Boston in the American Revolution: A Town versus an Empire

Boston in the American Revolution: A Town versus an Empire

by Brooke Barbier


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In 1764, a small town in the British colony of Massachusetts ignited a bold rebellion. When Great Britain levied the Sugar Act on its American colonies, Parliament was not prepared for Boston's backlash.

For the next decade, Loyalists and rebels harried one another as both sides revolted and betrayed, punished and murdered. Samuel Adams and John Hancock were reluctant allies. Paul Revere couldn't recognize a traitor in his own inner circle. And George Washington dismissed the efforts of the Massachusetts rebels as unimportant. Historian Brooke Barbier tells the story of how a city radicalized itself against the world's most powerful empire and helped found the United States of America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781467135887
Publisher: Arcadia Publishing SC
Publication date: 03/06/2017
Series: Military
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 805,948
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Brooke Barbier received her PhD in American history from Boston College. She founded and owns Ye Olde Tavern Tours, offering spirited tours of Boston's Freedom Trail. When she's not thinking or talking about history, she's watching baseball, especially the Red Sox. A native of San Diego, she has resided in Boston for fifteen years.

Read an Excerpt


Welcome to Boston, 1763

Key Player: Samuel Adams, a Man Ready to Emerge

It mattered whether you came by land or by sea if you were going to be impressed by your first glance of Boston. By sea, no question, you'd be charmed by the city's shoreline filled with church steeples and excited by its vast and bustling wharves. By land, not as much. The only land route in and out of Boston was the Neck, a narrow strip about fifty yards wide that sometimes flooded in the spring, turning Boston into a temporary island. So arriving by the Neck meant your journey might be a perilous one, and you'd be rewarded with a vista of gallows and grazing cows and not much else. It also mattered where you came from. If from the countryside, the noise, people and buildings might awe or excite you. If from Europe, you'd likely be disappointed, if not disgusted, by Boston's provincialism. Boston's population of about 15,500 people would seem trifling compared to the nearly 1 million people packed into London. More than anything, though, it mattered when you arrived in Boston.

Because if you arrived in 1763, you'd be shocked. You'd heard that Boston was a town dependent on its busy harbor. One contemporary described Boston Harbor this way: "The Masts of Ships here, and at proper Seasons of the Year, make a kind of Wood of Trees." Where you thought you'd see plentiful ships and a buzz of activity, you'd instead find a fairly quiet harbor. You wouldn't see a forest of ship masts. And the many men it took to make such a harbor hum wouldn't be as visible as you expected. Men in Boston could work as merchants, sailors and fishermen — all jobs dependent on business at sea. Longshoremen loaded and unloaded goods from the ships and docks. Rope workers had the backbreaking job of creating rope to be used aboard the ships, work that required using clubs to beat the rope tightly. Mast builders created ship masts, something for which New England was well known due to its abundance of tall and wide trees. Merchants imported and exported goods and were at the top of the economic pyramid, employing many men to prepare their ships for sea. But now, many merchants in Boston were struggling financially, so the varied men they usually employed had less work or no work at all.

Much of Boston's economy was dependent on labor, goods and money outside of the town because Boston didn't manufacture much — aside from rum, rope and barrels. When times were tough, as they were in 1763, some men and their families needed to move to find work. Poor relief in Boston had increased nearly two and a half times in the last ten years, as people struggled to make ends meet. Maybe it was better there weren't that many men milling about. You'd heard rumblings that smallpox — a highly infectious and deadly disease — was making its way through Boston.

And it wasn't just Boston that was suffering. Its mother country — Great Britain — had just concluded a long and costly war. The French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years' War by Europeans, began in 1754 and, despite its name, lasted nine years. The British fought to extend their territory in North America and prevent the French Empire from encroaching on their trade and settlement. Both the British and the French tried to enlist the Native Americans to their sides, but individual tribes allied with whomever was most advantageous to their interests at the time — usually the French. The colonists throughout North America joined the British side and fought alongside the regulars of the British army.

