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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Saturday, September 28, 2019

How to Remember Our Revolution

Here are a couple of interesting newspaper articles from this week.

In a local section of the Boston Globe, Ben Jacques wrote about the stories of enslaved individuals in this region’s towns as preserved in old burying-grounds. This approach brings home the overlap between slavery in eighteenth-century New England and the celebrated Revolutionary movement on the local scale.

In Charleston, South Carolina, the Post and Courier reported on the launch of the state’s Revolutionary War Sestercentennial Commission. As the article notes, “more battles took place in the Palmetto State than almost anywhere else.” (The other claimants are New Jersey and New York, each with “more than 200 separate skirmishes and battles,” according to the American Battlefields Trust. The exact count depends, of course, on how one defines each fight.)

South Carolina was undoubtedly a major battleground. The British military launched two major campaigns to take Charleston, the first thwarted in 1776 and the second successful in 1780. In the second half of the war there was continuous fighting in the state, including major battles like Camden, Ninety Six, Kings Mountain, and Eutaw Springs.

The state commission should also be able to find political events in the colony leading up to the outbreak of war. Charleston was the fourth largest port in North America, the colony’s rice planters among the richest class of colonists. South Carolinians participated in the Stamp Act Congress and the non-importation movement against the Townshend duties, as this 1769 document attests.

For the present, however, the South Carolina commission is defining itself against Boston. The article even quotes one participant this way:
“Boston and Lexington and Concord stole the Revolutionary War. We’ve got to steal it back. Fortunately, the facts are on our side,” said Doug Bostick, executive director of the South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust and a member of the commission.
Likewise, the article states, “Charleston even had its own protest of Britain’s tea tax weeks before Boston’s famous Tea Party in 1773.”

America’s first signifiant public protest against tea importing came on 3 November when a Boston crowd attacked the Clarke family’s warehouse, demanding they resign as consignees. East India Company tea arrived in Boston, the big North American port closest to Britain, on 28 November. Local Whigs immediately began holding massive meetings and patrolling the docks.

Tea chests reached Charleston on 1 December. Two days later, the merchants and politicians of Charleston had a meeting and agreed to store that tea, taking it off the ships but for legal purposes pretending it wasn’t unloaded.

Back in Massachusetts, royal officials didn’t allow such a compromise, producing the more dramatic destruction of the tea on 16 December. Parliament’s response to that act included the Boston Port Bill, Massachusetts Government Act, and other actions that led to the outbreak of war. In—it’s really hard to deny—Massachusetts.

I think a South Carolina commission can and should define itself according to how the Revolution unfolded in that state. There must be a better way to start than “launching a decade-long education campaign in March, the 250th anniversary of the Boston Massacre.” Maybe the May arrival of Charleston’s William Pitt statue. And the South Carolina sestercentennial can run more than a decade, all the way to the 250th anniversary of the British evacuation in December 2032.

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