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The Minutemen and Their World
By Robert A. Gross
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2001 Robert A. Gross
All rights reserved.
"Do Not Be Divided for So Small Matters"
CONCORD arrived at its strategic position in 1775 only after a good deal of foot-dragging. While Bostonians fulminated against British policies in the 1760s and early 1770s, the yeomen of Concord were squabbling among themselves in a series of increasingly bitter quarrels that threatened ultimately to divide the town into two warring parties. The local contentions had no relation to the colonial dispute with Britain; that subject came before the town only occasionally until 1774 and elicited only a mild response. Let others warm to arguments over the rights of the colonies and sound the alarm against a corrupt ministry in London and its lackeys at home. Concordians were more concerned over their roads and schools and meetinghouse.
When the eighteenth-century Yankee reflected on government, he thought first of his town. Through town meetings, he elected his officials, voted his taxes, and provided for the well-ordering of community affairs. The main business of the town concerned roads and bridges, schools, and the poor—the staples of local government even today. But the colonial New England town claimed authority over anything that happened within its borders. It hired a minister to preach in the town-built meetinghouse and compelled attendance at his sermons. It controlled public uses of private property, from the location of slaughterhouses and tanneries to the quality of bread sold at market. And it gave equal care to the moral conduct of its inhabitants, as Concord's William Hunt regretfully learned in 1764 when the selectmen took notice of his public tippling and idle "Loytring about from House to House Wasteing his time in a Sinfull maner" and advised innkeepers to shut their doors to his trade. No issue was in theory exempt from a town's action, even if in practice the provincial government occasionally intervened in local disputes and told the inhabitants how to run their lives.
A remarkably broad segment of the population could join in this exercise of local power. To vote in Massachusetts town elections, one had to be a male, at least twenty-one years old, an inhabitant of a town for the past year, and owner of an estate that would rent for £3:6:8 a year in the local assessors' view. In a country town like Concord, most men could meet the property-holding requirement, which was the equivalent of a month's wages for a common laborer. In 1771 seven out of ten Concordians qualified. Those who could not were farmers' sons, only recently come of age, and day laborers and servants, dependent on others for their bread. In eighteenth-century Massachusetts, a citizen mattered politically only when his judgment was subject to no one else's whim and untempted by the financial inducements of designing men.
With town government affecting so much of daily life, no New England community could escape political conflict. A road urgently needed by a man at the outskirts was often a wasteful expense to an inhabitant near the center, while one churchgoer's learned preacher was another's prideful sinner on the way to hell. Politics was, as ever, a contest over who got what of a community's scarce resources and whose values would prevail in local life. But provincial Yankees labored under a set of beliefs that made political activity as we know it impossible.
Eighteenth-century New Englanders demanded a great deal of their leaders. A magistrate, they held, was not a hired agent but a "father" to his people. He was raised up to rule as another Moses, a model of wisdom and righteousness, a lover of justice and champion of the people's rights. Like a good father, he was patient and gentle in guiding his subjects, but he could also be stern when necessary. He neither courted popular favor nor consulted private interest. He was ever-solicitous of the common good.
The people of Concord sought such leaders among the well-born and the rich. Democracy and equality played no part in their view of the world. New Englanders believed that society was composed of "ranks and degrees," that just as the earth "has Mountains and Plains, Hills and Vallies," so "there are the Distinctions of Superiours and Inferiours, Rulers and Ruled, publick and private Orders of Men...." The upper orders were to rule, the lower to follow. To place men of "low degree" in the council chamber would bring government into contempt. Magistrates must be distinguished men, known and respected by all. All authority—political, social, economic, and moral—was of a piece.
By aristocratic English standards, Concord's governing class cut a minor figure in the world. A few leaders were country squires like Colonel John Cuming, a Harvard- and Edinburgh-trained doctor who oversaw a 250-acre farm in Concord and speculated in frontier lands in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont. As a young man in his twenties, Cuming had fought in the old colonial wars against the French, in the course of which he received a musket ball in his hip—where it remained till his death—and was taken captive by Indians, beaten, and removed to Canada. He eventually won over his captors and gained release in a prisoner exchange. He returned home to build an extensive medical practice throughout Middlesex County and to become one of the town's leading men—the moderator of no fewer than ninety town meetings, justice of the peace, president-judge of the county Court of General Sessions. Concord often called on him to serve as its ambassador to the world. Cuming practiced the philanthropy his worldly status prescribed. It is said that he never charged for treating patients on the Sabbath. When Harvard Hall burned, he donated "two handsome brass branches for the use of the College chapel"; in 1771, he was awarded an honorary M.A. At his death in 1788, he left the College £300 sterling to establish a professorship of medicine. Together with other money, the bequest was used to start the Harvard School of Medicine.
