Those Pesky Veterans

There is an eternal love-hate relationship between those who hold the scepter of Power and their former bearers-of-arms who they wielded against their enemies real or imagined, foreign or domestic. This is not unique in modern times nor just Western civilizations. Veterans themselves often chafe at the lackeys of those currently in power and how their image is manipulated in the eyes of the public.

The truth is that the wielder of the scepter sometimes does have to be concerned about veterans. On August 11th, 1766 this concern would manifest itself in the form of a naval captain, born in the colonies, who had formerly fought on the side of Great Britain during the French and Indian War (Seven Years War in Europe). His name was Isaac Sears and before day’s end he would find himself on the receiving end of a British bayonet.

Why he was in front of an outraged crowd of Colonials that day was obvious. The evening before British troops had descended upon the Liberty Pole and chopped it down. The Liberty Pole had been erected by the Sons of Neptune at the time to recognize the repeal of the Stamp Act. But who were the leaders of the Sons of Neptune?

New York’s Liberty Pole was largely the work of four Whig leaders: John Lamb, Joseph Allicocke, Isaac Sears, and Alexander McDougall. Their biographies were typical Manhattan stories. All were self-made men, humble in their origins and mixed in their ethnicity.

*Note to Student Readers: “Whig leaders” in this case means the Whig movement and does not refer to the Whig Political Party of the early 19th century.

Isaac Sears had been successful at sea during the war and returned to monetize his contacts in foreign ports into a small trading business. His straight talk and blunt language being more at home among the lumpers and longshoreman, the New York elites sarcastically dubbed the upstart nouveau-riche as “King Sears”.

After the war, Sears established himself as a West Indian merchant in New York, where by his mid-thirties he was living like a gentleman-though everyone could tell by his quarterdeck manners that he wasn’t one.

The notoriously tight-fisted merchant class needed to maneuver between the New York aristocratic elite, who had the King’s favor and whose gold they cherished, and the community of skilled workers in which they lived.  When it came time to organize an opposition without getting their own hands dirty or their own names sullied, they would choose for one of their leaders to be Isaac Sears.

Many leading names were proposed, but all refused the duty. Finally five men volunteered their services and were accepted. They were the most ardent members of the Sons of Liberty, and included Isaac Sears, John Lamb, Gershom Mott, William Wiley, and Thomas Robinson. Although Sears and Lamb were merchants and popular leaders, it is curious that the two hundred assembled conservative merchants of New York selected men having relatively little involvement in city affairs.

There are always military units that can be deployed in a pinch when you need to apply armed violence against a people. In this case the unit without qualms in that regard would be the 28th Foot. General Thomas Gage called for the unit to march down from Quebec and lodge themselves at the north end of the city. The troops would arrive earlier in August, just in time to make their mark.

New Yorkers reviled the Regulars and gathered around the Liberty Pole to tell them so. The Regulars made clear their contempt for the colonists and began to look upon the Liberty Pole as an affront to their honor. On the night of August 10, a party of soldiers from the Twenty-eighth Foot sallied from their barracks and cut down the Liberty Pole.

This event and the subsequent actions would be reported in print media. A protest occurred the next day (August 11th) at the site of the Pole where Issac Sears was found staring down the muskets and bayonets of the soldiers. It is from the sworn testimony of a carpenter that we know what happened next.

…that as soon as they came up to the deponent and others, they, the soldiers, fell foul of them by cutting and flashing every one that fell in their way; and those with him were obliged to retire for safety; that the said soldiers pursued them as far as Chaple-Street; that several persons were cut and wounded by the said soldiers, particularly Captain Sears, and John Berrien, and further saith not.

Fear and intimidation work because of the near-mythological aura carefully cultivated and cast upon those who hold the scepter of Power and their bearers-of-arms. Veterans have served the other side in some capacity and know the illusion for what it is. While some veterans may still feel loyalty towards the scepter, even if not its bearer, others will calmly ignore it. Some few will stand in opposition as Issac Sears did when that force is used to suppress the liberties of themselves and those they love.

 

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