We elevate the events of the American Revolution to near-mythical status all too often and forget that the real revolutionaries were people just like you and me. Caught up in the drama of Red Coats marching, muskets exploding and flags waving in the night, we lose sight of the enduring significance of the Revolution and what makes it relevant to our world today.
Those revolutionaries, by and large, were neither agitators nor hotheads. They were not looking for trouble or trying to start a fight. Like many today, they were simply trying to make it from one day to another, a task that was increasingly difficult as Britain’s rule became more and more oppressive.
The American Revolution did not so much start with a bang as with a whimper—a literal cry for relief from people groaning under the weight of Britain’s demands. The seeds of discontent had been sown early on. By the time the Stamp Act went into effect on November 1, 1765, the rumbling had become a roar.
The Stamp Act, passed by the British Parliament with no representation from the colonies (thus raising the battle cry of “no taxation without representation”), required that revenue stamps be affixed to all printed materials. It was an onerous tax that affected every colonist who engaged in any type of business. Outraged at the imposition, the colonists responded with a flood of pamphlets, speeches and resolutions. They staged a boycott of British goods and organized public protests, mass meetings, parades, bonfires and other demonstrations.
Mercy Otis Warren was an active propagandist against the British and a prime example of the critical, and often overlooked, role that women played in the Revolution. Historian Nina Baym writes, “With the exception of Abigail Adams, no woman in New England was more embroiled in revolutionary political talk than Mercy Otis Warren.” Warren penned several plays as a form of protest, including The Group in 1775. As Baym writes: “The Group is a brilliant defense of the revolutionary cause, a political play without a patriot in it. In letting the opposition drop their masks of decency, Warren exposes them as creatures of expediency and selfishness, men who are domestic as well as political tyrants.”
Although Parliament repealed the Stamp Tax in 1766, it boldly moved to pass the Townshend Acts a year later. The Townshend Acts addressed several issues. First, any laws passed by the New York legislature were suspended until the colony complied with the Quartering Act, which required that beds and supplies be provided for the king’s soldiers. And duties (or taxes) were imposed on American imports of glass, lead, paint, paper and tea.
Americans responded in outrage through printed materials and boycotts. In Letters of a Pennsylvania Farmer, which appeared in newspapers and pamphlets, attorney John Dickinson argued that Parliament had no right to levy taxes for revenue. He also cautioned that the cause of liberty be advanced with moderation. But as historians George Brown Tindall and David Emory Shi write, “Such conciliatory language led John Adams to dismiss Dickinson as a ‘piddling genius.’” Samuel Adams responded by organizing protests in Boston.
And in 1768, Samuel Adams and James Otis circulated a letter throughout the colonies that reiterated their concerns about the illegality of British taxation and asked for support from the other colonists. When an official in London ordered that the letter be withdrawn, they refused. By 1773, Samuel Adams had convinced the Boston town meeting to form a “Committee of Correspondence,” a group of protesting American colonists. The Committee issued a statement of rights and grievances and invited other towns to do the same.
Thereafter, Committees of Correspondence sprang up across Massachusetts. And in 1773, the Virginia Assembly proposed the formation of Committees of Correspondence on an inter-colonial basis. A network of committees spread across the colonies, mobilizing public opinion and preventing colonial resentments from boiling over. As a result, the Committees of Correspondence played a critical role in the unification of the colonies. Author Nat Hentoff writes:
In 1805, Mercy Otis Warren—in her History of the Rise and Progress and Termination of the American Revolutions, emphasized: “Perhaps no single step contributed so much to cement the union of the colonies, and the final acquisition of independence, as the establishment of the Committees of Correspondence . . . that produced unanimity and energy throughout the continent.” These patriots spread the news throughout the colonies about such British subversions of fundamental liberties as the general search warrant that gave British customs officers free reign to invade homes and offices in pursuit of contraband.
We would do well to remember that, in the end, it was the courage and resolve of common, everyday people that carried the day. Courage was a key ingredient in the makeup of the revolutionaries. The following vignette offers a glimpse of one man’s strong stand in the face of the British army.
Two months before the battles of Lexington and Concord, the British sent Colonel Leslie with 240 men to seize arms and ammunition which the rebels had stored in Salem. As the troops approached town, residents halted their progress by lifting the Northfield drawbridge. Several inhabitants climbed onto the raised leaf of the bridge and engaged in a shouting match with Colonel Leslie on the other side. William Gavett, an eyewitness, reported the incident:
In the course of the debate between Colonel Leslie and the inhabitants, the colonel remarked that he was upon the King’s Highway and would not be prevented passing over the bridge.
Old Mr. James Barr, an Englishman and a man of much nerve, then replied to him: “It is not the King’s Highway; it is a road built by the owners of the lots on the other side, and no king, country or town has anything to do with it.”
Colonel Leslie was taken aback, but he pressed the issue; James Barr held firm, knowing he was in the right. In the end, Leslie promised to march only fifty rods “without troubling or disturbing anything” if the residents of Salem would lower the bridge. The bridge came down, Leslie kept his word, and the opening battle of the American Revolution was postponed. Old James Barr had taken on the British empire with a few simple words.