Sunday, May 20, 2018

Episode 045: Governing from Salem

Two weeks ago, we saw Gen. Gage become Gov. Gage with the task of compelling Massachusetts to comply with Parliamentary authority.  After a brief detour to Virginia for an Indian war last week, I am returning to Massachusetts to take a look at how Gage attempts to enforce the new laws from London.

Government moves to Salem

Following his instruction from Secretary Dartmouth, Gage used the Navy to close Boston Harbor, then moved the government to Salem. One of the main purposes of the Boston Port Act was to close Boston and make the people there suffer.  Not only would there be no trade, removal of government to another part of the colony would complement that.  Boston was going to become a derelict shell of a town. No one would want to remain there.  London officials believed that the hotheads were in Boston.  The rest of the colony was still loyal to the King.  Destroying Boston economically would take care of the resistance and set an example for others.

The Governor had been forcing the Assembly to meet in Cambridge, just across the river from Boston.  This had been a sore point for years.  Days after his arrival in the colony, Gage had ordered the Assembly in Cambridge to adjourn and to begin a new session on June 7 in Salem. Instead of just crossing over the river, Bostonians would have a twenty mile journey to get to legislative sessions, half a day’s ride for most.

Gov. Gage took up residence in the village of Danvers, just outside of Salem.  Living in the Massachusetts countryside, would allow Gage to live in a more relaxed atmosphere, without the hassles and violence in Boston.  Or so he thought.  Gage would soon discover that was not the case.

On June 7, 1774, a week after the port had closed, the Assembly convened in Salem.  Its first order of business was to complain about having to convene in Salem. It protested the new Governor’s decision to move them from Boston.  It spent the first two days putting together an argument about why moving the legislature away from Boston was a source of discontent.  Gage shrugged it off: Yeah, too bad.  You are meeting in Salem now, and that is the way it is.  Gage thought that getting standing firm on such issues would prove his leadership and convince the colonists to obey.

London Cartoon, 1774 showing Bostonians
suffering from the Port closure.
(from Digital History)
Next, the Assembly proposed the new Council.  As they had done traditionally, the Assembly proposed a wide array of Councillors, some conservatives, some moderates, some liberals and some radicals - representing a wide range of viewpoints and positions.

Gage vetoed more than half of them.  Although he had that right under the old Charter, Governors usually only rejected a handful at most.  Gage was making clear that he was not the usual pushover, only angering the legislature even more.  On June 6, The Boston Gazette printed details of the Government and Justice Acts debates in Parliament.  Since the Government Act would soon give Gage full control over the Council appointments, he had no incentive to compromise on this point either.

The Assembly formed a special committee to discuss how to respond to the Port Act.  Samuel Adams headed a Committee to plan their next steps.  Nineteen of the twenty committee members were committed patriots.  The one Loyalist, Thomas Leonard, was a problem. If the Committee started discussing resistance or other radical measures, Leonard would report to the Governor who would dissolve the Assembly.

So for several days, the committee met to discuss possible options of repaying the cost of the tea, or other more moderate measures.  For Gage and Tories in the colonies, it sounded as if the radicals had finally understood their predicament and were willing to make peace with London.  It was, however, just a show.

After the committee ended business each day, Leonard would go home and the other nineteen committee members would get down to business.  They set up plans to call for a Continental Congress and choose a delegation to attend.  Of course, the full Committee would have to vote on the measure before it could go to the Assembly.  Unlike discussions, the Committee would have to remain in session.  Leonard would discover what was going on and report it to the Governor.

On the day of the vote, Robert Treat Paine offered to ride with Leonard to his home district to observe some court proceedings.  Leonard assumed that the committee’s moderate debate would continue, and agreed to go.  During his absence, the Committee voted to submit the proposal for a Continental Congress to the full Assembly.  The Proposed Congress would meet on September 1 in Philadelphia.  Massachusetts would send five radicals as delegates: Samuel and John Adams, James Bowdoin, Thomas Cushing, and Robert Treat Paine (although Bowdoin would not make the trip, due to a need to care for his sick wife).

Robert Treat Paine
(from Wikimedia)
The next problem was getting the proposal through a vote of the full assembly.  Unlike the committee who had just one Tory, the Assembly had many.  The radicals could not sneak this past all of them.

