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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

American Revolution: A Government Overturned in 1774

Our previous Independence Day articles have highlighted the role of common people in the American Revolution. We have learned from Pulitzer Prize historian Gordon Wood about the way the whole structure of society was changed, allowing social and economic mobility, in contrast to the fixed hierarchy that had prevailed throughout the world for centuries. We learned from renowned economic historian T.H. Breen how the American people, especially the women, effected meaningful boycotts against imported merchandise to avoid paying taxes over which the American colonists had no voice. It was the middle-class Americans who shamed the well-to-do into conformity, not the other way around.

We can also learn that it was common people in rural areas of Massachusetts who actually overturned the British regime and established their own popular self-government – in the summer of 1774, nearly two years before the Declaration of Independence.

Ray Raphael tells this story in The First American Revolution, published in 2002 by The New Press. Raphael, a history writer, also authored A People's History of the American Revolution and other works. His research for this one was supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Massachusetts Government and the Massachusetts Government Act
The aftermath of the Boston Tea Party was a trying time in Massachusetts. The English Parliament set out to punish the people through the passage of the Coercive Acts, which many of us know better as the Intolerable Acts. The most hurtful of those were the Boston Port Act, which closed the port, and the Massachusetts Government Act, which tried to take away the rights of the populace to choose their own government officials.

We heard from Breen how people in other colonies supported the Bostonians through aid and cooperation in non-importation programs and other actions. But the people of Massachusetts themselves did more than wring their hands and whine.

Local and provincial governmental bodies, including several layers of courts and a bicameral legislature, all had their membership chosen through direct or indirect election by qualified voters. Every male who owned property or business of a minimum size was entitled to vote, and some three-quarters of the adult male population met the standard. This basic system had been established in the Charter King William had granted to the colony in 1691 and in a subsequent constitution. While many offices were occupied by the most substantial property owners (who could afford the time away from their work or business to conduct these affairs and often held more than one office each), the people were quite conscientious in their electoral duties and voter turnouts were high. The Town Meeting was heavily attended in most communities, making and implementing substantive policy decisions.

The Act Overrides the People's Will
The Massachusetts Government Act sought to undo the electoral process. It took the selection of officials – the courts and the legislature – away from the people and put it into the sole hands of the Royal Governor. The prized Town Meetings could only gather with the Governor's permission, and the scope of their decision-making was now tightly constricted.

The people all across Massachusetts instantly saw this as an abrogation of their rights, both as British subjects and as spelled out in the Charter and the Constitution. They were furious. Their franchise has been revoked, and if they could lose their vote by simple fiat, what could happen to their property and their businesses?

The Act took effect August 1, 1774. Courts, with judges now named by the Governor, were scheduled to hold sessions beginning in mid-August in various towns around the Province. A House of Representatives, reconstituted with the Governor's appointees, was to convene in October. The Governor made appointments to these bodies, and the appointed judges and councilors traveled to Boston to take an oath of office.

The People Are Not Happy
In the towns, the reaction was swift and concrete. The people would have nothing to do with these presumptive officials; the gentlemen selected by the Governor would of course support his positions and policies, so they were now seen as enemies of the people. As the newly sworn officials started back home, some were warned that they would not be warmly received there. Crowds met some of them on the way or surrounded their homes. Some, seeing danger, decided not to return home and in fact could never return as long as they remained allied with the Governor. Some had property destroyed.

But there was no "mob rule" in the towns. There were crowds of hundreds or even thousands, but in the vast majority of instances, there was no violence, certainly against persons. Some of the people carried arms, and some shots were fired, but those came mainly from friends and associates of the officials, not the patriot crowds. What the people wanted was for the officials to renounce their new offices, to resign and admit they had been wrong to take an oath supporting an autocratic government. The crowds operated democratically. They voted leaders to represent them in negotiations with each of these would-be officials and then they waited patiently, often massed around an official's home, while the discussions and a letter-signing took place. The now deposed official was often made to read or recite his resignation so everyone could hear for themselves.

These events occurred almost spontaneously around the Province. According to Raphael, the most prominent activity was in Worcester, seat of Worcester County. West of there, in Berkshire County, it was thought people were relatively indifferent, and in Hampshire County, in and around Springfield, people were known to be more loyalist, leaning toward the Crown's positions. But in fact, the boldest and most decisive resistance movements were initiated in those locations.
They Don't Take It Lying Down; They Hold Sit-Ins
It was, perhaps, the birth of the "sit-in". As the Governor's chosen judges prepared to open court in Great Barrington on August 16, the people of Berkshire County filed into the Court House; they kept coming and coming until an estimated 1,500 were jammed into the courtrooms and hallways. The judges couldn't even get into the building. There could not possibly be court that day, and indeed, a British-led court never held session in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, again.

Soon after, a similar development happened in Springfield. The people were closing down the court system. In succeeding weeks, these events were repeated all together in seven of the nine mainland counties of Massachusetts.

Then, in October, instead of an official session, delegates elected by the people to a province-wide legislature gathered in Salem; when the Governor did not appear at this meeting, thereby refusing to recognize this extra-governmental organization, the group reconvened as a Provincial Congress, first in Concord and then Cambridge. This body established standing committees and a regular meeting schedule, according to which it could conduct the necessary business of being a government anyway. It even fashioned a plan to collect operating funds and named its own treasurer; notably, the major budget item was the acquisition of armaments and ammunition. These people were serious and there was more to come.

Gage Gives Up in the Countryside; British Government Is Over
The Governor, by now Thomas Gage, whom we know better as a British general in the War to come, was basically powerless to stop all of this. Raphael emphasizes that the numbers of patriots were simply too great, far exceeding the size of the British garrison in Boston; he cites Gage's correspondence with Lord Dartmouth, the Secretary of State for the colonies, in which Gage describes the waning British role and rule outside of Boston. The city, by contrast, with a heavy military presence, remained under closer Royal control.

Raphael tells this story in fluid prose that conveys tension and suspense – what would happen each day when courts were due to convene? Would the people back down? Would Gage send troops to force the issue? There was, of course, no Internet, radio or phone: how did the groups in each town communicate with each other? Where were the big names, the Adamses, James Otis and others? What happened afterward? – after all, Paul Revere's ride came just a few months later. We commend this engaging narrative to your own following.

Let us say this one more time: the British never conducted the affairs of government in these towns again. The people, the common, ordinary people of rural Massachusetts, overthrew British rule. They accomplished what we might call The First American Revolution.

Raphael argues that the very nature of this story is the main reason it is never heard. There was no big name leader, no specific individual or group for publicity and history to get their hands on. The best known patriot in Worcester, for example, was Timothy Bigelow, a blacksmith who had attended the local district school but had certainly not been to college. He did write and speak very well. But he had hardly any greater status than anyone else. So these events, an effective and nearly bloodless revolution, just happened. From Raphael's conclusion:

"In January 1775, Lord Dartmouth found it difficult to believe that Governor Gage had lost out to 'a tumultuous Rabble, without any Appearance of general Concert, or without any Head to advise, or Leader to conduct.' Dartmouth failed to comprehend the power of the people to act in their own behalf, and even today, the revelation that ordinary people, 'without any Head to advise,' toppled the British-controlled government in Massachusetts engenders blank, incredulous stares."



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