Our Fathers’ Freedom: The American Revolution and the COVID Crisis

by Will C. De Man

In the days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans are filled with a general feeling of anxiety and worry. For some, it’s anxiety over how they’ll keep up their rent or pay their bills. Others worry for their sick or elderly loved ones, who are particularly at risk. Still others have experienced a growing anxiety over tightening quarantine restrictions, fearing that their American liberties are being infringed upon.

British soldier on horseback among colonial settlers with the caption "You peasants better have the King's permission to be outside."

A meme circulating social media, attempting to link the American Revolution and the present shelter in place orders. (Source unknown)

In Michigan especially, there seems to be a growing resentment of state Governor Whitmer, particularly after the executive, “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order was expanded on April 9. The announcement of further restrictions have led to loud protest, exemplified by the rise of a Facebook group titled, “Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine.” This group claims to be fighting for the Constitutional rights of Michigan residents.

Some protesters have drawn correlations between the “oppression” of this particular moment and the fight for freedom during the American Revolution. Public memory creates a filter through which Americans remember the birth of the nation as being defined by liberty, freedom, and human rights.

All of this preamble leads to the question at hand: does the COVID-19 quarantine resemble the very acts our founding fathers stood against? Do the actions of the state governor relate to the actions of the British in colonial America? In order to find the answer, the roots of the American Revolution must be examined and compared with our present situation.

To understand the context of the American Revolution, we must look back to the Seven Years War (also known as the French and Indian War). This war was waged by the British against the French and their Native American allies in an attempt to determine who would maintain final control of North America. At the cost of doubling its national debt, England won the war in 1763. The cost of the war would prove to be a troublesome after-effect, leading to some of the causes of the American revolution.

From the British point of view, the war with the French was fought to protect the American colonists. As the direct beneficiaries of British victory in the Seven Years War, the British expected American settlers to repay this debt in kind. Thus began the infamous series of taxes that would be levied on the inhabitants of the Atlantic seaboard.

Oil portrait of John Adams, showing a balding man in black robes.

John Adams (1735-1826), by Gilbert Stuart. National Gallery of Art.
(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

American dissent wasn’t necessarily because of the financial cost of these new taxes; the colonies were generally prosperous and these taxes were relatively small. The problem, some believed, was the precedent set by the taxation. Preeminent American historian Alan Taylor writes:

 “[John] Adams expressed a widespread fear that the small new taxes set precedent that would inevitably lead to ever increasing levies that would enrich an official elite around the royal governors while impoverishing common taxpayers and obstructing their social mobility.”[1]

This fear wasn’t entirely unfounded, either. Bernard Baily accounts in his The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution a growing suspicion of British officials in America and their motivations. Certain bureaucrats and judges attempted to consolidate their power, testing the limits of the newly born English constitution. These officials, particularly judges, would vote themselves into life-long offices and give themselves ample pay raises.[2] American colonists saw these actions and called foul.

A further impact of the Seven Years War upon America was an increased presence by the British military. The number of British troops in North America had been significantly increased in order to combat the French, and these troops stuck around after the war. The British authority saw these heightened troop levels as an opportunity to bring their colonies in line. Alan Taylor again writes: “victory invited the British to redefine their empire and to increase the colonist’s burden.”[3]

With this framework laid, the question at hand must be answered: Are we now fighting for the same freedoms as our founding fathers 250 years ago? Is this a similar battle against tyranny? We’ve recounted so far several areas of perceived oppression on the part of the British in Colonial America: “Unconstitutional taxing, the invasion of placemen [soldiers], the weakening of the judiciary, plural office holding… standing armies these were major evidences of a deliberate assault of power upon liberty.”[4] Are we now facing the same?

There are, in fact, major differences between the reality of past oppression and the perceived oppression of this day. The American Revolution was a response to a legitimate infringement of the rights of the colonists as citizens of the British empire. They experienced taxation without the ability to lobby and the invasion of their homes by British soldiers without their consent. In contrast, the rights of the American people as laid out in our own Constitution have been maintained; on the very day of this writing (April 15), Michiganders exercised their right to protest by grid-locking Lansing, the state capital.

Additionally, there is no imminent threat of danger by American troops against American people. The National Guard has been deployed, but only to provide aid to those who need it. My own brother worked with the National Guard to provision a food bank being run by his church. We are not experiencing the same very real threat of physical harm faced by the residents of Boston in 1770.

Furthermore, a definitive difference is that our American liberties are being restricted for this brief time to protect us, not to exploit us. John Adams painted a bleak future in which Americans would face severe taxation to pay off British war debts; rather than embrace this seemingly sure future, America revolted and won its freedom. Now Americans are facing new kinds of restrictions, but these are in place to try to protect American citizens and stop the spread of a global pandemic.

Though we do not face the same imminent threats as the Americans of the 18th century, our country today is faced with fear and uncertainty about the future. The economic anxieties are legitimate. The fear for the safety of our loved ones is legitimate. Our aversion to the uncertainty of the future is legitimate.

