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.