed. The post-Revolutionary Society of the Cincinnati — an honorary order for the descendants of military officers — left him nearly apoplectic. Were hard-won liberties truly, he fumed, to be sacrificed to an entrenched elite? He recoiled from cults of personality, sounding alarm after alarm. “The few haughty Families, think They must govern. The Body of the People tamely consent and submit,” he wrote in 1787. “This unravels,” he added, “the Mystery of the Millions being enslaved by the few!”

Ultimately, the proper political architecture of a republic divided the Adams cousins. John deferred to institutions. Samuel placed his faith in the people. He railed against a class that concerned itself with “hereditary shares in sovereignty, riches and splendor, titles, stars, garters, crosses, eagles, and many other childish playthings.” Indeed, he conceded, there was such a thing as an aristocracy. But it consisted of individuals of all ranks and conditions. As the children of great men did not inevitably resemble their fathers , was it not wise to steer clear of political dynasties?

“The man of good understanding, who has been well educated and improves these advantages as far as his circumstances will allow, in promoting the happiness of mankind,” Samuel wrote in 1790, “in my opinion, and I am inclined to think in yours , is indeed ‘well born.’ ”

Those words he dispatched to the Braintree farmer’s son then serving as vice president of the United States. Samuel lived another 13 years. John lived long enough to follow the protracted and hotly contested presidential election of 1824. Andrew Jackson won the popular vote. No candidate won a majority of the electoral count. The speaker of the House weighed in, deciding the contest in favor of John Quincy Adams, the eldest son of John Adams, the second US president. Tears of joy were said to roll down his face when he was congratulated on his son’s honor.

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