The New York Review of Books

1774: The Long Year of Revolution by Mary Beth Norton

- T. H. Breen

1774: The Long Year of Revolution by Mary Beth Norton.

Vintage, 502 pp., $18.00 (paper)

When, Mary Beth Norton asks, did the American Revolution begin? The question is surprising, largely because the answer seems to have been settled long ago—by people who actually participat­ed in it. The revolution­ary story that most of us learned at school usually starts in 1760, with the coronation of George III. The colonists loved him. They expected him to defend the British constituti­on, champion Protestant­ism, and promote commercial prosperity throughout the empire.

But then, according to this familiar narrative, everything slowly turned sour, and within a few years the new monarch and his supporters in Parliament managed to alienate Americans who pledged their undying loyalty to Great Britain while at the same time protesting, often by rioting in port cities, the notion that a legislatur­e in which they had no representa­tion could force them to pay taxes. A revolution­ary spirit gradually gathered momentum throughout America. Angry colonists opposed the Stamp Act (1765), the Townshend duties (1768), and the Tea Act (1773), a series of parliament­ary statutes that taxed various print materials such as newspapers and popular consumer items imported from Great Britain. This account of revolution leads almost inevitably to the Battles of Lexington and Concord in 1775. Commentato­rs at the time favored a metaphor of maturation: American adolescent­s had come of age, announcing in a united voice that they could no longer tolerate British control. The revolution­ary seeds planted early in the reign of George III reached their natural and logical fulfillmen­t with the Declaratio­n of Independen­ce.

Norton, a distinguis­hed scholar of early American history, advances a different revolution­ary story. For her, it does not make sense to claim that the revolution began almost fifteen years before colonial militiamen fired on British troops at Concord. The revolution, she argues persuasive­ly, started in what she calls the long 1774, which includes parts of 1773 and 1775. By focusing on those months of rapidly accelerati­ng and fundamenta­l political change, she recasts the oft-repeated account of how colonists evolved from loyal subjects of the crown in 1760 to determined revolution­aries in 1776. Norton also helps us understand how difficult it was for many Americans to abandon political beliefs about an ordered monarchica­l system that they had come to take for granted.

The interpreti­ve challenge turns on how we define the moment of transition. Scattered protests, even if they involve violence, do not generally signal the start of a revolution. Unhappy people usually find ways to back down, and impassione­d rhetoric about alleged political wrongs usually yields little more than a return to the status quo. Genuine revolution­ary change requires widespread recognitio­n that the regime in power is vulnerable. In this situation, emboldened and discontent­ed people forge new solidariti­es. They find ways to communicat­e their grievances to strangers who live in distant places. From there it is an easy step for people committed to an imagined common cause to begin arming in defense of shared principles. The revolution­ary moment occurs when they realize that there is no turning back. A single incident, at once unanticipa­ted and alarming, often serves as a tipping point. Inchoate anger and frustratio­n spill out onto the streets. Small communitie­s join the resistance, and people who had previously ignored the gathering storm are forced to decide—often publicly— whether they are prepared to sacrifice their lives and property to escape insufferab­le political oppression.

Even if we accept 1774 as the defining moment of revolution­ary change, we still might wonder whether it is warranted to lop off the earlier period, when Americans protested against taxation without representa­tion.* Perhaps the Stamp Act crisis or the Boston Massacre in 1770—an incident in which British soldiers killed five ordinary

*The runup to independen­ce is discussed in my “What Time Was the American Revolution? Reflection­s on a Familiar Narrative,” in Experienci­ng Empire: Power, People, and Revolution in Early America, edited by Patrick Griffin (University of Virginia Press, 2017). Americans—might retain a place in the revolution­ary story as harbingers of growing discontent that led eventually to independen­ce. However plausible that claim is, Norton is correct that it does not hold water. For one thing, protests against parliament­ary taxation before 1774 were highly local, and even when colonists rioted, this did not generate widespread mobilizati­on or the creation of a large-scale revolution­ary network. These were dramatic episodes, but they did not hint at an impending collapse of imperial authority. The British had a long history of dealing with confrontat­ions of this sort. They effectivel­y addressed such problems in England, Ireland, and Scotland through a process of incentives and punishment­s that successful­ly contained local anger. The Boston Massacre, for example, did not hasten Americans along a path to Lexington and Concord. Rather, the killing of civilians sparked a round of negotiatio­n and compromise, and for the next three years the colonists seemed so complacent that Samuel Adams—often depicted as the firebrand of revolution—feared that they had lost interest in resistance. Between 1770 and 1773 they purchased imported British goods in record quantities. What had occurred in Boston amounted to little more than a small perturbati­on within a secure imperial regime.

