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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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Brian Deming on “Why Boston?”

Brian Deming is author of Boston and the Dawn of American Independence. That new book explores why so many Bostonians felt the need to revolt in 1775. Deming, a journalist and novelist, began this book while living in Boston, and he sent this guest blogger essay from his new home in Toronto.

In 1760 the people of Boston felt themselves proudly British and could hardly imagine independence. Then, over just 15 years, anger against British authorities boiled up, producing riots, the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, and then war.

What were the factors that made Boston the center of such discontent?

First, the nature of Boston’s economy. For Boston merchants to prosper, they needed more than New England fish and lumber to trade. So, they cultivated trade with the West Indies. Fish and lumber went to the islands in exchange for sugar and molasses. Molasses, shipped to Boston, was distilled into rum, which became a reliable trade commodity.

Thus wedded economically to the West Indies, Boston yelped louder than most American ports when Britain in the 1760s began enforcing long-neglected laws related to imports from those islands.

Second, Boston’s history of orchestrated violence. Boston had knocked heads with authorities well before the Stamp Act riots and the Boston Massacre. Less than a century before, riots sent the governor packing back to Britain. In the 1740s, riots forced a British admiral to return American men snatched off Boston streets to fill out navy crews. For years, Boston tolerated the Pope Day mayhem, when gangs from the North and South Ends of Boston paraded and fought on November 5.

The Stamp Act riots, the tar and featherings, and the Tea Party emerged from a culture that acknowledged the legitimacy of street violence as a tool of last resort.

Third, religion. By 1760, the force of Puritanism, so important in molding Boston’s character, was on the retreat as other denominations made inroads in the community.

Boston Puritans, who by this time called themselves Congregationalists, grudgingly tolerated other Protestant sects. But they suspected that the Church of England, hand in hand with British authorities, was plotting to dominate religious life in New England. Bostonians pointed to Church of England efforts a proselytizing in nearby Cambridge, for example. This undercurrent of distrust eroded confidence in British authorities and made it easier for Bostonians to choose rebellion.

Fourth, the toxic and polarized world of Boston politics. By the time of the Tea Party, in 1773, the political mood in Boston was so poisoned that no compromise was possible. In other ports where the controversial tea was shipped, authorities and patriots managed to work out an arrangement to avoid a head-on collision. But in Boston, both sides were dug in. Trust and good will had long vanished.

At the center of this nastiness was Thomas Hutchinson, Massachusetts governor at the time of the Tea Party. Hutchinson, a flawed but well-meaning man, was mostly a victim of events set in motion by others and circumstances that spun out of his control.

In the early 1760s, Thomas Hutchinson was a popular and highly respected figure. But even then, Hutchinson had enemies, including Sam Adams, whose father was ruined after the failure of a banking scheme that Hutchinson had opposed.

Grudges against Hutchinson added up over the years as members of the Hutchinson and Oliver families, intertwined by marriage and trusted by the governor, gobbled up most of the plum government jobs.

By filling so many posts, the Hutchinsons, Olivers, and their friends planted bitter seeds of resentment and shut out of the government moderate men sympathetic to the patriot faction, men who might have found middle ground in times of crisis. Furthermore, these family ties and friendships tended to isolate Hutchinson and his allies from the rest of the community, making them deaf to arguments on the other side of the political divide, and similarly making it less likely for the patriots to listen to moderate voices on the Tory side.

It didn’t help that Hutchinson had his own grudges against the patriot side—like the looting of his mansion during the Stamp Act crisis. By the time of the crisis on the eve of the Tea Party, finding compromise was impossible. The tea went in the harbor, and events snowballed from there.

For more information about Boston and the Dawn of American Independence, check out its webpage. Thanks, Brian!


Chaucerian said...

I enjoyed reading the review, which you linked yesterday, of Alan Taylor's new book on Virginia society. So I'm thinking, all right, in Boston we didn't have an enormous number of enslaved people oppressing us and occupying our minds, as they did in Virginia. But I also had heard that the reason things started in Boston rather than elsewhere was that in Boston we are very intelligent. That reason doesn't seem to come up in the posting. (I know, I'm setting up a straw man here.)

