Tories then and now

« previous post | next post »

Among the many discussions of yesterday's inaugural address, one that struck me was Eve Fairbanks' question "Why'd Obama Talk about George Washington?" She observes that "in the last half of the last century or so, George Washington was appropriated by right-wingers as 'their' founder"; and concludes that

I thought Obama ended his speech with Washington today in order to tweak his image. He's not here to change everything about America, or even to change everything that his progressive supporters don't like, the end of the speech said. He's here to safeguard it like the unflappable Washington, to "carr[y] forth that great gift of freedom and deliver … it safely to future generations."

This rings true — certainly the theme of continuity with America's political past was central to the speech, and I'm sure that the reaction of Ms. Fairbanks' conservative mother was not unanticipated:

[M]y staunchly Republican mom told me after watching Obama's speech that "one of the things that has always nagged at me about Obama, as a conservative, is, 'Does this man care about the founding? Does he even think about it?' So I was astonished to hear it invoked … the evocation of Washington was great." And the story Obama told about George worked perfectly in the moment: Its images of "shores of an icy river" and men huddled against the bitter cold feathered in with today's weather.

But it's worth remembering that the Washington of 1776 was the general of a revolutionary army, and the words that he ordered to be read to his men were written by Tom Paine, a radical agitator.

Here's Obama:

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

"Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."

Here's the context from Tom Paine's The Crisis: December 23, 1776:

Quitting this class of men, I turn with the warm ardor of a friend to those who have nobly stood, and are yet determined to stand the matter out: I call not upon a few, but upon all: not on this state or that state, but on every state: up and help us; lay your shoulders to the wheel; better have too much force than too little, when so great an object is at stake. Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet and to repulse it. Say not that thousands are gone, turn out your tens of thousands; throw not the burden of the day upon Providence, but "show your faith by your works," that God may bless you. It matters not where you live, or what rank of life you hold, the evil or the blessing will reach you all. The far and the near, the home counties and the back, the rich and the poor, will suffer or rejoice alike. The heart that feels not now is dead; the blood of his children will curse his cowardice, who shrinks back at a time when a little might have saved the whole, and made them happy. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. 'Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death. My own line of reasoning is to myself as straight and clear as a ray of light.

And who are "this class of men" that Paine rhetorically turns his back on? They're the Tories, who supported the British side in the war of Independence, and who tended to disagree with Paine on many other political issues as well. In social and economic terms, they were the Republicans of 1776. And in the preceding paragraph, Paine's "reasoning … as straight and clear as a ray of light" threatens them with much worse than rhetorical abuse:

I consider Howe as the greatest enemy the Tories have; he is bringing a war into their country, which, had it not been for him and partly for themselves, they had been clear of. Should he now be expelled, I wish with all the devotion of a Christian, that the names of Whig and Tory may never more be mentioned; but should the Tories give him encouragement to come, or assistance if he come, I as sincerely wish that our next year's arms may expel them from the continent, and the Congress appropriate their possessions to the relief of those who have suffered in well-doing.

The Wikipedia article cites historians' estimate that 15-20% of the white population of the American colonies were Loyalists — about the same as Dick Cheney's approval rating today. Not that there's any connection.

The word Tory is not much used in the U.S. any more, though it's a common nickname for conservatives in Britain. I was surprised to learn its history. Quoting the OED's historical sequence of senses:

1. a. In the 17th c., one of the dispossessed Irish, who became outlaws, subsisting by plundering and killing the English settlers and soldiers; a bog-trotter, a rapparee; later, often applied to any Irish Papist or Royalist in arms.

b. Extended to (a) robbers or bandits of other races, as Border moss-troopers, Scottish Highlanders, (b) Rajput marauders or outlaws.

2. With capital T: A nickname given 1679-80 by the Exclusioners (q.v.) to those who opposed the exclusion of James, Duke of York (a Roman Catholic) from the succession to the Crown.

