Friday, July 09, 2010

America’s Revolution: The Prequel

New York Times
Op-Ed Contributor

America’s Revolution: The Prequel


Published: July 2, 2010

Bath, England
PICTURE the scene: Out of the dawn mist, a fleet of longboats glides across the water, packed full of musket-wielding patriots and weather-beaten Massachusetts militiamen. Standing in the prow of the lead boat, like Washington crossing the Delaware, is a man with long flowing hair and a blood-red banner emblazoned with two words: Vincat veritas. Truth Conquers.
But it’s not Washington, and it’s not the American Revolution. In fact, it’s not even America. This daring amphibious assault by Col. Thomas Rainborowe and his regiment of New Englanders took place 3,000 miles away, in old England, and in 1644, more than 130 years before those famous shots were fired at Lexington to herald what we Brits insist on calling the War of American Independence.
It is a fact rarely discussed on either side of the Atlantic that American colonists played a crucial role in the English Civil War, the bitter struggle between King Charles I and Parliament that tore England apart in the 1640s. The English Revolution — and that is just what it was — can be interpreted in all kinds of ways: as a religious fight between pathologically earnest Puritans and the Catholic-leaning bishops of the Church of England; as an uprising by a nascent merchant class determined to throw off the shackles of medieval feudalism; as right-but-repulsive Roundheads bashing the wrong-but-romantic Cavaliers.
It was all those things. But it was also a battle against the arbitrary tyranny of the crown that prefigured America’s own struggle for independence. And hundreds of American colonists cared enough about that struggle to sail back across the vast Atlantic, to build a city upon a hill — not in the frightening, alien landscape of Massachusetts but in the familiar fields and townships of England.
Most of these men were linked by friendship, business or marriage to the Rainborowes, a charismatic clan of English merchant-mariners, pioneers and visionaries who moved back and forth between the Old World and the New in the 1630s and 1640s.
Stephen Winthrop — the son of Gov. John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and a revolutionary who was once described as “a great man for soul liberty” — married Judith Rainborowe, the daughter of Thomas’s brother William. (Winthrop’s father later married Judith’s sister — which, by my reckoning, made the governor both grandfather and uncle to Stephen’s children.) The younger Winthrop decided he couldn’t stand on the sidelines in the colonies when there was a righteous fight in England; he enlisted as a captain in the Parliamentary Army and never returned to America.
Nehemiah Bourne, a Boston shipbuilder, had once been the Rainborowes’ neighbor in London; he too sailed back to fight the crown. Israel Stoughton, who captained the Dorchester militia in the Pequot wars of the 1630s, was a friend of William’s. William himself sold his farmstead in Charlestown to return to England, and Bourne and Stoughton served as officers in the Parliamentary Army under Thomas, whose regiment was packed with colonists. They were with him when he launched the daring amphibious assault on a Royalist garrison in the east of England in 1644 that made these “New-England men” famous all over the country.
The interesting thing about these colonists was their radicalism, their revolutionary fervor. They were Puritans — but they were more than that. They were merchant-venturers, looking for new markets and business opportunities. They were more than that, too. They were idealists, who went to extraordinary lengths and traveled extraordinary distances to fight for the chance to build a fairer society.
These were the men who, when the Parliamentarians had all but won the war and Charles I was imprisoned, pressed Oliver Cromwell and the other Roundhead grandees to sweep away the old order. To change the world. William Rainborowe asserted that there could be no compromise when it came to “the rights and freedoms of the people.” Thomas, who was greatly influenced by the radical colonists in his regiment, hoped the new regime would at least extend the limited male suffrage that was being adopted throughout the New England colonies. But he also pushed hard for the grandees to take it further and grant the vote to all men — something that wouldn’t be achieved in Britain for another 270 years.
Thomas declared, “I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.”
His words still have power, even after all this time; they could have been spoken by Jefferson. And as the skies light up this Fourth of July, consider this great paradox of history: while the English Revolution owed so much to America, the first shots in the American War of Independence were fired in England.
(Adrian Tinniswood, the author of “The Verneys: A True Story of Love, War and Madness in 17th-Century England,” is working on a book about the Rainborowe family.)

1 comment:

Professor Philips said...

The English Civil War was the prequel to the American Civil War, when the Puritan North fought the Cavalier South. If there was an English prequel to the American Revolution it was the Glorious Revolution, but the principles fought for were a little different. However, I'll concede that the American Revolution was one part of the long series of struggles between the Crown and the Parliament. Both countries were divided, Washington and the Continental Congress having significant support in the UK, and King George and the King's Men having significant "Loyalist" support in the Colonies.