Publication Date

December 1, 2010

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

Boston played an important role in the American Revolution by serving as a model for other towns and colonies in resisting British rule. Puritan tradition provided Bostonians with the belief that God favored their city, and this self-conscious identity clashed with the British policy of increasing imperial control. Furthermore, the Great Awakening had created an anti-authoritarian culture in Boston that allowed for a spirit of resistance to authorities. Other towns followed its example.

At the same time, the number of poor people in Boston had doubled in the first half of the 18th century, creating anxiety among the town’s population. Boston attracted the strolling poor, many of whom were single women or widows. The War with Spain and the French and Indian Wars left Boston with a population of more women than men. These women supported themselves by working as nurses, schoolmistresses, maids, or seamstresses. A few women had taken over the trades of their husbands.

Boston was a major center of trans-Atlantic trade, a waterfront community oriented toward goods, immigrants, and opportunities coming from the Atlantic Ocean. This identity, with its own ties and information networks, helped the town to define itself as separate from the British. Economic self-interest also turned Boston merchants against the British. Forced enlistment into the Navy, customs duties, and unfair competition were local issues that destroyed loyalty to the British government.

Bostonians expressed their anger in riots and petitions against British policies. The unpopular Stamp Act of 1765, which imposed taxes on printed materials, triggered such mob action. Merchant Andrew Oliver, who administered the Stamp Act, and Governor Hutchinson became major targets. A crowd of angry Bostonians hung Oliver in effigy and damaged his home and one of his buildings. In response, Oliver resigned as stamp distributor. Later, a mob plundered Governor Hutchinson’s house. On November 1, the first day of the stamp tax, Bostonians hung a number of British officials in effigy.

While loyalty to the British government had faded, most Bostonians still preferred nonviolent means of expressing their frustration with imperial policies. During the Townshend Crisis, Bostonians tried to avoid mob actions and decided instead to send petitions to the government. Tensions rose, however, when the British began to occupy Boston in 1768. The British soldiers stationed in town were perceived as symbols of oppression. Soldiers in Boston streets radicalized the resistance movement. On March 5, 1770, these tensions boiled over. A mob surrounded troops outside of the Boston Town House. The nervous soldiers opened fire and killed five civilians and wounded six others. As defense attorney in the soldiers’ trial, John Adams argued that the crowd had provoked the soldiers who had just acted in self-defense. The court agreed with Adams.

Boston remained relatively calm until 1773, when Parliament gave the East India Company a monopoly on selling tea in the colonies in order to protect it from bankruptcy. This pushed Boston’s resistance movement into the last crisis leading into the Revolutionary War. On December 13, a crowd dressed as Mohawk Indians dumped all the tea on the ship Dartmouth into the harbor. In an attempt to immobilize the rebellious town, the British government closed the port, quartered soldiers in private homes, and increased the power of the new governor General Gage. Ironically, this attempt to constrain Boston underlined the town’s importance as a cultural and economic center.

In this second phase of Boston’s resistance movement, from 1767–74, the women of the town played a very important role. While women had mostly observed mock trials and riots in Boston during 1765–66, they got much more actively involved in the years to follow. Women encouraged men to participate in actions such as the Boston Tea Party. Most importantly, women helped Boston survive the embargo by producing goods to substitute for British imports. Locally made goods increased the town’s independence from the British and strengthened women’s identity as female patriots who served as examples for the values of economic and cultural fairness, justice, and independence.

Although a number of loyalists from other Massachusetts towns fled to Boston during the years of the Revolutionary War, its population shrank to a third of what it had been—from 15,000 to about 5,000 inhabitants. There was actually not much fighting going on until the Battle of Bunker Hill, in June 1775. The British prevailed but lost more than twice as many soldiers as the colonists. In the aftermath of the battle, food became very scarce for Bostonians because British soldiers received most of the rations.

When George Washington forced the British to evacuate the town on March 17, 1776, Bostonians could return to what was most important to them: Atlantic trade and commerce. Four months later, on July 18, Thomas Crafts, a commander and participant in the Tea Party, read the Declaration of Independence from the balcony of the Boston State House.

For Boston the Revolution had been a catalyst, transforming it from a provincial town into a cultural and commercial center of the new nation. After the Peace Treaty of 1783, the seaport’s economy recovered relatively quickly. Boston harbored about 800 cargo vessels a year in the 1790s. The town’s 30 distilleries indicated the growth of its domestic industry. With good employment opportunities, Boston remained an attractive destination for immigrants. Unfortunately, the new republican ideology created only limited opportunities for women, African Americans, and poor whites in Boston. The loss of young men in the war left many women with little security. A large number of single women and widows appeared on Boston poor relief rolls. The African American community in Boston’s West End lived in a reality of inequality and discrimination.

As elsewhere, the American Revolution in Boston was not a social revolution. With its thriving economy, postrevolutionary Boston certainly created opportunities for some, but many of the prerevolutionary political and economic elites still controlled the town after the Revolution.

Stephanie Kermes is author of Creating an American Identity: New England 1789–1825 and is presently studying girls’ education in the 19th century. She teaches at Boston University.