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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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

“Our revolution had its origins in urban connections”?

On 4 July, the Boston Globe published an opinion piece by Harvard economist Edward L. Glaeser which proposed a novel understanding of the American Revolution: it was all about population density.

Democracies have a massive free-rider problem where all of us have a natural tendency to let someone else die for our liberty. Solving this free rider problem requires coordination and this is what urban density has done for millennia. Urban density connects citizens and enables them to meet and plan and talk. With enough talking, groups like the Sons of Liberty may even convince themselves that it is worth dying for a common cause. . . .

Our revolution had its origins in the urban connections between John Hancock, the two Adams cousins, and assorted other enemies of British colonial policy. Brought together by Boston, a merchant-prince could help finance riots led by a brewer. The lawyers could argue cases and the writers could push pamphlets. David Hackett Fischer’s account of Paul Revere taught us that this silversmith was not a lone rider, but part of a dense, urban network that collectively fought for independence.
The Revolutionary turmoil of the 1770s indeed began in Boston, the third-largest settlement in British North America. Such studies as Benjamin Carp’s Rebels Rising show the importance of Boston and cities to the south in political developments from the 1760s on.

I’ve even seen an interesting observation (in an essay published years ago by the Bostonian Society, as I recall) that in Massachusetts the pro-government leaders tended to have their businesses in Boston but lived out of town as much as they could (Thomas Hutchinson, Peter Oliver, Francis Bernard) while Patriot leaders included many men who had moved into Boston from other places (James Otis, Jr.; John Adams; Dr. Joseph Warren; William Molineux; Dr. Thomas Young). The implication was that working-class city-dwellers knew who was on their side.

However, it’s only natural for colonial resistance to Parliament’s new tariffs to arise mostly in the big ports; that’s where the imports arrived and the tariffs were collected. Furthermore, urban turmoil tends to be more visible in the historical record than rural turmoil because newspapers and government officials were concentrated in cities. We know about similar crowd actions in farm towns mostly through private letters, such as those of Christian Barnes of Marlborough.

Most important, in the final months leading up to war, people on both sides of the conflict wrote about how the rural parts of Massachusetts had become much more militant than Boston. The western counties closed their courts and intimidated their Council members into resigning well before the eastern. Gen. Thomas Gage basically lost all power outside of Boston (and a stripe of Marshfield) in September 1774, months before the fighting began.

Glaeser writes that Paul Revere “was not a lone rider, but part of a dense, urban network.” Aside from Revere and William Dawes, Jr., however, the riders on 18-19 April 1775 were a spread-out, rural network. So were all the town militia companies who risked “dying for a common cause.” Despite the fears of British officers, Bostonians never rose up against the army regiments in their town.

Undoubtedly there’s a lot to learn about how the Revolutionary political ideas formulated mostly in port towns spread into New England’s rural areas. But we have to remember that the white male farmers in those areas already governed themselves as democratically as any population in the world. There’s much more to this story than urbanites having the numbers to talk themselves into resistance.


RJO said...

Do you know Taylor's "Western Massachusetts in the Revolution"?


It's been quite a while since I read it, but I remember it as remarkably good (and sadly neglected). It shows how extraordinarily deep Revolutionary thinking ran in the smaller towns.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, I recall reading that book while waiting for a circus to start a couple of years ago. There are also books about the Revolutionary War in Maine that make the same point: people didn’t have to live in Boston to be debating the political issues of the day.

I’ve also found some studies of Shays’ Rebellion to be interesting in this regard. The westernmost parts of Massachusetts continued on a “Revolutionary” footing—i.e., keeping the courts closed—through the war and even after it ended. The Regulation that became known as Shays’ was clearly linked in men’s minds to the same issues that brought on the war.