Peter Oliver, the Crown-appointed Chief Justice of provincial Massachusetts, knew how to discredit popular protest. Mindless and incapable of acting on their own, crowds that opposed British imperial policies “were like the Mobility of all Countries, perfect Machines, wound up by any Hand who might first take the Winch.” They needed a director who could “fabricate the Structure of Rebellion from a single straw.” Without ringleaders or rabble-rousers, the masses would remain inert.
To this day, country crowds in Revolutionary Massachusetts are often viewed this way. One recent account of the 1774 popular actions in rural Massachusetts puts it this way: “Radical leaders drew forth the mobs. In the nether parts of the province, armed mobs utterly refused to allow the courts to open.” Unwittingly, this reflects the old Tory view of revolutionary dynamics: so-called “mobs” do not act on their own volition but must be aroused by politically astute leaders.
Such portrayals skew our narratives of the American Revolution. Rebellious colonies were overwhelmingly rural—in Massachusetts, ninety-five percent of the people lived outside of Boston. To understand how that province cast off British rule, we need to take a closer look at crowd actions in the hinterlands. Who were those people whom leaders supposedly “drew forth”? How did they organize, and what, exactly, did they do?
Let’s start with the largest gatherings, which closed the courts in the shiretowns, or county seats, throughout Massachusetts. On September 6, 1774, in the town of Worcester, 4,622 militiamen from 37 companies throughout the county closed the Court of Common Pleas and the Court of General Sessions. That was the date these courts were first slated to convene under the newly enacted Massachusetts Government Act, which overturned democratic safeguards guaranteed by the 1691 Massachusetts Charter.
A broad range of citizens, not just a handful of “radical leaders,” had been planning for this event. First, they armed. On July 4, 1774, in the town of Worcester, the American Political Society, which included about one-quarter of the enfranchised citizenry, declared “that each, and every, member of our Society, be forth with provided, with two pounds of gun powder each 12 flints and led answerable thereunto.” Then, on August 9, fifty-one members of the Committees of Correspondence from twenty-two towns in Worcester County met for two days to discuss “wise, prudent, and spirited measures … to prevent the execution of those most alarming acts of parliament, respecting our constitution.”
One week later, citizens from Berkshire County closed their county courts, setting a precedent that Worcester and other counties would soon follow. On August 30, when the Worcester County Committees of Correspondence convened once again, 130 delegates attended. This assemblage “recommended to the inhabitants of this county to attend, in person,” the forthcoming court sessions “in order to prevent the execution of the late act of parliament.” Further, it recommended that each attendee “purchase at least two pounds of powder in addition to any he may have on hand” and to “use all his exertions to supply his neighbors fully.” Word had spread that Thomas Gage, military governor of the province, was planning to send troops to Worcester to protect the courts. An armed confrontation seemed possible, even likely.
With stakes this high, delegates to the convention worried that some stray shot might set off a conflagration. “It is recommended to the several towns, that they choose proper and suitable officers, and a sufficient number, to regulate the movements of each town, and prevent any disorder which might otherwise happen; and that it is enjoined on the inhabitants of each respective town, that they adhere strictly to the orders and directions of the officers.” People were to act as soldiers, not as an unwieldy mob.
But on September 2, as tens of thousands mustered in response to rumors that British soldiers had set Boston ablaze, Governor Gage had a change of heart. He instructed Lord Dartmouth, secretary of state for the colonies, that although he had intended “to send a Body of Troops to Worcester, to protect the Courts there,” he would not in fact dispatch any troops. “Disturbance being so general, and not confined to any particular Spot,” he did not know “where to send them to be of Use.” Sending soldiers to quell every “disturbance” would require “dividing them in small Detachments, and tempt Numbers to fall upon them, which was reported to be the Scheme of the Directors of these Operations.” (Note the Tory perspective: “Directors” had a “Scheme,” while the people themselves were mere pawns.)
When the American Political Society learned that Gage would not be sending troops, it resolved “not to bring our fire-arms into town the 6 day of Sept.” Guns were no longer necessary, and a chance firing could taint the day’s events. Only a few companies, coming from afar and ignorant of the new policy, arrived with weapons.
