First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concordby Ray Raphael
A bold new interpretation of our nation's founding moment, by the author of A People's History of the American Revolution. Using the wide-angle lens of a people's historian, Ray Raphael's The First American Revolution tells a surprising new story of America's revolutionary struggle. In the years before the Battle of Lexington and Concord, local people took control over their own destinies, overturning British authority and declaring themselves free from colonial oppression, with acts of rebellion that long predated the Boston Tea Party. In rural towns such as Worcester, Massachusetts, local democracy set down roots well before the Boston patriots made their moves in the fight for independence. Until now, few of these true founding fathers have made it into the historical record. Much more than a simple debunking of national myths, The First American Revolution takes a major new look at the history of revolutionary ferment in the eighteenth-century American colonies. Richly documented, The First American Revolution recaptures in vivid detail the grass-roots activism that propelled the colonies toward a break with Britain.
Author Biography: Ray Raphael is the author of numerous books, including A People's History of the American Revolution, An Everyday History of Somewhere, Men from the Boys, and Tree Talk. He lives in northern California.
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The First American RevolutionBefore Lexington and Concord
By Ray Raphael
New PressCopyright © 2003 Ray Raphael
All right reserved.
PEOPLE AND PLACE
On the eve of the Revolutionary War, 95 percent of the inhabitants of Massachusetts lived outside Boston. Few of these people were involved in the Stamp Act protests, the Boston Massacre, or the Boston Tea Party--the signature events which define the prerevolutionary decade in the historical consciousness of most Americans. Some might have paid some attention to the growing rift between the British imperial government and the American Whigs, but for the most part they focused on personal and parochial concerns. For instance:
* Through the 1760s citizens of Worcester complained repeatedly about the law requiring them to support the Latin grammar school, which served college-bound sons of the elite. Education, they argued, should be open to all, and children should be taught in plain English.
* In 1766 Springfield tanner Jedediah Bliss, to protest singing in church, read aloud from the Bible when the rest of the congregation broke into their hymn.
* In 1768 farmers from the town of Deerfield mowed a thirty-acre meadow that was also claimed by the neighboring district of Greenfield; when men from both locales tried to cart off the hay, they wound up brawling with clubs and pitchforks.
* In 1771 Worcester apothecary Elijah Dix was harassed by his outraged neighbors when they learned he was preserving the skeleton of a man who had just been hanged.
* In 1773 and 1774 angry crowds in Worcester, Salem, and Marblehead protested against smallpox inoculations; men and women "of the poorer sorts" feared they would become exposed to the disease while "not being able to bear the expense of Inoculation" for themselves. Patriots from Salem complained that the concern over smallpox took precedence over all other important matters, including resistance to the king and Parliament.
All this should come as no surprise. Local politics in colonial Massachusetts, like local politics everywhere, were dominated by affairs of school and church, by taxation and the division of land, by the construction and repair of roads, and by issues of health and public mores. When, in 1774, British policy would disenfranchise every citizen and undermine the autonomy of every community, the parochial concerns of separate localities would suddenly congeal--but until then, the political interests of ordinary farmers and artisans did not usually extend beyond the meeting houses of their own particular towns. Military mobilization and issues of monetary policy (such as the unsuccessful Land Bank scheme of 1740, which would have provided paper currency backed by land mortgages) were notable exceptions.
Colonial Massachusetts was overwhelmingly agrarian. Outside of the seaports, about two-thirds of the inhabitants owned their own farms. According to historian Jackson Turner Main, local communities such as Worcester were dominated by "a great middle class of small property owners." Young men who did not yet possess land of their own often worked as farm laborers, and even many artisans and merchants kept gardens, poultry, and perhaps a cow.
An average farm--and most tended toward the average--consisted of 50 to 100 acres, about one-quarter of which were tilled, mowed, or pastured. The main field crops were flax (grown primarily for fiber) and Indian corn (the staple food for man and animal). Beans, squash, and potatoes grew in the gardens, while apples, to be made into cider, hung from the orchards. Depending on region and soil, farmers also planted wheat, rye, oats, or barley. They tilled the soil with wooden plows and flailed grain by hand.
The average family possessed a riding horse, a pair of work oxen, two or three milk cows, a handful of steers and heifers, perhaps half a dozen sheep, a pig or two, and a poultry flock. Farmers probably spent more of their waking hours with animals than with people, and when socializing with their neighbors, they no doubt talked of livestock, crops, and the weather. Women spent most of their time processing the production of the farm: cooking, preserving, making butter and cheese, carding, spinning, weaving, sewing, knitting.
