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Vol. 2 0:29:20 Revolt and Suspicion of Sedition

Disney's Rebellionists and History's Regulators

By Keat Murray


[1] Here, I offer an analysis of the scene in which Boone quells the Rebellionist insurrection (II 29:20). The climax of Volume Two, this scene is one of the most politically complex of the entire series, and if we consider the many ways in which this scene misrepresents and rewrites history, this complexity multiplies. The film writes the scene as a pivotal event in American history, for it prompts a mass migration to Kentucky and thereby opens a major route to the West. History, however, writes the rebellion much differently. The major discrepancies between the film's representation of history and that of its source plainly indicate that Disney's modified re-presentation is political. But before I can read these major discrepancies and the political implications therein, I must identify and briefly discuss each one. To skim over these different accounts would assuredly limit the integrity of what I aim to do here. For this reason, I begin with the film's account of the "Rebellionists," move into historical accounts of the "Regulators," and then proceed with my analysis. With these discrepancies in mind, I read Disney's presentation of the events, evaluating them against the historical and filmic contexts.

Scene Synopsis

[2] Featuring two near-hangings, threats to burn a courthouse, a tooth and nail brawl, and Boone's hyperbolic exhortations, the Rebellionist scene is the climatic point of the second volume. Running ten minutes in length, this scene puts Boone in a precarious position between British law and his fellow discontented backswoodsmen of North Carolina. His position is so precarious that it seems completely inextricable, even for our resilient, silver-tongued frontier hero. Certainly, the viewer can't but wonder how Boone will manage to handle this one.

[3] By the time we reach the Rebellionist scene, we are aware of its import in a field of crises: Boone's personal crisis, the social crisis between the Rebellionists and the British, and the impending national crisis. The writers compound these crises in the single character of Boone and make him an instrument of resolution. To this end, the writers invoke a traditional portrait of Boone, casting him as an intermediary figure between competing worlds and ways, e.g. ancient and modern, natural and civil, Indian and Euro-American, social and individual. In the Rebellionist scene, writers modify this traditional role to suit the film's version of history and the three dilemmas Boone faces.

[4] First, Boone is ready to break the promise he had made to Rebecca. He has begun to waver in his resolve to "stay home, settle down, make the farm pay" (I 45:55), as his five or six years on the farm have wrought nothing but boredom, debt, and dull occupation (the film's figure of "five or six years" doesn't reckon with its own chronology; the film's dates give a span of thirteen years between the two journeys). Kentucky still looks mighty attractive to Dan'l, and he is ready to swap permanently the plow for his rifle, Ticklicker.

[5] Second, Boone remains neutral about the Rebellionist cause. The Rebellionists' discontent over rising taxes and heightened British control is finally brought to a boiling point when a British judge sentences backwoodsman Cecil Calbert to hang. On two occasions Rebellionists petition Bone for his support, and both times he maintains neutrality, even at the impassioned entreaty of his brother Squire. To support his position, Boone cites the authority of written law and Christian doctrine. After the British militia burns Sam Watkins's barn, Rebellionist leader Mortecai Thompkins challenges Boone to join the cause or fight, but again Boone maintains that "spillin blood's no answer" (24:50). He says they should spend their energy building Watkins a new barn rather than battling the British.

[6] Related to the second is a third, broader issue. Boone hovers precariously between settler interests, his allegiance to Judge Henderson, and the terms of his social contract with the British government. In this case, the writers amplify the Rebellionist cause with the rumble of revolution. In effect, Boone's refusal to join the cause implicitly challenges the Rebellionists's notion of man's natural rights. Boone's ethical principles clearly transcend the moment that so embroils his fellows. Writers compose this scene with a teleological lens, banking on the fact that viewers anticipate the American Revolution which, in the Disney chronology, would not erupt for another two years. The divisiveness between the British and the colonists is overtly broadcast into the scene, and Boone is caught in the middle. Viewers cannot overlook the fact that his fellows suspect Boone of treachery, especially when he balks at having read Henderson's name on the order to burn Watkins's barn.

