The Spirit of ’74

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Ray Raphael explains how the town of Worcester, Mass. revolted against British rule two years before the Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration of Independence wasn’t the start of the American Revolution. Two years before the declaration was written, and a year before the battles of Lexington and Concord, thousands of militiamen in Massachusetts put an end to British rule with a dramatic, non-violent uprising.  Historian and author Ray Raphael writes about the event in the current (June 2014) issue of American History magazine—and talks about it in this lively TEDTalk.

As Raphael writes: “As punishment for the Boston Tea Party the previous December, Parliament passed the Coercive Acts, which closed the port of Boston, allowed the governor to move the trials of Crown officials accused of wrongdoing to Britain and strengthened the governor’s ability to house troops in colonial towns. But it was the Massachusetts Government Act, which unilaterally revoked key provisions of the provincial charter, that caused the biggest uproar. For a century and a half, Massachusetts residents had governed themselves in most matters through their town meetings. Three out of four white adult males in the colony held the right to participate in town meetings and to vote; in rural areas like Worcester, 90 percent of the men were enfranchised. Now, in an instant, these men were silenced. No town meetings could be held without the express consent of the Crown-appointed governor, who also needed to approve all agenda items. Elected representatives of the towns had always helped choose the powerful Council, which served as both the upper house of the Massachusetts legislature and the governor’s executive arm, but henceforth the Crown would appoint all Council members as well as local sheriffs, justices of the peace and juries. A family could now have its property seized by officials who were accountable to the Crown, not the people.

Understandably, the people of Massachusetts rose as a body to say, ‘No way!’ ”

What happened next? Watch the video—but we’ll give you a textual peek: It involves the militiamen forming a gantlet on the Main Street of Worcester and forcing British officials to walk it one by one, hat in hand, each reciting “his promise to refrain from enforcing Parliament’s dictates some 30 times over, so all the militiamen could hear.” Adds Raphael in his American History article: “With this humiliating display of submission, all British authority, both political and military, disappeared from Worcester County, never to reappear.”

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