In the past week, the headline making news in the United States has been the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D‑AZ) in Tucson, Arizona, an shooting which resulted in 6 deaths of bystanders and 14 others left wounded, including the Congresswoman. Political rhetoric has been at a fever pitch in the wake of the incident, and a radical religious group calling themselves the Westboro Baptist Church claims the shootings by a lone, disillusioned 22-year-old shooter, stands as God’s punishment for America’s disobedience. With the upcoming funerals of the Tucson shooting victims, the Westboro Baptist Church members are expected to protest and disrupt the funerals, as they have done on previous occasions. With this concern in mind, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed emergency legislation, effective immediately, that bars protestations within 300 feet of a funeral within an hour from its beginning or end. The Arizona Governor said of the new legislation, “Such despicable acts of emotional terrorism will not be tolerated in the State of Arizona,” as reported by CNN. “This legislation will assure that the victims of Saturday’s tragic shooting in Tucson will be laid to rest in peace with the full dignity and respect that they deserve.”
Protests at funerals are hardly new to American politics. For instance, Samuel Adams was the ringleader for his own protest just before the spark of the American Revolution…
As given in my book, 1775, Massachusetts Lt. Governor Andrew Oliver was so distressed at the political upheaval following the Boston Tea Party of December 1773 and the mounting vituperations against him personally that, in March of 1774, he suffered a stroke and died. Samuel Adams was perhaps elated when he heard of the Lieutenant Governor’s demise. Adams was the most influential man in Boston’s radical Whig movement, the man who made it his business to be at the center of whatever political conflict was troubling that sleepy New England town on any given day. The funeral of Lt. Gov. Oliver was yet another ripe opportunity for a political demonstration. And so, to the discredit of the Whig movement, Samuel Adams and his radicals would attend Oliver’s funeral, but only to cheer as his body was committed to the earth.
Was there more to this story? Was Samuel Adams justified in protesting the funeral of the Lieutenant Governor?
From a 1927 published essay to the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, we have the following:1
When [Lt. Gov.] Andrew Oliver died, on March 3, 1774, he was Lieutenant Governor, and the funeral arrangements were formal and such as were fitting for an official of high rank. It was decided that the [Governor’s Company of Cadets, a civilian honor guard under the command of John Hancock,] should attend the funeral and fire three volleys over the grave… Samuel Adams sharply protested to Hancock, declaring it most improper that a man whose administration and whose whole public career had been so highly objectionable to the people, should be honored by the Cadets. Hancock did not agree with Adams on this point, and replied that the attendance of the military organization and the firing of the salute were tributes to the office and not to the man; he therefore declined to accede to Adams’ request that the Cadets remain away from the funeral…
The immediate sequel to this disagreement between Hancock and Adams was the unexpected presence of a large contingent from the Sons of Liberty or their sympathizers at the Oliver obsequies. Under ordinary circumstances it would have been difficult to find a single Son of Liberty at Oliver’s grave. As the body was lowered into the tomb, this coterie gave three cheers, to the mortification of the true friends of the deceased. The Sons of Liberty had come to the funeral for the specific purpose of registering their spite and disapproval.
The author of that essay was one George P. Anderson, who summarized his observations with the following:
It is evident that this unusual and disgraceful scene was the direct result of Adams’ protest to Hancock. The crowd, finding that the Cadets intended to attend the funeral, decided to nullify the act of respect by the militia, by giving three cheers. A number of historical writers have mentioned the incident of the cheers at the grave, but I think the motive behind the outburst never before has been traced to its origin.
However, in my mind, this is a rather optimistic justification of the incident, and I doubt that, given the political climate of early 1774, fresh on the heels of the Boston Tea Party, is it true that “under ordinary circumstances it would have been difficult to find a single Son of Liberty at Oliver’s grave.” Rather, by 1774, Samuel Adams was eager to exert the rights of the Massachusetts Colony.
But like so many stories in history, we may never know the true motives of Samuel Adams when he protested the funeral of Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Andrew Oliver. All we can say of the event is that, like the protests that are expected in Tucson, Arizona later this week, the idea of using funerals for political purposes is as old as our great Republic.
WHAT DO YOU THINK? Is protesting at a funeral a freedom of speech or tantamount to a hate crime? Sound off below.
- From Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts (1927) 26:349–50.
Anderson wrote as historians, especially the more conservative, were turning against Samuel Adams and depicting him as a rabble-rouser who controlled the Boston mob. Given the prominence of Andrew Oliver, the size of the funeral, and the centrality of the Boston graveyards, a crowd could have gathered without Adams’s urging. And given the publication of Oliver’s confidential letters urging changes to the Massachusetts charter (which Hancock had a hand in), the lieutenant governor would have been unpopular with most of that crowd.
Unlike the Westboro Baptists, this protest represented the sentiment of much of the community, not a small group of outsiders. Does that make the protest in better taste? Or simply less likely to produce friction?
Hi J. L., thanks for your comment and insights! Your information is quite interesting, and quite a contrast to what Anderson wrote. But I too thought Anderson’s essay seeemed a little to biased toward the Americans. As for the comparison to the Westboro Baptists: you ask excellence questions.
For anyone reading this: check out J. L. Bell’s blog “Boston 1775” (linked to on the right side of this page).
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