[7] In the big scene at the Salisbury courthouse, the Rebellionist mob vociferously rallies against the approaching execution of Cecil Calbert. When Calbert is led outside to be hanged, the mob seizes control of the high gibbet platform, binds a British soldier, and plans to hang him in exchange. At this cue, the Governor and Judge Henderson quarrel inside the courthouse, and the Governor escapes through the backdoor. Henderson anxiously paces as the Rebellionists talk of burning down the courthouse. Then, Boone arrives. Coming to court to pay his debt, he enters mounted on his slow, ambling horse, a sight that recalls Boone's earlier declaration of individualism: "I take things at my own gait, single harness" (29:17). He surveys the scene and asks the men to stop, and, at this, Mortecai challenges him to a fight. The winner shall determine the fates of the British soldier, Judge Henderson, and the courthouse. The direction of the Rebellionists hangs in limbo. After a long struggle, Boone wins (it is interesting to note that the white man is a much better match for Boone than the Shawnee Crow Feather had been in two previous skirmishes). Victorious, Boone mounts the gibbet platform and delivers a speech of such great eloquent power that he miraculously turns the Rebellionists from a course of destruction to settling Kentucky (see film clip). They fall in line as Boone's faithful followers, even Mortecai.

Disney's Rebellionists and History's Regulators

[8] Several discrepancies between the film and history are plainly revealed in this scene. My principal source here is the book that the film cites as its source, John Bakeless's Daniel Boone, Master of the Wilderness. I will also refer to John Mack Faragher's biography of Boone (1992) and Stephen Aron's history of Kentucky (1996).

[9] Rather than "Rebellionists" the historical protestors called themselves "Regulators," as they sought the regulation of rapacious taxes, oppressive British control, and money-grubbing lawyers and land speculators. Historically, the uprising began in 1768, one year before Boone and Finley set out for the Warrior's Path, and the Regulators pursued their cause for three full years. The film misrepresents the chronology of the uprising, giving it a life of a couple hours in 1773 (incidentally this is the same year in which Boone's first effort to settle Kentucky failed miserably). History doesn't mention men named Mortecai Thompkins, Samuel Watkins, or Cecil Calbert (the Regulator leader, says Stephen Aron, was actually a man named Hermon Husband). Whereas Disney's Boone pacifies the Rebellionists before they can damage anything, the historical Regulators wreaked havoc, seizing the Salisbury court and dismissing charges against themselves, scrawling profanities in court records, beating and whipping an attorney (Aron says six officials were flogged), dragging another out of the courthouse, beating a sheriff, and burning the house and barn of Judge Richard Henderson. Historians agree that eventually the British crushed the insurrection and hanged at least six men, all by the order of Judge Henderson. The insurrection was finally squashed in May, 1771, at the Battle of Alamance River (this is the year Boone returned from his two- year Kentucky expedition, so he was absent from North Carolina at the height of Regulator activity). Also, historians agree that Daniel Boone was not involved with the Regulators in any way but remained neutral through all of the tumult (Faragher does say that Boone certainly did not quell a rebellion; the only thing that stopped the Regulators was British force). Disney's film, therefore, overbrims with invented history.

[10] Looking a little more closely at John Bakeless's history, I can see where Disney writers may have been able to wring from history some of what they needed. Besides having condemned a handful of Regulators to death, Bakeless's Henderson does stand "stoutly against the merciless governor's illegal effort to sway the court of needless severity" (47). Unlike other sources, Bakeless also says that later in March, 1769, Henderson defended Boone when he was summoned to court. Although Bakeless never identifies a reason for the summons, it can be construed as having been connected to the Regulators. In these matters, however, Bakeless seems to put the speculator Henderson in touch with the friendly and ambitious Boone so they can strike an agreement for the 1769 journey to Kentucky. Recent histories are clearer than Bakeless in connecting Henderson's capital to the 1769 Boone venture. It is also interesting to note how the Boone-Henderson relationship grows increasingly bitter from Bakeless (1939) through Faragher (1992) to Aron (1996). But aside from all of these finer points, neither Bakeless nor any other historian even comes close to implying that Boone quelled the Regulators. Bakeless plainly states says, in fact, "Daniel Boone had no part in 'the Regulation'" (47).