Most of the people lived in the countryside, yet each belonged to a small community called a "town." The typical town in colonial Massachusetts consisted of a meeting house with a nearby common (central square or grassy area) and burial ground, at least one tavern (and often more), one or two stores, and a handful of artisans' shops. Each county seat, or shiretown, also had a courthouse. Main Street in the town of Worcester was flanked by two centers--a meeting house and common to the south and a courthouse to the north--with taverns and stores, blacksmith shops, lawyers' offices, and residences in between.
People came to town not just to buy goods or services but to drink, to worship, to politic, or to drill for the militia. Stores, taverns, the meeting house (serving both as church and civic center), the town common--these were the venues for community activity.
Although the men and women of colonial Massachusetts labored on their separate farms and inside their separate homes, they placed a high value on social life and worship, which generally overlapped. They were not rugged individualists but congregationalists; they called their churches "meeting houses." Attendance at services was required by law and absence was punishable by fine; although the law was rarely enforced to the letter, frequent absences provided grounds for rumor and suspicion. Social standing was reflected by the quantity and position of a family's pews. By the eve of the Revolution, the turmoil of the Great Awakening was well in the past--but even so, until 1774 the hiring and firing of a minister could disturb the tranquility of a community like no other issue.
Liquor was of great importance to these religious people, who gathered frequently in public houses (taverns) for drink and company. Historian David Conroy has calculated that Worcester and Middlesex Counties possessed one tavern for every forty or fifty adult males. Since each tavern for which he found data contained from sixteen to forty-four chairs, more than half the adult males of those counties could theoretically raise a toast at the same time while seated at some public house. Local cider was the staple, but men also drank grain or potato whiskey, maple or cherry-flavored rum, peach brandy, and so on--whatever the innkeeper could muster up, perhaps from as far away as the West Indies. All this public drinking, according to Conroy, would soon play a role in the growing challenge to established authority:
Slowly, unevenly, but relentlessly a new political culture had emerged in colonial Massachusetts. The concept and practice of hierarchy had been strained, altered, and finally eroded by the restiveness, by the steady assertion of ordinary men shedding traditional constraints of their political behavior. They were most ready to do so in companies at taverns.... It was in taverns that men carried their examination of crown officials and policies to new levels of critical inspection.... [F]or the mass of male colonists, it was in taverns that they followed and acted on the unfolding drama with the crisis with England.
Less frequently than for drinking or worshiping, people came together for purposes of self-government. Every March, inhabitants of each town gathered at the meeting house to elect officers for the year and to conduct community business. Additional meetings could be called by the selectmen, who were elected for one-year terms, or by a petition from ten citizens. Before each meeting, a warrant, or agenda, was posted in a public place, commonly on the meeting house door. Thus, the patriots who would overthrow British rule in 1774 received much training in the arts of democracy by their town meetings. They approached the Revolution well-versed in collective problem solving.
Participation in town meetings was open to most (but not all) adult male inhabitants. Any man whose property was assessed at over £20 could vote for local officers, while in elections for provincial representatives, a voter needed property which could yield 40 shillings in rent. According to historian Robert E. Brown, there was not much difference between these two qualifications, and over 90 percent of adult males in farming communities such as Worcester were entitled to vote. In seaport towns, with a greater proportion of landless laborers, the proportion of voters was considerably less. Even so, more than three of every four men in Massachusetts were enfranchised, and many of those who could not vote were still in their twenties, unmarried, and not yet living on their own. Colonial women, of course, were not allowed to vote.
Elected town offices were many and varied: selectman, treasurer, clerk, constable, tithingman, road surveyor, fence viewer, hog reeve, deer reeve, hay warden, and so on. In Chesterfield, a newly created town in Hampshire County with only thirty families, twenty-one men were elected to at least one town office in 1762. Most of these office holders received no recompense; they were simply performing their duty, as they did when working on roads. Men who refused to fulfill these civic responsibilities, like those not attending church, were subject to fines.
Adult males, in fulfillment of yet another obligation, came to town for militia days. Many of the men over age thirty had been in service during the Seven Years War with France, while some of those over fifty had seen action at Louisburg in 1745. Military training was an important ritual; when it came time to protect or defend, the men hoped to he ready.
Finally, in each shiretown, scores or even hundreds of men gathered for the county court sessions four times each year. When the courts convened, towns such as Worcester buzzed with excitement and gossip as men with property or reputations to protect came to plead their cases. In addition to probate courts, there were four components to the judicial system: justices of the peace, an Inferior Court of Common Pleas for each county, a Court of General Sessions of the Peace for each county, and the provincial Superior Court of Judicature. The workings of this multilayered judicial system, which reached deep into the everyday lives of colonial farmers, would constitute the primary bone of contention in the Revolution of 1774.
