Sunday, June 17, 2018

Episode 049: Provincial Congress of Massachusetts

Last week, we looked at the Continental Congress, which took place in Philadelphia in September and October 1774.  While leading patriots were away in Philadelphia trying to get the entire continent on board for the struggle, others remained in Massachusetts continuing the struggle against Gen. Gage in Boston.

Worcester Calls for Independent Government

As I discussed a few episodes back, Massachusetts jurisdictions outside of Boston had forced their courts and other government offices to close.  They did this to protest appointments under the Massachusetts Government Act, one of the hated Coercive Acts.  On October 4, about a month after the powder alarms pushed the British army into a defensive posture in Boston, the people of Worcester took a further step. They instructed their delegate to the upcoming Provincial Congress, that unless the Coercive Act changes to the colonial charter were repealed, that they considered themselves absolved of any obligations under the Charter.  Their delegate should work to create a new government based on the will of the people.  In other words, they were ready to remove the old government completely and create a new one. That is about as close to a declaration of independence that you can get without explicitly saying so.

Gage Fails to Open a Session

Even so, many in the colony were not ready to overthrow the government and create a new one.  They were still hoping for a compromise.  The exact nature of the Provincial Congress, which the Suffolk Resolves had called to start on October 11, was still a matter of dispute.  Some thought it should simply be a colony-wide meeting to present the people’s concerns to the Governor, or perhaps officials in London.  Others saw it as completely replacing the old colonial legislature, which the Governor called into session beginning on October 5.

Journals of the Provincial Congress
(from Internet Archive)
Gov. Gage made that question easier for the radicals when, on September 28, he called off the new session of the Assembly before it could even begin.  The Assembly had been scheduled to meet in Salem again.  That town now fell outside of Gage’s control.  He could have moved the session to Boston, or marched out to Salem with a military guard to open the session, but I suppose he saw little point.  The elected members would simply try to pass what he viewed as unconstitutional measures and force him to dissolve the session.  What would be the point?

The Assembly ignored Gage’s call to cancel the session and met in Salem on October 5 anyway.  They made of point of waiting around all day for the Governor and Council to show up.  At the end of the day, they declared that they had met their obligation under the Charter, but that the Governor and Council had not.  With no working government in the colony, the members declared they were free to create a new one.  The next day, the assembled legislators declared themselves a Provincial Congress and further declared they would meet on October 11 in Concord, as Suffolk and other counties had requested in their earlier Resolves.

When the 90 members of the old Assembly met in Concord, they found that various jurisdictions had sent more than 200 other representatives to the new Provincial Congress.  Because Concord was too small a town to host such a large group, they decided to move once again, this time to Cambridge.  The Provincial Congress set up in Cambridge, just across the Charles River from the British regulars occupying Boston.

Gage, however, made no effort to prevent them from meeting or much of anything else.  He had decided that he could do nothing without many more reinforcements.  He seemed happy to let the locals provide more proof of their treason, which could be used against them when his army reconquered the colony in the spring.

Provincial Congress

Mass. Charter of 1691
(from James Cummins)
With the delegation of many top radical leaders still attending the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, the Provincial Congress elected John Hancock as its President.  It soon became clear that the Boston delegates were among the most conservative there.  There was little support for Worcester’s idea of declaring all colonial governments null and void.  The radicals demanded that the government move back to the colony’s original 1629 Charter, which allowed the people of the colony to elect both their legislature and governor.  The 1691 Charter, in effect for over 70 years, allowed for the elected legislature and governor appointed by the King.  Warren and the moderates thought abolishing the 1691 Charter went too far.  They simply wanted to go back to the way things were the year before, simply get rid of Parliament’s sixth month old Coercive Acts.

In the end, they decided to table the entire question of authority.  Answering that question the wrong way was a good way to get accused of treason.  A leader might then find himself snatched up by the army, and tossed on a ship.  He could then have a stay in the Tower of London, and possibly lose his head.  So the Congress simply put aside the question of authority for their actions, and just started acting.

