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Social Upheaval in Colonial America – 1774-1775 – From Farmers to Patriots
Outpost of Freedom
February 2, 2010
As to the history of the revolution, my ideas may be peculiar, perhaps singular. What do we mean by revolution? The war? That was no part of the revolution’ it was only an effect and consequence of it. The revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years, before a drop of blood was drawn at Lexington. The records of the thirteen legislatures, the pamphlets, newspapers in all the colonies ought to be consulted during that period, to ascertain the steps by which the public opinion was enlightened and informed concerning the authority of parliament over the colonies.— John Adams to Jefferson, August 24, 1815.
We most often define the Revolution as the War of Independence from rule by Great Britain. We also suppose that the Revolution began with the British efforts to seize gunpowder and cannon from the stores at Concord, Massachusetts. We also define the beginning of the Revolution as a battle that ensued when the British were resisted in their attempt to secure those guns and powder.
From a political standpoint, we look at the Stamp Act, Tea Tax, and the Massachusetts Port Act as the elements that provoked the actions at Lexington and Concord, on April 19, 1775.There were, however, a number of events, both political and rebellious, that predate the battle on Lexington Green. These events fall well within the period that John Adams defines as the Revolution — that period in which the public was “enlightened and informed concerning the authority of parliament over the colonies”.
Let us look at some of the forgotten events that were, for all intents and purposes, the end of the Revolution, and, the precursor to the War of Independence.
Though it took many weeks to arrive in the Colonies, the Massachusetts Port Act was approved by the parliament on March 31, 1774. “[A]n act to discontinue, in such manner, and for such time as are therein mentioned, the landing and discharging, loading or shipping, of goods, wares, and merchandise, at the town, and within the harbor, of Boston, in the province of Massachusetts Bay, in North America.” The act, essentially, embargoed Boston and restricted that necessary flow of goods to that city. It also included housing and feeding 3000 British soldiers, which increased the demand on available goods.
Seldom mentioned, however, was the Massachusetts Governments Act, approved by parliament nearly two months later, on May 20, 1774.
This legislation was described as, “an act for the better regulating the governments of the province of the Massachusetts Bay, in New England”. This act had a devastating effect on the existing governments in the Massachusetts colony. It removed the selection of the governor from the general courts or assemblies of the colony and vested that authority in the Crown. It further provided that all counselors, judges, commissioners, the attorney general, provosts, marshals, and justices of the peace, would be appointed by the Governor and approved by his Majesty. The final indignation came when the act required that all agenda items from town meetings had to have approval of the royal Governor, and that only the annual town meetings, in March and May, may be held, without permission of the Governor. Business as usual was no longer an option.
The impact of this second act, the Massachusetts Government Act, was felt more severely in the rural communities outside of Boston. The people of Boston were preoccupied with the occupation by the British troops, and though their governments had been suspended, their concerns were other than those of the farmers.
Suddenly, these small communities were unable to conduct the business of keeping their government functioning.
Within the small communities, there were those with wealth and family. These “crafty” men managed to hold the more powerful positions in the communities. Whether merchants or lenders, there were many who owed them for goods, services, or money.
Increases in taxes, because of the French – Indian wars, had reduced the available amounts of money to almost nonexistent — making it impossible to repay their obligations.
Those who had wealth and power tended to be “Tories” and loyal to the crown. They were also influential in the judicial system, which often seized property, livestock, or land, in repayment of debts.
Therefore, in 1773, committees were forming throughout the countryside. By December 1773, when news of the Boston tea party had reached the country, committees began communicating in earnest.
The town of Worcester, in Worcester County, issued a resolve, stating, in part:
to have these who are to judge, and Determin, on our lives, property, paid by a foreign State, immediately Destroy the national dependence which ought to Subsist between a people, and their officers, and of consequence, destructive of liberty; For which reason, we are of the opinion, that we are not in the least bound in duty to Submit, to the ordering in Determining of Such officers as not dependent on the Grants of this people for their pay.
This resolution outraged local Tories.
A local blacksmith, Timothy Bigelow, was elected leader of the Town Council, for the first time displacing the wealth and power that had ruled before.
The superior court was scheduled to open on April 19, 1774. Four of the five superior court judges had already refused “the bribe offered them by the crown”, leaving only one judge to serve on the court.
