Wednesday, July 18, 2012

"The Shot Heard Around The World": The Beginning Of The American Revolution

I am co-author of a new American history textbook for college students, The American Challenge: A New History of the United States. Below, in a passage I co-authored with Norwood Andrews, we discuss the final breakdown of British authority in the 13 North American colonies and the  “shot heard around the world” in Massachusetts that started the American Revolution.


In September 1774, the First Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia, with delegates from twelve colonies, appointed by legislatures where possible and by unofficial conventions where necessary.  (Georgia was the one colony that failed to participate.)  Behind closed doors, seven intense weeks of debate and committee work resolved differences over tactics and smoothed out differences between boycott advocates and Southern planters dependent on British manufactured goods. Ultimately, they found common ground, endorsing a declaration of rights; agreements on non-importation, non-exportation, and nonconsumption of tea; and a network of “committees of safety,” to be elected “in every county, city, and town,” which would enforce the agreements.  A Second Continental Congress was also scheduled for the following year.

Important as the Congress was, the most crucial developments may have been those occurring within local communities, particularly those well outside the seaport cities whose merchants, artisans, and laborers had long provided much of the leadership and support for the colonial resistance.  In long-settled farming regions and in the backcountry, in small villages and in the sprawling countryside, among the small landowning and tenant families who constituted 70 percent of the white population of the colonies, participation in the resistance developed slowly.  Even in rural eastern Massachusetts, Boston’s fights with redcoats and customs commissioners seemed distant. Humble farming folk, however, were hardly cut off from the surrounding world.  They read newspapers, attended evangelical revivals, and traded surplus crops for consumer goods, some even imported, but compared to city folk, their exposure (as producers or as consumers) to the impact of imperial tax policies was limited.

When the shift finally came, it was in response to the “Intolerable Acts.”  The extreme punishment inflicted by the British blockade on Boston and on Boston’s masses of impoverished artisans and hungry laborers, evoked an emotional response and a tide of donations from throughout the colonies.  (In rural Maryland, a member of a relief committee explained that, “those who cannot give money, can give corn.”) Participation in the charitable campaign created new networks of correspondence and led to further commitments to a common cause.  Moreover, for farmers within the colony, the Massachusetts Government Act posed an even more direct threat.  Appointments to colonial offices by General Gage, under the terms of the act, were intrusions into local government by an illegitimate pretender.  As villagers began withholding taxes, assembling in crowds to shut down county courts, and disabling other functions of the colonial government, the “committees of safety” mandated by the Continental Congress began filling the vacuum.  Farmers began joining the boycotts, watched their neighbors for signs of disloyalty, took charge of local militia units, and sought what one county committee called “a well-ordered resistance.”  The revolt against the British had moved from the cities to the country.

As Gage’s appointees and others loyal to his government fled the countryside and sought safety in Boston, the governor recognized that his authority outside the city had disintegrated.  An unauthorized Massachusetts Provincial Congress, featuring Sam Adams and other resistance leaders, now held sessions in Cambridge, across the river from Boston.  Other colonial governors found themselves similarly isolated.  In New York and Philadelphia, as large-scale “committees of safety” dominated by merchants and artisans asserted power, long-established colonial legislatures adjourned quietly and disappeared.  In Virginia, Lord Dunmore grimly acknowledged that local committees of safety were now the acting government of the colony.  By early 1775, opposition to British authority, once the distinct preoccupation of merchants, artisans, and leading planters, had emerged as a defining feature of American patriots.


The stage was set for war, most of all in Massachusetts, where rival governments now confronted each other with military force.  Gage kept his regiments in Boston through the winter, pondering his options, appealing to London for reinforcements, and waiting for orders.  Across the surrounding countryside, in towns and villages, militia companies held drills, and local volunteers enlisted as so-called minutemen, ready for military duty upon a moment’s notice. As they watched and waited, a well-organized network of spies monitored Gage’s forces and intercepted his scouts.  In the city itself, Paul Revere, William Dawes and other unemployed artisans kept watch in shifts.