Of all the colonies to fight in the French and Indian War, Massachusetts contributed the most soldiers. Over one-third of the eligible fighting men from Massachusetts participated. These men weren't serving alongside the British army because they believed in the economic goals of the empire — they were making a financial decision. Beginning in 1758, the Crown agreed to pay the soldiers — at a generous rate — and men signed up in droves. This left Massachusetts dependent on Great Britain for payments, but the mother country was essentially insolvent.

After the British won the French and Indian War, the empire was in crippling postwar debt. The national debt of £72 million at the beginning of the war had nearly doubled by 1763 to £122 million. The British were also left with an empire so vast — it now extended west of the Appalachians — that they couldn't possibly control all of it. As commander in chief of British forces in North America, General Thomas Gage had lots of new territory in the West, but he lacked the resources to manage it effectively. An estimated ten thousand troops would be necessary to guard their newly won territory. The Crown couldn't afford to pay for that many troops without help from its colonies — the very people who had just finished fighting a war. So the financial problems of the mother country were soon going to trickle down to its colonies, just as the financial struggles of Boston's merchants trickled down to their workers. But as troubling as Boston might seem, don't turn around just yet. Boston has plenty of alcohol to offer, which you'll likely want after your long journey.

Welcome to Boston

Boston in 1763 was a town of less than a thousand acres and a little longer than two miles from tip to tip, vastly smaller than it is today. In eighteenth-century Boston, you could be nearly anywhere in town and smell the salt air. If you entered Boston via the Neck (as long as it was passable), you'd follow Orange Street into town. Once past the desolate Neck, you'd be glad to discover the thoroughfare filled with taverns, where you'd find inexpensive rum, a place to sleep and a place to stable your horse. Orange Street led into the South End of Boston, which was the largest part of town. Some familiar men lived here, including Samuel Adams and Benjamin Franklin, when he was young. The South End was bordered by Boston Common, a nearly fifty-acre park for more cows to graze, residents to enjoy a stroll and carriages to ride through. Boston Common eventually rose to Beacon Hill — the tallest hill in Boston. Beacon Hill earned its name from the beacon that capped it. It was a wooden post whose top would be lit on fire to warn Boston and surrounding towns of danger. Beacon Hill was sparsely settled, except for some houses and ropewalks. The few houses there were stately, including one at the top of the hill. It was one of only four stone mansions in Boston — the residence of Thomas Hancock, uncle of John Hancock.

The center of town was King Street, which began with the Old State House — called the Towne House by contemporaries — and extended down to Long Wharf. Unlike many of the other streets in Boston, King Street was fairly wide and straight. The aptly named Long Wharf was an extension of King Street and stretched for a third of a mile into Boston Harbor. Wealthy merchants — including the hotheaded future troublemaker Richard Clarke — often located their warehouses and offices where King Street met Long Wharf. Some Bostonians even lived on Long Wharf, including portrait artist John Singleton Copley when he was a young boy. In addition to the Old State House, King Street also boasted a courthouse, a customs house and several taverns, inns and shops. A short walk from the Old State House was Faneuil Hall, which functioned as a marketplace on the bottom floor and a town hall on the top. Faneuil Hall sat in the middle of Dock Square, which also had a large market, filled with stalls and small pushcarts. At the edge of Dock Square was Union Street, which would lead a visitor into the North End, passing one of the largest taverns in Boston, the Green Dragon. (A more lustful visitor could take Ann Street to the North End, passing brothels and plenty of prostitutes.)

Boston's oldest and most crowded neighborhood was the North End, and it housed diverse residents. Sailors and artisans, like Paul Revere, lived and worked here, as did families of privilege, including that of Thomas Hutchinson, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. Most houses in the eighteenth century — and there were about 1,700 of them in Boston — were small, crowded and made of wood and sometimes had a large group of people living there, including children, in-laws, servants and apprentices. This was especially true in the North End, which also had plenty of warehouses, shops and distilleries. This part of town also boasted the largest cemetery in Boston: the North Burial Ground — known today as Copp's Hill Burying Ground, after the hill it sits on. At the edge of the North End, you'd find Mill Pond, but that wasn't much to look at.

