Read the Revolution

March 11, 2014

The Common Cause of America

After the Boston Tea Party, the city’s inhabitants held their collective breath as they awaited reaction from the mother country. Parliament’s retaliation—closing the city’s port—was a devastating blow. Yet Boston soon learned that fellow patriots both near and far made a spontaneous choice to stand with them, in support of “the common cause of America.” In T. H. Breen’s book The Marketplace of Revolution, he offers a look at how one city’s rebellion became an entire people’s war.

“Colonial rebellions throughout the modern world have been acts of shared political imagination. Unless unhappy people develop the capacity to trust other unhappy people, protest remains a local affair easily silenced by traditional authority. Usually, however, a moment arrives when large numbers of men and women realize for the first time that they enjoy the support of strangers, ordinary people much like themselves who happen to live in distant places and whom under normal circumstances they would never meet. It is an intoxicating discovery. A common language of resistance suddenly opens to those who are most vulnerable to painful retribution the possibility of creating a new community… For many American colonists this moment occurred late in the spring of 1774.

“Before the Parliament of Great Britain enacted the Boston Port Bill, Americans did not know for certain whether talk of political solidarity involved much more than statements of good intentions. However consoling such rhetoric may have been during earlier imperial clashes—during the Stamp Act resistance of 1765, for example—the situation now demanded a more tangible demonstration of support. Most people understood that failure to come together would mean that colonial Americans would find themselves in a situation much like the eighteenth-century Irish, a subjugated people within the British Empire. The destruction of tea in Boston Harbor had sparked this particular confrontation with Parliament, and while the people of Boston understood full well that the provocation would not go unpunished, they entertained hope that Parliament might show compassion. Like other colonists from Georgia to New Hampshire, they waited. Reports of the Tea Party crossed the Atlantic, king and ministers debated how best to deal with a brazen attack on private property, and in March, after months of uncertainty, the British response finally reached Massachusetts. Its severity shocked even the most sanguine colonists. Parliament closed the great port. All commerce ceased; hundreds of laborers lost their jobs. Boston suddenly found itself a city under siege, seemingly alone and facing a doubtful political future.

“The stunning news from England immediately raised another, even more unsettling issue. The problem was not so much occupation by the British army or the collapse of the local economy but rather the reaction of other Americans. No one in Boston could be sure that these distant strangers would in fact come to their aid. For almost a decade men and women scattered along the Atlantic coast had protested against British taxation; some had rioted, others had signed petitions, and a few had written quite eloquently about constitutional and human rights. But this time the political stakes were much higher. Colonists in Virginia and South Carolina, New York and Pennsylvania, could have labeled the citizens of Boston extremists, troublemakers, people unworthy of support at a moment when organized resistance could easily spark a full-scale armed rebellion… On both sides of the Atlantic the fate of Boston became a crucial trial of American solidarity.

“Within weeks of the announced retaliation, an unprecedented outpouring of public support revealed that the inhabitants of Boston need not have feared political isolation. Throughout America ordinary colonists spoke up, pledging generous assistance for a city about which they really knew very little. Connecticut farmers sent livestock to feed the poor people of Boston. The inhabitants of other Massachusetts villages, many of them obscure farming communities, pledged hard currency to assist those ‘who are suffering by means of the Boston Port Bill.’ Pennsylvania patriots promised large shipments of grain, while South Carolinians dispatched hundreds of barrels of rice… From Georgia to New Hampshire, towns raised money, usually through voluntary charitable subscriptions. Some efforts showed unusual imagination. A group identified in a newspaper as the ‘young’ men of Charleston, South Carolina, proposed staging a play entitled Busiris, King of Egypt. The producers promised that funds gathered from the sale of tickets—small amounts of rice were accepted in lieu of cash—would go toward the relief of Boston, and advertisements assured those unfamiliar with the plot of Busiris that it concerned ‘an injured gallant people struggling against oppression, resigning their All to fortune, and wading through a dangerous bloody field in search of freedom...’

“Everywhere people proclaimed a shared sense of political identity, resolving, as did the freemen and inhabitants of Baltimore County, Maryland, ‘that the town of Boston is now suffering in the common cause of America.’ The farmers of Harvard, Massachusetts, an isolated community located many miles to the west of the great port, found the pressure of the moment almost insupportable. As the Reverend Joseph Wheeler, moderator for the Harvard town meeting, recorded in the official minutes, the people regarded the Boston crisis ‘a matter of as interesting and important a nature when viewed in all its Consequences, not only to this Town and Province, but to America in general, and that for ages and generations to come, as ever came under the deliberation of this Town.’ Like so many of their colonial contemporaries, the people of Harvard found themselves swept up by external events. The experience expanded their political horizons, linking local decisions for the first time not only to an imagined concept called ‘America in general’ but also to future generations who presumably would praise Wheeler and his neighbors for their brave stand in support of Boston.

“The flood of public support from so many distant places heightened Boston’s resolve. Out of fear and uncertainty had come a sense of confidence about a united effort. The patriot leaders of that city had taken a huge risk when they sanctioned the destruction of the hated tea. But by August 1774 they had discovered that however great their current distress, Boston would not stand alone against the empire.”

T.H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 1-3.

Read the Revolution is published biweekly by the Museum of the American Revolution to inspire learning about the history of the American Revolution and its ongoing relevance. To learn more about the Museum's plans for a national museum in Philadelphia that will tell the complete story of the Revolution, click here.

Read the Revolution is produced thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: exploring the human endeavor.