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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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Massachusetts’s Country Men

In response to the Boston Globe opinion piece by Prof. Edward Glaeser that I quoted yesterday, Brad Arndt of Somerville told the newspaper:

Most militiamen who fought and perished for the colonial cause were conscripted into service from outlying farmlands and rural communities. And of these country men, a full two-thirds were either unsympathetic or indifferent to the war effort, aware no doubt that they, more than their well-heeled city brethren, would shoulder the real costs of attaining freedom for the new republic.
There’s more than a little rural resentment in this letter, and it seems unfounded.

Yes, most of the Massachusetts men who fought in the Revolutionary War were from rural areas. But so were the overwhelming majority of Massachusetts men. The state population was about 350,000 in 1776. Even before the war, Boston had fewer then 16,000 people. The large maritime communities of Salem, Gloucester, Ipswich, and Marblehead had about 4,000 to 6,000 people each. Almost every other town—more than 85% of the population—was mostly or totally rural. It’s only natural that most soldiers came from those farming communities. Before suggesting that either the rural or urban population offered a disproportionate service, I’d like to see some comparative figures (including work on privateers).

The letter describes men “conscripted into service.” Service in the militia was mandatory (in both rural towns and ports), but it was tough to force men to serve if they didn’t want to. The turnout for the 19 Apr 1775 alarm was largely voluntary. Later in the war, the state did supply men to the Continental Army based on a quota system. However, those quotas were proportional to town populations, so they didn’t fall most heavily on rural towns. Furthermore, individuals were rarely forced into service; rather, town officials cajoled and paid enough men to take up arms to come close to their quotas. (Prof. Daniel Scott Smith is studying these numbers, and presented some findings at last month’s Omohundro Institute conference.)

Finally, as I said yesterday in response to Glaeser’s essay, the rural parts of Massachusetts weren’t dragged into war by rapacious and intractable city-dwellers. In 1774 and 1775, farmers were more fervent about resisting the Crown by force than their urban counterparts. Well after the Lexington uprising, rural New England mobilized to oppose Gen. John Burgoyne’s attack from Canada in 1777. The western part of the state remained militant up through the Regulation its opponents dismissed as Shays’ Rebellion; that was the real urban/rural, wealthy/poor conflict that Arndt perceives.

TOMORROW: “Two-thirds were either unsympathetic or indifferent to the war effort”?

(The thumbnail of the 1804 map of Massachusetts above comes courtesy of the David Rumsey Map Collection.)

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