Robert A. Gross is the James L. and Shirley A. Draper Professor of Early American History Emeritus at the University of Connecticut. Last year, I interviewed Professor Gross on his magisterial book, The Transcendentalist and Their World. The Transcendentalists and Their World: Gross, Robert A.: 9780395279328: Amazon.com: Books That interview can be accessed here: The Transcendentalists and Their World – Mere Orthodoxy | Christianity, Politics, and Culture
Professor Gross’s widely regarded book, The Minutemen and Their World won the Bancroft Prize. Minutemen and Their World (Revised and Expanded Edition): Gross, Robert A: 9781250822949: Amazon.com: Books Winning the Bancroft Prize is quite a feat. To win it for your first book as you are coming out of graduate school, is truly remarkable.
Moore: This is the third edition of The Minutemen. It was first published in 1976, then a twenty-fifth year edition arrived in 2001, and now this one appears in 2022. Has your thinking about this topic changed in any significant ways over the years?
Gross: In some ways I’ve drilled down on my interpretation of the Revolution in Concord and given it new depth. In other ways I’ve taken a broader view of the conflicts within the community. From the first version of Minutemen to the latest revised and expanded edition, I’ve argued that until the summer of 1774 Concord took a cautious course in opposing British taxes. Only after Britain passed the Coercive Acts revoking the Massachusetts charter did the townspeople erupt in fury and join the alliance led by the Boston Committee of Correspondence. Why then? The “intolerable acts” assailed the long tradition of local self-government, which townspeople revered as a sacred legacy from the Puritan fathers of New England. In appealing to that heritage, Concord closed ranks in what I liken to the ethnic nationalism that has broken out in recent decades all over the world.
But an appeal to the past is not what motivated the Black men who petitioned the Massachusetts legislature to end slavery in the colony, nor those who claimed their liberty and joined the Patriot army. Nor did allegiance to the Puritan fathers drive the few Loyalists in Concord or the larger body of inhabitants reluctant to break with King and Parliament. The local elite was dominated by men with appointments from the Crown, as militia officers and justices of the peace, and who held slaves and speculated in frontier townships. They identified with the cosmopolitan British Empire far more strongly than with the Puritan forefathers.
Ultimately, I maintain in the new edition, the vast majority of townspeople set aside their allegiance to a mother country that treated them as second-class subjects and went with the Massachusetts past – only to emerge from the War of Independence and the creation of a new nation under the Constitution more engaged in the wider world than ever before.
Moore: What are a few misconceptions about the Minutemen that perhaps some of us picked up from popular lore?
Gross: The popular image of the Minutemen derives from Daniel Chester French’s statue at the Old North Bridge in Concord: a sturdy farmer, who set aside the plow to take up arms against the British army and defend his liberty and his land. In reality, most of the Minutemen were young men, thirty percent under 21; they still labored for their fathers, on farms and in shops, and so were fighting for their futures, rather than defending property they already held. Ironically, they were roughly the same age as the foot soldiers of the Crown, who typically enlisted at 21 or 22.
The “youth bias” of the Minutemen is understandable, since the “minute” companies were expected to train twice a week and to respond at a “minute’s notice” to an alarm. Who could be released from daily labors to fulfill this essential duty? Young men were best suited for the role. They were recruited as volunteers from the regular militia, which embraced nearly all able-bodied men in town between 16 and 60. (Harvard students and ministers enjoyed exemptions.)
Moore: You write that it was not easy to get men to sign up as Minutemen. As a result, the voters of Concord were fine “ordering the town militia captains to lean on their men.” Do we know what kinds of persuasive techniques were used to “order” the young and older into military service?
Gross: This is a matter of speculation. The records indicate that Concord men did not rush to enlist in the Minute companies out of enthusiasm for the cause. The town had voted to raise two companies (50 men in each) at the end of September 1774. By early January the ranks were not filled. One source of the soldiers’ reservations was the pay, which was deemed too low. The town meeting remained adamant. It did not authorize greater compensation until after the quota was finally met at the close of January 1775.
How did the officers overcome the reluctance? I’m guessing that they exercised moral suasion, invoking the obligation to uphold the heritage of New England’s founders and to fight for their families. Filial duty must have been crucial. The muster of Minutemen was something of a family reunion. Fathers and sons, uncles and nephews, brothers, cousins, and in-laws often served in the same units. The chain of command rested on a complex network of kinship.
Moore: You make clear that “geography matters” in wartime. The area of Concord offered some tactical advantages that allowed the colonists to defend themselves. Would you describe a few of the reasons why this is the case?
Gross: Two rivers run through the town: the Sudbury and the Assabet, which flow together into the Concord River about a mile from the center. In 1775 only two bridges spanned those waters, so control over the bridges was key to British strategy on April 19, 1775. No sooner had the King’s troops entered Concord village than soldiers were dispatched to seize the bridges and seal off the town from the neighboring Minute companies rushing to Concord’s aid.
At the same time the geography of Concord is notable for high hills, from which the Minutemen could observe the activities of the King’s troops in the village. That was possible because the landscape in 1775 was far less wooded than it is today. The provincial troops, perched on a hill overlooking the North bridge, were well-positioned to notice smoke rising from the center. Were the Redcoats burning the town down? Determined to prevent such destruction, the Minutemen made their fateful march to the bridge and touched off the war. The retreating British troops returned to the village, from which they had only one means of retreat to Boston: the county road that wound its way up and down hills and across streams and left the King’s men vulnerable to ambush by the ever-growing army of Massachusetts soldiers responding to the alarm.
