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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Friday, December 21, 2007

Pinpointing The First American Revolution

Five years ago, as I was researching New England Patriots’ effort to secure artillery months before the British army’s march to Concord, I started to think that we’re dating the start of the American Revolution a few months too late. Massachusetts radicals were thinking in military terms more than half a year before the first fatal shots in Lexington. And in the fall of 1774, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress set itself up as a de facto legislature.

Then I found Ray Raphael’s The First American Revolution making the same argument, except that it pushes the start of the revolution in Massachusetts back even further, to the summer of 1774. That’s when crowds of men in the western counties began to close courts and insist that royal appointees resign or refuse to observe Parliament’s Massachusetts Government Act.

Gen. Thomas Gage first tried to use troops to enforce his decrees near the end of August, seeking to close down a town meeting in Salem. Early September brought the Powder Alarm, which revealed that the rural population was, if anything, more militant than the people in the seaports, and that Gage’s authority was confined to the Boston peninsula.

For Ray Raphael, that change comprised a revolution before the Revolution—the replacement of one government with another. I’m not completely convinced. Most eighteenth-century Whigs thought that a fully instituted government needed courts to resolve disputes, and the courts didn’t reopen in some parts of Massachusetts until after Shays’ Rebellion in 1786-87. But certainly royal government had ended in most of the province before any shots were fired.

The First American Revolution tells the little-known story of that great change in central and western Massachusetts, describing how crowds forced magistrates to defer to the popular will. Patriots gathered in committees and then county conventions to voice defiance of parliamentary decrees. Among the most dramatic confrontations was one in Worcester, where the town clerk apparently had to smear out part of the record of a town meeting that the majority had not approved. As a schoolteacher, Ray is experienced at communicating outside the academic world, so he relates this history with clarity and drama.

The first printings of The First American Revolution include a couple of pages about a British spy named John Howe, who was actually an 1822 fiction inspired by the authentic report of Ens. Henry DeBerniere. But several other authors have been fooled by “Howe” as well.

Here’s William Pencak’s review of The First American Revolution for Common-place. And in full disclosure, I should say that Ray Raphael and I have become friends and colleagues—but only after I read this book and contacted him through his website.

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