All Commentary
Thursday, June 1, 2006

Leviathan’s Legionnaires

Boston lies under a foot of snow this Monday March evening in 1770, so icy and cold that anyone who can huddle at home on the hearth should. Instead, much of the town is abroad and abuzz like an angry hive. Bostonians are infuriated at something their descendants will take for granted, indeed, will prize so highly they’ll pay for it: police are patrolling their city.

And have been for many months. In September 1768 a thousand British Redcoats disembarked at the town’s wharves. From there they “marched sword in hand through the principal streets of [Boston], then in profound peace.”1 Their purpose was not to protect the 15,000 inhabitants but to keep them in line, much as police presently do. And, again like modern officers, they will collect money for the government, though rather than writing traffic tickets, they will enforce customs duties.

The colonists do not share their descendants’ idealism that the police “protect and serve,” nor do they mistake the Redcoats for “Boston’s Finest.” They see the soldiers stalking among them as the government’s bullyboys, and they despise them for it. Tonight, that antagonism will explode, becoming famous as a Massacre for killing five civilians and wounding others.

Historians offer a bevy of explanations and excuses for that calamitous confrontation: Americans resented the British as an occupying force; off-duty soldiers worked at odd jobs for low pay, stealing opportunities from Boston’s day laborers and provoking more resentment; the Redcoats were naturally arrogant, the colonists naturally touchy. But behind it all lies the simple fact that the soldiers were policing Boston. They marched through the city searching for contraband, infractions of the government’s rules, and anyone the administration deemed suspicious.

They also reintroduced His Majesty’s customs officers at the point of their bayonets. Prior to the Redcoats’ advent in 1768, Bostonians had so intimidated these officials that they fled the city. Ann Hulton was sister to one; she wrote, “Every officer of the Crown that does his duty is become obnoxious & they must either fly or be sacrificed. . . .” Ann flew with her brother and others to Castle Island, now part of the mainland but then a fort lying at a safe distance in Boston Harbor. From there, Miss Hulton continued her account of the colonists’ cowing of Customs: “These Sons of Violence after attacking Houses, breaking Windows, beating, Stoning & bruizing several gentlemen belong’g to the Customs, the Collector mortally & burning his boat.”2 Only when the Redcoats could ensure their safety did the officers return to Boston. They remained for the next 18 months, retreating again with the troops after the Massacre: “The inhabitants of the town assembled in Faneuil Hall . . . unanimously resolved, that no armed force should be suffered longer to reside in the capital . . . . [T]he people, inflexible in their demands, insisted that not one British soldier should be left within the town . . . . [W]ithin four days the whole army decamped. . . . The commissioners of the customs and several other obnoxious characters retired with the army” to the fortified Castle Island.3

Could we whisk the army from their eighteenth-century fort to a modern precinct, the Redcoats would likely agree that their policing differed little from today’s—except in one remarkable detail. They would be astounded at the enormous authority most Americans grant the police and at the enormous respect, even glorification, following from that.

Both are centuries removed from the ridicule and revulsion red-coated police rated in eighteenth-century Boston. Perhaps the difference in attitude arises partly from our powerlessness against a force armed far beyond what most of us can manage. The Bostonians milling about the freezing streets that night carried pistols and swords every bit the equal of muskets and bayonets. If a man didn’t own a gun or blade, he hastened toward the coming showdown with the “invaders” and “foreign enemies” openly bearing a wooden stave or club, a knife, a hatchet, even a chunk of ice scooped off the street.4

Their weapons rendered the colonists boisterous and aggressive when standing up to the Redcoats. British General Thomas Gage reported that “The people were as Lawless and Licentious after the Troops arrived, as they were before. The Troops . . . seemed only offered to abuse and Ruin . . . to suffer ill usage and even assaults upon their Persons till their Lives were in Danger. . . .”5

That “lawlessness” bedeviled the Redcoats from their first moments in Boston, when they began hunting barracks. Thomas Hutchinson, Massachusetts’s royally appointed governor, offered a large public building to the soldiers, ignoring the “outcasts of the Workhouse and the scum of the Town”6 already renting rooms there. The “scum” objected to the governor’s exercise of eminent domain as much as Hutchinson would have had they offered the Redcoats his mansion. They promptly barricaded themselves inside the building.