J. L. Bell said...

Another factor, highlighted by Gary Nash in The Urban Crucible, is that Bostonians might have felt frustrated as their port fell behind Philadelphia and New York.

At the start of the 1700s, Boston was the largest town in British North America. At mid-century, its population growth stalled for several reasons: geography, weather, being less welcoming to new immigrants. Philadelphia grew larger and more cosmopolitan. The British army moved its North American base, and the attendant business, to New York. The Caribbean planters began to distill their own rum instead of shipping all the raw materials to Boston.

As a result, Boston's business and maritime community might have been unusually sensitive to new legislation in the 1760s that seemed to make their economic situation even harder.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, we in Boston are indeed brought up with the notion that we're collectively more perceptive and moral than anyone else, so naturally we'd be the first to rebel. It's a little awkward that Patrick Henry pushed the Virginia House of Burgesses into protesting the Stamp Act before Massachusetts acted, but John Adams came up with a solution for that problem.

The relationship between the Revolution (often based on warnings that Crown policy would amount to "enslaving" British colonists) and chattel slavery (which obviously amounted to British colonists enslaving other people) is a matter of great debate. Massachusetts also had slavery before 1783, of course, and Boston had a higher percentage of enslaved people in its population than any other part of the province. Virginia had many more slaves, and its planter class did worry about "Negro conspiracies" a lot. But so did the Massachusetts upper-class; Abigail Adams expressed such worry in a September 1774 letter.

I haven't read Taylor's book, but my impression at a distance is that white Virginians kept going to war for their own fine reasons (western land, royal taxes, &c.) and only then realized that their enslaved workers might take that unrest as an opportunity. Did the effort of believing that black people weren't really people lull the planter class into complacency until a crisis arrived?

Charles Bahne said...

Mr. Deming raises some issues that I hadn't thought about, and J.L., you raise another point why so many of the protests started here in Boston. One that neither of you have mentioned, however, is the New England tradition of self-government, starting with the Puritans in 1630 (and the Pilgrims in 1620). The congregational nature of their church led directly to the New England town meeting. In the country towns especially, most adult males could vote, although the franchise didn't extend to the large working class of the seaport. Combine this with New England's strong sense of volunteerism and community action, and the idea of "commonwealth" -- working together for the common good. And don't forget that Massachusetts residents were complaining about "taxation without representation" (to use a modern phrase) as early as 1632.

J. L. Bell said...

Bostonians certainly were used to voting for themselves in town and Congregationalist meetings. But so were most other New Englanders. And the folks in Rhode Island and Connecticut got to elect their own governors while Massachusetts governors had been appointed in London since the 1690s. So why wasn’t there more trouble in Newport?

(For me the answer to that question is that the Crown didn't push back in Newport as hard as its appointees pushed in Boston. Rhode Islanders destroyed two British government ships in the 1770s, and the Royal Navy was sent to close the port of Boston. Why didn't the Crown focus on Rhode Island? Because there was no way that could work.)

All that said, I agree that the tradition of self-government was an important ingredient in the conflict. Virginian gentlemen also had that tradition, but the franchise wasn't so widespread there, so I think that led to less popular mobilization. In contrast, in New England the towns were rising up more or less by themselves in September 1774 and April 1775.

Anonymous said...

Although representative government was a widespread issue among the colonies, I think the larger issue for the southern colonies was the mercantile system in place that limited paper currency and forced planters to do business on credit. Price manipulation in England resulted in American planters going deeply in debt and falling victim to piratical bankruptcy laws. I'm reading "1775: A Good Year For Revolution" right now, and Kevin Phillips likens the situation to our recent recession resulting from the overextension of credit to people who hadn't the means to repay it.

To add to what Mr. Bahne stated above, I think Bostonians saw military rule as a total disregard of their royal charter. I'm sure there was some sensitivity to this across New England, especially in light of the charters of Connecticut and Massachusetts having been revoked a century earlier.