Massachusetts on the Eve of Revolution
Everyone knows that the American Revolution began in Massachusetts. But why did it happen there, and why did it happen when it did? Although individuals played a large part in the events of 1775, the demographics, history and geography of Massachusetts also contributed to the attitudes of the men and women involved, and to the succession of events leading to armed rebellion.
Puritans with New World Roots
In the 1620s, the first English settlers in Massachusetts had been dissenters from the Church of England: Puritans. More than 150 years later, on the eve of revolution, the colony retained its Puritan roots. Puritan beliefs led people in Massachusetts to establish educational institutions like Harvard College, and practice an elitism that drew distinctions between social classes. Other colonies, like Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, tolerated more diversity and religious freedom, so that later immigrants to the New World were drawn to those more liberal colonies instead of Massachusetts. By 1775, although all the American colonists could trace their ancestry to Europe, Massachusetts residents were more likely to have been born in America, and possibly to have had parents and grandparents who could make the same claim. By then, some Massachusetts residents might have been seventh-generation Americans. They were more likely to have a loyalty to their town and colony, and feel less of a connection to England.
By the start of the 1770s, Massachusetts residents were becoming irritated by the British military presence, both in Boston and in the countryside. New England's population had grown exponentially (Paul Revere had 16 children, and large families were not atypical.). Until the 1750s, Boston had been the largest city in the American colonies. Its natural harbor made it the third-busiest port in all the British empire, behind London and Bristol. When the Intolerable Acts, the British response to the Boston Tea Party, closed Boston's docks in 1774, hundreds of men were, in effect, locked out of their jobs. Their hostility increased toward the British troops sent to keep order. Outside the city, individual families and towns had formed militia groups and accumulated gunpowder and weapons for the defense of their homes. For decades, threats had come from Native Americans and the French. When British authorities, in an effort to stop armed resistance, began seizing ammunition, the colonists objected.
Isolated, Densely Populated City
Geography also played a role in the Massachusetts rebellion. Boston was a densely populated settlement isolated by its harbor and a river, and bordered on three sides by farming communities. Today, much of the Battle Road through Lexington and Concord is forested, having lost the clear-cut agricultural look of the 1700s. The city of Boston has undergone an even more radical transformation, with bridges and massive land reclamation projects connecting the city much more closely to neighboring towns. But in the 18th century, Boston only consisted of the Shawmut peninsula, a virtual island connected to the rest of the mainland by a thin strip of land extending south to Roxbury. The Back Bay was still a bay, and the mouth of the Charles River opened wide in Brookline. The generous coastline and easily guarded isthmus made the city well suited to fortification by the British military, with its vaunted navy. However, the city's density and limited space did not endear the 4,000 British troops who were stationed in town to control the 16,000 Boston residents.
Well-Connected Farming Towns
The bodies of water surrounding Boston made communication between Boston and its neighbors tough. The geography made both William Dawes' ride by land (over the isthmus) and Revere's ride by sea (across the river to Charlestown) necessary, and it also delayed both the original British march and the arrival of British reinforcements. Once the alarm had sounded in Concord, by contrast, minute men from as far as Framingham, Dedham and Salem could quickly ride well-worn roads to the site of the conflict.
All the Ingredients for Revolution
Boston and its environs had the wealth and natural defenses to attract a permanent British military presence, and long-simmering grievances which made confrontation with armed locals seem inevitable. The fuse was lit once the richest man in town, the first newspaper columnist and his lawyer cousin, two doctors, a silversmith and a shoemaker got involved.