3. a. Hence, from 1689, the name of one of the two great parliamentary and political parties in England, and (at length) in Great Britain.

The etymology:

[Anglicized spelling of Irish *tóraidhe, -aighe (tɔːrije) ‘pursuer’, implied in the derivative tóraigheachd, tóraidheachd pursuit: cf. the syncopated Sc. Gaelic tòrachd pursuit, pursuing with hostile intent, f. Ir. tóir to pursue, tóirighim I pursue. ]

Was the connection to Ireland and Scotland still lively enough in 1776 to be part of the reason that Scots and Scots-Irish in the Carolinas were (I think) strongly Loyalist? This may be a foolish question, since I'm almost entirely ignorant of the ethnic aspects of the party politics of the time.

[Update: More from the political right on the meaning of the reference to Washington: here. ]


  1. Paul said,

    January 22, 2009 @ 7:41 am

    Such a shame we don't believe in the etymological fallacy. Once a tóraidhe, always a tóraidhe.

  2. Martyn Cornell said,

    January 22, 2009 @ 7:55 am

    Whig, of course, the name given to the other "of the two great parliamentary and political parties in England", was also originally an insult (the OED suggests it may have meant originally "country bumpkin" and then came to mean "rebel"), and like Tory, its adoption by the group to whom it was originally applied as a term of disparagement seems to be a common human strategy: weaken your enemy's attempt at insulting you by wearing the name they give you with pride. Other examples include Quaker, for the Society of Friends.

    I was also intrigued by Paine's mention of "the home counties and the back" – in England today the Home Counties are those counties, such as Surrey and Hertfordshire, bordering London, and the OED entry on "Home Counties" seems to imply that they took their name from the "Home Circuit", "the assize [ie court] circuit which has London as its centre". However, Paine's use of the term seems to suggest that in America the term was used to refer to those counties closest to the colony capital, with "back counties" used for those further away.

  3. jfruh said,

    January 22, 2009 @ 8:56 am

    "Tory" (like "Whig", which had similar origins), when used as a term for a political grouping, never had any kind of positive Irish or Scottish ethnic connotations. They were originally terms of abuse by each grouping's opponents, which then were appropriated by the groups themselves as an act of bravado.

  4. language hat said,

    January 22, 2009 @ 9:46 am

    Speaking of which, I very much liked the New Yorker's current cover.

    [(myl) Which I've added as an illustration to the body of the post]

  5. greg said,

    January 22, 2009 @ 10:13 am

    With regard to North Carolinians, the label comes more from political considerations than from ethnic ones. The Regulators who rose up prior to the Revolution were protesting the corruption and oppression of the state and local governments. Many of the officials who the Regulators were trying to remove from power later became Revolutionaries and because of the continued antagonism because of their corruption, the Regulators did not join with the Revolutionaries and often worked against them, even if they weren't wholeheartedly in support of 'King and Country'.

    On a side note, I thought that Jon Stewart's Daily Show commentary on the nature of the speech was rather amusing:

  6. Dan Milton said,

    January 22, 2009 @ 10:37 am

    As I heard this passage, I wondered whether President Obama was slightly confused about Revolutionary history.
    Paine's words were written in 1776 but were read to the troops at Valley Forge by General Washington's order in the winter of 1777-1778, so Obama's "year of America's birth" isn't quite right.
    Valley Forge is close to the Schuylkill River, but this is hardly significant enough to justify Obama's "shores of an icy river". Was he thinking of the crossing of the Delaware (which indeed was in "the year of America's birth")?

  7. greg said,

    January 22, 2009 @ 11:05 am

    @Dan Milton – Actually, the Potomac has been pretty heavily iced in areas since the weekend. It's been a rather impressive site when riding the metro into the city in the morning with the sun just coming up and reflecting off all the ice.

  8. rone said,

    January 22, 2009 @ 11:12 am

    Your bit about Washington and Paine reminded me of something i wrote: "Sedition today is a patriotic act tomorrow."

