The Revolutionary War is filled with stories of heroes who risked everything to secure a future where an individual’s right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness was safeguarded against the threat of tyrants.
Our history books tell of the bravery of patriots like Paul Revere and Sam Adams, but there is a lesser-known hero who does not always get the recognition she deserves. Yet her contributions to the fight for American independence and her defense of property rights are no less important.
Sarah Bradlee Fulton was a firecracker of a woman.
While she resided in Medford, Massachusetts, with her husband John, she made frequent trips to Boston, where her brother, Nathaniel, lived.
Nathaniel’s home was at the center of revolutionary activity in Boston. On the weekends, the fiercely passionate Sons of Liberty would fill his kitchen and the adjoining carpenter shop and speak of freedom while they enjoyed a delicious codfish supper.
These same men would eventually carry out the plans for the now-infamous Boston Tea Party, in which Sarah would play an active role.
Participation in the Boston Tea Party meant imprisonment if any of the men were caught. The plan was to disguise themselves as Mohawk Native Americans to conceal their identity. Sarah, along with her sister-in-law, helped the Sons of Liberty with their disguises.
While the men were at the harbor throwing tea into the water, Sarah waited in Nathaniel’s kitchen with a pot of hot water and cloth to help them remove their disguises as soon as they returned.
Her role in assisting the men is what earned her the nickname, “The Mother of the Boston Tea Party.”
During the battle of Bunker Hill, Sarah sprang into action and gave aid to the wounded men and rallied other women to do the same. She helped so many, she didn’t even remember one man, who years later would come to thank her for removing a bullet from his cheek, saving his life.
At one point during the war, there was an important letter that needed to be delivered to General George Washington behind enemy lines. Sarah’s husband was asked to deliver the letter, as everyone was aware of his loyalty and his extensive knowledge of Boston.
But John was unable to go. Sarah immediately stepped up to the plate and volunteered to embark on this dangerous journey alone—a mission she completed successfully.
Later, after the war had been won, General Washington showed his thanks by paying a visit to the Fulton home.
Sarah had just gotten a new silver punch bowl set, of which she was extremely proud. The very first person to drink from its cups was none other than General Washington, an event that Sarah would later remember as the proudest day of her life. The punch bowl and ladle, along with the chair where Washington sat, are still cherished by her family members today.
Each of these stories exemplifies her passionate dedication toward the cause of liberty. But perhaps her most harrowing contribution was her unwavering defense of property rights, even when it brought her mere inches away from death.
To understand why colonists like Sarah believed so firmly in property rights, we need to take a step back for a moment and look at its roots in Britain and the impact it had on the colonies.
Property rights were one of the primary motivators of the Second Continental Congress’ decision to split from Britain. To recognize that property rights have been violated means first having to understand what property rights are. And this belief that private property should be respected by government was not an idea conceived in the colonies. The colonists were inspired by the English philosophers and legal scholars like John Locke and Sir William Blackstone.
Locke believed that “Government has no other end, but the preservation of property.”
In his Second Treatise of Government, he wrote:
“Every man has a property in his own person. This nobody has a right to, but himself.”
Locke’s sentiment was also an inspiration to Sir Blackstone, a prominent English jurist, judge, and Tory politician who may very well be regarded as one of the most important legal scholars of the 18th century.
Blackstone was an expert in British common law, a concept instituted during the reign of King Henry II to promote a more-just legal system across Britain, which by default, placed some limits on the monarch by letting the courts interpret this law.
In his highly respected, four-volume book Commentary on The Laws of England, he wrote:
“The right of property is that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe. It consists in the free use, enjoyment, and disposal of all a person’s acquisitions, without any control or diminution save only by the laws of the land.”
These views on property were well-known throughout the colonies, and that is why King George’s disregard for these rights, which were recognized in British common law, was so abhorrent to the colonists. This would ultimately lead them to air their grievances in the Declaration of Independence.
Sarah Bradlee Fulton was no stranger to the philosophy of property rights, which is why she risked her life to protect her own.
During the Siege of Boston, British soldiers crossed the river into Medford in search of fuel. Their plan was to intercept a shipment of wood meant for the continental army in Cambridge, which was due to arrive that day.
Sarah caught wind of what was going to happen and started formulating a plan to make sure the wood was delivered to Cambridge. She quickly called upon John to go meet the suppliers, buy the entire load of wood, and bring it home.
While she was not naïve, she had hoped that, should John encounter the soldiers, they would respect his right to his own property, as Britain’s own laws dictated.
But her hopes were in vain.
John was able to purchase the wood without problem, but on his way home, he met the group of British soldiers. The soldiers confiscated the wood, even though John had paid for it.
In true Sarah spirit, as soon as she got wind of what happened, she grabbed her shawl and went running to protect the wood that her husband had purchased. This was her property, and she wasn’t going to let the British soldiers defile her right to secure it.
One can only imagine the shock on the soldiers’ faces when they saw a woman charging toward them.
Sarah didn’t just stop and ask them to please return what was hers. Instead, she walked right up to the oxen carrying the wood, grabbed them by the horns, and turned them in the other direction.
The men shouted at her to stop, aiming their guns and threatening to shoot her if she did not let go of the oxen.
If Sarah had been startled by this threat, she never showed it. And while they hurled threats in her direction, she continued to lead the oxen toward her house, shouting “Shoot away!”
Perhaps it was utter shock, or maybe even a hint of admiration for this feisty woman’s gall, but the men surrendered and let her pass, taking her load of wood with her.
With guns pointing toward her, Sarah had not been willing to give up her right to her own property, even if it meant sacrificing her life. As a result, the men in Cambridge were able to get the fuel they needed.
It is very unlikely that most of us will ever find ourselves risking our lives to protect our property like Sarah did. But that does not mean we won’t ever be faced with a situation where we must peacefully-but-firmly stand up to government when this right is threatened.
Property rights continue to be violated today, even though they are at the core of our country’s founding.
PLF understands the importance of these rights and the role they play in securing liberty and justice for all individuals. Defending property rights is one of our primary focuses and we have helped our clients uphold and secure this sacred right since our founding in 1973.
Challenging the government in court may not be nearly as intimidating as standing your ground when guns are pointed at you.
But it takes bravery and grit to stand up to government in defense of your property.
If you should ever find yourself in this position, remember Sarah Bradlee Fulton, who believed property rights should be respected even in wartime. She was an inspiration for the American Revolution and for her family: She saw her grandchildren and great-grandchildren grow up before she died, and she taught them to never back down from a fight.