Nov 6, 2006

On John the Painter, Revolutionary Icons, and the Sanctity of Private Property

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James Aitken, arsonist and terrorist better known as John the PainterLeft: John the Painter, forgotten political arsonist

During the American Revolution a Scot known as John the Painter (also known as "James Aitken" or "John Aitkin") brought great fear to the island of England, as he was busy committing acts of terror in British naval dockyards. Over the course of several months he attacked facilities in Portsmouth and Bristol, creating the impression that a band of terrorists was on the loose in England. He claimed to have the tacit approval of American diplomat Silas Deane in Paris for the scheme, but never received remuneration beyond a few pounds that Deane loaned him.

Aitken was born in Edinburgh in 1752, the son of a “whitesmith” and the eighth of twelve children. He tried his hand at a variety of low-paying trades before finding that the world of criminal activity offered him more immediate rewards: he admitted in his testament to being a highwayman, burglar, shoplifter, robber, and (on at least one occasion) a rapist:
…I made the best of my way through Winchester to Basingstoke, intending to return to London. Going over a down near Basingstoke, I saw a girl watching some sheep, upon whom, with some threats and imprecations, I committed a rape, to my shame it be said.
Fearful that his crimes would soon be detected, Aitken negotiated an indenture in exchange for a voyage to Jamestown, Virginia. He, of course, had no real intention of serving the terms of the indenture, and soon escaped to North Carolina. His next two years in the colonies were spent in such locales as Philadelphia, Boston, New York, and Perth Amboy; it was during this period that he became exposed to revolutionary rhetoric, and at some point after a 1775 return trip to England he developed his scheme of political arson.

Despite his pro-Revolutionary behavior, Aitken is not among those individuals revered in American folklore. As something of a career criminal, Aitken is exemplary of anti-capitalist thought; the concept of private property (especially portable and easily-liquidated goods) was for John the Painter not deserving of the esteem in which the English legal system held it. The American tradition of filiopiety might overlook the peccadilloes of Benjamin Franklin, the slave ownership of George Washington, or even the cruel murder committed by John Paul Jones, but there is no room in the Revolutionary mythology for a disrespecter of property.

An excellent place to develop an understanding of John the Painter is Jessica Warner's book The Incendiary: The Misadventures of John the Painter - the First Modern Terrorist, though I disagree with Warner's dismissal of Aitkin as some sort of working-class radical. John the Painter, despite his flaws and his over-inflated sense of destiny, rationally flouted English property laws (which at the time were capital crimes) because his attempts at "honest" work led to impoverishment.

And, despite committing guerilla acts from which the newly independent colonies might have derived benefit, the brigandage made manifest by John the Painter was most definitely a threat to the commercial interests of the American elite.

1 comment:

microdot said...

I knew a guy in the East Village in NYC who called himself John the Painter. He was a pretty radical artist. Now I know the historical reference and how he found his name!