With no police force, the high sheriff and the justices of the peace did the daily dirty work of law enforcement. A justice of the peace had the authority to put libelers, drunks, or wife beaters in jail. He tried cases of profanity, fornication, and unnecessary absence from church. His word was law. If a defendant chose to dispute a justice's ruling, however, he could appeal the case and receive a jury trial at one of the county courts.
The Court of Common Pleas, composed of four judges appointed by the governor and a jury when needed, tried civil cases and received appeals from the justices of the peace. The court heard suits for the collection of debts and controversies over land title and boundaries; in rural Massachusetts, there was no shortage of either. The Court of Common Pleas, in the minds of ordinary farmers, possessed an awesome power: it could take your money, your cow, or perhaps even your land.
The Court of General Sessions of the Peace, meeting concurrently with the Court of Common Pleas, consisted of the four Common Pleas judges and other justices of the peace for the county. The Court of General Sessions heard criminal cases, often on appeal from the rulings of the justices of the peace. It also exercised several of the administrative functions of county government: it assessed the towns and allocated county expenditures, it ran the jails, it authorized the construction of county roads and bridges, and it granted liquor licenses to innkeepers and merchants.
The Superior Court of Judicature, composed of the Chief Justice of Massachusetts and four associate judges, heard both civil and criminal cases and received appeals from the county courts. Traveling twice a year to Worcester and other shiretowns, the judges embodied the authority of the Crown in local communities. When the Superior Court was about to convene, the local sheriff and his posse of notable citizens would meet the judges on the edge of town and escort them to their lodgings. The following day, with considerable pomp and circumstance, judges in their scarlet robes and long wigs would perch on a raised platform while barristers in black gowns and attorneys in plain black suits pleaded before them. "I saw the court when a boy," George Bliss once said, "and making all due allowance for the effect upon the mind of a child, I feel confident that no earthly tribunal could inspire greater reverence than its appearance did on my mind."
The court system was an integral component of a multilayered governmental structure with numerous checks and balances. The ruling body of the province was the General Court, composed of three branches: the governor's office, the House of Representatives, and the Council. Each was charged with specific duties, and each had ways of limiting the power of the others.
The Crown appointed the governor, who in turn selected the judges, justices of the peace, militia officers, sheriffs, attorney-general, receiver-general (tax collector), and some other officials. According to the 1691 charter, however, all the governor's appointments had to be approved by his Council--and the Council in Massachusetts, unlike other colonies, was ultimately in the hands of the people.
The House of Representatives and the Council constituted the lower and upper bodies of the legislature. The House initiated taxation and had to approve all expenditures. The Council confirmed the business of the House and advised the governor. The voters of each town elected at least one representative to the House, with larger towns entitled to two. These representatives, serving one-year terms, were sometimes given detailed instructions by their constituents. Every year the first business of the representatives was to meet with the twenty-eight members of the outgoing Council to select a Council for the upcoming session.
The Council's "advice" was in fact more than that. Because the Council had to approve all appointments, the governor did not have a free hand to engage in blatant patronage. Since the people chose their representatives, and since the representatives determined the Council, the people maintained some control over judges and other appointed officials. To some extent, they also exercised control over the governor himself. Since the General Court paid the governor's salary, and since there was no fixed amount according to law, the governor could not afford to ignore the wishes of the people he governed. Although the governor possessed the authority to prorogue the House of Representatives, he would need to reconvene it soon thereafter if he wanted to get paid.
Thus, on paper, the people maintained considerable control over the provincial government. But did they always exercise their power? Why, some historians have asked, did common farmers and laborers continually choose privileged gentlemen or lawyers to represent them? In practice, was political society in late colonial Massachusetts democratic or deferential.
In many of the colony's farming communities, a handful of very powerful men--the "river gods" of Hampshire County, for instance--controlled the governmental apparatus. During the second quarter of the eighteenth century, John Stoddard of Northampton, son of the influential minister Solomon Stoddard, served as a justice of the peace, chief justice of the Court of Common Pleas, colonel of the Hampshire militia, commander-in-chief of the western forces, representative to the House, and member of the Council. Many of these positions he held concurrently. A rich land speculator, he used his political and military appointments to garner even greater wealth, prestige, and power. No county road could be laid without the approval of Colonel Stoddard, who would use his control over the Court of General Sessions to award the contract to a friend. Food for the militia would probably be purchased from someone he knew. When a gentleman's son was ready to embark on a career, John Stoddard, trusted friend to a succession of governors, was the man to procure him an appointment.
Excerpted from The First American Revolution by Ray Raphael Copyright © 2003 by Ray Raphael. Excerpted by permission.
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