1774: The Long Year of Revolution by Mary Beth Norton (Knopf, 2020)
Although previous works have tried to draw attention to “The Missing 16 Months” between the Boston Tea Party in December of 1773 and the Battle of Lexington and Concord in April of 1775, Cornell history professor Mary Beth Norton argues in her latest work 1774: The Long Year of Revolution that this period has still not received its due recognition. In fact, it was this period during which Americans seriously and in great numbers began to think of themselves as potentially other than loyal British subjects. So much in fact that 1774 has as rightful a claim as 1776 as the year of America’s independence.
Much of the problem, she asserts, is that historians have traditionally focused their attention on only a segment of revolutionaries, particularly those in and around Massachusetts. As a result, the events of 1774 can appear to be just a few more of the inexorable steps between those that commenced in London in 1763 with the Stamp and Navigation Acts and the declaration of American independence thirteen years later. By taking note of other voices, especially those of Loyalists (whose story has been the subject of her earliest research), Norton aims to restore the centrality of the period she labels the “long year of 1774” as that which ultimately separated those Americans who chose to remain loyal from others who envisioned a future separate from London.
Norton opens with an in-depth tale of the colonists’ resistance to the Tea Act and the English attempt to enforce it by landing tea from the East India Company (EIC) in Boston, Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia. The Tea Act was enacted principally to assist the failing East India Company rather than as an attempt to raise revenue or coerce the colonists. In fact, the act lowered the duty on tea, cutting out the London middlemen. But it simultaneously posed a challenge to established colonial interests by replacing those who dealt in tea, both legally imported and its smuggled counterpart, in favor of politically connected consignees who would receive EIC tea under the Tea Act.
Had the purpose and economics of the Tea Act been better explained to colonists before implementation, it may not have generated the controversy it did. But against a decade-long backdrop of Parliamentary attempts to tax the colonists, it was broadly perceived as yet one more step in the ongoing dance between a British Parliament eager to assert its plenary colonial authority and defray some colonial expenses and American political elites who had long been entrusted with leadership under the longstanding doctrine of “salutary neglect.” The response to word of the Tea Act, particularly in Boston where the chests of tea were infamously dumped into the harbor, was the proximate cause of the chain of events that would culminate in Lexington and Concord. It is these events that are at the heart of 1774.
The response raises questions that Norton doesn’t answer directly. Colonists had in fact paid taxes on the portion of legally imported tea for some time, even as they avoided them by smuggling large quantities of co-called “Dutch” tea. So, their reaction wasn’t entirely logical when taken out of the longer timeline; this could be confusing to a reader unfamiliar with the larger story of the pre-war struggle.
On the other hand, though, Norton’s focus on 1774 permits a more in-depth coverage of the “Coercive” or “Intolerable” Acts than works of broader scope. These acts that were passed in reaction to the Boston Tea Party are often treated as a single set of responses that colonists became aware of simultaneously. In fact, they were enacted and learned of in seriatim, beginning with The Port Act (known to Bostonians as “this barbarous edict”), which closed the port of Boston and ravaged the city’s fortunes. Norton surveys the range of responses in various colonies before Lord North proposed the Massachusetts Government Act and Administration of Justice Act in April. In response to the Port Act, other colonies, which had dealt effectively with British tea in a less confrontational manner, expressed sympathy with Boston, but also viewed it as a Boston problem brought upon in by its particularly violent response to the EIC’s tea. The latter acts were of graver concern, though. If Boston’s form of government could be altered, so could theirs.
It was during this subsequent period that colonists of all stripes began to use a new phrase to describe their opponents’ actions: “unconstitutional.” To those who would eventually become Patriots, this term described the Acts of Parliament that contravened their charters and other sources of rights, particularly as they pertained to taxation. To those who would become “Loyalists” (a term that only came into use in 1774, notes Norton) it meant the growing number of bodies that were taking matters into their own hands, such as the First Continental Congress (and those non-legislative bodies that convened to elect them in many colonies), which would form in response to Parliament during 1774 and finally meet in Philadelphia in September for seven weeks.
Norton’s focus on this short period allows for insightful studies of how colonists interacted with each other politically. Her treatment of the drafting of the Suffolk Resolves and their transmission to Congress allows us to understand the ways in which the colonists agreed in some aspects but disagreed in others. Their response, and the way Congress’s response was subsequently treated, is also illuminating. Finally, the “powder alarm,” serves as a great case study of how rumors began, got transmitted, and influenced debate, illustrating that “fake news” is not a twenty-first century phenomenon. Combining elements of truth with conjecture, news of the British killing Americans while seizing gun powder and bombarding Boston spread rapidly before it was learned that it was mostly an exaggeration. Norton’s account of how it was investigated and participants such as Col. Israel Putnam were admonished for not performing more due diligence before spreading the alarm is an interesting illustration of how careful colonial leaders were to ensure that the people did not react in a non-constructive manner.
Some may quibble with Norton’s characterization of the treatment that 1774 has received in previous scholarship. Ray Raphael has documented the acts of resistance of ordinary Americans in his First American Revolution and, along with Marie Raphael, in The Spirit of 74: How the American Revolution Began, chronicled the same time frame as Norton. Likewise, the first half of Richard Beeman’s magisterial political history Our Lives, Our Fortunes & Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence 1774-1776 devotes about 150 pages to this period. Yet Norton can plausibly claim that hers is the only book-length work that focuses on the actions and views of the entire American body politic from New England to Charleston during this period.
While Knopf isn’t an academic press, Norton’s work has an academic style, with the narrative often yielding to evidentiary description. But by comparing in detail the multitude of reactions from different colonies to the year’s momentous events, we gain a deeper, richer understanding and appreciation for what separated, as well as what united, the colonists by the time war broke out at Lexington and Concord the following spring. At the same time, their reactions also point to the need for us to go back further in time to fully understand them. For if 1774 should replace 1776 as the real year of independence as Norton seems to argue, clearly the roots of the colonists’ behavior during that period lay in events well prior to that year.