The militiamen’s mood, formerly tense, turned festive and triumphant. Attention turned to staging the court closure in a dramatic fashion that colonials favored. But who would write the script and direct the action? A few ringleaders or the “body of the people,” as they said in those days?
In Boston, “the body of the people” assembled in a one sizeable, group. Here “the body” was a composite of thirty-seven discrete militia companies, the military embodiments of each town’s citizenry. This arrangement complicated the proceedings. Each company chose a special representative, distinct from the military captain it had already elected, “to wait on the judges.” This ad hoc committee then met with the court officials, who had retreated to Daniel Heywood’s tavern after being barred from the courthouse. The committee and the officials hammered out the terms of surrender: a formal statement that Breck Parkman, a participant, characterized as “a paper . . . signifying that they would endeavor &c.” The draft was then taken back to the separate companies, to be approved or rejected. As it turned out, militiamen determined that the judges’ statement was no more than an empty promise—in Parkman’s words, it “was not satisfying.” Representatives then returned to Heywood’s tavern to devise a stringent, binding contract. The process was democratic but cumbersome and time-consuming, and when some militiamen grew impatient, the Committees of Correspondence appointed three men to inquire about the delay.
Finally, in the mid-afternoon, militia companies formed along both sides of Main Street. The lines stretched for a quarter-mile, Uxbridge in front of the courthouse, Westborough next, and so on, down to Upton and Templeton, stationed outside Heywood’s tavern. When all were in place, two dozen court officials—judges, justices of the peace, court attorneys, and any whose power had been sanctioned by the Crown—emerged from the tavern. Hat in hand to signal deference, each official recited his formal recantation to the first militia company. But other militiamen could not hear, so each official then made his way through the gauntlet, repeating his recantation over thirty times. They all pledged “that all judicial proceeding be stayed . . . on account of the unconstitutional act of Parliament . . . which, if effected, will reduce the inhabitants to mere arbitrary power.”
In addition to closing the courts, the Massachusetts citizenry went after the thirty-six men whom the Crown had just appointed to the Council, taking the place of elected council members. One-by-one, each councilor was confronted by inhabitants of his town and told to resign. Those who refused, faced with their neighbors’ wrath, were forced to leave home.
Returning home to Plymouth after taking his oath for the Council, George Watson unsuspectingly attended church. The Boston Evening-Post reported what happened there:
When he came into the House of publick Worship, a great number of the principal Inhabitants of that Town left the Meeting-House immediately upon his entering it; ‘being determined not to worship in fellowship with one, who has sworn to support that change of our constitution, which professedly establishes despotism among us.’
Watson got the message and agreed to resign. He presented his reasons in a letter to Governor Gage:
By my accepting of this Appointment, I find that I have rendered myself very obnoxious, not only to the inhabitants of this place, but also to those of the neighboring towns. On my business as a Merchant I depend, for the support of myself and Family, and of this I must be intirely deprived, in short, I am reduced to the alternative of resigning my Seat at the Council Board, or quitting this, the place of my Nativity, which will be attended with the most fatal Consequences to myself, and family.
When Josiah Edson, another councilor, went to church after taking his oath, his fellow parishioners in Bridgewater did not “even deign to sing ye psalm after his reading it, being deacon of the parish.” That was ultimatum enough, and Edson, refusing to resign, departed for the protection of British troops in Boston, a safe haven for those who no longer dared to live among their own townsmen.
Those who neither resigned nor departed were treated harshly. Joshua Loring of Roxbury was awakened at midnight by “five men disguised, their faces black’d, hatts flap’d, and with cutlasses in their hands.” Timothy Ruggles of Hardwick, fearing what might happen if he returned home after taking his oath, sought refuge with a friend in Dartmouth, one hundred miles away— but he could not escape so easily. There, his prize horse “had his Mane and Tail cut off, and his Body painted all over.”