When he brought the proposal to the full Assembly on June 17, Adams ordered all the doors locked, with no one allowed in or out.  Despite this, one conservative member feigning illness, was allowed to leave.  He promptly ran to the Governor to tell him what was happening.  Gage ordered his secretary, Thomas Flucker to run over to the Assembly and deliver his order that it be dissolved immediately.  Of course, the doors were locked and no one would let him in. Flucker shouted his proclamation through the doors while the Assembly voted on the issue.

The assembly also appropriated £500 for the expenses of those travelling to the Continental Congress.  Since the Governor likely would not approve the appropriation, it called on towns to come up with the money.  It also passed measures recommending that the people of Massachusetts renounce all consumption of tea, encourage domestic manufacture, and end the use of all imported items.  It also criticized the new Governor for failing to call for a day of fasting a prayer, and called on local ministers to set a convenient day for that purpose.  Once passed, the Assembly closed its business and obeyed the order to dissolve after only ten days.

Town Meetings Continue

So the State legislature was not going to accommodate Gage’s new policy of firmness against opposition, but surely the small towns and villages around Massachusetts were not going to kick up a fuss, right?  Over the summer, town meetings all over the colony raised protests, first over the Port Act and then over the other Coercive Acts, as they became known.  A few took moderate or pro-government positions, but most expressed outrage and called for boycotts against Britain.

Gage could look forward to those pesky meetings going away on August 1, when the Government Act’s ban on town meetings went into effect.  Except, no one seemed to pay attention to that.  Towns continued to hold meetings in violation of the law.

Salem, the new seat of government,  announced that it would hold a town meeting on August 20 to select representatives to send to an upcoming county meeting.  Gage immediately issued a notice that the meeting was illegal and was not to take place.  To underscore his position, he brought in two companies of British Regulars, armed and ready to move on the Meetinghouse.  Next, Gage summoned the leaders of the Meeting and ordered them to disperse the people.  If they did not, he would call on the sheriff to do so.  If the sheriff would not or could not, he would use the soldiers.

The leaders tried to argue legal points with Gage, but he cut them off.  Gage soon ordered the soldiers to advance on the meetinghouse and break up the meeting. The soldiers obeyed, but in the time it took Gage to finish his arguments with the local leaders, the people had quickly done their business and left before the soldiers arrived.  Nothing like the threat of advancing soldiers to speed up proceedings.
Thomas Gage
(from Wikimedia)

Furious, Gage ordered the leaders of the Salem town meeting arrested for sedition.  A local judge arrested several leaders, but quickly decided to release them without bail after learning that more than 1000 armed militiamen were advancing on his jail to free the men by force.  Gage, seemed truly shocked by this act of defiance, decided not to continue with the prosecution.  He was beginning to understand that the colonists were willing to call his bluff if he wanted to force the issue.

This really was an important turning point for Gage.  A few months earlier, he had told the King he could control New England with four regiments.  Now he understood just how far the colonists would go, and how widespread the opposition was.

Gage had to make a decision.  If he continued to press his hard line, he would have to use his soldiers to suppress the militia.  Gage had only a few thousand regulars in Massachusetts.  If the people rose up by the tens of thousands, and almost all of them well armed and apparently ready to fire on the Regulars, there was no guarantee that his forces would win the battle.  The tough talking Gage now realized he would need a great many more soldiers if he was going to enforce London’s policies.  All of the colonists, not just a few radical leaders, seemed ready to bear arms and fire on the King’s soldiers if necessary.  Gage was not ready for political compromise yet, but he knew he would need a bigger army before he could fight this fight.

As a result, Gage began to back away from confrontations for the moment.  The colonists, however, were not ready to back down.  The judge who had issued the arrest warrants in Salem soon discovered that no one in the colony would do business with him.  He quickly found he had trouble buying food to feed his family.  Government officials were now seen as collaborators.

A few days after the confrontation in Salem, the village of Danvers where Gage was living, held its own small town meeting, deliberately remaining in session for several hours, daring the Governor to act.  Asked for orders, Gage replied, “Damn ‘em.  I won’t do anything about it unless his Majesty sends me more troops.