[11] Several critical questions naturally follow. Why does Disney cast Boone in the role of the great diplomat, the eloquent conciliator, the visionary arbiter? How do these social roles function in the historical context and in the Disney fictions added to the film? Moreover, how do they function in Disney politics? How is the Rebellionist situation related to the filmic context? Is there something about the filmic context that demands or otherwise produces the necessity to rewrite history in this scene? These are the central questions addressed in the following analysis, where I work through some of the political complexities of the Rebellionist scene.


[12] This scene is written as a test for Boone, the model pre-revolutionary colonist. Though he initially puts on stoic indifference, Boone is certainly torn, situated as he is between his social contract with the British, the codified British law, the common law, the communal bonds of fellowship, and the promises he had made to his wife. In this way, Disney devises a crucible for the even-tempered Boone, a model American colonist who, conscious of the socially and politically volatile situation, must prudently consider his choices and the ethics of those choices. Family, community, country, law, and nature--all of these contend for Boone. What prevails in the scene is distinctly American, for Boone commits to the westward movement; he will lead settlers into the promised land of Kentucky, a place where they can acquire fruitful land and freely pursue their own enterprises without government regulation, heavy taxation, or dispossession. At the end of this scene, Boone opens the West, justified to a large degree by the viewer's knowledge that the American Revolution and a greater westward movement are imminent. Written as a natural born leader, Boone prompts America to fulfill its immanent destiny.

[13] In this convolution of political tremors, Disney constructs a traditional Boone figure, whose physical prowess, natural charm, prudence, and eloquence are unparalleled. Boone is the ideal man to lead the disgruntled and misdirected colonists, as his choices chart the only proper course for the community. And although the path into the wilderness is fraught with tribulation, it is assuredly the best direction to go. We must remember also that Boone is the quintessential diplomat in this scene as well. He maintains good relations with the North Carolina colonists, the British militia, and the British judge. His judgment of character, too, is flawless. Unlike the Rebellionists, Boone sees Judge Henderson for what he is, i.e. as the film viewers see him. Henderson is a dutiful judge whose obligation to follow orders conflicts with his sympathy for the Rebellionists. He defends the rebels against the Governor's charges of sedition: "Those men out there are farmers, not criminals. They feel they have a just grievance against the Crown . . ." (29:20). The mutual respect between Henderson and Boone is enough to convince viewers that Henderson is no bad guy, and this dismisses the treason suspected of Boone. As the film clearly establishes, Boone and Henderson have a history of their own. In the first volume of the film series, Henderson bends the 1763 Proclamation Act to provide Boone with the necessary capital for his first journey to Kentucky. In return, Boone risks his life and poaches enough skins and furs to make good on his debt to Henderson. In the eyes of the Disney film, this mutual respect is completely even-handed, despite its origin in unlawful activity and in the interests of land speculation. In the film, their actions are innocuous and undeserving of censure. Henderson and Boone maintain their unspoken allegiance throughout the Rebellionist insurrection.

[14] The Boone-Henderson alliance makes it plain that Disney's Boone has both common law and natural rights on his side, an association that bolsters Disney's patriotism and Americanism. That the scene takes place in a court of common law is emphasized in the opening shot of the scene, a close-up of the court sign: "County Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions" (29:20). Originating in England, the system of common law is based on court decisions, the doctrines implicit in those decisions, and social customs, rather than on a codified body of written law. Thus, the film identifies the alliance between Boone and the British judge with both common law and natural rights. This is especially important if we take into account that the Proclamation and the oppressive tax laws were issued by the Crown. The alliance preserves Disney's patriotic history because the only laws Boone and Henderson break are those unjust ones imposed by the British government, a government that abuses man's natural, unalienable rights.

