THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION: Told and Retold
Consider the similarities and differences between these paired passages. In each pair, the first is from Zinn, the second from Morgan. They are describing the same event. As you read, consider these questions about your thinking process:
And these questions about the unit theme, TRADITION & REBELLION, Accepting Personal and Communal Responsibility:
When riots against the Stamp Act swept Boston in 1767, they were analyzed by the commander of the British forces in North America, General Thomas Gage, as follows:
The Boston Mob, raised first by the Instigation of Many of the Principal Inhabitants, Allured by Plunder, rose shortly after of their own Accord, attacked, robbed, and destroyed several Houses, and amongst others, that of the Lieutenant Governor. . . . People then began to be terrified at the Spirit they had raised, to perceive that popular Fury was not to be guided, and each individual feared he might be the next Victim to their Rapacity. The same Fears spread thro' the other Provinces, and there has been as much Pains taken since, to prevent Insurrections, of the People, as before to excite them.
Gage's comment suggests that leaders of the movement against the Stamp Act had instigated crowd action, but then became frightened by the thought that it might be directed against their wealth, too. At this time, the top 10 percent of Boston's taxpayers held about 66 percent of Boston's taxable wealth, while the lowest 30 percent of the taxpaying population had no taxable property at all. The propertyless could not vote and so (like blacks, women, Indians) could not participate in town meetings. This included sailors, journeymen, apprentices, servants (65).
Meanwhile, Bostonians found mobbing so effective a weapon that they used it gratuitously on Lieutenant-Governor Hutchinson, whom they wrongly suspected of advocating the Stamp Act, on the Comptroller of Customs, and on one of the officers of the admiralty court. The other colonies took up the example, and by November 1, 1765, no one in America was prepared to distribute the stamped paper, which was safely stowed away in forts and warships. When that date arrived, there was a pause in business in most colonies as people made up their minds which way to nullify the act by doing nothing that required the use of stamps or by proceeding without them. Once the latter course was chosen by determined groups of citizens, they found it easy, by the mere threat of mob action, to coerce recalcitrant dissenters including the royally appointed customs 'officers. Within a few months the ports were open for business as usual with no sign of a stamp (though because of the boycott, cargoes, from England were few). The courts too were open, and unstamped newspapers appeared weekly, full of messages encouraging the people to stand firm (21).
Impressment and the quartering of troops by the British were directly hurtful to
the sailors and other working people. After 1768, two thousand soldiers were
quartered in Boston, and friction grew between the crowds and the soldiers. The
soldiers began to take the jobs of working people when jobs were scarce.
Mechanics and shopkeepers lost work or business because of the colonists'
boycott of British goods. In 1769, Boston set up a committee "to Consider of
some Suitable Methods of employing the Poor of the Town, whose Numbers and
distresses are dayly increasing by the loss of its Trade and Commerce."
On March 5, 1770, grievances of ropemakers against British soldiers taking their jobs led to a fight. A crowd gathered in front of the" customhouse and began provoking the soldiers, who fired and killed first Crispus Attucks, a mulatto worker, then others. This became known as the Boston Massacre. Feelings against the British mounted quickly. There was anger at the acquittal of six of the British soldiers (two were punished by having their thumbs branded and were discharged from the army). The crowd at the Massacre was described by John Adams, defense attorney for the British soldiers, as "a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes, and mulattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs." Perhaps ten thousand people marched in the funeral procession for the victims of the Massacre, out of a total Boston population of sixteen thousand. This led England to remove the troops from Boston and try to quiet the situation.
Impressment was the background of the Massacre. There had been impressment riots through the 1760s in New York and in Newport, Rhode Island, where five hundred seamen, boys, and Negroes rioted after five weeks of impressment by the British. Six weeks before the Boston Massacre, there was a battle in New York of seamen against British soldiers taking their jobs, and one seaman was killed (66-67).
The conclusion became all the more reasonable after the soldiers and the customs commissioners allowed themselves to be provoked into the street brawl that became known as the Boston Massacre. Though the Bostonians kept themselves under close discipline, they found many ways of harassing the troops who had come to harass them. Since martial law was not in force, the city magistrates took pleasure in enforcing strictly every law of the province and every bylaw of the town. No doubt the soldiers were prosecuted for every possible breach and probably a good deal more rigorously than ordinary citizens. The people met them with contempt on the streets; children pelted them with snowballs; and the air grew so thick with epithets that it is surprising triggers were not pulled sooner than they were.