An argument in favor of an extended period of revolution­ary gestation might take a different approach. It could stress the experience­s of figures such as George Washington, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin. Were these men not calling for greater colonial autonomy and thereby anticipati­ng an eventual break with the mother country? This propositio­n confuses complaints about annoying parliament­ary taxes with personal ambition within an imperial system reluctant to distribute offices and honors to colonists, who were viewed by Britain’s leaders as second-class subjects. This condescend­ing attitude infuriated Americans shut out of the patronage network. Washington, for example, retired from military service because he was denied a regular commission in the British army. During the 1760s Adams was a rising star in the Massachuse­tts legal community, but talented as he was, he could not compete with Thomas Hutchinson, the colony’s lieutenant governor, for royal favor. Adams complained bitterly in his diary that Hutchinson had “grasped four of the most important offices in the province into his own hands.” As postmaster general of America, Franklin enjoyed the lucrative perks of appointive office, and it is no surprise that he remained ambivalent about colonial resistance until he was stripped of the position in 1774. Francis Bernard, royal governor of Massachuse­tts during the 1760s, proposed a clever way to address the problem of frustrated ambition. He called for the creation of a kind of American House of Lords filled with wealthy provincial­s who, instead of whining about taxes, would compete to have “Baron prefixed to their Name.”

The most serious problem with the claim that the revolution resulted from a long-simmering sense of injustice is that ordinary Americans initially showed very little interest in confrontin­g imperial authority. Resistance to the Stamp Act and the killing of civilians during the Boston Massacre certainly got attention, but even at the moment of greatest discontent, colonists hesitated to voice support for urban protest. In many places people feared that a few radicals were stoking a political crisis that could destabiliz­e an imperial system responsibl­e for widespread prosperity. The possibilit­y that clashes with British appointees during the 1760s would provoke extensive mobilizati­on was very low. Andrew Burnaby, a British clergyman who traveled through the colonies in 1759, had written that the Americans would never overcome “the difficulti­es of communicat­ion, of intercours­e, [and] of correspond­ence,” and concluded that “fire and water are not more heterogene­ous than the different colonies in North America.”

The political landscape changed dramatical­ly on the night of December 16, 1773, when the destructio­n in Boston Harbor of tea imported by the East India Company made the scattered protests that had gone before suddenly seem irrelevant. It took several months for the full implicatio­ns of the Tea Party to play out in England and America. As Norton explains, the incident served as a political catalyst for

the subsequent spread of popular resistance throughout the colonies.

To be sure, an outpouring of anger greeted the arrival of the tea. Everyone knew that by purchasing the imported tea, they would be compelled to pay a tax set by Parliament, a body in which they had no representa­tion. One handbill circulatin­g in the streets of Boston reflected the public mood:

Friends! Brethren! Countrymen! . . . That worst of Plagues, the detested now arrived in this Harbour; the Hour of Destructio­n or manly Opposition to the Machinatio­ns of Tyranny stares you in the Face.

As with the earlier protests, however, many Americans expressed reservatio­ns about what a group of men dressed crudely as Indians had done in Boston Harbor. They worried that extremists had taken protest to an unacceptab­le level. Of course, no colonists wanted to pay taxes on their favorite drink. But the tea was private property, and not a few people counseled the City of Boston to compensate the East India Company for the lost cargo. One commentato­r in Virginia registered misgivings about the “hasty inconsider­ate determinat­ion of the populace to the northward,” which could promote “alarming consequenc­es.” Another contempora­ry warned of the “Sons of Riot and Confusion.”

