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Article

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The Revolutionary Martyrdom of Jonathan Robbins, 100 Yale Law Journal 229 (1990)

Abstract

The last scene is the hardest to write, in drama and in revolution. Once political actors spurn existing allegiances, anxiety must attend. How is the revolution to close, consolidate itself and begin the normal tasks of governance? What regime of law can succeed pure politics? One way to examine these problems is in our own past, in the attitudes of our founding revolutionaries toward continuing insurgency. When the American War for Independence was completed and peace restored, did we see ourselves still as a revolutionary people, favoring structures of governance that would amplify popular voice and sustain resistance against authority, championing rebellion abroad and at home against any undemocratic form? Or did we regard ourselves in a more conservative mien, aloof from continuing challenge, seeing the revolution as one round only and returning to a classical ideal of government in which balance should quell upheaval, seeking our place in a settled family of nations and favoring forms of domestic governance that would enforce our commercial and public obligations under the law of nations?

This Article proposes to examine our early self-conception, as revolutionary beacon or conservative actor, through the lens of the law concerning political extradition, in particular, the case of Jonathan Robbins in 1799 and 1800, leader of a rebellion on an English ship in the midst of the Napoleonic wars. Hung in chains for his part in the shipboard mutiny, surrendered to British military justice despite his last moment claim that he was an American impressed into the British navy, Jonathan Robbins provoked a pitched battle among Americans. Attitudes toward revolution and resistance may be set by varying judgment whether rebellion's violence and disorder can be controlled and contained. By that measure, Robbins gave stridor and alarm. He was the American regaining his freedom by force used in self-defense. He was also the seaborne Jacobin, claiming liberty as excuse for the pointless slaughter of a wardroom of ship's officers.

Date of Authorship for this Version

1990

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