On March 5, 1770, there gathered in the square before the custom house a crowd which John Adams later described as "a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and mulattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish Jacktars." Before them stood the main guard of the Twenty-ninth Regiment, and behind the soldiers, peering uneasily out the custom-house windows, were some of the men responsible for bringing the troops to Boston. As in all such affrays, it was difficult later for eyewitnesses to agree on how the shooting began. It is clear enough that the soldiers were receiving a heavy bombardment of snowballs and rubbish when they opened fire. Several witnesses thought they heard the command given by Captain Preston. Others saw shots fired from the windows of the custom house. When the shooting stopped, three Bostonians were dead and eight wounded, two of them mortally. No shots were fired at the soldiers.
The story of course lost nothing in the telling as it spread over the Atlantic seaboard. Even the most distant American, reading the embroidered details in his newspapers or hearing them from his neighbor, had to ask himself if his own colony would be next. Those who saw the danger most clearly were publishing plenty of propaganda to make him thank so, but Parliament itself had written the best of it. The members seemed obsessed with demonstrating how easily they could dispose of any liberties left in their keeping. When they heard of the unauthorized Massachusetts convention of 1768, they had directed the King to make inquisition at Boston for treason. They were convinced that the resistance to their authority was provoked not be their own inequitable exercise of it but by evil-minded American agitators. A noose around the neck of Samuel Adams and a few others, it was suggested, would be wholesome medicine, and lest a jury of deluded colonists allow the culprits to escape, the trials should be held in England before a special commission (46-47).
FRENCH INDIAN (SEVEN YEARS) WAR
After 1763, with England victorious over France in the Seven Years' War (known
in America as the French and Indian War), expelling them from North America,
ambitious colonial leaders were no longer threatened by the French. They now had
only two rivals left: the English and the Indians. The British, wooing the
Indians, had declared Indian lands beyond the Appalachians out of bounds to
whites (the Proclamation of 1763). Perhaps once the British were out of the way,
the Indians could be dealt with. Again, no conscious forethought strategy by the
colonial elite, but a growing awareness as events developed.
With the French defeated, the British government could turn its attention to tightening control over the colonies. It needed revenues to pay for the war, and looked to the colonies for that. Also, the colonial trade had become more and more important to the British economy, and more profitable: it had amounted to about 500,000 pounds in 1700 ' but by 1770 was worth 2,800,000 pounds.
So, the American leadership was less in need of English rule, the English more in need of the colonists' wealth. The elements were there for conflict.
The war had brought glory for the generals, death to the privates, wealth for the merchants, unemployment for the poor. There were 25,000 people living in New York (there had been 7,000 in 1720) when the French and Indian War ended. A newspaper editor wrote about the growing "Number of Beggars and wandering Poor" in the streets of the city. Letters in the papers questioned the distribution of wealth: "How often have our Streets been covered with Thousands of Barrels of Flour for trade, while our near Neighbors can hardly procure enough to make a Dumplin to satisfy hunger (59)?"
No one likes to pay taxes, and the English in 1763 thought they had too many. Though they were the most powerful nation in the world and the most prosperous, their government was costing too much. They had just completed the very expensive Seven Years' War against France, doubling the national debt. The war had also left them with a huge new territory to administer: Canada and the eastern Mississippi valley. Many of them thought the whole of it not worth keeping and when they heard that the government was going to assign ten thousand troops to defend and pacify it, they could only think of how much that many men would eat and drink in a year and how many uniforms they would wear out and how much they would have to be paid (14)....
As the streets of Boston came alive with scarlet coats and the people grew familiar with the rhythm of marching feet, it came to Americans everywhere that a dreadful suspicion had been confirmed. They had thought it strange five years before when they heard that England would maintain 10,000 troops among them to protect them from foreign enemies. Hitherto for more than a hundred and fifty years, while hacking out their farms from a hostile wilderness, they had been left to defend themselves, not only against the Indians, but against the French and Spaniards as well. Only in the recent Seven Years' War had they relied heavily on British troops, and those troops had succeeded in removing their gravest peril, the French menace in Canada. Why at precisely this moment, when the danger had departed, should England decide that they needed a standing army to protect them (43)?