Boston’s sheriff, backed by some soldiers, soon arrived. He discovered an unlocked window, climbed into the building, and ordered the “outcasts” out. They promptly barricaded him inside, too.

Meanwhile, the sheriff’s martial escort stood helpless, unable to rescue him, because the scowling, muttering townspeople surrounding the place heavily outnumbered the soldiers. This standoff continued for two days after Boston’s Council sided with the “scum” and refused to authorize their eviction.

Nor did the colonists’ “ill usage” abate over the next year and a half. Before the shooting began on the night of the Massacre a citizen scolded a group of British officers: “Why don’t you keep your soldiers in the barracks? . . . Are the inhabitants to be knocked down in the streets? Are they to be murdered in this manner? You know the country has been used ill. You know the town has been used ill. We did not send for you. We will not have you here.”7

Contrast that succinct and spirited lesson in liberty with the shuffling slave mentality of modern Americans. We bow and scrape when dealing with police officers in their various guises, whether the state trooper during a traffic stop or the Transportation Security Administration screener searching us without cause or warrant at the airport.

Also astonishing is the deference the Redcoats’ officers showed the colonists. Sometime after one Bostonian had scolded the officers, another asked British Captain John Preston whether he would order his men to fire on them. “By no means, by no means,” Preston answered respectfully. “My giving the word ‘fire’ under those circumstances would prove me no officer.”8 Thus while modern police order us about as though we are slow and stupid children, British officers requested, explained, and begged pardon.

After the Redcoats fired that night, a silversmith named Benjamin Burdick approached, obviously studying the troops in the moonlight. “I want to see some faces that I may swear to another day,” he said. Would any of us dare stop when we see a car on the side of the highway, with a trooper ticketing the driver, to announce ourselves as witnesses? Granted, Burdick was an imposing man, estimated to weigh 380 pounds by a neighbor,9 but even the largest among us is unlikely to heckle an armed cop. Not only do they outgun us, but there are too many laws protecting them, too much presupposition that, in any encounter, the state is right and the citizen wrong. The Redcoats in eighteenth-century Boston could rely on no such privileges. Indeed, the only response Captain Preston made to the brave Burdick was a mild, “Perhaps, sir, you may [be summoned to court as a witness].”10

Unthinkable, isn’t it? The police buffaloed, and citizens riding herd on them! But that’s become an impossible dream; it is as if the people and the police have swapped places. Why? Are Americans really that different now? Or have policemen, their nature and their relationship to the people they “serve,” changed?

William the Conqueror

Eighteenth-century Englishmen, whether in the colonies or at home, had a horror of the military’s policing them, of the government’s bringing troops against them instead of against national enemies, such as the French and the Spanish. This horror dates back centuries, to the Norman invasion of England in 1066, when an army under William the Conqueror devastated the countryside. The soldiers robbed, raped, burned, and brutalized, committing all the atrocities at which armies excel. Then, their victory secure, they added insult to injury by quartering their troops on the native Saxons. They also taxed them.

The Saxons contrasted this abuse by professional soldiers with the behavior of their own militias. Saxon farmers and shopkeepers fought to defend themselves when attacked, but they returned to their farms and shops once the danger had passed. They did not make a career of robbing people on behalf of the king, nor did they burn a man’s home and sack his shop. Militias were defensive, armies offensive: the difference keenly impressed Saxon farmers pondering plundered towns, farms in flames, and wives and daughters traumatized or even dying from rape.

This martial skepticism was reinforced during the civil wars of the 1600s, especially Oliver Cromwell’s military dictatorship. A “standing army,” with its professional killers and its existence even during peacetime, was considered the worst evil that could afflict a free people—if a people so afflicted could be called free.

By the eighteenth century this national attitude resulted in a poorly manned army of thin ranks. Add to this an abusive command relying on physical torture and low pay to control the soldiers, and it’s no wonder the British army had to resort to kidnapping to fill its brigades. It drafted almost literally out of the gutter those soldiers it didn’t take from the hangman. (Judges sometimes offered convicted murderers and other miscreants a choice between killing for the King or being killed.)

