Bonfire Night, Pope's Day and the American Revolution

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"Remember remember the 5th of November"....

Halloween is behind us, with all of its ghouls put to rest, and Christmas stretches out ahead. But wedged in between has always been a little holiday that's close to my heart: Bonfire Night.
We all know the story of Guy Fawkes' gunpowder plot and how he met his grisly end, but what is rarely told - at least this side of the pond - is how the festival of Guy Fawkes night was continued across America and how, in Boston, it helped fuel the American Revolution. 

For British-Americans, the celebration of Pope's day was one that encapsulated their dual identities. A British patriotic holiday, it allowed Americans to celebrate their links with Britain and its monarchy through remembering the thwarting the gunpowder plot, yet by recasting Guy Fawkes Day as 'Pope's day' it also let them extend the anti-Catholic sentiment of the 5th of November celebrations to new heights. In Massachusetts especially, founded on anti-Catholosism from it's very beginning, the holiday became something that was more uniquely American. Through changing Guy Fawkes Day into Popes' day, they constructed their own identity and values.

In Newbury, Massachusetts, Pope's Day/Night was described:
“Young men, as well as boys,...constructed a huge vehicle, varying, at times, from twenty to forty feet long, eight or ten wide, and five or six high, from the lower to the upper platform, on the front of which, they erected a paper lantern, capacious enough to hold, in addition to the light, five or six persons.

“Behind that, as large as life, sat the mimic pope and several other personages, monks, friars, and so forth. Last, but not least, stood an image of what was designed to be a representation of old Nick [the Devil] himself, furnished with a pair of huge horns, holding in his hand a pitchfork, and otherwise accoutred, with all the frightful ugliness that their ingenuity could devise.”
 When night fell, the boys and men would build a bonfire for the effigies and burn them, and would put the money they had earned towards "a splendid supper".

 Upper class people complained of being accosted in the street, but on the whole it was a rowdy but joyful occasion, and an opportunity for the common public to have mischief and to display their loyalty to protestantism and - at least initially - to the crown.

The song touted at Pope's Day was very similar to that sung across the ocean in Britain:

Don't you remember
The fifth of November,
A Modern Pope's Day style celebration in Lewes
The gunpowder, treason and plot?
I see no reason
Why Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot. 

From Rome to Rome
The Pope is come
Amid ten thousand fears,
With firey serpents to be seen
At eyes, nose, mouth and ears.
Don't you hear my little bell
Go chink, chink, chink.
Please give me a little money
To buy my Pope some drink.

 By 1765 in Boston the annual Pope's Day had become altogether more anarchic and, when the unpopular Stamp Act raised it's head, the festival became a small but significant vehicle for American rebellion.

Boston could be a turbulent area and by the 1760s it had become infamous for its street gangs. The Northern and Southern parts of the towns were always at one another's throats and soon they locked upon Pope's day as a focus for their rivalry. Every year the gangs would set about trying to kidnap or destroy one another's effigies and come night time they would meet and brawl with one another to determine a victor. In 1764 the act drew plenty of unwanted attention when a 5 year old boy was killed as he fell under the wheels of the great effigy cart. By 1765 things grew more controversial when the whole festival gained a political overtone that fed the fires of anarchy in the gangs. But, instead of directing this rebellion against one another, they two gangs banded together to direct it against the focus of their grievance: the Stamp Act.

Isaac Wimslow Jr described this in his own journal:
On the anniversary of “Pope day” on the 5th of November, there had always existed a bitter rivalry between the South and North parts of the town, which party should capture and destroy each others Pope – the effigies of whom accompanied by others of the Devil and his Imps were carried about in procession on that day & he added by a distinguished fighting character from each Section – the Northern procession going to the South, and vice versa accompanied each other with a vast concourse of people – They usually met each other in or about Dock Square where the contest took place – These conflicts were very severe, but this year (1765) the popular leaders had excited in the minds of the people such a determined opposition to the Stamp act, that they succeeded in making peace, between the two parties who had before always been at swords points with each other.

 The stamp act  was an incredibly unpopular act that imposed a direct tax on the colonies of British America. This included a tax on many printed materials in the colonies that were made of stamped paper produced in London. These could be legal documents, playing cards, magazines, newspapers and more, and the demand was that these taxes could only be paid in British currency, not in colonial paper money. The tax was to pay for British troops stationed in North America after the Seven Years War, but the Americans insisted that they had no need for such troops as they had no foreign enemies here and felt that they could protect themselves against Amerindians. The biggest slap in the face about the tax was that it violated their rights as Englishmen to be taxed without their consent. They could not vote on the tax and had no say in the matter.  Up until this point, Americans in general identified as Englishmen and were happy to be linked with the crown. But, it turned out, they were not respected as such and held very little legislative weight.They were increasingly exploited, and these grievances carried on and grew worse to the point where they inspired the American revolution. If they could not be respected as full blown Englishmen, then they would damn well make sure to be respected as Americans.

Back in Boston the gangs mobilised a protest together as one. By dawn, they had hung from 'the Liberty Tree' an effigy of Andrew Oliver, the British official appointed to oversee the Stamp Act in the colonies. Led by a man named Ebenezer Mackintosh, the gangs then gathered with the crowd and marched down to Kilby Street to ransack Andrew Oliver's near-completed office building, ripping up wooden planks to feed a bonfire. They went through the town, targeting the homes of customs officials, until they settled on Governor Thomas Hutchinson's mansion. They demanded that the family flee the house and, when they were gone, the riotors worked until  3am to destroy the house until little but a shell of the building was left.
While Mackintosh was inevitably arrested, the power and influence of the gangs was such that he was very quickly released again.

The rebellion continued. On the 17th of December, Mackintosh and his mob forcibly led Andrew Oliver to the 'Liberty Tree' and before 2,000 spectators Oliver - no doubt with his hanged effigy in his mind -  swore to take no further steps for enforcing the Stamp Act in America.
 There truly had been a shift in the American perspective: "The People, even to their lowest Ranks, have become more attentive to their liberties." Oliver himself bitterly observed.

Bonfire Night, and Pope's Day, have always been overtly political demonstrations, even if now they are somewhat forgotten under the spectacle of fireworks.

For America, Pope's Day (and Bonfire Night) faded into relative obscurity when the American Revolution truly took hold. As the colonies desperately needed the support of Catholic France, it was no longer politically correct to hold a festival that literally centred on burning the Pope and other Catholic martyrs. All the public's enthusiasm for fireworks and spectacle instead transferred onto the 4th of July: Independence day.

So when you next sit in front of a bonfire or fire up your V for Vendetta DVD, think about Guy Fawkes and Ebenezer Mackintosh, and just how important these sometimes anarchic public festivals can be for inspiring real-life political change throughout history.

-The 5th of November in Boston
-Popes Day
-Popes Day 1765
-How Boston's Street Gangs Sparked the American Revolution
- Daily Life Through American History in Primary Documents, Volume 1 edited by Randall M Miller
-Sparkler gif
-The Pope Bonfire effigy of the Lewes bonfire celebrations
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