[15] Disney's 1960 audience would probably not rebuke Boone and Henderson for breaking the Crown's Proclamation law. Boone embodies the colonists' resentment over the fact that the British Proclamation prohibited colonists from settling lands beyond the Appalachians, even though they had fought with the British to secure those lands. Patriotic history and Americanism would argue that the colonists are entitled to the land in the Ohio Valley (of course, the Indians can claim no rights here!). The common law, then, represents good sense, equality, and liberty for the right-minded man that Boone represents. In this way, both Boone and Henderson share a precarious position between common law and the authority of British written law. Boone's role, however, goes beyond Henderson's, in that Boone fulfills a social function by educating the American colonists about natural rights and the good sense of common law. And, in doing so, Boone recommends that the only way to beat authoritarian law is to play its game. First, one must cursorily satisfy it, and then he must move on to a place where common law sensibility and natural rights may be reinstated. Boone's conversion of the Rebellionists, then, is one that embraces the revolutonary cause, a cause that is teleologically imposed on the scene. This cause also makes the Governor seem all the more a ninny when he runs away from the situation he has helped to create. And although suspicions of "general revolt" (29:45) probably did not run so high in North Carolina in 1773 as the film allows, viewers mark the Governor's fear of revolution as a justifiable one. Anticipating the revolution to come in two short years, American viewers surely enjoy watching the Governor scurry away like a nervous mouse.

[16] As Boone is precariously positioned in the historical context, so too is Disney positioned in the filmic context. Various factors require Disney to rewrite history. The liberties taken with the historical Regulators in this scene reveal a few points of interest about Disney writing Boone in the filmic context. In all historical accounts, the Regulators commit several brutal acts. In the film, however, they destroy nothing and hurt no one, all because Boone intervenes. Accordingly, the Rebellionists require cautious handling in the filmic context, as they are a potential threat to Americanism. Because Disney wishes to identify them with the noble cause of the revolution, their name is changed to something connotatively closer to "revolutionary" and their mob-rules mentality is pacified before any harm is done. If Disney had written the Rebellionists as an angry mob that had already committed outrageous, violent acts, they would risk association with un-American ideas. Surely, TV filmmakers in the late 1950s and early 1960s could not take such risks. For Disney himself, such associations would echo the 1941 artists' strike in his studio, which he testified to HUAC was carried out by a Communist group.

[17] Additionally, the fact that Disney's Rebellionists abandon their destructive course speaks more highly of them than their historical counterparts who unremittingly pursued their cause until the British stomped them. Disney favors Rebellionst reason to Regulator bestiality. After Boone defeats Mortecai, he assuages Rebellionist ire with a strong rational appeal: Why burn down a courthouse that will be rebuilt on the revenue generated by increased taxes? Having established the colonists' predicament as a no-win situation, Boone can further proceed. From this point, abandoning North Carolina and following Boone into the wilderness logically follow as the necessary and natural course of events. Disney's rewritten history skillfully balances the situation in the interest of Americanism; it legitimizes the Rebellionist cause while simultaneously avoiding the extremism and the mob-rules mentality that the real historical Regulators may represent to an audience in 1960. With Boone's help, Disney's Rebellionists are above further provocation and will not prematurely spark the flames of sedition. Having chosen peace and the West through Boone's intervention, the Rebellionists and the American ideals they now represent admit absolutely no vigilantism and no un-Americanism. As the Governor takes to his heels, he proves himself an inept leader. A proper replacement is someone like Boone who maintains a judicious eye and an open mind, one who prudently reads the complexity of social life, one who adjusts to all situations with his aplomb and integrity intact.