In London, Lord North and his fellow minister William Legge, the 2nd Earl of Dartmouth and the secretary of state for the colonies, fumed over Gage’s inaction.  In late January, Dartmouth sent new instructions.  Without issuing formal orders, and without fulfilling Gage’s requests for thousands of additional troops, he demanded some kind of action “to defend the Constitution & to restore the Vigour of Government.”  Dartmouth was unconvinced that the Massachusetts resistance amounted to anything more than “a rude Rabble” incapable of seriously challenging the king’s regular soldiers.  In his own view—“in which His Majesty concurs”—the proper next step was to arrest and imprison the leaders of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress.
The arrival of Dartmouth’s letter in April 1775 forced Gage’s hand.  He organized an expedition to seize militia arms and ammunition he believed held in the town of Concord. Gage’s own scouting patrols alerted the patriot militias to the impending action.  Late on the evening of April 18, on Boston Common, Gage assembled a detachment of select infantrymen from different regiments.  In the middle of the night, they rowed across the bay separating Boston from its hinterlands and set off on the Concord road.

The British troops intended to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock, whom they saw as the leaders of a treasonous movement.  Revere hung signal lanterns in the Old North Church steeple to send a warning.  He then made his own crossing to the mainland and, with William Dawes, took off on horseback along a designated route through a succession of towns leading toward Concord, rousing the minutemen and sending other riders on their way.  In Lexington, he awakened Adams and Hancock, who (after some hours of delay and debate) agreed to head for safety.  

Ultimately Revere was caught by a British advance patrol before reaching Concord, but by then the alarm system was operating fully.  When the redcoat infantry reached Lexington, shortly after four in the morning, the village militia stood assembled on the green, some seventy men strong.  The regular infantrymen arranged themselves in battle formation.  As the minutemen attempted an orderly withdrawal with their arms, a shot rang out.  The British infantrymen then discharged two volleys with their muskets, and charged across the green.  Eight of the Lexington men lay dead, and ten were wounded (including the militia commander, Captain John Parker).  The war had begun.  More than eight years of bloodshed lay ahead.

If the “Battle of Lexington” had fulfilled Gage’s hopes, what then unfolded later on April 19 could only have confirmed his worst fears.  Marching onward, the infantry reached Concord later in the morning and searched the town.  They failed to find any large cache of weapons.  But they did set fire to several buildings, perhaps by accident.  Unwilling to reenact the scene in Lexington, the Concord volunteers occupied a nearby hillside, until they saw the smoke column rising from the town.  Arriving on one side of the Concord River, across from the main body of British troops, the minutemen fired on three isolated companies of infantrymen, which had crossed one of the village bridges, and sent them retreating back over the river.  Suddenly the momentum shifted.  As the infantry column marched back to Boston, it found itself facing a gauntlet of militiamen along both sides of the road, shooting from behind trees and fences, and attacking stragglers with hatchets and clubs.  The marching infantrymen defended themselves with bayonets and return fire, but what had been an intimidating show of force became a bloody ordeal.  By the time they reached safety, the British forces had suffered nearly three hundred killed and wounded.  Militia casualties numbered less than one hundred.

The shots fired at Lexington and Concord resounded across the colonies.  “This accident has cut off our last hope of reconciliation,” Jefferson wrote in a private letter, “and a phrenzy of revenge seems to have seized all ranks of people.”  John Adams later wrote that the news of the bloodshed “changed the instruments of War from the pen to the sword.”  Reflecting the dominance of patriot views in the colonial press, the initial published accounts converted the bloody, inconclusive events of the day into a debacle for the British. Believing that Great Britain had started a war on the colonies, new volunteers enthusiastically enlisted in militia companies. Gage, still under intense pressure to show results, recognized that militia forces on the ridges overlooking the Boston peninsula and its rivers and harbor might soon encircle his army.  With reinforcements of his own now arriving, Gage planned to secure the Charlestown Peninsula close to the North End of Boston, but he found himself beaten by a quick deployment of Massachusetts militia forces led by Colonel William Prescott.  

As Prescott hastily fortified his positions on the high ground above Charlestown—two ridgetops named Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill—Gage and his lieutenants prepared an assault.  On June 17, troops crossed over from Boston and marched up the hills.  Colonel William Howe, entrusted by Gage with the field command of some 1,700 light infantrymen, sent his men with bayonets directly against the militia fortifications and into a devastating volley of musket fire.  Howe and his subordinates managed to organize a second advance, into a second volley (or, as one British officer called it, “an incessant stream of fire”). But with Prescott’s militia now out of ammunition, Howe’s men overran the top of Breed’s Hill on the third try.  This time British dead and wounded numbered well over one thousand, including many of Howe’s subordinate officers.  Three days after Gage’s report was received in London, Dartmouth wrote a request for the general’s resignation.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night:  Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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