In which we see opposing sides try to maneuver each other into a tipping point
So it’s not about the money anymore.
—Duh, Jonah. Where have you been? We’ve been talking about the Revolution.
—Duh, I know, Emily. But what part of it isn’t about the money?
—The whole thing! The laws! The Stamp Act, the whatchamacallit?
—Yeah, thanks Yin, the Tea Act. That stuff. The British wanted to pay for the last war. The Americans didn’t want to do it. That’s how we got the Tea Party. The government tried to sell the cheap tea and instead the Americans dumped it in the harbor.
Would you agree, Jonah, that Emily just did a pretty good job of summarizing where we’ve been for the last week or so?
—Yeah, though she doesn’t have to bite my head off about it.
—Em doesn’t bite. She barks.
—Well at least I—
Let’s let Sadie have the last word on that for now. To turn to the topic at hand: as Emily indicated, the Boston Tea Party really changed the equation when it came to the colonies as far as the British government was concerned. After word of it got back to London in early 1774, the British Parliament passed a series of laws they called the Coercive Acts, which the colonists called the Intolerable Acts. One of these laws is the Port Act: the British government ordered the port of Boston closed—the city was effectively shut down and placed under martial law. Another was the Massachusetts Government Act, which effectively placed all government positions under the control of the British. A third was the Administration of Justice Act, under which British officials accused of crimes would be tried in Britain, not the colonies (so much for John Adams and his defense of those soldiers after the Boston Massacre in 1770). A fourth was as stiffening of the Quartering Act, requiring colonials to give soldiers shelter. And then there was the Quebec Act. That was a big deal. It vastly expanded the borders of Canada all the way down to Ohio, and required all the colonials to be more tolerant of French Catholics who were now part of the British Empire. Remember that the Puritans weren’t all that thrilled with the Church of England, which was Protestant. Now they would have to put up with Catholics, too. They were furious.
Here’s what’s important to know. It wasn’t just the people of Boston, or Massachusetts, or New England who were unhappy with the Intolerable Acts. A sense of fear and anger toward Great Britain rippled across the Atlantic seaboard. As we discussed, these people had their own irritations: real estate speculators wanted to move beyond the Appalachian Mountains, and yet were forbidden to do so. Rich Virginia planters hated British banks, and hated selling commodities cheap and buying foreign goods dear. But maybe more than anything, they were appalled and upset by how severely they thought Massachusetts was being treated. Would we be next?
While the other colonies pondered this—and while they began making plans that I’ll be talking about in a moment—Massachusetts was actually getting on with its life. We all know that the Declaration of Independence was written in 1776. In some important respects, though, the colony was already independent by 1774.
—How so? You just said that it was controlled by soldiers. Plus there were all those laws you just reeled off.
That’s a fair question, Adam. It’s a bit of a paradox, I admit. The best way to make sense of it is to remember that from the very start, the New England colonies—to at least some degree, all the colonies—were on their own on the far side of an ocean. Though they all sincerely proclaimed their liberty to Great Britain, and with greater or lesser degrees of enthusiasm professed their loyalty to their governors (some of whom were never even visited the colonies they governed), New England had relatively robust institutions, notably the institution of the town meeting. In terms of customs, churches, and habits that went back 150 years, they were used to making and executing plans. The boycotts were a good example of this. And from there, it was a relatively short step for them to go from organizing a protest to organizing a government. Yes, British soldiers and ships were there (actually, they were kind of bottled up in Boston, which was shaped like a balloon in those days with a thin strip of land connecting it to the rest of Massachusetts), and yes, the imperial government had the courts, the assemblies, all that stuff. But more and more, the colony had its own shadow government, and more and more it was viewed as the real government. This was true from one end of Massachusetts to the to other. And the far side of Massachusetts, the part that bordered Connecticut and New York and Vermont—an ill-defined piece of territory that was being fought over by New York and New Hampshire even as it was beginning to assert its independence from either—were watching what Massachusetts was doing.
Actually, they were doing more than watching. By 1774 there were so-called Committees of Correspondence in all thirteen colonies, which were increasingly taking on governance tasks themselves—and, as their name indicates, were exchanging information about what was going on in the colonies as a whole. These committees would help bring about the First Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia that fall. (Georgia didn’t send representatives because it was hoping for help from Britain in dealing with Indians.) The First Continental Congress discussed their unhappiness with the Intolerable Acts, and made plans to meet the following year to discuss where they might go from there. It’s important to emphasize that there were plenty of people—Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania is perhaps the most famous example—who were still hoping to find some way to reconcile with Parliament and the British government as a whole.
By the time the Second Continental Congress met in 1775, however, events would have overtaken such plans. As the year started, Boston was a sea of intrigue. Secret meetings, secret plans, secret, secret, secret. Not to mention that fact that the colonial American society was a gun culture: lots of people had them, and not just for hunting. Able-bodied males had long been obligated to serve in colonial militias: non-professional military organizations that trained periodically to drill and practice and generally be ready in the event of a war or other emergency. Now these militias were organizing to resist British authority—
—Were these the Minutemen?
Yes, Kylie, they were. Meanwhile our friends John Hancock and Sam Adams are continuing their schemes. There are reports that they’re hanging out in Lexington, a few miles outside Boston, where there are reportedly supplies of gunpowder and other military material.
—Why don’t the British just arrest them?
Not so easy. First, you’ve got to find them. And, for that matter, whatever illegal stuff that’s floating around. Second, you’ve got to worry about how the locals will react if you do. Third, you’ve got to worry about your own position in Boston, where, as I’ve said a couple times now, the British are packed like sardines. The commander of the army there—who is now also the governor of the colony, which is under martial law—is a man named Thomas Gage. Gage is by no means a stupid man. He’s got a tough hand to play. And he’s doing the best he can. When he gets those reports about Hancock and Adams in April of 1775, he decides to act.
The question for Gage is how to get to Lexington to bag his prey. But he’s not the only one who has spies. Before too long the colonists know what he knows. Meanwhile, Gage makes his move.
—One if by land and two if by sea!
Good for you, Ethan. And which is it?
It’s by sea—the British soldiers cross the Charles River. And who sounds the warning?
Nice. It appears a bunch of you have actually done the reading.
—I remember it from fifth grade.
Ah. Well. Whatever. So let’s test that memory, Ethan. How does Revere sound that warning?
—From the Old North Church. We went there on a field trip.
—I remember that trip! It was so much fun.
Good. Ethan: Is Revere actually a member of that church?
—How the hell should I know?
Well, you’ve got 50 percent chance of getting it right.
—Why the hell should I know?
Well, I admit it isn’t that important. But I can’t resist noting that the Old North Church was an Anglican Church—a Church of England church. The Brits were increasingly encroaching on Puritan turf in the years before the Revolution. And they were winning converts, too, especially among the economic elite. One more thing for the Patriots to resent. So what is it, Ethan? Was Revere an Anglican or wasn’t he?
—Jesus, Mr. K. No?
—If he wasn’t a member of the church, how did he get in there?
Great question, Yin. He had a friend who let him in. Revere had a lot of friends. He was one of those people who knows everybody. It made him a great revolutionary. Anyway, as you know, he makes the ride to Lexington—
—The midnight ride.
Right. But never actually makes there. The British intercept him and interrogate him. But he has a co-conspirator, William Dawes, who does get through. Hancock and Adams flee the tavern where they’re staying. And the Minutemen gather on the green just outside that tavern, ready and waiting for the British regulars when they arrive at about four in the morning on April 18, 1775. It’s a moment of high drama, the two sides facing each other on the eve of dawn.
—Here we go.
There we are. Tomorrow.
Next Shots were fired