[18] In the last part of this scene, Boone's rhetorical sway cements his new leadership role, as he transforms a potential mob scene into a communal vision of a free and promised land. Having won a grueling fight against the Rebellionist Mortecai Thompkins, Boone is in a position to assume leadership. His ascent to the high gibbet platform and the hush of the crowd confirm this opportunity (from inside the courthouse, Henderson surely sighs in relief at this prospect, for he knows how persuasive Boone can be--as far as he is concerned, his life is in the bank!). Without the power of rhetoric Boone's display of physical superiority would amount to little. The men wait to hear in what direction Boone suggests they go. By no means completely pacified, this crowd could become hostile at any time, and Boone knows that he must carefully work the crowd. The noose on the gibbet hangs ambiguously as a reminder of British oppression and the destructive course still available to the roiled colonists. This speech, says the film, is an important moment in history, for the country's destiny is suspended in Boone's words (see film clip). Knowing that the viewers have witnessed Boone's restlessness and anticipate the settling of Kentucky, the Disney writers mix some historical fiction with a little teleological magic to create the moment when Boone opens the West.

[19] The trick for Disney writers is to match the expectations, and I must say, with all historical inaccuracies aside, they do pull it off. Boone's speech, though it has no historical basis, is a rhetorical gem employing humor, tropes of plenty, and the discourse of individualism (see film clip). In his speech, Boone's unaffected charisma and uncompromising integrity directly counter the stiff but obsequious British soldiers who mindlessly follow the orders of the Crown. In typical Boone fashion, Disney's Boone colors his speech with down-home idioms that bind the men in a common language. They can dispense their suspicions of treachery and know that Boone is undeniably one of them. Boone's metaphor--"kicking a hog barefooted"--incites the first of the four waves of laughter that will punctuate his address. The men laugh again when Boone describes a buffalo in hyperbolic terms: "so big, [he] had to look three times to see all of it." These images contribute to the discourse of a fetishized, abundant land just waiting for colonists to settle it (elsewhere Kentucky is called a "ripe melon just waitin' to be enjoyed"). In the film, the need to move westward, or the compulsion for "elbow room" as Boone repeatedly calls it, is a natural right of the civilized man, the man who submits to the most basic natural law that is Boone's philosophy: "Things gotta keep changin' and growin'" (I 8:38). It takes precedence over any written law or government act designed to limit his freedom, and, to this point, Boone employs images of abundance. Kentucky is teeming with the hunter's delight; it is a "creation, big land running over with the good things of life." Life in Kentucky will be different from that in North Carolina, for a man need not work the plow there. Instead of toiling for his sustenance, the Kentucky man can almost effortlessly harvest all the game he desires. Having satisfied this basic need, he can progressively improve his quality of life. This prospect the converted Rebellionists welcome. When Boone finishes with the announcement that he will gladly give his "blasted plow" to anyone who wants to buy his farm, they cheer their loudest. The fact that Boone has pertinaciously held his ground and in the process converted the multitudes is a credit to his philosophy. Yes, Boone was a great man, but his philosophy was greater, for its truth transcends the moment.

[20] The self-reliant pioneer, Disney's Boone, is not only an 18th century frontiersman but also a man of the 1950s. The Rebellionist scene validates Boone's conservative, natural philosophy: if Man is not hindered by restrictive measures of law and government, He will progress and fulfill his nature: "Things gotta keep changin'." Boone exemplifies Eisenhower's conservative individualism and the policies of self-help which the Republican administration promoted as "a moral alternative to liberal welfarism" (Hamby 98). To Boone and his followers, the enterprise of moving West initially requires communal dependence but only for the main purpose of protection, as we see when Boone founds Boonesborough in 1775. But after vanquishing the Indians, frontiersmen will acquire their own private property and pursue their own livelihood. Moving West was essentially an individual endeavor, and the abundance of Kentucky would make self-sustenance all the easier. In this way, Boone's agenda for settlement also resembles the Eisenhower administration's commmitment to "national development without revolution or intense class conflict" (Hamby 101). Along these lines, Disney's Boone advances a politics like the "liberal consensus" of the 1950s, or the shared assumptions about the way in which economic prosperity would calm social and class antipathies: "The American free-enterprise system . . . is democratic. It creates abundance. It has a revolutionary potential for social justice . . . there is a natural harmony of interests in society. American society is getting more equal. It is in the process of abolishing, may even have abolished, social class" (Hodgson 118).

