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First American Revolution - The Worcester Revolution of 1774

The following is an excerpt of notes written by author Ray Raphael, a California resident who is preparing to have published a re-write of American history that places Worcester at the forefront of the revolutionary spirit that gripped the masses in Colonial America in the early 1700s.

History

The American Revolution did not start on the morning of April 19, 1775. When the British fired upon a small group of hastily assembled patriots on the Lexington Green, they were attempting to regain control of a colony they had already lost. The real Revolution, the transfer of political authority to the American patriots, occurred more than half a year before, when thousands upon thousands of farmers and artisans deposed every Crown-appointed official in Massachusetts outside of Boston.

During the late summer of 1774, each time a court was slated to meet under British authority in some Massachusetts town, great numbers of angry citizens made sure it did not. These patriots were furious because they had just been disenfranchised by the Massachusetts Government Act. Having lost control of the governmental apparatus, and in particular of the courts, they feared that arbitrary rulers might soon seize their tools, their livestock, or even their farms.

Worcester was at the center of this massive uprising. It was the patriots of Worcester who first called for a meeting of several counties to coordinate the resistance. It was at Worcester, on September 6, 1774, that the British conceded control of the countryside. For the preceding month, General Thomas Gage had proclaimed he would hold the line at Worcester by sending troops to protect the court, but on the appointed day he backed down. When British troops failed to show, 4,722 militiamen from 37 towns in Worcester County lined both sides of Main Street and forced every official and every prominent Tory in town to resign or recant thirty times over, hats in hand, as they made their way through the gauntlet from Heywood¹s Tavern (at Exchange Street) to the County Court House. (This was by far the greatest assembly of people ever to convene in the town of Worcester, which had fewer than 250 voters. Some towns, having armed and trained for a month, sent virtually every adult male.) Shortly thereafter, the town of Worcester was the first to urge that a new government be formed "as from the Ashes of the Phenix."

Through it all, the revolutionaries engaged in a participatory democracy so thorough it is difficult for us to fathom today. At every turn, all decisions were made by the full body of the people. No action could be taken without running the matter through the entire rank-and-file.

According to the Random House Dictionary, a "revolution" is "a forcible overthrow of an established government or political system by the people governed." There can be no doubt that the people of Worcester County staged a full-scale revolution, long before Lexington and Concord. This Revolution has been obscured for many reasons: it was bloodless, it had no famous leaders, it was basically middle-class, it was far from the media center in Boston, it has been overwhelmed by the repeated telling of Paul Revere¹s ride. But we should not be misled: the patriots of 1774 staged a very potent Revolution precisely because they were nameless yet ubiquitous, aggressive yet bloodless. The staggering power of "the body of the people" precluded serious resistance. Local Tories, overwhelmingly outnumbered, had no choice but to acquiesce. Officers of the British army looked on helplessly, not knowing where, when, or how to deal with an uprising of such breadth and magnitude. All British troops withdrew to Boston, and General Gage reported back to London that "the flames of sedition" had "spread universally throughout the country, beyond conception." For seven months the patriots reigned supreme in rural Massachusetts, unchallenged until the counter-revolution of April 19, 1775.

Documentation

I have finished a narrative history which fully chronicles these grand events and probes into some of the reasons they have received so little attention. The First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord, was published in April, 2003. Although the book deals with the Revolution throughout rural Massachusetts, it focuses on the events in Worcester for its central narrative. A summary version appears on pages 38-46 in my People's History of the American Revolution, recently published and available from Tatnuck.

The documentation for these events, fully referenced in my book, comes from contemporary newspaper accounts, various letters (including those of Gage to Lord Dartmouth), town meeting records, minutes of the county conventions which coordinated the court seizures, the accounts of deposed officials, the minutes of the patriotic American Political Society of Worcester, Ebenezer Parkman's diary, and Stephen Salisbury's letters to his brother Samuel. All of these are available at the American Antiquarian Society, the last three as original manuscripts.

Implications for Worcester

At the very least, a dramatic re-enactment of the dramatic overthrow of public officials on September 6 and 7, 1774, would be a positive way of reconnecting Worcester with its pivotal role in the American Revolution. We know how many people each town provided, where they stood along Main Street, the people they deposed, etc. This would certainly stimulate county-wide involvement, and to the extent you wish, you could attract outside attention to Worcester for this momentous event.

Beyond that, opportunities abound: physical re-constructions (whether models or facades or actual structures), a self-guided "freedom trail," guided tours, further reenactments at an annual event/festival (like the "Militia Day" Worcester celebrated in the early 19th century.) Obviously, there are profound educational possibilities as well. If the city sees fit, it might develop its image as the "birthplace of revolution, cradle of democracy," or something along those lines. This could be tied in with other significant events: the Worcester anti-slavery petition in 1775; the court case, originating in Worcester, which led to the legal abolition of slavery in Massachusetts; the women's convention in the mid-19th century; later abolitionist activity, etc. There is much in Worcester's history to promote a sweeping and inclusive view of democracy.

Personal Vita

I have published fourteen books, including An Everyday History of Somewhere (Alfred A. Knopf, 1974, winner of the Commonwealth Club award for the best book of the year about California); The Men from the Boys: Rites of Passage in Male America (University of Nebraska Press, 1988, translated into German as Vom Mannwerden); and also A People's History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence (New Press/Norton, 2001; also published in the UK by Profile Books). Although most of my books focus on events and issues relevant to my home in Northern California, in 1995 I embarked on a study of the American Revolution aided by a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities. I received a BA from Reed College in 1965 (Phi Beta Kappa), an MA from the University of California at Berkeley in 1967 (Woodrow Wilson Fellowship); and an MAT from Reed College in 1968 (Inner-City Fellowship). I taught all subjects except foreign language in a one-room public high school in my remote community for 18 years; I taught history classes at the College of the Redwoods from the 1970s to the 1990s; and most recently I have been training student teachers at Humboldt State University.

Mr. Ray Raphael may be contacted:
P.O. Box 979, Redway, California 95560
raphael@asis.com or 1-707-923-3995

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