Once you'd learned the town's layout, you'd likely want to entertain yourself in a tavern. Mercifully, Boston had no shortage of alcohol or taverns, serving up cod and baked beans to eat and beer, cider and rum to drink. Hanging out in a tavern would help you to understand the current mood of Boston, as taverns were a place for men to talk about the latest politics. What it lacked in size, population and industry, Boston made up for in opinions. The town had exemplary schools and several bookstores, and Massachusetts boasted a higher literacy rate than those of England and other North American colonies. In the 1760s and '70s, Boston typically had five different newspapers operating — all of which lacked the neutrality some newspapers strive for today — while a similarly sized town in England printed just one. Those newspapers were often read aloud in taverns, and then patrons discussed (or argued about) the news out of London and other colonies. Recently, the reports out of London hadn't been good.

"Improving the Revenue of this Kingdom"

George Grenville, prime minister of Great Britain since April 1763, had been tasked with managing Great Britain's budget after the French and Indian War, which was no small job given its immense debt. He decided he could make an immediate impact if he squeezed money out of the North American colonies. One way to do that was to reduce smuggling. Peter Oliver, a member of a prominent Loyalist family who wrote a scathing history of the American Revolution in 1781, said that the people of Massachusetts were "notorious in the smuggling Business," with everyone participating, from "the Capital Merchant down to the meanest Mechanick." Grenville's task was to develop a plan to get even the meanest mechanics to start paying customs duties. It wasn't the first time that Parliament — Great Britain's legislative body — had tried to raise revenue by cutting down on smuggling. It had spent the last thirty years trying to tax a popularly imported good.

On the books since 1733, the Molasses Act taxed foreign molasses imported into the colonies. Rum — made from molasses — was a thriving industry in Massachusetts, with over sixty distillers producing nearly three million gallons of rum annually. If the colonists actually paid the required tax on molasses, it would have been a significant source of revenue for Britain. Problematically for the Crown, greedy customs officers could be easily bought off for much less than the cost of the tax, miraculously transforming molasses imported from French Caribbean islands into molasses from the British West Indies. This practice existed for long enough that men in Boston and Massachusetts seemed to think it was their right to avoid paying taxes.

Grenville's solution to the empire's debt and the moribund Molasses Act was the American Duties Act, passed in 1764. It was widely known as the Sugar Act because one of the act's components was a three-penny tax on foreign molasses. The act claimed that "new provisions and regulations should be established for improving the revenue of this kingdom" and for "defraying the expences of defending, protecting, and securing the same." And unlike the Molasses Act, the Sugar Act actually had the necessary muscle to be enforced. Under the new law, the British navy was now empowered to seize any ship believed to skirt paying its taxes. A portion of the contraband went to the customs officer who seized the haul, greatly incentivizing them to capture more ships.

Grenville had no illusion that his Sugar Act would greatly diminish the hefty national debt or pay for all of the troops stationed throughout North America, but he felt that the colonists needed to pay a portion of the expenses to maintain the colonies and their safety. After minimal debate, Parliament passed Grenville's Sugar Act. In doing so, Parliament ignored the fact that the people of Massachusetts had been living on their own for nearly a century and a half, governing and taxing themselves with very little interference from the Crown. Consequently, colonists in Massachusetts felt entitled to self-rule and didn't want to be told where their money had to go — especially after they had just fought in a war to benefit the British Empire and were in severe economic trouble themselves. The idea of self-rule made sense in Boston and Massachusetts, where politics — as they usually are — were local. The towns in Massachusetts were mostly autonomous, conducting their own town meetings, which dealt almost exclusively with local matters. Such town meetings had been around since the seventeenth century, so men in Massachusetts grew up having a say in their government. The town meetings derived from the colony's religious legacy. Boston was founded in 1630 by settlers from England, led by John Winthrop. These settlers were from the Puritan tradition, believing that the Church of England — with its hierarchy and ceremonies — needed purifying. As Congregationalists, their church members were directly answerable to God, not a church hierarchy. In 1764, Bostonians were no more eager for an omnipotent political hierarchy than they'd historically been for any overreaching power.