Recruits who weren’t ducking the scaffold usually came from society’s lowest rungs. Impressment officers prowled the streets of London, promising the naked, starving underclass a warm uniform and regular rations. When these blandishments failed, the officer tried to get his victim so drunk he would grasp a shilling: astoundingly, the government considered that pittance a fair exchange for a man’s life. You might think it easy to slip a coin into a poor man’s hand, especially one plied with free booze all night. But however brutal life on the streets was, everyone knew the army was worse. Nor was there any escape: once a soldier, always a soldier. It took death to free a man from his “deal” with the King.

Citizens feared the army drawn from such ranks much as we would a mob from our slums and penitentiaries. Perhaps a beggar or prisoner with the soul of a poet was recruited now and then, but if so, he was rapidly desensitized once he donned his uniform. Discipline was draconian, merciless, excessive, terrifying—we can exhaust the thesaurus and still not come close to describing the torture regularly inflicted on the poor cuss turned soldier or sailor. The most minor of transgressions earned horrific retribution, with flogging the favored punishment. These whippings consisted of hundreds of lashes and sometimes a thousand; they were so savage they could kill or, at the least, cripple the victim for life. Often the lashes were administered in sets over the course of several weeks or a month: this allowed the muscles (little skin would be left after the first strokes from the cat-o’-nine-tails) of the back to begin healing before they were once again ripped open. When the brutality finally ended and the victim’s wrists were loosed from the crossed halberds, a bucket of salt water was dashed across him—a crude and unspeakably cruel antiseptic.

Men abused so horrifically were unlikely to show mercy, kindness, or empathy to the civilians who crossed their paths. Governor Hutchinson described those in one of the two regiments loosed on Boston: “They are in general such bad fellows in that regement [sic] that it seems impossible to restrain them.”11 An unbridgeable gap yawned between “citizen” and “soldier,” and though these men might protect England from France’s vengeance, most Englishmen felt little gratitude for this “service.” Britain engaged in many of the trade restrictions that our government does, spawning a century’s worth of war. This benefited the same politicians, bureaucrats, and manufacturers of armaments that current wars do. Everyone else realized the army guarded the interests of these groups at his expense—literally. Nor did people swallow any line about the troops’ “protecting” their liberty: these same soldiers also quelled civilians who rioted in protest of the government’s policies.

In some ways, using soldiers may have been friendlier to freedom than a dedicated police force. Sending troops against a citizenry that feared the army kept folks continually on their guard against them. Anyone who tried to portray these armed aliens as allies, in league with honest citizens to defend society from the bad guys, would have been dismissed as a fool.

Robert Peel

Then along came Robert Peel, MP, creator of England’s first police force.

Born in 1788, Peel joined Parliament as a Tory in 1809. His career there hopscotched between the party line and independence. This allows admirers to portray him as principled, while those who understand political power consider him adept at manipulating it. In 1812, as chief secretary for Ireland, he instituted the “Peace Preservation Police.” Ireland foamed then as now with religious-cum-political conflicts, so “peace preservation” translated to quashing resistance to the decrees of King and Parliament.

Peel’s police quashed so successfully that he was appointed home secretary in 1822. This was a troubled decade in England; four years later, a depression crippled the country. Predictably, crime and rioting increased with unemployment, especially in the cities. But, again predictably, this did not sway government to end the mercantilism causing the depression. Instead, as would any astute politician already famous for “solving” a similar problem, Peel called for a committee to investigate the possibilities of a police force in London.

Unfortunately for Peel, the committee wasn’t as astute as he. The first time around it reported that police were by their nature inimical to a free society. Peel sent them back to the drawing board for a more acceptable answer. Not surprisingly, the committee then recommended that the government should act. Specifically, it should organize and augment London’s existing officers.

There were about 450 of these, ranging from magistrates’ “runners” to Marine Police patrolling the Thames for contraband and untaxed goods. Peel consolidated these agents, hired enough new men to bring his number to 1,000, trained them, and put them in uniform as well as on the public’s purse.

