J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, October 09, 2006

What Was Massachusetts's Government in 1775?

Today I return to the topic of Lexington & Concord in 1775, and what for my rhetorical purposes I'm calling "myths" about that event. An excitable political advocate named Melinda Pillsbury-Foster has issued an electronic article titled "The Shot Heard 'Round the World Was Not a Government Operation." While her ideas and rhetoric go to further extremes than other writers, Pillsbury-Foster isn't alone in perceiving, or wishing to perceive, the resistance to the British army in April 1775 as a spontaneous uprising of individuals.

Several thousand individuals. All at once. Marching and fighting in organized units. Later applying for pay and expenses. Totally unsullied by government oversight or direction. Riiiiiiight.

No, the response to the British raid on Concord was based on over a century of militia practice, as discussed in Gen. John Galvin's The Minute Men, and on months of groundwork by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress.

The background: On 1 Sept 1774, Gen. Thomas Gage, as royal governor, summoned the Massachusetts legislature (the "General Court") to a session in Salem the following month. At the same time, he had troops seize militia gunpowder and cannons in what is now Somerville. The resulting confrontation between angry militiamen and royal appointees in Cambridge, often called the "Powder Alarm," ended peacefully, but it showed everyone that Gage no longer exercised any practical authority in Massachusetts outside of Boston.

The governor quickly rescinded his call for a General Court. On 5 October the legislators met anyway, went through the motions of waiting for Gage to show up, and then voted to form a Provincial Congress in Concord on 11 October—a gathering of men from all over the province. Over the next seven months, this body and its successors met several times. Its Committee of Safety and Committee on Supplies, often meeting together, directed the preparations for military resistance to the Crown.

Although the Committees kept many details of their actions secret (or tried to, until Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr., became a member), the Provincial Congress wasn't shy about its overall goals. The State Library of Massachusetts now has a webpage sharing its collection of pre-Revolutionary broadsides, including the congress's proclamations. Its members avoided using the terminology of a General Court: it had delegates instead of representatives, resolutions instead of laws, a Receiver-General instead of a Treasurer, &c. But in practice the Provincial Congress was acting like an emergency government.

Specifically, its proclamations suggested:

  • 26 Oct 1774: Militia units should meet and elect new officers (or reelect the old ones free of control of the royal governor); officers should start organizing units to make them most efficient, including designating companies ready to "march at the shortest Notice."
  • 14 Feb 1775: Militia officers and town selectmen should report on the readiness of their military men and supplies.
  • 31 March 1775: Towns should send their tax collections to the Provincial Congress's Receiver-General, Henry Gardner of Stow, to further "the most important Plans of this Colony."
Again, these were the Provincial Congress's public pronouncements. It didn't hide how it was taking control of the province's homegrown military forces and its revenue.

Of course no province executive or general issued orders to each militia colonel and captain in action on 18-19 April. Eighteenth-century technology didn't allow that sort of communication. In a way, the militia system was designed along the same lines as the internet: each unit was programmed to respond independently and carry out much the same job, so that there was no need for commands from the top.

Col. James Barrett didn't order the Middlesex companies to march on the North Bridge on his own authority. He acted as an appointee of (and member of) the legislature that had met in Concord earlier in April. The "shot heard round the world" was thus much more like a government operation than not, and that government was the Provincial Congress.


Andre Mayer said...

Yes and no -- but mostly yes. It is certainly true that [many] people in Massachusetts in 1775-80 believed that government authority, strictly speaking, had been dissolved, and that they were living in a state of civil society (as distinct from a state of nature). But of course the Bay Colony had been built from the ground up, under its original corporate charter, as a civil entity.

There is a real sense in which militias, however well-regulated, were part of civil society rather than government; when I get around to reading Saul Cornell's recent book I'll presumably know more about this.

The Massachusetts constitution of 1780, and later state constitutions, are constructed around civil society, but this composite structure was arguably destabilized by the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution (which is why the 2nd Amendment is now so problematic). On the other hand, it is the ultimate basis of the Supreme Judicial Court's ruling on same-sex marriage, so conservatives might want to be very careful about their arguments.

J. L. Bell said...

I see the militia system as similar to the colonial firefighting system (everybody bring buckets!), police system (hue and cry), and town government (annual meetings of all voters). All depended on action by a broad swath of people rather than by professionals formally employed by government.

But where one draws the line between that form of civic participation encouraged or required by government and government action itself may be a matter of taste. The more democratic a society is, after all, the more blurry the line between government and people.

Even then, the society was moving toward our current system of government employees handling those jobs. Firewards and selectmen oversaw the private fire-engine companies. Town watchmen working for the selectmen patrolled Boston at night. On the other hand, the debate over militia v. regular army continued into the next century, and Boston clung to its town meeting governance even beyond that.