After taking his oath, Abijah Willard of Lancaster journeyed to Union, Connecticut, to avoid his angry neighbors. Yet Union’s patriots seized him, tossed him in jail for a night, and then returned him to Brimfield, Massachusetts, just over the border. He was placed in the hands of four hundred local citizens who “called a Council of themselves, and Condemned Colonel Willard to Newgate Prison, in Symsbury; and a number set off and carried him six miles on the way thither.” Finally, once he agreed to resign, Willard was set free.
Yes, these were “mobs,” but like the militia companies in Worcester, they were not under the command of alleged leaders. Willard’s tormentors “called a Council of themselves” to determine his fate, and this was common. When Berkshire County’s David Ingersoll was seized by a mob, participants took “Several votes one way or another” before deciding in the end to release him. In Braintree, Abigail Adams witnessed an out-of-doors “council” from her window. A troupe of about two hundred men, having forced the sheriff to burn two warrants he was attempting to deliver, wanted to shout “huzzah”—but alas, it was the Lord’s Day. Should they or should they not disturb the Sabbath? “They call’d a vote,” Abigail reported to her husband John, and “it being Sunday evening it passed in the negative.”
Such behavior should come as no surprise. Democratic principles served as a foundation for communitarian life in New England, even in times of heated protest. But the Massachusetts Revolution of 1774, although truly democratic, did not resemble the liberal democracy we think of today, in which rights of unpopular minorities are legally protected. It was a less refined majoritarian form of democracy, in which crowds had their way in any manner. When Jesse Dunbar purchased some “fat Cattle” for resale from Nathaniel Ray Thomas, a Crown-appointed councilor from Marshfield, a crowd skinned and gutted one of the carcasses, placed Dunbar inside the belly, and carted him from one town to the next as local citizens hurled mud or tripe at his face. Shaming was the name of the game. Outright violence was rare, although the threat of violence was omnipresent. Few Tories were actually tarred and feathered—but only because the mere presence of a bucket of tar generally sufficed to produce submission.
More often than not, even acts of intimidation were considered affairs. A crowd deliberated before an event and during it, holding what was in effect a mobile town meeting. Why is it so difficult to imagine that people in the hinterlands of Massachusetts, rehearsed in the practice of democracy for over a century, might rise up on their own when disenfranchised by Parliament—without being under the command of a few alleged ringleaders?
The problem stems, in part, from the implicit acceptance of an urban-centered model for revolutionary dynamics. In Boston, forceful individuals pushed their agendas through the press and public oratory. Witness John Adams’s iconic remark: “The evening spent in preparing for the next day’s newspaper,–a curious employment, cooking up paragraphs, articles, occurrences, &c., working the political engine!” Even at mass meetings, prominent speakers commanded the podium while ordinary folks huzzahed or hooted them down. Conveniently, such venues have allowed historians to trace revolutionary politics through detailed newspaper accounts and the extant writings of “key” individuals who spoke at crowd gatherings.
In Massachusetts townships outside of Boston, the venues of political life were quite different: regularly scheduled town meetings, militia training days, and quarterly sessions of the courts, as well as informal encounters in public houses or other community hubs such as blacksmiths shops. Many political interactions transpired orally, leaving historians out of the loop, but we do have some records. To understand the “engines” of revolution in rural Massachusetts, we look not only at the scanty press reports in Boston papers but also at the minutes of town meetings, often buried in basements of town halls; the journals of the Committees of Correspondence county conventions; and of course personal accounts of the multifarious confrontations that comprised this ubiquitous uprising. The sweeping social movement that transformed the political landscape in the fall of 1774—and set the stage for military conflict the following spring—was truly a group effort. We struggle with how to narrate this people’s revolution, which was to a large extent anonymous. Traditional trickle-down narratives, in which a few alleged leaders drive the agenda, or dismissive accounts of mindless “mobs,” will never suffice.
 Peter Oliver, Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion, eds. Douglass Adair and John A. Schutz (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1961), 65, 75.
 Derek Beck, Igniting the American Revolution (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2015), 40-41.