Surely though, this is a moment in which Americans can show the same resolve as in the 18th century. Our founding fathers journeyed uncharted waters— they knew as little of the future as we do now. Let’s keep that thought in mind as we take on the future. The framework of American society is strong. Let’s be sure to take on the uncertain future with the same bravery and resolve as though who brought this nation into being.

Sources:
[1] Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America, (New York: Penguin Book, 2001), 442.
[2] Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1967), 112.
[3] Alan Taylor, American Colonies, 438.
[4] Bernard Bailyn, Ideological Origins, 117.

Will C. De Man is a junior at Calvin University studying History, Secondary Education, and Classics. He is particularly interested in the history of Ireland, Ancient Rome, and Colonial America. He loves camping and drinking coffee out of his Martin Luther mug.

 

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The Pope and the Plague

by Frans van Liere.
Woodcut of plague victims, some dead on the floor, some dying in bed, while a doctor wearing a mask tends to them.

Medieval plague victims, Woodcut, 1532.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1349, a terrible epidemic arrived in Avignon. It had spread from Italy, but its origins were somewhere in Central Asia, on what is now the border between Xinjiang and Kyrgyzstan. For the next seven months, the Black Death ravaged this small city on the Rhone river in southern France, and some historians estimate that half the population died.[1]  “Such was the fear,” says one eye-witness, “which invaded all, that as soon as an ulcer or bump appeared in someone’s groin or arm pit, this person would be completely shunned, even if he was a close relative. Father left son, and son left father lying on his cot. No wonder, for as soon as someone in a home had caught the disease and died, often all others were infected too and died a similar sudden death, even (horrible to hear!) dogs and cats and chicken.” Out of fear of contagion, many of the dead were left unburied or thrown into the river.

Photograph of the city of Avignon

The City of Avignon
Photograph by Frans van Liere

At the time of the plague, Avignon was not the sleepy provincial town it is now; it was a center of power in late medieval Europe, as the seat of the papal curia. The man who had the misfortune to be pope during this arguably deadliest-ever world pandemic was Pierre Roger, who bore the papal name Clement VI.  He had a reputation for luxurious living, and some critics say he gave the papacy a bad name. “My predecessors did not know how to be popes,” he allegedly countered.[2]

Woodcut drawing of Pope Clement IV

Portrait of Clement VI.
Image source: ArtStor

Clement’s role during the Black Death is assessed differently by historians. Some say he rose to the job, while others accuse him of lack of empathy and leadership. One medieval chronicler tells how the pope, “shut up in his room, with a large fire continually going, gave no one access” while the plague raged. Unfortunately, this one statement from an “acrimoniously anti-papal”[3] source has been given disproportionate weight by modern historians, giving a one-sided picture of Clement’s attitude during the epidemic.[4]

Fourteenth-century papal biographers, however, give a somewhat more nuanced description of Clement’s behavior during the disaster.  One anonymous biographer tells us that the “pope in Avignon acted very charitably.” He ordered his doctors to visit the sick, and made sure the poor received all necessities. For the needy, he arranged for burials, and even bought a piece of land to be used as a plague cemetery. Of course he was also a spiritual leader, and he alleviated some of the spiritual anxieties by instituting a special Mass for the cessation of the plague, and, more importantly, he provided a general absolution of all sins for victims of the plague who had died without proper confession or receiving the last rites.

Painting of people dressed in tattered cloths, whipping themselves and bleeding

Procession of flagellants, by Francisco de Goya.
Source: ArtStor.

Spiritual anxiety abounded during this disaster. A movement arose in Germany that claimed that the disease was caused by the God’s displeasure at the sins of mankind, in particular the violation of the Day of the Lord, breaking the fast, usury, blasphemy, and adultery. Members of this movement went around in large processions carrying crucifixes and stripped to the waist, while lacerating themselves with whips with iron hooks, stopping in towns to preach penitence to the bystanders. With this self-torture they hope to stave off the wrath of God. In 1349, they visited Avignon. Clement was not impressed with their theology. He issued an official condemnation on October 20, 1349, and ordered the movement to disband.

Even more troublesome was the attempt to find scapegoats for the plague. The fourteenth-century world chronicle of Albert the Monk tells us that, while many said the pestilence was caused by “a corruption of the air,” others said that “Jews, wanting to extinguish the whole of Christendom, had started poisoning wells and springs everywhere with a horrible poison.”  And indeed, soon the first Jews confessed under torture to having “boiled spiders and toads in a pot” in order to carry out this evil plan. “As evidence of the truth of this vile plot, several sachets of poison were found near wells and springs,” Albert assures readers. Soon, pogroms against Jews ensued throughout Germany, “few places excepted. Many of the Jews accepted baptism, but not for the sake of God, rather out of fear of death.”

Not all believed in the Jews’ guilt. The anonymous author of Clement’s Life tells us how “many innocent and inculpable people, both Christians and Jews, were burned to death, slaughtered, and mistreated, while in truth nothing caused [the plague] but a [unlucky] constellation of the stars, or divine displeasure.”

