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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Sunday, December 21, 2014

What Did Bostonians Start a Revolution for?

In An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America, Nick Bunker posits a provocative parallel for Massachusetts in 1773, during the lead-up to the Tea Party: “Perhaps the closest equivalent in modern times was the end of the Communist regime in East Germany.” Having visited Leipzig and other G.D.R. cities as the Cold War dissolved into mist, Bunker suggests we view Boston through that lens.

Of course, he acknowledges, the British Crown had no equivalent of the Stasi or other elements of the totalitarian Soviet satellite. But in Bunker’s view both societies were aching to break through the flimsy oppression of an old regime: “The town of Boston needed to reinvent itself as the great industrial city it would eventually become after the War of 1812.”

Massachusetts, and New England as whole, indeed had a lot of advantages for an expanding republican economy. The region had the highest literacy rate of anywhere in the British Empire. As Bunker notes, the town was the size of a small British seaport that might support one newspaper, yet it had five or more papers each week in the years before the Revolutionary War, representing a spectrum of political ideas.

What’s more, New England’s relatively equal distribution of land, scarce labor, and town-meeting system let more men gain independent livings and participate in their government than anywhere else in the Empire. The leaders of the government in London didn’t believe in that system—they couldn’t imagine the region really ran that way, and they didn’t think it was a good idea anyway. In 1774 those ministers tried to roll back New England self-government, leading to the decisive countryside confrontations from summer 1774 through spring 1775.

On the other hand, the stultifying culture that might plausibly make Boston resemble Leipzig wasn’t anything that London government had created or supported. It was the system of New England’s own establishment, descendants of Puritans who disliked any form of faith but their own. Their laws didn’t just ban theater and stifle Christmas. They barred work from Saturday night to Monday morning, and blocked travel in Sundays between one town and another except in emergencies. For all of New England’s vaunted literacy, only the top households owned any non-religious reading material.

Since the start of the century Philadelphia had vaulted ahead of Boston in population and trade. Some of the reason was geographic: Philadelphia’s harbor was open for more of the year, and it wasn’t perched on a small peninsula. But most of the southern city’s advantages were cultural. It was more welcoming to immigrants and non-conformists. The most inventive Bostonian of the century, Benjamin Franklin, left for Philadelphia in his teens not because he lacked a place within New England society but because he didn’t like that place.

Bunker writes of the need for Boston to reinvent itself as an industrial center, “Even before the revolution, it contained men and women who understood this was so.” He doesn’t identify such individuals, however, and I’m hard pressed to think of any among the Revolutionaries. There’s no doubt that some benefited from the coming of industrialization: Paul Revere remade himself from a skilled craftsman into a manufacturer, and Loammi Baldwin of Woburn went from a farmer to a civil engineer overseeing the Middlesex Canal.

But almost to a man, Boston Patriots went into political activism and then the Revolutionary War not seeking to break free from their narrow society but to protect it from change. London’s new taxes were preventing a return to the town’s previous prosperity, they complained. When the political confrontation heated up, they demanded to go back to Massachusetts’s old charter, not to make reforms.

Samuel Adams certainly didn’t aim to lead a revolution that would open Boston to a Catholic church and competing theaters. Elias Hasket Derby (shown above) made a fortune in the post-war China Trade, but in April 1775 when he was pushing for his Salem militia company to march faster against the redcoats he would surely have been happy just to have the British Customs service roll back its enforcement to the 1750s level.

With Patriots like those, I think Bunker’s assessment that “Boston needed to reinvent itself as the great industrial city” is like saying that Tyrannosaurs needed to reinvent themselves as the light, maneuverable flyers they eventually evolved into. There’s no doubt now that birds descended from two-legged dinosaurs while Tyrannosaurs died out, but those dinosaurs weren’t spending their days trying to fly. Similarly, conservative New Englanders taking action against the Crown in the 1760s and 1770s were trying to preserve their way of life for themselves and their children, not to open up their society to the possibilities of industrial (or other) change. And yet that’s what they did.

TOMORROW: Reluctant revolutionaries?


Rick Subber said...

Thanks for taking Bunker to task for a statement like: “The town of Boston needed to reinvent itself as the great industrial city it would eventually become after the War of 1812.”
Nobody in Boston in the latter part of the 18th century had any notion of what Boston would become in the 19th century after a war (1812) that those 18th century Bostonians couldn't imagine.
It's so tiresome to read statements suggesting that folks in the past intended to achieve their unknowable futures.

J. L. Bell said...

To his credit, Nick Bunker doesn't say that Bostonians went into the Revolution seeking the economic freedom to become an industrial center.

Rather, he expresses a longer view that that transition was the way greater Boston would ultimately return to the growth and significance it had enjoyed in the early 1700s (though we never caught up to New York again).

With an even longer pespective one might argue the city needed to reinvent itself as a center of finance and high technology after manufacturing businesses moved away. But that doesn't say much about the Revolution.

Comittee of Correspondence said...

Why Bostonians started a Revolution. They started a Rebellion … Why? Because James Otis Jr and Samuel Adams decide the up-start Thomas Hutchinson needed to be gone. The boys in the Masonic Lodges agreed and the boys at the Green Dragon agreed and thus with defined steps, Samuel Adams devised a cunning plan to ouster the pop-n-jay Acting-governor and that he would receive his comeuppance. Also for Note: The Revolution began when General Washington took command of the army surrounding Boston. (This of course is a personal opinion for all of the above.)