Peel also codified nine principles for his police. These ranged from a mission statement (the purpose of the “peelers” or “bobbies,” as they were called in Peel’s honor, was to prevent crime and keep the peace) to the practical tip of securing the public’s cooperation through impartiality and courtesy. But one of Peel’s Principles struck liberty a blistering blow. For the first time, instead of the state’s agents being hurtful and alien, a force snatched from prison and poverty and turned loose on the public by a vengeful king, the bobbies were instead to pose as friends and neighbors. “The police,” Peel insisted, “are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interest of community welfare and existence.”12

The new bureaucracy, complete with two commissioners, was up and running by 1829. Given London’s crime wave, it seems reasonable to assume that law-abiding folk welcomed these guardians. Instead, they despised them. Nor did they cooperate with them. They called the bobbies by names far more Anglo-Saxon, sometimes assaulted them, and occasionally killed them. A jury even returned a verdict of “justifiable homicide” for a civilian charged with murdering one.

But just as a man gets used to hanging, so Londoners did to bobbies. Their hostility faded with time. Actually, the public’s feelings about these “members . . . paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen” probably little mattered when it came to continuing the bobbies’ patrols: an ostensibly free country now had an unanswerable excuse—protecting citizens from nongovernmental criminals—for infiltrating and monitoring the population. It would hardly relinquish this immense advantage without prolonged, mass rebellion.

Other governments eagerly watched Britain’s experiment with the intent of copying it. The first American city to do so was New York, in 1853. We might hope that a country founded in freedom would resist paying some citizens to enforce the state’s whims against others. Instead, Philadelphia boasted a force by 1856 and Boston by 1859, despite its rioting just 90 years before against red-coated police. Perhaps the blue coats lulled suspicion.

Preventing Crime

Americans heard the same excuses for the state’s monitoring them as Londoners had—the same excuses, in fact, which prevail today: the police would keep the peace and prevent crime. Never mind that the police have a questionable record of solving, let alone preventing, crime. Typically, police departments in large cities “solve” only 55–65 percent of homicides, though that doesn’t necessarily include apprehending the culprit. Governments have long resorted to asking, even haranguing, the public for help in solving crime; many now host websites listing their failures in the hopes that citizens will ride to the rescue.13 And despite New York City’s phalanx of 40,000 cops—an army larger than George Washington ever commanded at one time during the Revolutionary War—17,875 cars were stolen in 2005, a “sharp drop” from previous years.14

Broken promises have never threatened the existence of police departments, however. That’s because these institutions are extremely useful to the politicians who determine their fate. With the advent of New York City’s first force, politicians rejoiced at having an entire department of voters depend on them for a raise; even more did they appreciate the management positions they could award to influential supporters. They often looked on their city’s cops as political bodyguards, akin to Caesar Augustus’s praetorian guard: during elections, cops made sure the “right” folks voted.

Civil-service rules supposedly eliminated such corruption in the late nineteenth century, but any improvements were offset by the police’s expansion into everyday life. Their consistent presence on the streets attracted the attention of anyone wanting help. Folks who might have relied on family and neighbors turned instead to the patrolman in his noticeable uniform. Police were soon chaperoning lost children, adjudicating domestic disputes, controlling traffic, and even boarding bums in their station houses. Official involvement elevated these matters, sometimes serious but often merely mundane, into crises worthy of their own bureaucracies, fertilizing the growth of municipal governments.15

In contrast to their eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century forefathers, modern Americans take police for granted, much like driver’s licenses and parking tickets. If they think about them at all, it is not as a standing army quartered among them but as heroes who serve and protect. Even the latest corruption scandal or physical abuse of a prisoner scarcely dents the apathy and mistaken perception. Those who do rail against corruption and abuse seldom question the basic premise behind policing; instead, all that’s required is weeding out the rogues, tinkering with the regulations, and reforming the department yet again.