Realizing that his position in the countryside still left him surrounded by hostile locals, Gage decided to move back to the Governor’s mansion in Boston.  There at least, he could have his regiments of soldiers close at hand.  He wisely began work building up defenses on Boston Neck so that his soldiers would defend against a possible armed invasion.  There was no telling how far these crazy colonists would go.

Closing the Courts

With Gage trapped in a defensive posture in Boston, colonists moved to shut down all government activities in the colony.  Before the recent changes, the Governor had appointed judges, sheriffs, and other court officials, with the consent of the Council.  With the changes in the Government Act, the Governor could appoint and remove officials at his own pleasure.  Even if the Council had been involved,  now that it was not elected, the people of the colony had no say in who ran the courts.  Juries previously had been selected from lists drawn up by locally elected selectmen.  Now, the governor-appointed sheriffs drew up jury lists, again meaning this power moved from elected officials to crown appointed officials.

These changes meant that the colonists believed all colonial courts to have lost authority over them.  Courts now controlled by the Coercive Acts had become illegitimate tools of the tyrannical measures against them.  Therefore even judges who did nothing objectionable were now seen as the enemy. They were collaborating with the new government and implicitly accepting the validity of the Coercive Acts.

Any judge who took office, or even continued in office with an appointment from the Governor, were validating the Coercive Acts by his mere presence.  Many colonists simply refused to serve on juries.  Sheriffs could not enforce court orders. Many were compelled to resign or face consequences.

In western Massachusetts especially, farmers never really liked the courts much.  Their main purpose was to arrest poor farmers who fell behind in repaying their debts.  In prior years, it was not unheard of for farmers to bring out their guns and prevent a sheriff from removing a neighbor from his land.  Parliament’s decision to pay judges, thus removing local pressure had not set well.  The decision to appoint judges, serving at the pleasure of the Governor, put the people over the edge.

Colonists in the western county of Berkshire got together and proclaimed that they no longer recognized the authority of the courts, and decided they would just get along without them.  When judges came to the courthouse to start the new session, they found the building packed with about 1500 locals.  The small building was so packed that no one else could enter.  The sheriff tried to demand they make way for the judges. The protesters responded by saying they did not recognize the court’s authority and refused to budge.  The judges knew enough about local intimidation to back down before things got ugly.  They simply gave up and left.

Massachusetts (from: Revolutionary War and Beyond)
One justice of the peace had not shown up at the courthouse.  To make sure he got the message, a mob broke into his house in search of him.  He had already fled, but was captured about 35 miles away by a mob of about 200 men.  They forced him to sign the Berkshire Covenant, denying the authority of the courts in their county.  He eventually signed, was released, and fled to Boston, fast becoming the only safe refuge for anyone in Massachusetts who openly supported the royal government.

Similarly, in Springfield, three to four thousand gathered to force the judges and other government officials from Hampshire County to disavow their appointments from the Governor under the new laws. Some proved initially resistant, though the threat of tar and feathers eventually forced the most reluctant to disavow.  As in Berkshire, the courts, and other government offices closed and remained so until further notice.

By this time, Gage had realized the enormity of the problem.  The issue was not a few radical leaders in Boston whipping up the people.  Pretty much the entire population of Massachusetts sided with the radicals.  They opposed the changes brought about by the Coercive Acts, and were willing to do whatever they needed to put a stop to them.  Further, the colonists were very well armed and seemed willing to turn out with weapons in hand when necessary.  So Gage, now in Boston, refused to provide any assistance to the Courts that were closed.  Royal authority in Massachusetts now covered only Boston, and only there because the soldiers could enforce it.  The rest of the colony had effectively freed itself from all government controls.

The Colonial Council

Gage could not even appoint members to his new Council.  By mid-August, his 36 man Council had only 24 members.  Others either rejected their commission or simply refused to show up.  All the Council members were from prominent and respected families.  Many had been militia officers in their home districts.  Most had held other highly respectable positions.  Some had even been elected to Council under the old laws.  But no amount of past respect and support would help them now.

As Council members left Boston and returned home, they found themselves subject to various forms of persuasion to resign.  In some cases, simple acts of shunning were enough.  One Council member attended church, only to see the entire congregation walk out when he arrived.  Another, who ran a store, found that his customers immediately dropped to zero.