Many people in Boston recognized the dangers of the Sugar Act as soon as word spread about its passage. Sure, any tax imposed by Parliament would have been annoying, but the Sugar Act would impact Massachusetts more than other colonies, so its residents had more reason to be concerned. Despite one member of Parliament, Thomas Whateley, claiming that the Sugar Act "is spread lightly over a great Variety of Subjects, and lies heavy upon none," this simply wasn't true. No other region had as thriving a rum trade as New England, especially Boston, which had over twenty distilleries in the two-mile-long town. For a town already in economic decline, taxing a key import was a big blow. Bostonians needed to make it clear to their elected officials that the Sugar Act — imposed by a governing body three thousand miles away in which they had no representatives — would not be tolerated.

A committee from Boston's town meeting set to work writing instructions to the Massachusetts legislature about the dangers of the Sugar Act. The legislature in Massachusetts, called the General Court, was composed of two houses. The House of Representatives, or Assembly, was the lower house, whose members were popularly elected in their towns by the men eligible to vote, which was the majority of adult men in Massachusetts. The upper house was the Governor's Council, whose members were chosen by the House of Representatives. The General Court sat in session at the Old State House on King Street. These legislators were about to hear an earful.

Boston's Native Son: Samuel Adams

One of the committee members petitioning the legislature, Samuel Adams, was not yet on the center stage of politics, although his time in the spotlight would soon come. Adams was a Boston native, heavily influenced by Boston's religion, history and the charter under which Massachusetts was governed. He was born in Boston in 1722 and was provincial Boston to the core. He was a strict Congregationalist, honoring the Sabbath and singing in his church's choir. Religion was at the center of his life — his writings frequently mentioned God's blessings and compared the struggle of colonists to people suffering in the Bible. He also admired his ancestors for bravely settling Massachusetts with no help from their mother country.

Devoted as he was to his heritage and religion, Adams was physically a mess. He was so slovenly that his friends staged an intervention in 1774 to clean him up. They chipped in to buy him a new wardrobe — including a new wig, hat, suit and shoes — so he didn't embarrass himself or Massachusetts in high-wattage political meetings with well-heeled men, especially those from the southern colonies. Adams wasn't particularly handsome, either, with a large head and a squat body. John Singleton Copley did Adams no favors when painting him, as he included both Adams's double chin and large belly. Adams's physical state was made worse because he suffered from what contemporaries called palsy, an affliction that caused him to shake or tremble when he overexerted himself.

Despite being educated at the finest schools — Boston Latin School and then Harvard College — Adams did not have a sharp business mind. After his father died, Samuel was supposed to take over the family's business ventures, but they eventually failed under his (lack of) leadership. His failures continued in the 1750s, when Adams served as a tax collector. He took pity on those who said they couldn't pay their taxes and released them from their financial obligations. This made him popular as a collector but horrible at his job. As a young man, he seemed to have a hard time finding a place where he could excel.


Excerpted from "Boston in the American Revolution"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Brooke Barbier.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents

Foreword Alan Taylor 9

Acknowledgements 11

Introduction 13

1 Welcome to Boston, 1763 Key Player: Samuel Adams, a Man Ready to Emerge 17

2 Words May Not Hurt, but Sticks and Stones Do Key Player: Thomas Hutchinson, Culprit and Victim 33

3 The Consequences of Torching Liberty Key Player: The Rising Star of John Hancock 50

4 Six People in Ten Days Key Player: The Charismatic Joseph Warren 66

5 Party with Abandon, Punish with Abandon Key Player: A Steely and Stubborn Richard Clarke 82

6 Confrontation and Chaos in the Countryside Key Player: Paul Revere, the Spirited Messenger 99

7 The Battle for Boston Key Player: Benjamin Church, a Peculiar Doctor 118

Epilogue 135

Notes 141

Suggested Reading 147

Index 151

About the Author 157

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