  9. Bloix said,

    January 22, 2009 @ 11:59 am

    Dan Milton- You're making a common error. Washington had been soundly defeated in New York in August 1776 and had lost the city. He had spent the fall being chased across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania, as his army melted away around him. The disorderly retreat across New Jersey had demoralized his soldiers and other supporters of the Revolution. Most of the remaining soldiers' enlistment period expired on December 31 and Washington was faced with the real possibility that he would have no army at year-end.

    The Crisis was printed in a Philadelphia newspaper on December 19. Copies were rushed to Washington, who had it read to his troops on Dec 23, during the preparations for the Christmas Day crossing of the Delaware and the attack on the Hessian troops at Trenton. The Crisis has ever since been credited with reviving the morale of the soldiers in advance of the battle, and the victory itself encouraged sufficient re-enlistment to keep the army together.

  10. Jesse Tseng said,

    January 22, 2009 @ 2:55 pm

    I was not familiar with this use of "the Founding" (with no complement, capitalization added). Is this part of mainstream American political discourse, exclusively conservative, or something even more specific? I don't want to insult anyone's mother… I'm just kind of out of touch here.

  11. Dan Milton said,

    January 22, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

    All I can say in self-defense is that I was mislead by an authoritative-looking web site which, in the introduction to the complete text of The Crisis, says "General Washington found the first essay so inspiring, he ordered that it be read to the troops at Valley Forge."
    Or did he order it read in two different winters?

  12. Theodore said,

    January 22, 2009 @ 4:37 pm

    Tories aside, I'm impressed by Thom Paine's string of colons and semicolons at the opening of the passage. I'll never use a period again!

  13. dr pepper said,

    January 22, 2009 @ 5:40 pm

    I've often wondered: when the Mel Gibson movie, "The Patriot", is shown in Britain, is it called "The Traitor"?

  14. James Wimberley said,

    January 22, 2009 @ 5:47 pm

    No, it's called "The Nutter".

  15. kyle gorman said,

    January 22, 2009 @ 8:36 pm

    i want to know why conservatives think that somebody steeped in constitutional history might not be interested in the revolution?

  16. Martyn Cornell said,

    January 23, 2009 @ 6:59 am

    Dr P: "I've often wondered: when the Mel Gibson movie, "The Patriot", is shown in Britain, is it called "The Traitor"?

    Basically, it's not shown at all: it flopped on release in the UK (surprise) and subsequently vanished.

  17. Sili said,

    January 25, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

    the blood of his children will curse his cowardice, who shrinks back at a time when a little might have saved the whole

    Isn't there a zombierule proscriping the use of genitives as antecedents of pronouns? Presumably the prescriptivists will lambaste Paine for being a poor writer …

  18. Arnold Zwicky said,

    January 26, 2009 @ 11:01 am

    Sili: "Isn't there a zombie rule proscri[b]ing the use of genitives as antecedents of pronouns? Presumably the prescriptivists will lambaste Paine for being a poor writer …"

    There is indeed (though Geoff Pullum would classify it as a bogeyman rather than a zombie): the Possessive Antecedent Proscription (PAP for short), treated in a fairly detailed handout for the ADS here and discussed in at least five Language Log postings, at:

    But now the complication. The Tom Paine example — "the blood of his children will curse his cowardice" — would not be barred by most formulations of the PAP, which allow possessive pronouns to serve as antecedents for pronouns and allow possessive pronouns to have possessive antecedents (exemptions that follow, ultimately, from the — mistaken — idea that possessives, pronominal or not, are adjectives). The Tom Paine example has a possessive pronoun in both positions, so for those who ascribe to it, the PAP is irrelevant. But "the blood of this man's children will curse him" would be a violation.

    I know that all this is totally baffling to most readers. But I'm just reporting what some people say, not defending those claims (which I find to be preposterous). More details in the ADS handout.

RSS feed for comments on this post