John the Painter: Terrorist of the American Revolution
Reviewed by Joe Lockard
John the Painter was a terrorist before the word ‘terrorist’ entered the English language. In 1776-77 he imagined a new type of campaign of domestic violence against the interests of the British crown, one that involved arson attacks against the Royal Navy’s shipyards and for which he was hanged. The best then-current phrase to describe his acts was ‘incendiary,’ which captured both the nature of his attacks and their impact on English public opinion.
This is a marvelous book of social history from the bottom-view, one that engages the question of how a doomed anti-heroic sort like John Aitkin emerged from Scotland’s eighteenth-century working-classes to briefly epitomize subversion against the state. Only in the last week of his life, facing the gallows, did Aitkin emerge from behind his various pseudonyms and acknowledge his real name and origins. To individuate terror is to begin to understand its internal constitution and to realize the complexity of personal motivations.
Jessica Warner, who teaches psychology at University of Toronto, provides as good a portrait as can likely be achieved of John the Painter and she does so with wit and breezy irony. It is not a noble portrait, since Aitkin was thoroughly detestable on various grounds. He had little use for hard work, became a highwayman and housebreaker, admitted to at least one rape, and shot a dog without cause. And yet this is also a quasi-sympathetic biography since the English and American class hierarchy that shaped the history of Aitkin’s brief life featured many ignoble but far more righteous figures.
John Aitkin was, in the end, an earlier and poor man’s version of the Byronic revolutionary who volunteered his services to the cause of national revolution against an empire. If he was alternately boastful and deceitful, these were measures of the lack of educational, financial and social resources with which he undertook to live out his dream of aiding a new nation. Class position can separate the achievement of imagination from the failure of fantasy.
Aitkin emerged from the over-crowded Cowgate mews of Edinburgh’s old city, a neighborhood associated with desperate poverty and not the better-off New City linked with the rise of the Scottish Enlightenment. He was born in 1752, the son of a smith and eighth of twelve children. As a nine year-old orphan he had the small good fortune of admission to a charity school, meaning an education and three meals daily, a significant advantage in a city where children starved and the poor held food riots. But his apprenticeship as a house painter at age fourteen consigned him to a poverty-bound occupation.
Scotland was at the time providing the human backbone of the British empire; its emigrant population was flooding towards the colonies and the British military filled its ranks heavily with Scotsmen. At the same time, profound social antipathy and discrimination greeted a Scot in either London or the American colonies. Anti-Scottish politics were rampant in late eighteenth-century England. Scots were treated as something akin to an infestation of human rats, not as bad as the Irish but not much better; indeed, their generally better education made them more suspicious for it.
Given miserable economic conditions in Scotland, Aitkin emigrated to London as a painter but soon found crime — highway robbery, breaking and entering, shoplifting — more profitable. The prospect of likely arrest and the hangman, however, turned his attention towards the American colonies. As quoted in a pre-execution memoir, he said “America presented itself to my imagination, and I readily believed it would turn out most to my advantage.” So Aitkin joined the mass of transatlantic émigrés hoping for better on the far side of the ocean. By the time he reached Jamestown, Virginia, having purchased passage by agreeing to indentured servitude, Aitkin was only twenty-one years old.
Faced with hard farm-work, Aitkin, who repeatedly showed an impressive capacity to walk league after league, was quick to escape to North Carolina. His two years in the colonies were spent next in Philadelphia, New York, Perth Amboy, and possibly Boston. Aitkin was no revolutionary during this period when anti-English sentiments were boiling in the colonies; rather, he was a perpetually itinerant failure dreaming of a military officer’s commission from whoever might provide it. He had neither the temperament nor persistence to settle into a colonial life, whether agrarian or as a tradesman painter. The same restlessness that brought him to the American colonies caused him to leave it again, arriving back in England by mid-1775.
What he brought back with him was a cause — American independence — that he could invoke as a purpose for his anger towards English society. In a life that was progressing no place, Aitkin needed an overarching romantic ideal. Unlike Tom Paine, who left England as a failed corset-maker and tax collector, Aitkin had no expressive brilliance or outlet beyond re-invention of well-tried means of social attack – political arson. His particular contribution lay in identifying the vulnerability of royal naval yards to arson. Without working yards, the Royal Navy would be crippled and so too would the empire. That was not exactly republicanism, but it would do for a one-man campaign.
The American revolutionaries were barely involved in this plot, save for the negligible assistance of Silas Deane, another hapless Yalie abroad and their representative in Paris. After canvassing English port cities for targets, Aitkin did manage to burn down a massive naval rope factory at Portsmouth and to set several fires at Bristol. Pro-American sentiment in Bristol nearly disappeared in consequence. The English public was in alarm, military guards were set in ports and shipyards, rewards were offered, and the Bow Street Runners — the only organized police force in the country — were set on the case. Copycat arson fires elsewhere in the country added to the panic. Government officials and newspapers assumed that an entire band of American revolutionaries was responsible.
Aitkin, never the sort to accomplish any purpose fully, was taken after another breaking-and-entering theft in a provincial market town. Warner gives a thorough description of the following investigation, trial, and condemnation. Her detailing of Aitkin’s strangulation hanging in front of some twenty thousand people in Portsmouth (noting that the city numbered only 13,000 residents) from atop a mizzenmast, supposedly the highest gallows in the country, provides sober reflection on the rituals of state murder. John the Painter’s body was tarred, gibbeted in an iron cage, and displayed for years at the entrance to Portsmouth harbor.
What Aitkin left behind was a pair of confessional accounts and transcriptions of his trial, textual evidence whose interpretive problems resemble those of Thomas Gray’s Confessions of Nat Turner. How do accounts of radical anti-state violence provided by their triumphant antagonists distort the actions and purposes of their now-imprisoned and condemned actors? How do we read these repressive accounts counter-purpose in order to illuminate the inner lives of those subjects they oppress and kill? Although John the Painter might seem to have disappeared from history, such questions as his accounts raise remain central to historiographies that resist definitional impositions from national and imperial ideologies. Present-day usages of ‘terrorism’ have become a means of divorcing violent acts from violent contexts. In this such usages are a continuum from the past.
Jessica Warner’s scholarship and interpretive narrative are first-rate, although one wonders if her unkind gibe at Julian Boyd’s earlier work on the subject was necessary. She resists facile, diversionary, and possibly inaccurate analogies to contemporary terrorism, conservative state intervention against civil liberties, and sensationalistic journalism that sees potential terrorists behind foreign accents. As readers, though, we are left to ruminate on precisely the extent to which these contemporary analogies apply.
Joe Lockard is assistant professor of early American literature at Arizona State University.