But most of Concord's leaders were substantial yeomen and tradesmen with seventy-five to one hundred acres of land—twice the holding of the ordinary farmer. And while they engaged in trade more often than most inhabitants, it was business on the scale of Honest John Beatton, parceling out pins for change, and that of farmer-shoemaker Jonas Heywood, who every winter went from house to house in the countryside "whipping the cat"—boarding with his customers while he made and repaired enough shoes to last each family for the season. Still, hard-working, substantial men like Beatton and Heywood did stand out in a largely rural society, and they could afford to spend the typical selectman's four or five years in the public service. In the eyes of their neighbors, such men could rise to the standard of the public service.
Ephraim Wood was another shoemaker-farmer who won the trust of the town. Born in 1733 and bred to his father's trade, Wood was a natural candidate for town leadership: he was the son of a selectman—as were nearly half the men Concord chose for this post. But Wood also commanded respect in his own right. At 250 pounds, he was an imposing figure; the calf of his leg was said to measure twenty-four inches around. He had a reputation for "a calm, considerate mind and sound judgment," and he so thrived in business that his name became synonymous with success. Once another shoemaker was complaining to a Scotsman about his bad luck and poor trade. "Oh," the Scotsman replied, "you have a very poor trade, but Ephraim Wood have a very good trade." In 1771, Wood succeeded Jonas Heywood as selectman and town clerk, and he served in these posts for the next twenty-five years. When he died in 1814, it was said that
In him were united those qualities and virtues, which formed a character at once amiable, useful, respectable, and religious. Early in life he engaged in civil and public business, and by a judicious and faithful discharge of duty acquired confidence and reputation with his fellow citizens and the public.... The rights and liberties of his country were near his heart, and he was a warm and zealous defender of these against all encroachments. He was a true disciple of the great Washington, a friend to 'liberty with order.' ... In domestic life, his disposition and example were highly amiable and worthy. As a Christian, he was devout and humble, sincere and ardent. Having lived the life, he died the death of the righteous.
In the model commonwealth, public recognition flowed naturally to an Ephraim Wood. As he established himself in society and did his turns in a town's burdensome minor offices—posts like constable and surveyor of highways—men would notice his merits and soon elevate him to community-wide leadership. In Concord, high positions would normally come to a man by his mid-forties; the community desired leaders in their prime, not after retirement from active life. Ideally, a potential leader neither sought nor clung to office; were he to campaign openly, he would simply demonstrate his unfitness for public trust. Once elected, he would continue on the same conscientious course for the public good, heedless of his own popularity, the partial interests of powerful constituents, or the momentary wishes of a majority. Men would listen when he spoke and, whether they agreed or not, respectfully accept his judgments. So long as the magistrate upheld the fundamental liberties and interests of his community, no one questioned his fitness to rule.
The ordinary citizen in this vision of politics had an equally virtuous code of conduct. When he joined in a town meeting, he would set the needs of the group before his own and strive to think as his neighbors thought. In the course of discussion, he might properly disagree with another speaker, but always reluctantly, with a spirit of accommodation in his heart. Never would he concert his opposition with others; such action was universally condemned as the work of "faction," of men in league against the common good. When the meeting came to a vote, the citizen would normally find himself in alignment with the prevailing trend; whatever doubts persisted would be curbed in the interests of harmony. To insist on a formal count of the yeas and nays or to demand a record of one's dissent in the minutes of a meeting was to subvert that perfect unanimity of minds that adorned the ideal community. Men believed, with Boston minister Jonathan Mayhew, that "Union was the source of public happiness."
The New England town of men's deepest aspirations was a utopia: a corporate body free from power-seeking, from conflict, from hard bargaining among separate interests, from exploitation of the weak; free, in short, from politics. But there was no eliminating the facts of private ambition and group hostilities from social life. Colonial Yankees strove instead to overcome them through their "precepts of peace" and, failing that, to escape them through a distinctive style of politics by denial. Men stood for office by renouncing ambitions, all the while discreetly publicizing their availability among friends. They feuded and squabbled over the same issues year after year; it was their opponents, they charged, who were violating the spirit of community. Often agreement could be reached only by compromising the ideal of town unity. And sometimes it could not be reached at all.
Pre-Revolutionary Concord traced much of its political conflict to the growth of its population. From the very beginning, settlement was not confined to the village center; men took up choice spots across the river and formed distinct clusters whose existence was formally recognized in the three "quarters"—East, North, and South—the town established for the purpose of distributing land and apportioning taxes. But it was not until after the seventeenth century that much of Concord's land area was filled in; within its limits lay not only the present-day town but also all of the current town of Acton, to the west, and parts of Carlisle, Bedford, and Lincoln, to the north, northeast, and southeast. As the approximate number of inhabitants increased to 480 in 1679, 920 in 1706, 1,500 in 1725, the large estates of the original settlers were carved into smaller farms for succeeding generations. New communities took shape far from the village meetinghouse, with separate needs of their own and with a growing sense of separate identity.