Rather than pass laws, they passed recommendations.  Everyone understood of course, that the recommendations were mandatory.  Failure to follow them would lead to some sort of formal or informal punishment.

Building an Army

The real question they needed to tackle was how to build an army that would be capable of protecting the colony from what almost certainly looked like a coming invasion by British regulars at some point.  Local militia needed training, logistical support, supplies, and organization, all without looking like they were committing treason by taking up arms against the Crown.

Radicals representatives from the western part of the colony did not seem terribly concerned about accusations of treason.  They moved for an immediate armed invasion of Boston.  Others moved that they should at least call for a civilian evacuation of the city and an assessment of property in the city so that if it came to violence, they could reimburse civilians for losses.

Delegates from Boston and the surrounding area, put the brakes on these efforts.  Sure, we want to fight for our rights, but burning down all our homes and properties is not where we want to go on our first step.  And while we’re at it, let’s stop and consider the consequences of firing on British Regulars.

Even if they did not favor an immediate invasion of Boston, the delegates did have a consensus to build up their military readiness. On October 20, the Congress created a committee to consider the colony’s military requirements.  Many had already been giving this serious thought, because less than a week later, the committee returned with a shopping list of over £20,000 worth of arms and munitions, including 20 canon, 4 mortars, and 5000 small arms.

Two days later, the Congress authorized the purchase of all such items.  Where they were going to find the money for all that was still an open question.  They were trying to collect taxes from the people, but until then hopefully some vendors would sell to them on credit.

Artemas Ward

Congress also appointed several Generals to command the new army they were creating.  Artemas Ward became the commander of the new army in the making.  Ward had been a justice of the peace in Shrewsbury and a representative to the colonial assembly for many years. He had also served as a lieutenant colonel in the militia during the French and Indian War.  He had been present and Gen. Abercrombie’s failed attempt to storm Fort Ticonderoga back in 1758.  His military service had been respectable if not distinguished.  Even so, he never even commanded a full regiment in combat.

Artemas Ward
(from Wikimedia)
Ward made full Colonel in the peacetime militia, until in 1766, Gov. Bernard revoked his Commission.  Bernard did not like Ward’s opposition to the Stamp Act.  If this ended Ward’s military experience for the time being, it solidified his reputation as a reliable patriot. He continued to serve in the colonial legislature, even serving on the Governor’s Council.  Gov. Bernard had vetoed his selection to Council, but his successor, Gov. Hutchinson allowed him to serve.  Ward remained a committed Patriot, refusing to take his seat on the Court when the Government Act protests began.  He served as a member of the Provincial Congress until his appointment as the army’s new Commander in Chief.

The reality was that Massachusetts did not have experienced general officers to choose from.  Militia regiments in combat tended to server under British officers in the regular army.  The Congress initially selected Ward’s former commander William Preble, but he had to decline for health reasons.  Other militia leaders like John Hancock had never even seen combat.  Ward seemed to be capable officer and his loyalty to the cause was beyond question, so he got the job.


Delegates also proposed the creation of a standing army to challenge the British regulars. Again a majority rejected this proposal for multiple reasons: they had no money to pay such an army, raising such an army could be seens as a direct provocation to Gage and an act of treason, and having a standing army in time of peace was one of the things they had been protesting for years.  Since there was no war, there should not be a standing army.

Minuteman statue
Lexington, MA
(from Wikimedia)
Instead, they Congress called on the militia to form their most dedicated members into units that could be called upon on a minute’s notice.  They would have their guns, ammunition and equipment ready to go at all times.  This group became known as the minutemen.  The Congress expected that they could put together an army of 15,000 or so using minuteman volunteers from around the colony.

