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, March 13, 2007

Adolescent Rebellion in Revolutionary America

Yesterday I wrote about glimpses of adolescent rebellion in colonial America, particularly how apprentices rebelled against masters rather than against parents. When that society itself became rebellious in the 1760s and 1770s, what did that mean for adolescents?

I think our current culture still expects the political side of adolescent rebellion to follow the model of the 1960s, when the “youth movement” fueled profound social changes and less lasting political changes, producing widely reported generational conflicts. But that phenomenon may have been a historical aberration.

In Revolutionary Massachusetts, young people—particularly teenage boys—lent their youthful energies to the majority Whig cause. Schoolboys marched against the Stamp Act in August 1765, and in 1770 seem to have taken the lead in organizing picket lines against importers. Boys were among the first people killed when frightened servants of the Crown pushed back. But those rebellions were aimed at a small minority of royal officials and a distant government.

That Whig cause had the support of most of the fathers of those boys, and most of their local political leaders. In other words, these adolescents weren’t rebelling against their parents or the society they knew. They gladly adopted the dominant values and goals. Leading Whigs didn’t worry about opposition from the town’s youth; they worried about reining in boys lest they go too far.

That situation meant that the boys could have all the rebellious fun and excitement of being rowdy yet still see themselves (and be seen) as standing up for their rights, as Englishmen were supposed to do. Just as attacking the Pope and Pretender licensed the misrule of Pope Night, as I argued in an article for the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife, so picketing importers’ shops gave boys license to yell and throw mud at people in the street. While their elders occasionally repudiated teenagers for their rash actions, leaders valued support from youth. In turn, participating in the Revolutionary movement helped adolescents make a place for themselves in adult society.

Boston 1775 reader Philamom wrote me about this dynamic a while back:

I think too often in YA books [i.e., novels for teenagers], kids from the past are presented as far too well-behaved, obedient, and all-out goodly! The [“From Saucy Boys to Sons of Liberty”] article also confirmed a theme I've woven into my book - how the patriots were sort of the naughty boys to England's strict father.
Indeed, both at the time and in the centuries since, Americans have viewed our Revolution as a “coming of age,” separating from the “mother country” once we outgrew her protection, as adolescents are supposed to do. In A Season of Youth, historian Michael G. Kammen notes how most of the best and most popular Revolutionary War novels are coming-of-age tales: Johnny Tremain, My Brother Sam Is Dead, &c.

It’s especially interesting to see how some Revolutionary Americans came to view their adolescent rebellions against their masters as akin to the political rebellion of 1765-1783. Benjamin Franklin, in a footnote to the passage in his autobiography that I quoted yesterday, mused about his difficult relationship to his brother and master:
I fancy his [James Franklin’s] harsh and tyrannical treatment of me might be a means of impressing me with that aversion to arbitrary power that has stuck to me through my whole life.
(The image of Benjamin working industriously above comes from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.)

My favorite illustration of the reassuring connection between personal and political rebellions comes from Ebenezer Fox, born in 1763 and raised just outside Boston. Late in life he wrote about how he interpreted the political rhetoric all around him in the early 1770s:
With him [a farmer named Pelham] I continued five years, performing such services in the house and upon the farm as were adapted to my age and strength. I imagined however that I suffered many privations and endured much hardship; which was undoubtedly true, were my situation compared with that of many other boys of my age at that time, or in this more refined period. . . .

I had for some time been dissatisfied with my situation, and was desirous of some change. I had made frequent complaints of a grievous nature to my father; but he paid no attention to them, supposing that I had no just cause for them, and that they arose merely from a spirit of discontent which would soon subside.

Expressions of exasperated feeling against the government of Great-Britain, which had for a long time been indulged and pretty freely expressed, were now continually heard from the mouths of all classes; from father and son, from mother and daughter, from master and slave. A spirit of disaffection pervaded the land; groans and complaints, and injustices and wrongs were heard on all sides. Violence and tumult soon followed.

Almost all the conversation that came to my ears related to the injustice of England and the tyranny of government.

It is perfectly natural that the spirit of insubordination, that prevailed, should spread among the younger members of the community; that they, who were continually hearing complaints, should themselves become complainants. I, and other boys situated similarly to myself, thought we had wrongs to be redressed; rights to be maintained; and, as no one appeared disposed to act the part of a redresser, it was our duty and our privilege to assert our own rights. We made a direct application of the doctrines we daily heard, in relation to the oppression of the mother country, to our own circumstances; and through that we were more opposed than our fathers were.

I thought that I was doing myself great injustice by remaining in bondage, when I ought to go free; and that the time was come, when I should liberate myself from the thraldom of others, and set up a government of my own; or, in other words, do what was right in the sight of my own eyes.
So Fox and a friend left their masters and headed for Newport, to go to sea. Yet for all their thinking about liberty and bondage, those boys knew so little of the political situation that they didn’t realize why there was so much activity on the roads the night they chose to flee—18 April 1775.


Anonymous said...

I intend to use this posting and the previous one about adolescents in a writing course I teach for college freshmen. In this course we are working with the theme of "Being Bad: the Dark side of Youth". Thank for the excellent material, and should you have anything else long this line, I'd love to look at it.

J. L. Bell said...

Glad these items are useful!