Just a month before, the Massachusetts house of representatives had impeached Chief Justice Peter Oliver. Before the council could try Oliver, Governor Thomas Hutchinson dissolved the general court. The impeachment was not completed.
Oliver was scheduled at the April 19 Worcester County superior court, however, the Whigs refused to serve as grand jurors — effectively nullifying the court. Oliver, wisely, refused to appear at Worcester County – for fear of his life.
The Tory faction recorded the “Redmond Dissent” of the recent Whig activities. Only 52 of the nearly 250 eligible voters in Worcester County signed this dissent. Clearly, the Whigs were gaining control.
In May 1774, word of the Boston Port Act arrived in the Colonies. Along with the act came a newly appointed a Royal Governor, General Thomas Gage. Essentially, this was the end of civil government in Massachusetts. During the next 11 months, many changes were going to occur in Massachusetts.
John Adams, reflecting the mood of the countryside, while staying at a Shrewsbury inn, recorded an indication of things to come:
[A]s I was cold and wet, I sat down to the good fire in the bar room to dry great coat and saddlebags tell a fire could be made in my chamber. Their presently came in, one after another, half a dozen, or half the score, substantial yeoman of the neighborhood, who, sitting down to the fire after lighting their pipes, began a lively conversation upon politics. As I believed I was unknown to all of them, I sat in total silence to hear them.
One said, “The people of Boston are distracted!”
Another answered, “No wonder the people of Boston are distracted. Oppression will make wise men mad.”
A third said, “what would you say, if a fellow should come to your house and tell you he has come to take a list of your cattle, that parliament might tax you for them at so much ahead? And how should you feel, if he was to go and break open your barn, to take down your oxen, cows, horses, and sheep?”
“What I should say,” replied the first;” I would knock him in the head.”
” Well,” said a fourth, “if parliament can take away Mr. Hancock’s wharf and Mr. Rowe’s wharf, they can take away your barn and my house”.
After much more reasoning in this style, a fifth, who had as yet been silent, broke out, “Well, it is high time for us to rebel; we must rebel some time or other, and we had better rebel now than at any time to come. If we put off for 10 or 20 years, and let them go on as they have begun, they will get a strong party among us, and plague us a great deal more than they can now.”
- On June 6, 1774, the Massachusetts Government Act was published in the Boston Gazette. From this point on, nearly every position of competence, within any level of government, would be subject to appointment by the royal governor. Even agenda items for town meetings were subject to his approval. Except in Boston, only town council members would be elected by the people.
- On August 6, 1774, the Massachusetts Government Act went into effect. The king had selected 36 men to sit on the council -“mandamus counselors” -of which only three had been elected to the council by the people. The crown was repudiating the electoral process established by the 1691 charter.
- On Sunday, August 7, General Gage, ignoring the Sabbath, sent messages to the newly appointed counselors and summoned them to Salem the following morning. Only 11 of the 36 showed up to take their oaths on Monday. Of the remainder, three accepted their appointments but were not sworn in, two declined their appointments, and the remaining four chose to “take time to consider of it”. The remainder, living at a distance from Salem, could not be notified in time.
On August 9, 1774, 52 men from 22 towns in the county met at Mary Stearns’ tavern in Worcester to establish a committee.
Among the resolutions written and adopted that day, we find the following:
- Resolved, That we bear all true allegiance to his majesty King George the third, and that we will, to the utmost of our power, defend his person, crown, and dignity, but at the same time, we disclaim any jurisdiction in the commons of Great Britain over his majesty’s subjects in America.
Resolved, that an attempt to vacate said charter [1691 Massachusetts Charter], by either party, without the consent of the other, has a tendency to dissolve the union between Great Britain and this province, to destroy the allegiance we owed to the king, and to set aside the sacred obligations he is under to his subjects here.
- Resolved, that it is the indisputable duty of every American, and more especially in this province, to unite in every virtuous opposition that can be devised, in order to save ourselves and posterity from inevitable ruin.
- Voted, that we most earnestly recommend it to the several towns in this county, (and if it should not be thought to arrogant,) to every town in the province, to meet and adopt some wise, prudent, and spirited measures, in order to prevent the execution of those most alarming acts of parliament, respecting our constitution.
For the remainder of this article please see The End of the Revolution and the Beginning of Independence by Gary Hunt.