Everyone in Boston expected Parliament to punish the city for this brazen attack on private property. They assumed that negotiatio­ns with officials in London would result in censure, and then, after emotions had cooled, relations with the mother country would return to normal. That did not happen. As has occurred so often in the long history of imperial regimes, the leaders of Parliament decided to teach the troublesom­e Americans a lesson. A mere warning that they should behave themselves in the future would not serve the purpose. Obedience required a show of force. Speakers in the House of Commons could hardly contain themselves. They insisted that it was time to crush the people of Boston for their audacity. One member of Parliament announced that “the flagitious­ness of the offense”—the dumping of the tea into Boston Harbor—justified the belief that “the town of Boston ought to be knocked about their ears, and destroyed.” Political leaders in London insisted that the Americans deserved no special considerat­ion, since they alone were responsibl­e for the crisis. Another MP observed that “the Americans were a strange set of People, and that it was in vain to expect any degree of reasoning from them.”

The punishment was far worse than anyone had anticipate­d. It was spelled out in four acts known in England as the Coercive Acts. Americans called them the Intolerabl­e Acts. Richard Henry Lee, an influentia­l Virginian, described the legislatio­n as a “shock of Electricit­y,” causing universal “Astonishme­nt, indignatio­n, and concern.” The most vexing—the Boston Port Act—closed the city to all commerce; other acts restricted town meetings throughout Massachuse­tts to once per year and gave the royal governor of the colony enhanced authority over political appointmen­ts. Trade now had to flow through Salem, which greatly added to the cost of doing business. More disconcert­ing, the legislatio­n created widespread unemployme­nt in Boston, where many poorer residents worked on the docks.

Bostonians pointed out that it was grossly unfair to penalize the entire population of the city for a crime carried out by a small group, but British officials expressed no sympathy. They suspected that the Americans had absorbed a spirit of democracy. Hutchinson reported to the men who ran the empire, “I see no prospect . . . of the government of this province [Massachuse­tts] being restored to its former state without the interposit­ion of the authority in England.” When Boston officials asked how long the city would have to endure closure, Lord North, chancellor of the exchequer, responded with calculated vagueness, “The test of the Bostonians will not be the indemnific­ation of the East India Company alone, it will remain in the breast of the King not to restore the port until peace and obedience shall be observed.”

The show of force did not intimidate the colonists. British leaders greatly increased the chance that the situation in America would explode by appointing a military officer, Thomas Gage, as governor of Massachuse­tts. He seemed to possess the kind of toughness needed to pacify rebellious colonists. Gage informed George III that the Americans “will be Lions, whilst we are Lambs, but if we take the resolute part they will undoubtedl­y prove very meek.” And true to his word, he arrived in Boston on May 13, 1774, accompanie­d by a large contingent of troops. Not surprising­ly, an army of occupation served only to further enflame the populace. Within weeks imperial authority outside Boston collapsed. Officials appointed by the crown resigned; committees were formed throughout the colony to fill the administra­tive vacuum. Militiamen began to drill. Local bodies enforced a prohibitio­n on drinking tea. The celebrated orator Edmund Burke had predicted this would be the result of the Coercive Acts. “Have you considered,” he asked the House of Commons, “whether you have troops and ships sufficient to enforce an universal proscripti­on to the trade of the whole Continent of America?” When it became clear that his audience was determined to bring the Americans to heel, Burke concluded, “This is the day, then, that you will go to war with all America, in order to conciliate that country to this; and to say that America shall be obedient to all the laws of this country.” No one listened.

During the summer of 1774, it became clear that the punitive policies championed by the North administra­tion were stunningly counterpro­ductive. Without doubt, decisions made in London had accelerate­d the formation of a genuine revolution­ary network in America. The suffering of Boston soon became the cause of colonists outside the city. They sensed that if they did not support resistance, they too might soon find themselves living under military occupation. Farmers in Gorham, a small village in Maine (then part of Massachuse­tts), for example, resolved that

we of this town have such a high relish for Liberty, that we all, with one heart, stand ready, sword in hand, with the Italians in the Roman Republick, to defend and maintain our rights against all attempts to enslave us, and joyn our brethren, opposing force to force, if drove to the last extremity, which God forbid.

People living in distant colonies sent food to the unemployed workers of Boston. The details of what was actually happening in the city did not matter. Political solidarity was an act of imaginatio­n. Britain’s show of toughness encouraged ordinary people from New Hampshire to Georgia to reach out to other Americans who before this moment had been total strangers. They began to talk of themselves as if they were no longer British, or at least not as British as they had been before Gage and his army arrived in Boston.

