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Boston history repeats itself

Spent the past week in Boston touring historic sites. The focus of the trip was on the Revolutionary War, which, it seems, fewer and fewer people even bother to study.

We should. Not only should we realize the sacrifices made the principled patriots of that era, but we can see in the Revolutionary era the roots of our present government.

Why do we have the right to bear arms? Because it was an armed citizenry, not an organized army, that began the Revolution against Great Britain.

Why do we have trial by jury? Because the British denied the colonists jury trials when they found that they couldn't get a jury to convict even the most obviously guilty defendant.

Why do we have habeas corpus? Because the British would arrest suspected patriots without charge and ship them off to England without ever telling them what they did wrong.

Why is the Revolution studied less and less?

Possibly because the legends that grew up around it were so frequently false, that honest historians have to spend much of their time debunking myths.

People don't like to have their myths debunked. They don't like to hear that the British acted, by all measures, reasonably, and that the patriots acted, by most measures, like spoiled children.

In fact, the Sons of Liberty in the Boston area were early terrorists. They were violent. They were shadowy. They were radical. And they used strong drink to manipulate the masses into tormenting the hapless British officials.

The masses tarred and feathered British officials for merely doing their jobs. They burned homes to the ground if officials refused to comply with their unreasonable and unlawful demands.

A few layers beneath the lofty rhetoric of Jefferson and the sterling ideals of Adams were unsophisticated people hungry to rebel against any and all authority.

That doesn't mean the American Revolution was any less grand. No, it just means that, like most history, it was more complicated than we have been led to believe.

Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty were too smart to write down their plans, so historians have had to guess how they did their work.

What we do know is that they could produce a drunken riot within an hour's time and could end that riot just as quickly as it began. They were shadowy, effective and ruthless.

With my head full of the details of Revolutionary War history, I fell asleep in my hotel room in downtown Boston last Tuesday night. I was awakened at midnight by car horns and screams.

The Celtics had won the NBA title. The streets were filled with rioters.

I got dressed and went down to the street. I pretended to be a Celtics fan and gave high fives to members of the drunken mob.

It started to get out of hand. When a pickup rolled by booming loud music, hundreds of people materialized out of nowhere to dance on the street. They started bouncing on cars.

Just as fast, the riot police appeared. First came a bicycle brigade, yelling at everybody to get inside, leave the area, or face the consequences.

Then came a phalanx of fifty officers, marching in time, tapping their shields with their billy clubs. Tap, tap, tap. It was the first time in my life I had seen an armed force on the verge of action.

But just as the colonists did two hundred some years ago, the crowds dispersed. Instantly. Down the narrow alleyways of old Boston they fled.

By the time the German shepherd brigade arrived, the street was so quiet you could hear nothing but the echo of a single cop's footfalls.

Yes, history repeats itself.

What has changed in two hundred years is that the authorities now know that if they solve the problem tonight, it won't be back tomorrow.

They have studied riot control, and they know that in the face of dogs, billy clubs and dozens of police marching in formation, modern rioters generally lose interest.

History repeats itself. Except this time, thank goodness, the Redcoats won.