Farmers were at forefront of revolution

Independence got start with commoners' efforts

July 04, 2002|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

In the grand Independence Day celebrations of the great men among the Founding Fathers of American democracy, the fanfare for the common man often seems curiously muted.

We may not know much about history, as the song says, but we've heard of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and John Adams and maybe Ben Franklin.

But anonymity shrouds the yeoman farmers and country artisans who made the revolution before the Revolution that Ray Raphael writes about in his new history, The First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord.

"When we look at it now, what image do you think of for the Fourth of July?" Raphael asks during a telephone interview from his home in Northern California. "The most likely image you think of is a bunch of guys standing around and signing the Declaration of Independence.

"That's kind of the icon that has survived," he says, unhappily. "This loses so much because the real founding is marked in my mind by the transfer of political authority from the British to Americans, and that was accomplished by the people using a passionately democratic process. By failing to tell that story, we fail to uncover the real democratic aspects of our founding moment and of our roots.

"To me, that's tragic. If we're supposed to be a democracy, this new image or icon of people working together and acting democratically to overthrow British rule, without bloodshed, is a much more inspirational model for active participation and citizenship today."

Raphael wrote the well-received A People's History of the American Revolution, which has just been published in paperback. He's also written a prize-winning history of California and books about the timber industry and the people in the backcountry where he lives. He taught for 17 years in a remote one-room high school in his community near the California-Oregon border.

"So when I'm writing about the farmers in Massachusetts," he says, "I have this kind of distant relationship, the rural environment; they had theirs, and I have mine here. In the sense it's the grass roots. We're away from distant seats of power and centralized media."

The First American Revolution of which Raphael writes in his new book is the uprising of the plain folks of rural Massachusetts during the summer and fall of 1774 and the spring of 1775.

By the time "the shot heard 'round the world" was fired at Concord in April 1775, igniting all 13 colonies in war, he says these country folk had already secured their independence from Great Britain.

"You don't usually think of the farmers as being in the forefront of the revolution," he says. But "these people were really in the vanguard, leading the way, rather [than] following."

The farmers and craftsmen of Massachusetts rose up almost unanimously and virtually as a single body. They're anonymous because they were scrupulously democratic.

"Here, you have thousands of people gathered in these uprisings, and whenever there's a decision to be made, they find a way of consulting all the people," Raphael says.

Thousands gathered almost spontaneously in towns and villages across Massachusetts to protest British misrule.

The immediate spark that set off these demonstrations was the Massachusetts Government Act, one of the fiats from the British rulers that the colonists called the "Intolerable Acts."

The Massachusetts Government Act stripped the colony of self-government and made virtually every public official an appointee of the crown, including judges, sheriffs, justices of the peace and members of the governing council.

"All political power had been taken back by the crown and crown's representatives and [the Act] denied them their town meetings," Raphael says. "These people had had town meetings for 150 years. Now they couldn't have any. That's ridiculous."

Raphael focuses on Worcester, a county seat 40 miles from Boston. But patriots protested in the thousands from the Berkshires in the west to Salem, just up the coast from Boston, the colonial capital. They prevented the courts from meeting and forced judges and councilors appointed by the British to recant and resign.

Worcester is where Gen. Thomas Gage, the new governor and the commander of British armed forces in America, "had promised he would defend the court with his army," Raphael says. A showdown between the patriots and British troops was expected in Worcester on Sept. 6, 1774.

But Gage decided not to send troops to Worcester after the "Powder Alarm" of Sept. 2 aroused 20,000 angry patriots for a march on Boston.

The alarm spread a rumor that six people were killed while Gage's troops were trying to seize gunpowder at Cambridge. It proved to be false and the Americans dispersed. But they shook Gage, who had just 3,000 soldiers in Boston, barely enough to defend that city.

On Sept. 6, according to a diary kept by the Rev. Ebenezer Parkman, 4,622 militiamen from 37 towns gathered at Worcester to prevent the opening of the courts.

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