Moore: After the American victory in the revolutionary war was secured, did the stance towards slavery change in any dramatic fashion by those living in and around Concord?
Gross: Slavery was not a growth enterprise in Concord. At mid-century the town counted two dozen “servants for life,” enslaved by twenty individuals. Two decades later, on the eve of the Revolution, the numbers were roughly the same. Slave-holding appealed strongly to those who enjoyed the favor of royal government, perhaps because African “servants” were a possession akin to other tropical goods made available by the expanding British empire. Even as they provided coerced labor to benefit white gentlemen, merchants, and professionals, Blacks in bondage signified the cosmopolitanism of their “enslavers.” But Loyalists did not have a monopoly over injustice. Patriot leaders held slaves, too.
By 1772, Blacks in Boston were petitioning the Massachusetts General Court to end the injustice of slavery, and such Patriot leaders as Samuel Adams favored their cause. With the start of the Revolution, slavery seems to have crumbled virtually overnight. In the Boston area fewer people bequeathed slaves to their heirs, and such “property” disappeared from probated estates. Was this due to a change of heart on the part of whites? Perhaps, but some whites strove hard to hold onto their unwilling laborers, even after the Massachusetts Supreme Court in the early 1780s ruled slavery incompatible with the state constitution. Essentially, the Court was ratifying the new reality on the ground. In the confusion of revolution, with courts closed, Loyalists in flight, and the army in urgent need of recruits, Blacks took the initiative, enlisted in the military, and claimed their freedom.
One Black man in Concord symbolizes the change. In 1753 a “Negro” boy named Brister was a wedding gift to Concord’s leading man, John Cuming, from a generous father-in-law. The “servant for life” labored for the master without pay over the next two decades. Then in August 1776 he began the first of several enlistments in the military, culminating with a nine months’ tour of duty in the Continental Army. On that last occasion Brister affirmed a fresh sense of self by taking a new name. He was now Brister Freeman, fighting for the country’s independence and his own.
Moore: The endnotes demonstrate your considerable spade work. My penultimate question actually comes from one of the endnotes. You have some statistics about the “officers economic ranking.” Over fifty percent of these officers were in the top twenty percent economically. How much things have changed today! Why did a wider array of people from all socio-economic backgrounds rally to fight?
Gross: While men of means dominated the leadership of Concord – as selectmen and town officials, as officers in the militia, as representatives to the legislature – they had to prove themselves through service in lower positions. Remember: public service was unpaid, and few common folk could afford much time away from farms and shops to perform official duties. (They did get to drink and dine at the local taverns, at the town’s expense.) So, office-holding was as much a duty and burden as a privilege. Moreover, the elite and the middling folk, if not the laboring class, shared in a common way of life. Their farms were devoted to the same livestock and crops, though the wealthy operated on a larger scale. And the degree of economic inequality was far less then than it is today. Finally, the tax and assessment lists from which I gathered the information about the male inhabitants’ economic standing included a good many young men, just starting out in life. If they were not yet farmers on their own, they were the farmers’ sons, with good expectations of obtaining land someday, if not in Concord, then in a new town growing up on New England’s frontiers.
In sum, the distances between economic classes in Revolutionary-era Concord were not difficult to span, and so people could come together and fight for a common cause.
Moore: What are a few things you hope your readers will gain from your book?
Gross: I hope readers will appreciate that the men and women of Concord in 1775 were not the simplistic heroes of patriotic myth. They led complex lives in a society suffering from a multitude of problems, independent of British taxes: population pressure on land, forcing many of Concord’s young men to move away to the frontier in order to secure farms; a weakening of patriarchal authority, in response to this emigration; rising economic inequality and a growing class of the landless, with no roots in any town; increasing integration into Britain’s Atlantic economy and consequently greater vulnerability to the ups and downs of international trade; and sharpening conflicts within and between towns over a host of issues, including British taxes.
Faced with all those problems, the people of Concord had good reason to fear for the future. Like people today, many did not welcome change. Far from it: struggling to deal with problems beyond their control, they viewed the British infringement on local self-government as an intolerable assault on their traditional way of life – a last straw, if you will, that brought them together in 1775. Theirs was initially an uprising in the name of the past, not an Enlightenment-influenced bid to make the world over again in an age of Reason. I like to quip that Concord’s motto should be “resisting change since 1775.” How different is this closing of ranks in faithfulness to the forefathers from so-called “populist” movements today?
Finally, I’d hope readers will find in the revised and expanded edition a more sympathetic portrait of the conservatives in town. These men disapproved of British taxes but also condemned what they saw as unconstitutional methods of protest against imperial measures. In their minds, radical innovations were threatening the much-valued British Constitution. Their hostility to the Sons of Liberty, with the mob violence that erupted on the streets of Boston, reminded me of the position of my elders in the Sixties, who were critical of American involvement in the Vietnam War but appeared to be even more upset by the mass demonstrations of young people against it. Work within the system, they counseled, to bring about a reasonable exit from the conflict. The “reluctant revolutionaries” in Concord might well have said the same.
David George Moore is the author of several books, and most recently Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians. Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians: David George Moore, Carl Trueman: 9781684264605: Amazon.com: Books
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