In school we learn that the American Revolution began with the battles of Lexington and Concord. But did it? We talk to a historian and author about the events that preceded those battles that effectively threw out British rule in Massachusetts and set the stage for the other colonies to revolt and fight for freedom from England.
- Ray Raphael, co-author with Marie Raphael of the book, The Spirit of ’74: How the American Revolution began
Links for Additional Info:
16-01 The American Revolution: When Did It Really Begin?
Marty Peterson: Every school child learns about the battles of Lexington and Concord and their roles in the creation of our country. The opening stanza of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous poem, Concord Hymn, immortalized that moment when the American Revolution began on North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts…
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.
But is this the real beginning of the Revolution? Ray and Marie Raphael don’t think so, and they’re telling the story of the actual beginning in their book, The Spirit of ’74: How the American Revolution began…
Ray Raphael: In 1774, the people of Massachusetts overwhelmingly overthrew British rule. And this was two years before the Declaration of Independence and the year preceding the battle of Lexington and Concord. So it’s just amazing that people do not know this dramatic story about how common people throughout Massachusetts, all over the colony, literally threw out all political and military rule of the British and began to establish their own civil rule and prepare to defend the revolution that they had made two years before the Declaration of Independence. So that’s the Spirit of ’74.
Peterson: Raphael says that the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773 angered the British government so much that they closed the Port of Boston until the colonists paid for the tea. But it was just tea! Why did this small gesture of defiance cause so much trouble for the colonists?
Raphael: The reason it was such a big deal is because the British government was very tightly aligned with the East India Company. It was really The Crown’s kind of gem. This company, the East India Company, was so powerful it really had its own colonies in India and the East Indies. And it was struggling. And it was kind of too big to fail. But for various market reasons, it was struggling and they had to figure out a way to dump tea on the American market. So they literally cut the tax on tea for the East India Company so it could outdo, well under price its tea, and make it competitive so the Americans would buy it. But the Americans didn’t buy this scheme, they didn’t go for it. So they dumped the tea overboard. But Britain was so mad that this kind of in your face act of political vandalism was directed against The Crown and the East India Company that Parliament just went bananas and they just passed this ridiculous law that revoked the constitution permanently for Massachusetts.
Peterson: The British anger over the tea was nothing compared to the fury of the colonists over the revocation of their rights! Raphael says that if the British government was going to shut the colonists down, the men and women of Massachusetts would respond in kind…
Raphael: They say that we cannot allow this government to function according to the new law. So what they did was, first of all, everybody from the Council – the Council really most of the important decisions – and everybody on the Council that was appointed by The Crown, they just hounded them and hounded them until they either resigned their position or fled behind the British lines in Boston. So there was no longer any functioning Council. Then the administration of government in those days was done every quarterly session, four times a year. In each of the county seats, the government would get together and they would have their version of a county government. And what happened is that each time this happened in each county seat, the people would get together and they would just shut it down.
Peterson: The British-appointed council in Worcester County felt the wrath of the colonists when it tried to assemble for its quarterly meeting…
Raphael: On one day, the day that the British Courts were supposed to meet, the county government, 4,622 militiamen – these are not just some arbitrary tribe, they are militia companies from 37 townships – and they all gather in Worcester. Half the adult male population of a sprawling, rural county shows up on one day to unseat British authority. And they gather in town and they occupy the courthouse and then they get the two dozen court officials to walk the gauntlet between them, one at a time, each one holding his hat in his hand and saying, “I will no longer do anything to support this unconstitutional, terribly unjust act” and so on. And, basically, that’s the end. They had to say this thirty times each as they walked the gauntlet between them, because there’s over 2,000 guys on each side, you know, they all want to hear these court officials resign their posts. And that was the end of British authority in Worcester County, right then and there.
Peterson: Raphael says that this went on all over Massachusetts colony, including a big showing at Plymouth…
Raphael: The people gathered in Plymouth, which is the county seat or shire town of Plymouth county, and 4,000 people gather there and after they unseat British authority they are so stoked, they gather around Plymouth Rock and they kind of like all try — well not all of them, there were 4,000, but as many as could fit — try to lift it up and bring it to the courthouse to show the symbol of their strength. But the contemporary report says, “Finding it to weigh 10 tons at least, they left it where it was.” So they had enough power to unseat British authority, but they did not have enough power to lift Plymouth Rock. But that’s how powerful these people, their actions were and how they felt about the power they had after asserting their power over British rule.
Peterson: These insurrections happened in August, September and October of 1774, and the colonists knew that the British weren’t going to take it sitting down. So for the next six months, the people of Massachusetts prepared for the inevitable. They gathered together in a provincial congress and decided to gather arms, ammunition and provisions for an army of 15,000 to fight a prolonged battle. Thomas Gage was the British governor of the colony and also the Commander in Chief of their armed forces. He’s afraid of the strength and resolve of the colonists and begins to amass all the gunpowder he can into Boston…
Raphael: And the people resented that so much that they gathered and a rumor started spreading that the British had actually killed six patriots and that they were burning the town of Boston. So as this rumor spread, people were so angry – remember they were already charged up because their constitution had been revoked and this just was the last straw – so they just start marching in their militia companies toward Boston. And the contemporary estimates ranged from 20,000 to 100,000 people were charging on Boston until they hear that the rumor was false and then they turned back.
Peterson: Gage asked the British government for more troops and supplies but the Parliament back in London didn’t believe the situation was as dire as he described. Raphael says that in the spring of 1775, Gage finally got more troops and sent them to Concord – not Worcester where the patriots had stored all of their arms and supplies – because his spies told him that Worcester is too far to send troops out and expect them to return alive. There were arms amassed by the British at Fort William and Mary in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and the militiamen took off to take control of them. Raphael says that this was the first actual battle in the revolution…
Raphael: So that was the first time in which actually patriot militiamen faced against British officials, so in some sense that was the first battle. And it was a very short one, because there were only six people defending the fort. And then they seized all these weapons which they would later use at Bunker Hill.
Peterson: Now the colonists were ready for war. But what were the Founding Fathers doing during all of this excitement in Massachusetts? Raphael says that they were in Philadelphia meeting in the Continental Congress. They voiced their support for the patriots, but they weren’t ready for war elsewhere. When the British finally strike at Lexington and Concord, the other colonies finally get the message and the war begins in earnest. So why don’t we learn about this true beginning of the Revolution in school? One reason is that we have this idea of the myth of injured innocence, where the colonists were the David, and the British were Goliath, and the Battle at Lexington is a perfect illustration of this…
Raphael: But if you look at the overthrow in Worcester, where you have 4,622 militiamen lined up against 25 court officials, who’s David and who’s Goliath? It doesn’t fit that narrative, the people are two strong. Another reason is that there’s no well-known leaders in this. The people are doing this – they’re well organized, they develop their own local leaders – but there’s no top-down command so we can’t do that sort of thing. Another is that there’s no bloodshed. The revolution is so overwhelming that there’s no bloodshed. The court-appointed officials can do nothing but submit. And if it bleeds it leads, so in a sense there’s no story there.
Peterson: But there is a story, and one that Raphael says is instructive for us today: That ordinary citizens have the power to change their government if they are willing to band together and fight – bloodlessly – for what they believe. You can read all about the real beginning of the Revolution in Ray and Marie Raphael’s book The Spirit of ’74, available now. They also invite listeners to visit their website at RayRaphael.com. You can learn more about all of our guests on our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.
Sign up to receive email updates
Enter your name and email address below and I’ll send you periodic updates about the podcast.