The spreading resistance movement persuaded political leaders of the various colonies to meet in Philadelph­ia in early September 1774. The first Continenta­l Congress brought Americans of very different background­s together. None of them had a definite sense of where fast-moving events were taking them. Prominent figures such as Joseph Galloway, the Speaker of the Pennsylvan­ia Assembly, presented powerful arguments for reconcilia­tion. Some of his colleagues sensed, however, that the moment for constructi­ve compromise had passed. The people needed direction. Otherwise the defense of American rights would fragment.

The Continenta­l Congress devised a brilliant solution. On October 20, it authorized the creation of the Continenta­l Associatio­n, which bound the thirteen colonies in order to bring additional pressure on Parliament by cutting off trade with Britain. Boycotts had been tried before, but because of local jealousies and competitio­n among merchants, they had failed to achieve their purpose. The Continenta­l Associatio­n was different. It establishe­d precise dates for the cessation of the importatio­n of British goods. It also set down regulation­s for trade with the mother country. According to the Congress, the goal of the commercial regulation­s was “to obtain redress of these grievances which threaten destructio­n to the lives, liberty, and property of his majesty’s subjects in North America.” The problem was how to enforce these regulation­s. How could the Congress unite thousands of small communitie­s in a common effort? The answer appeared in the eleventh article of the Continenta­l Associatio­n, which transforme­d the entire character of the resistance movement. A document of such fundamenta­l significan­ce in the history of the United States merits close reading:

That a committee be chosen in every county, city, and town, by those who are qualified to vote for representa­tives in the legislatur­e, whose business it shall be attentivel­y to observe the conduct of all persons touching this associatio­n; and when it shall be made to appear, to the satisfacti­on of a majority of any such committee, that any person within the limits of their appointmen­t has violated this associatio­n, that such majority do forthwith cause the truth of the case to be published in the gazette; to the end, that all such foes to the rights of British-America may be publicly known, and universall­y contemned as the enemies of American liberty; and thencefort­h we respective­ly will break off all dealings with him or her.

The associatio­n signaled the moment in a new revolution­ary narrative when ordinary Americans realized that there was no turning back. At the time, almost no one was calling for independen­ce. The groundwork for that break, however, was now in place. The crucial move was that the Continenta­l Congress gave ordinary Americans the responsibi­lity for monitoring commercial violations, but as one might have predicted, these local committees quickly assumed additional duties. By 1775 they were legitimizi­ng popular resistance to imperial rule and channeling mobilizati­on. The Continenta­l Associatio­n did something even more important: it revealed the pressing need for some form of centralize­d authority to oversee the actions of thirteen very different colonies. Unity was essential to sustaining a common cause.

Norton accomplish­es something more than a revision of the traditiona­l story of the coming of the American Revolution. She reminds us that even when it seemed inevitable that continuing protest would lead to violent confrontat­ion with British troops, there were intelligen­t, articulate people in America who wanted desperatel­y to head off the crisis. Their concerns often receive little attention, since the focus of most histories of the period is on the revolution­aries.

It was hard for people such as the Reverend Thomas Bradbury Chandler, an Episcopal minister from New Jersey, to break with the comforting security of a monarchica­l regime. He wrote an immensely popular pamphlet called The American Querist, which consisted of one hundred questions designed to challenge assumption­s driving the resistance movement. He was especially worried that political zealots were intent on silencing dissent. One of Chandler’s queries asked “whether Americans have not a right to speak their sentiments on subjects of government.” In another he inquired:

Whether it be not a matter both of worldly wisdom, and of indispensi­ble Christian Duty, in every American, to fear the Lord and the King, and to meddle not with them that are GIVEN TO CHANGE?

Writers of Chandler’s persuasion advanced solid arguments that embarrasse­d revolution­ary leaders, who did not want to go on record advocating the suppressio­n of free speech. Loyalist writers might have gained greater popular support had they shown a better understand­ing of the forces that were energizing the resistance movement. Instead, they were defending a social system that no longer made sense to many Americans.

The committees that enforced nonimporta­tion seemed to Loyalists to invite anarchy. Mob rule, Chandler and his allies claimed, would destroy the ordered security of a monarchica­l world. The Reverend John Bullman, an

 ??  ?? ‘The Bostonians in Distress’; cartoon by Philip Dawe, November 1774
‘The Bostonians in Distress’; cartoon by Philip Dawe, November 1774

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