They adopted the same approach as several localities had done for their militia, the enlisted men for each company would vote for their own officers.  The company officers would then select the officers to lead the regiment.  The Congress also put in place recommended schedules for all militia drill.  The big advantage that regulars traditionally had over militia was that militia were typically ill trained and unable to execute field maneuvers without panicking and running.  Putting the militia on a schedule of heavy training for months would help to remove this disadvantage.

Committee of Safety

Congress also created a committee of safety to provide oversight and coordination for the provincial militia.  The committee could organize the deployment and safekeeping of weapons, ammunition and other supplies in order to prevent capture in regular army raids.  Because they had no standing army to provide logistics, supplies, strategic planning, intelligence, etc. the committee of safety took charge of those responsibilities.

British cartoon of Militia Meeting (from Boston Tea Party Ship)
Appointed to the committee of safety, was another Boston Doctor named Benjamin Church.  I might as well introduce him now, as he becomes important to the story very soon.  Dr. Church came from an old Massachusetts family.  His Great Grandfather, also named Benjamin Church led militia soldiers in King Phillip’s War, as well as King William’s War and Queen Anne’s War.  The Doctor’s father had been a respected Boston merchant.  Dr. Church had been a prominent patriot for many years, though his role became downplayed later for reasons we will discuss soon.  He performed the autopsy on Crispus Attucks after the Boston Massacre.  He gave a public oration on an anniversary of the Boston Massacre.  He was a member of the Sons of Liberty and regularly wrote newspaper articles and other works on behalf of the Patriot cause.  As a result, he had become a trusted and respected leader of the cause.

Church and the rest of the committee of safety worked to organize the 15,000 man army in waiting, organized 19 artillery units, and set up a wide range of military plans in preparation of the expected conflict with the British Regulars.

Gage in Occupied Boston

As the people of Massachusetts developed their own government and prepared to go to war against the old one. Gov. Gage remained in Boston, making his own plans to handle the insurgency.  After the September 1774 Powder Alarm, Gage realized he did not have the firepower to suppress this on his own.  He sent word to London to send 20,000 regulars, called in closer reinforcements from other colonies, and built up the defenses in Boston.  He continued to add more men, artillery, and defensive barriers at Boston Neck in order to prevent any invasion.

Gen. Thomas Gage
(from Wikimedia)
At the same time, he did everything he could not to provoke another incident.  He refused to arrest any of the leaders of the rebellion.  Even when the Provincial Congress met in Cambridge, he refused to take any action other than to respond to several messages from Congress telling them that their meeting was illegal.  Colonists were free to come and go from Boston without fear of arrest.  He even allowed Joseph Warren to lead the 1775 commemoration of the Boston Massacre in town.

He cracked down hard on his own soldiers.  Punishing them for any harassment of civilians or any other abuses of his standing army that the patriots might use to whip up further public opinion against his government.  Locals regularly provoked the soldiers who knew they would be punished if they attempted to stand up for themselves and fight back.  Gage’s officers and men came to think he acted too cautiously and began referring to him as Granny Gage.

Life for the soldiers in Boston was miserable.  Dozens of them died from disease.  More died from drinking related deaths.  Soldiers were underpaid, underfed, and treated with contempt by their officers.  Some soldiers sold their weapons to locals, though doing so could subject them to terrible punishments.  One received 500 lashes.  Many wanted to desert.  Patriots encouraged this, offering them money, clothes, and even land for soldiers who wished to leave.  Gage had to increase the guard around Boston, mostly to catch deserters.  The army celebrated Christmas 1774 by attending a firing squad of an attempted deserter.  Merry Christmas!

Gage even suggested that the ministry suspend the Coercive Acts.  They united the people and the colonies against British rule.  Suspending them, at least temporarily, would calm and divide the opposition enough to give him time to reassert control.

Even so, Gage was not naive enough to think this would be settled peaceably.  His efforts were the equivalent of saying “nice doggy” to a barking animal until he could find a large enough stick to attack.  Gage realized he was in over his head, facing tens of thousands of angry heavily armed colonists with only about 3000 men of his own. 