The "outlivers," as they were sometimes called, soon resented their subordination to the center. On Sabbath mornings families still had to travel five or six miles into town; during the week their children had to go back and forth across the river to the village grammar school. They were at a disadvantage, too, in town politics, for inhabitants in the center could pack special town meetings more easily than farmers on the outskirts.
Samuel Kibby, who lived about three miles from the meetinghouse, had a special problem. His five daughters had trouble getting there on the Sabbath. They had to take turns riding the family's horse to Sunday meeting—"they were so heavy that only one could ride at once." But only a minority of families owned horses. When the town's leading men won permission to take common land for stables behind the meetinghouse, many voters must have suppressed a certain amount of bitterness; their wives and daughters had to walk into town in everyday stockings and shoes, then for the sake of appearances stop in a field and change into their go-to-meeting slippers. No wonder the residents of the remote northeast confessed that "in the extreme difficult seasons of heat and cold we were ready to say of the Sabbath, Behold what a weariness."
Eventually, one section after another desired separate status as a town, either by itself or through union with outlying inhabitants in bordering communities. Concord's majority adamantly opposed these ambitions. Although the town let the pious residents of the northeast go in peace, it refused to approve any further secessions. There was a solid economic motive behind this resistance, since after a separation, each remaining taxpayer would have to bear a greater share of the minister's fixed salary. More important, loss of territory and population threatened Concord's proud position as one of the leading towns in Middlesex. In the face of this intransigence, the disaffected minorities appealed successfully to the General Court for relief. Acton was set off from Concord in 1735; another part of town joined Lincoln twenty years later.
By 1765, when the colonial dispute with Britain first came before the town, sectional rivalry was a fixture of Concord's political life. Every spring, voters from the village marshaled their forces against the demands of outlying areas to make the grammar school "a moving school," which might travel through the town—six or seven weeks in one district, three weeks in another, and twelve weeks in the middle of town. For several years, the battle seesawed until in 1770 the townsmen wearied of the issue and handed the problem over to the selectmen. The grammar school stayed in the center.
Delegating controversial issues to the selectmen proved to be no solution to strife. Indeed, the policy-making failures of town meeting simply intensified an ongoing struggle among sections to dominate the selectmen and through them decisions to lay out roads and locate district schoolhouses. In the 1750s and 1760s, the outcome of annual elections turned principally on which quarter of town could jam more inhabitants into the town hall. No section ever lacked representation on the five-man board of selectmen, but the North Quarter, with nearly 40 per cent of the population, controlled only 20 per cent of the seats. The real contest lay between East and South, with power continually changing hands. By 1771, however, everyone had tired of the annual fight: in a quiet compromise, never elaborated in the town records, the number of selectmen was reduced to three—one for each quarter. The inhabitants conceded the inevitability of separate interests in town life, in hopes of ending the contention they produced. Concord was, in effect, redefined as a confederacy of smaller communities.
The factor of residence nonetheless continued to give some men disproportionate power in town affairs and to deny it to others. Although each quarter extended in a different direction from the town center to the outskirts, two thirds of the selectmen lived within a mile or so of the meetinghouse. So, too, did the town clerk and town treasurer. Officials could thus easily assemble for an evening's business over rum at one of the taverns in the center. Outlivers might wonder whether their interests were fully considered at such sessions.
Certainly the town had learned little from its previous failures to stop secession. In the 1760s and early 1770s, inhabitants in the northernmost part, four miles and more above the Concord River, pressed a bid for separation and, failing that, for some concessions to their special needs. The town meeting was in no mood for accommodation. Predictably, the town reasserted its refusal to let any territory go. But it also denied the petitioners' request for exemption from the minister's rate, so that they might hire their own preacher. No one seriously expected the remote northerners to attend the church regularly in town, especially when their only means of access, the North Bridge, was periodically washed out in winter. Still, membership in the community, even if it was forced membership, required support of the town minister. And if the outlivers did wish to go to meeting in town, they would get scant encouragement from the majority. Petitioners Joseph Taylor, Zaccheus Green, and others in the north part could not persuade the town to accept a proposed road enabling them "to go to the Public Worship and to market." Nor could they gain exemption from taxes for the undelivered services.
Excerpted from The Minutemen and Their World by Robert A. Gross. Copyright © 2001 Robert A. Gross. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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