The Minutemen and Their World
by Robert A. Gross

A history of Concord, Massachusetts just before, during, and just after the American Revolution. Before the revolution the biggest controversy in Concord concerned the tax-supported church, whether people in outlying areas could withdraw to set up their own church and whether they could be readmitted to the Concord church. Dr. Joseph Lee was the focus of much trouble and William Emerson, the new pastor and grandfather of Ralph Waldo Emerson, was also a central figure.

By "constitution," eighteenth-century Anglo-American writers meant not a written document but the existing arrangements of government—laws, charters, customs, and institutions—together with the principles these incorporated. (36)

Concord stood near the middle of the provincial Whig spectrum. The townspeople shared with most colonists one fundamental assumption—that men held certain absolute, inalienable rights that no government could rightfully abridge. (45)

By lowering the price of tea without removing the duty, Parliament was trying to trick the colonists into accepting the unconstitutional tax. (46) Support for the boycott was widespread: altogether, eight out of every ten adult males subscribed. And it cut across all economic ranks. (Despite being subject to arrest) (51)

A special force was needed to alarm the community. That force was the Minutemen (59), so called because they could meet at one minute's warning equipped with arms and ammunition. The Provincial Congress authorized enlisted men to elect their own leaders. (60)

The townspeople of Concord demanded the appearance of unanimity, even if it was contrived under the threat of a mob. (66)

Members of the same family generally served in the same companies. Filial duty and family loyalty thus reinforced a soldier's obligation to follow orders. (71)

... a married woman in eighteenth-century New England had even fewer legal rights than a slave. ... She could not vote, sue, make contracts, testify in court, or execute a will on her own. ... Adultery was only a woman's crime (102) The professions and colleges were reserved for men (103)

On the eve of the revolution, William Emerson sent his parishioners off to fight with this caution: "Let every single Step taken in this most intricate Affair, be upon the Defensive. God Forbid that we should give our Enemies the Opportunity of saying justly that we have brought a civil War upon ourselves, by the smallest offensive Action." (108) They were initially to be an Army of Observation. (112)

They knew the British would come to Concord to confiscate the military supplies that the people had built up. The only question was when the governor would move, not where. (114) Paul Revere hurried out to Lexington to warn Hancock and Adams of the impending British strike. ... on the previous day the Committee of Safety had ordered the dispersal of the stores at Concord into the surrounding towns.

As the boats were launched, two lanterns appeared in the North Church steeple, Paul Revere began the first part of his midnight ride (115) A little after 1 a.m. the bell atop the Concord town house rang out. Parson Emerson was the first to answer the call. (118) Seventy men—nearly half of Lexington's adult males—turned out at daybreak on April 19, 1775 to face the British regulars. (117)

The revolution brought economic hardship. Now that trade with Britain was proscribed, homespun clothing became the patriotic fashion of the day and women at the loom heroines of the Revolution. Men were called away to the field of battle at the very time they were urgently needed in the fields at home. ... in 1776 men were drafted for White Plains in the middle of the corn harvest. (142) Wage and price controls were tried and failed repeatedly. (144) However, the inflation was good for debtors. It was easy to pay off old debts by stuffing a creditor's pockets full of paper (142)

The character of the war was transformed from a voluntary struggle to a battle of conscripts. Militiamen were conscripted for short terms of three to six months. Between July 1776 and April 1778 three quarters of the town's quotas were filled by pulling names from a hat. But a man could be excused by hiring a substitute or paying a substantial fine. (147) There was not much protest against the draft. After 1778, the war was being fought principally by landless younger sons, by the permanent poor, and by blacks. Army service was tantamount to a grant of freedom for slaves. Men who pledged to fight to the end of the war were promised land in the future.

After independence was declared, Concord initiated the call for a constitutional convention for Massachusetts rather than allow the existing legislature prepare a new constitution. They argued that a constitution is " a System of Principals established to Secure the Subject in the Possession of, and Enjoyment of their Rights and Privileges against any incroachment of the governing Part." If the legislature—"the governing Part"—had the power to write a constitution, then it had the power to alter it. But in that case, a constitution offered "no Security" at all. (155)

The war exposed many individuals to new places, new values, new ideas. (169)

Concord prospered in the 1790s as European nations went to war against each other and neutral America became merchants to the world (171) Farming methods became more efficient in Concord, which was running out of land. English clover was planted, which added nitrogen to the soil even as it produced better hay. Voluntary societies such as the Charitable Library Society and the Fire Society were formed. (173) Tourists began visiting the first battle site of the Revolution. (176)

As a result of the Revolution, with its stress on natural rights, eldest sons lost their privileges. (181) By 1790 there were no slaves in Massachusetts. (185) But race prejudice and mistreatment of blacks continued.

There was irony in the Revolution. The patriots were forced to take up arms to retain their traditional autonomy and social customs. Yet the war itself exposed the people to new ideas and caused major changes in local society. (190) One change was that representatives came to be regarded not as "fathers" but as hired agents of the people. (191)

By 1820, couples were practicing birth control. Married women were liberated from wearying, foreshortened lives of one pregnancy after another. Self-repression became the means to the new freedom. (185)

The town of Concord, where the Revolution started, eventually produced, in Ralph Waldo Emerson, nineteenth-century America's greatest philosopher of progress and, in Henry David Thoreau, its greatest critic. (191)

Year Read: 1998


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