 Ebenezer Parkman, Diary, September 6 and 7, 1774, American Antiquarian Society. The diary can be accessed at: http://rayraphael.com/documents_2/parkman_diary.htm
 American Political Society, Minutes, American Antiquarian Society. This can be accessed at http://gigi.mwa.org/netpub/server.np?quickfind=271132&sorton=filename&catalog=catalog&site=manuscripts&template=results.np
 The Journals of Each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775, and of the Committee of Safety, with an Appendix, containing the Proceedings of the County Conventions, ed. William Lincoln (Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1838), 628, 631. This can be accessed at https://archive.org/details/journalsofeachprma00mass
 Lincoln, Proceedings of the County Conventions, 632, 634.
 Lincoln, Proceedings of the County Conventions, 632-3.
 Gage to Dartmouth, September 2, 1774, The Correspondence of General Thomas Gage, 1763-1775, Clarence E. Carter, ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1931-3), 1: 370.
 American Political Society, Minutes; Parkman, Diary. Parkman reported that “a few companys had arms,” and according to a second-hand account from an anonymous Tory, “about one thousand of them had fire-arms.” Boston’s Weekly News-Letter, February 23, 1775, and New York’s Rivington’s Gazette, March 9, 1775.
 Parkman, Diary; Lincoln, Proceedings of the County Conventions, 635–637.
 The order of formation comes from Parkman’s diary.
 Parkman, Diary; Lincoln, Proceedings of the County Conventions, 637. A detailed narrative of the day’s proceedings appears in Ray Raphael, The First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord (New York: The New Press, 2002), 130-38.
 Boston Evening-Post, August 29, 1774.
 George Watson to Gage, August 30, 1774, in L. Kinvin Wroth, ed., Province in Rebellion: A Documentary History of the Founding of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1774-1775 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975), 533. Watson’s public resignation appears in the Massachusetts Spy, September 22, 1774.
 Andrews to Barrell, August 31, 1774, in “Letters of John Andrews of Boston, 1772-1776,” Massachusetts Historical Society, Proceedings, 8 (1864-1865), 349–350; see also Boston Evening-Post, August 29.
 Joshua Loring to Thomas Gage, August 31, 1774, in Wroth, Province in Rebellion, 537–538.
 Boston Evening-Post, August 29, 1774.
 Dispatch from New London, September 2, 1774, in St. Clair Clarke and Peter Force, American Archives, 4th series, 1:731; Declaration of Abijah Willard, August 25, 1774, in Wroth, Province in Rebellion, 527–528.
 Clarke and Force, American Archives, 4th series, 1:731; Declaration of David Ingersoll, in Wroth, Province in Rebellion, 606–609.
 Abigail Adams to John Adams, September 14, 1774, Adams Family Correspondence, L. H. Butterfield, ed. (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1963), 1:152.
 Clarke and Force, American Archives, 4th series, 1:1260–61.
 John Adams, Diary, September 2, 1769, The Works of John Adams, ed. Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1850), 2:219.
 For the blacksmith shops as political hubs, see Ray Raphael, “Blacksmith Timothy Bigelow and the Massachusetts Revolution of 1774,” in Revolutionary Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation, eds. Alfred F. Young, Gary B. Nash, and Ray Raphael (New York: Alfred A, Knopf, 211), 35-52.
It’s amazing. I’m writing a novel set during the Revolution and every time I feel the need to do a bit of extra research on a particular topic, there just happens to be a relevant article posted on All Things Liberty. The timing is wonderful!
This is terrific to hear, Anna. So glad you’re finding helpful information among our archives! And that we have impeccable timing. 🙂
Another great myth busted! Thanks, Ray, for such a fine article. The truth is always much more fascinating because it’s REAL.
Actually, this article shows that Oliver was right. Would anyone of us accept the idea of a crowd closing down a courthouse today, simply because they disagreed with a government policy? Would anyone of us accept people confronting a politician in church and demanding he or she resign from office? How about people firing on policemen or soldiers? They would be arrested and denounced, no matter what justification they gave. We romanticize the American Revolution but would oppose anyone who did the same things today.