Clement condemned these mass murders, which historians now call pogroms, in the strongest terms. “It has come to our attention”, he says, “that Christians, at the inspiration of the devil, have falsely imputed this pest, which God has inflicted on all Christians as a due punishment for their sins, to the Jews.” He continues: “No Christian should dare to harm, kill, or take the possessions of the aforementioned Jews, without due judgement of the Lord of the region,” and “no Christian should compel a Jew to accept baptism by means of violence.” In a later bull, Clement admonished all archbishops, bishops, and church leaders to denounce the slaughter of the Jews, and threatened anyone who harmed the Jews with a papal condemnation. He personally took into his protection those who had suffered persecution.[5]

While the current coronavirus threat is arguably not as grave as the medieval Black Death, some of the human reactions are disconcertingly similar. Even antisemitism is rearing its ugly head. Despite the bad reputation of the Avignon papacy (wholly undeserved, as I have argued elsewhere), Clement VI offered a model of sound church leadership. He provided for the poor and needy, and offered spiritual guidance, while denouncing religious mass hysteria and scapegoating. If the story of his locking himself inside the papal palace is true, it may show that he, too, was afraid of the contagion. But compared with the other responses of his contemporaries, was this really reprehensible? The pope’s death would surely have brought still further harm to Christendom. Perhaps Clement’s social distancing was really one of the more sensible responses to the crisis.

 

Sources:
Matthias of Neuenburg’s Chronik, Fassung WAU, edited by Adolf Hofmeister, in MGH, SS rer. Germ., N.S. 4, 422 (Munich, Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1924-1940); Albert the Monk’s Weltchronik, edited by Rolf Sprandel, MGH, SS rer. Germ., N.S. 17, 110 (Munich, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, 1994). The Vita Prima of Clement VI can be found in Stephanus Baluze, Vitae Paparum Avenionensium, ed. Guillaume Mollat (Paris, Letouzey & Ané, 1914–22), vol. 2:251-252. The bulls of Clement VI can be found in Odorico Raynaldo, Annales Ecclesiastici: ab anno MCXCVIII, ubi card. Baronius desinit (Rome: Mascardus, 1646–77), 16, 181 (ad annum 1349, 33).

[1] John Kelly, The Great Mortality. An Intimate History of the Black Death. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005), 161.

[2] Yves Renouard, The Avignon Papacy, 1305–1403, trans. Denis Bethell (Hamden: Archon Books, 1970), 47.

[3] Guillaume Mollat, Les Papes d’Avignon (1305–1378) (Paris: Letouzey & Ané, 1949), 566.

[4] Robert E. Lerner, The Powers of Prophecy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 116; Joëlle Rollo-Koster, Avignon and Its Papacy, 1309–1417. (Lanham, Boulder, New York, London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 84.

[5] Mollat, Les Papes d’Avignon, 89.

Frans van Liere is Professor of History and director of the Medieval Studies program at Calvin. He teaches world history, medieval history, and history of the book. He grew up in the Netherlands and studied theology and medieval studies at the University of Groningen. His research interests are medieval biblical exegesis, twelfth-century intellectual history, and the late medieval papacy. He lives in Grand Rapids, MI with his wife, two sons, and two cats named Pippa and Emma.

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“Digging In” to a Company’s History

by Bob Schoone-Jongen
Black book cover with the title "Braen: A History Built in Stone"

Braen: A History Built in Stone.
This coffee table book commemorates the 115th anniversary of the Braen Stone Company.

During the spring of 2017, I received a request to help compile the history of the Braen Stone Company, headquartered in Haledon, New Jersey. The company has been in business since 1904, owned by the same family for five generations. The owners hoped to mark their 115th anniversary with a coffee table book on the history of the family and their company.

In an article published a few years ago, I had detailed the Braen company as an example of how Dutch immigrants in New Jersey had found an economic niche in the construction business. The first of the Braens was a shoemaker who arrived in Paterson, New Jersey in 1851 from the Netherlands. One of his grandsons founded the Braen Stone Company.

A page from the book, with a black and white image showing a group of miners in the stone quarry.

Sam Braen and some of his workmen. From the book Braen: A History Built in Stone

My assignment was to provide the narrative and help locate many of the illustrations. The book tells the company’s story in the context of both Dutch immigration and New Jersey’s transformation from a place of farms and forests to first an industrial hub and then a residential region.

To celebrate the anniversary and the publication of the coffee table book, Braen Stone Company put together a commemorative video. I had the opportunity to take part and share some of the Braen story, including some of my own memories of growing up near the quarry. The video was shot on location during November of 2019, and shown at the company’s celebration in December. Take a look:

 

Robert Schoone-Jongen is emeritus professor of history at Calvin University. Before his retirement, he worked with student teachers who hope to become high school and middle school social studies teachers. His historical interests are immigration, American social history, and the presidency. 

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