[21] Boone's vision is in line with Eisenhower economics as he and the settlers embrace a system of free-enterprise over a form of old capitalism. In Disney's North Carolina, political and class tensions exist between the common man who wants to make his livelihood on a small plot of land and an omnipresent class of tax collectors, wealthy lawyers, and speculators who, for maximum profit, will exploit the common man, the law, and the land. Selling his land in North Carolina and settling in Kentucky offers the common man the prospect of self-sufficiency. In his speech, Boone spits upon the "mean, small life" in North Carolina where "a man's gotta haggle over every foot of ground he works." Haggling only fuels the boiling contention between the common man and his oppressors. Rather than support a foolhardy violent insurrection, Boone offers a lavish land of opportunity beyond the reach of the tax collector. In Kentucky, everyone will be content with the plenty of the land; without cut-throat competition over land and resources, social and class conflict are inconceivable. This, no doubt, is akin to the shared assumptions of "liberal consensus" and even Eisenhower's "dynamic conservatism." Here and throughout the film series, Boone's message is not unlike Ike's: "In all those things which deal with people, be liberal, be human," but when it comes to "people's money, or their economy, or their form of government, be conservative" (qtd. in Bailey 846). In this spirit of conservatism, Boone says that no government should rape its people with heavy and fantastic taxation. In and of itself, the land of Kentucky will satisfy the colonists' principal deficiency: "We're just plumb runnin' out of geography." Find some "elbow room," and all other problems will work themselves out. In the 1950s this American myth of opportunity in a broad and bountiful land was still very much alive in the promises of free enterprise and suburbia. And certainly the people responded to these promises. The very idea of free enterprise reassured the individual that his will is not paralyzed by corporate capitalism and socio-economic factors. In the "affluent society" of the late 1950s, the land called "surburbia" expanded at an alarming rate, spreading a growing middle class into new territories.

[22] The rewritten history of Disney's Rebellionists is consistent with Disney politics. In order to tailor the film politically, Disney modifies history, underscoring the legitimacy of the Rebellionist cause but concealing its un-American methods. Disney invests Boone with a sturdy morality and characterizes him as a prudent leader who intuitively knows that a revolution is not yet ripe. Situated as he is among the complexities of pre-revolutionary politics, Boone chooses a course consistent with the ideals of the impending revolution, one suited to the freedom and individualism of the common man. Disney writers employ a teleological lens to support Americanism and fashion a Boone-figure who can do nothing but what Americanism in the 1950s prescribes. Here, history is an instrument serving Disney politics and the prevailing "liberal consensus." As it works out, Boone is fashioned as the hero of both the historical and filmic contexts.

Aron, Stephen. How the West Was Lost: The Transformation of Kentucky from Daniel Boone to Henry Clay. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.

Bailey, Thomas A., and David M. Kennedy. The American Pageant: A History of the Republic, Eighth Edition. Lexington: Heath, 1987.

Bakeless, John. Daniel Boone: Master of the Wilderness. New York: Morrow, 1939.

Faragher, John Mack. Daniel Boone: The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1992.

Hamby, Alonzo L. "Eisenhower: Holding the Line." A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America. Third Edition. Ed. William H. Chafe and Harvard Sitkoff. New York: Oxford UP, 1991. 93-106.

Hodgson, Godfrey. "The Ideology of the Liberal Consensus." A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America. Third Edition. Ed. William H. Chafe and Harvard Sitkoff. New York: Oxford UP, 1991. 111-33.