While awaiting reinforcements, Gage began to develop a spy ring to keep track of what the colonists were doing, where they were hiding military stores, and how best to get to them.  He sent his officers out in civilian clothing to map the best routes to towns where colonists were storing their weapons and supplies.  He knew that Salem, Worcester, and Concord were key storage depots.  He also discovered rather quickly that the locals were hyper-vigilant to his activities.  Several of his officers on intelligence gathering missions were followed or harassed.  Some had to alter their return routes to avoid capture by angry mobs.  Gage quickly realized nothing he did remained a secret for very long.

His men succeeded in developing good maps to key towns, including Worcester and Concord.  On one visit to Concord, while meeting with a local Tory, someone delivered a death threat.  The local man agreed to accompany the officers back to Boston, in part for his own safety.  On the way to Concord, the officers noted that the most direct road had many curves and hills that made for numerous potential ambush sites.  The Tory showed them on their return trip a better route, only slightly longer, that went through Lexington.  These men returned with the maps they had drawn to help Gage develop his plans for any spring actions.

Dr. Benjamin Church
(from Wikimedia)
Gage also developed a spy ring among the locals. There were may loyalists in the Massachusetts countryside who were smart enough to keep quiet or lie about their loyalties.  Others just wanted the money.  Around this time sources indicate that the British offered Samuel Adams a payment of £1000 per year for the rest of his life if he would switch sides and support the British. Adams, of course, turned down this offer.  But there were others who did accept the money.  Gage soon developed a network of spies, many of them paid, to provide him with intelligence on patriot plans and activities.

One of his best placed spies was none other than Dr. Benjamin Church.  Some time over the winter of 1774-75, Church began providing Gage with detailed information about the actions of the Provincial Congress, the exact amount of military stores on hand and on order, as well as the locations of much of the colonists’ arms and equipment.  Since Church was privy to all of the patriots’ most sensitive military information, Gage had an open book into all of the planning and preparation on the patriot side.

Why Church would suddenly choose to work against the patriots is a matter of debate.  Many patriots dismissed his treason as simple greed.  He had a mistress that cost him a great deal of money and got paid to keep her in style.  Sadly, it does seem like money played an important role in his decision to work as a spy.  At the time though, Massachusetts was not really independent, so calling it treason may be a little harsh.  Perhaps Church was worried that the British would crush this little rebellion and that he as a leader of the patriot cause for many years would end up losing everything, perhaps even his head.  Providing Gage with intelligence gave him an insurance policy in case the British won.  Whatever the motive or motives, betraying your friends and neighbors for personal gain cannot be seen as the behavior of a decent human being.  By just about any definition, Church is a dirt bag.

Church’s work though, combined with Gages other spies and his use of officers to get the lay of the land gave him time to develop a strategy for a spring offensive once he received his needed reinforcements.  Gage envisioned an overwhelming use of force to awe the provincials back into submission.

Next week, the British government in London prepares to suppress this rebellion with military force.

Next Episode 50: Britain Prepares for War

Previous Episode 48: The First Continental Congress

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

Further Reading:

Web sites: 

Worcester 1774:

Raphael, Ray "The True Start of the American Revolution" Journal of American Revolution, 2013:

Gen. Artemas Ward:

More on Artemas Ward:


Cain, Alexander "The Loyalist Guides of Lexington and Concord" Journal of the American Revolution, 2016:

Benjamin Church:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

French, Allen General Gage's Informers, New York: Greenwood Press, 1968 (loan only).

Lincoln, William (ed) The Journals of Each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775, Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1838.

Martyn, Charles The Life of Artemas Ward, the first commander-in-chief of the American Revolution, Boston: Artemas Ward, 1921.

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).

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.

Jones, E. Alfred The Loyalists of Massachusetts, Their Memorials, Petitions, and Claims, London: Clearfield Company, 1930.

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

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

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.

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