Others took more persuasion.  Several had mobs come to their homes at night, demanding that they resign their positions or face the consequences.  Some fled to other parts of the colony, only to find that they were not safe there either.  Many took the hint and resigned their positions on the Council.  By the end of August, only 14 Councilors remained, all of them taking refuge in or near Boston along with the Governor and the Regular Army.

The Revolution has begun

Many people, including John Adams, talk about the revolution having begun before the first shots were fired. These events are examples of what they’re talking about. British authorities were quite frankly shocked that the whole people could rise up, not rallying around a particular leader, but around the idea of freedom.

Throughout the Empire and in England too for that matter, most people were peasants who did not have the luxury to care about anything other than where their next meal is coming from. Most were bound to a Lord who controlled the land that they worked. If the Lord decided to rebel, the people rebelled with him. If the Lord was loyal to the crown the people remain loyal.  They certainly would not, on their own, stand up against a regular army ready to fire on them.

America, especially New England, was very different. Land ownership was widespread. Most men owned their own farms, or could look forward to doing so someday.  They had taken part in town meetings all their lives and were used to the idea of governing by a consensus of the population, not orders from up above. They had grown up on the idea that they had to defend their basic rights or liberties and that they needed to be well armed in order to make sure that those liberties were not taken from them. Passage of the Coercive Acts had led to a consensus among vast majority of New England colonists that taking up arms was necessary.

General Gage and officials in London had no idea how to contend with such force.  They could not arrest and hang a few leaders. They were not ready to commit genocidal rampage and murder the entire colony. They had no experience trying to negotiate with a large group of commoners.  Over the next couple of years they would certainly do their best to try to suppress the rebellion militarily. But they simply did not have the experience and tools to overcome a well armed motivated population of commoners dedicated to protecting their liberties.

Next Week: Gage’s attempt to secure munitions in the colony alarms the countryside and almost starts a war.

Next Episode 46: The Powder Alarm

Previous Episode 44: Lord Dunmore's War

Visit the American Revolution Podcast ( for free downloads of all podcast episodes.

Further Reading:

Web Sites

The Big Mystery of Lt. Gov. Thomas Oliver

A Description of Occupied Boston, 1774-75:

McAllister, Jim "Salem Sparks a Revolution" Essex County Chronicles, 2012:

The Worcester Revolt of September 6, 1774:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Bolton, Charles (ed) Letters of Hugh, Earl Percy, from Boston and New York, 1774-1776, Boston: Charles E. Goodspeed, 1902.

Cushing, Harry (ed) The writings of Samuel Adams, Vol. 3, New York: G.P. Putnum's Sons, 1907.

Dana, Elizabeth Ellery (ed) John Barker diary - The British in Boston, 1774-1776, Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1924 (Barker was a British officer stationed in Boston).

French, Allen The Siege of Boston, New York: Macmillan, 1911.

Frothingham, Richard History of the Siege of Boston, Boston: C.C. Little and J. Brown, 1851.

Frothingham, Richard Life and times of Joseph Warren, Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1865.

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Stanford, Stanford University Press 1943 (Based on date, I am not sure about the copyright status of this book.  Since it may get pulled, I have also included a link to Amazon below).

Smith, Whitney (ed) Concord town records: manuscript transcripts, 1774-1776, Boston, 1774.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Beck, Derek, Igniting the American Revolution 1773-1775, Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks, 2015.

Bunker, Nick An Empire on the Edge, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

Carp, Benjamin Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.

Daughan, George C. Lexington and Concord: The Battle Heard Round the World, New York : W.W. Norton & Co., 2018.

Knollenberg, Bernhard Growth of the American Revolution 1766-1775,  Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1975.

Labaree, Benjamin W. The Boston Tea Party, Oxford University Press, 1964.

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Stanford, Stanford University Press (1943) (also available as a free eBook, see above).

Philbrick, Nathaniel Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, New York: Viking, 2013.

Raphael, Ray & Marie The Spirit of ‘74: How the American Revolution Began, New York: The New Press, 2015.

Smith, Page A New Age Now Begins, Vol. 1, New York: McGraw-Hill 1976.

Unger, Harlow American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution, Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2011.

* (Book links to are for convenience.  They are not an endorsement of Amazon, nor does this site receive any compensation for any links).

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