This is especially tragic given the warped emphasis policing brings to crime. The American judicial apparatus focuses on punishing those who transgress the government’s decrees, either extracting their money for the state or imprisoning them or both. Restoring the criminal’s victim is hardly ever a consideration (perhaps because most “crimes” the state now prosecutes actually have no victims). This contrasts baldly and badly with Anglo-Saxon justice, in which making the victim whole was the sole concern.16 Neighbors mutually pledged to assist anyone who suffered loss at the hands of a thief or murderer. Once the miscreant was apprehended, the community assessed his guilt and, if satisfied, required him to make restitution. Those criminals who refused faced ostracism, leaving them vulnerable to vengeance from their victims.

Occasionally, a violator was stronger than the community on which he preyed, at which point folks might solicit the king’s help. Early Anglo-Saxon kings maintained a palace guard, though these forces were small in number because the king paid them from his own pocket. Communities began including a royal recompense, then, in the violator’s restitution. But the royal eye quickly recognized a river of revenue in that recompense. This created a perverse incentive to invent more “crimes” with large fines. Gradually, the state arrogated to itself a monopoly on “solving” crime, with its profits trumping the victim’s restitution. That left folks with little reason to report misdeeds beyond the hope that the criminal, if caught, would no longer prey on them, and they quit doing so. The state had the last laugh, though: it became a crime not to report a crime. This permeates practically all American penal codes to this day.

Obviously, government’s interest lies in persuading taxpayers that the police protect them not the state. But the priorities are obvious. How many dollars of stolen goods are returned to citizens versus how many dollars in traffic tickets go to the state?17 How many political demonstrations are “contained” by the police versus how many stolen cars are recovered? How often is a senator or governor coddled by a police escort when he descends on a town versus how many ordinary folks fear to venture down a dark alley? Indeed, New York City’s percentage of “solved” murders in 2005 plunged perhaps because so many detectives were busy protecting visiting pooh-bahs. Clearly, the state profits far more from the police than do the people.

I once watched a trial in which a policeman was suing the police force that had employed him. He had been fired a few days before he would have retired. This brought his pension in doubt, which in turn brought him into court. His attorney emphasized his client’s valor by insisting that for 20 years he had performed “paramilitary” duties with a “paramilitary” force. He consistently and repeatedly portrayed the police as “paramilitary.”

Tragically, that makes us the “para-enemy.”


  1. Mercy Otis Warren, History of the Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution, vol. I. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1994), p. 38.
  2. Esther Forbes, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1942), p. 137.
  3. Otis Warren, pp. 54–55.
  4. Page Smith, A New Age Now Begins: A People’s History of the American Revolution (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976), p. 303.
  5. Ibid., p 319.
  6. Ibid., p. 305.
  7. Ibid., p. 334.
  8. Ibid., pp. 338–39.
  9. Forbes, p. 172.
  10. Smith, p. 340.
  11. Forbes, p. 142.
  12. See
  13. For an example, see Manchester, N.H.’s list of outstanding murders at
  14. “A Stolen Love Is Found, 37 Years Down the Road.” New York Times, January 17, 2006.
  15. See “Police Forces” in Eric Foner and John Garraty, eds., The Reader’s Companion to American History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991).
  16. Ireland, Iceland, and “the large number of primitive societies anthropologists have studied” value restitution instead of punishment too, according to Bruce Benson. He also points out that in addition to making the victim whole, restitution offers two other benefits: it does not force taxpayers to subsidize criminals’ room and board, clothing, and guards, and it eliminates “crimes” of vice since these involve only willing participants, not victims. Download Benson’s article “Crime” here: crime.doc.
  17. Because municipalities often try to hide their income from traffic tickets so they don’t have to divide the plunder with their respective states, no one knows how much money tickets generate each year. The National Motorists Association (NMA) estimates that state and local governments are raking in between $3.75 and $7.5 billion annually–and that excludes parking tickets. Hand-in-glove with governments on this issue are insurance companies, which raise their rates for “unsafe” motorists. These penalties are so lucrative that insurance companies often donate radar detectors and other such equipment to police departments. The NMA’s website offers illuminating facts and statistics on traffic laws as well as tips on fighting tickets: