What caused the American Revolution?

By Robert J. Allison

washington before boston

The old man sat up straight and turned to the young man.

“What did I go for?”

“Yes.  My histories all tell me you men of the Revolution took up arms against intolerable oppression.  What was it?”

“Oppression, I didn’t feel any that I know of.”

“Were you not oppressed by the Stamp Act?”

“I never saw any stamps and always understood that Governor Bernard put them all in Castle William.  I am certain I never paid a penny for them.”

“Well, what about the Tea Act?”

“Tea tax.  I never drank a drop of the stuff; the boys threw it all overboard.”

“But I suppose you have been reading Harrington, Sidney and Locke about the eternal principles of liberty?”

“I never heard of these men.  The only books we had were the Bible, the Catechism, Watts’ psalms and hymns, and the almanacs.”

“Well, then, what was the matter?”

“Young man, what we meant in going for those redcoats was this:  we had always governed ourselves, and we always meant to.  That didn’t mean that we should.”

It is too easy in explaining the Revolution to use abstract ideas like “liberty” and “freedom,” which have different meanings for different people.  They might be eternal principles, but what do they mean?   We all like liberty and freedom.  Preston, and the men manning Dorchester Heights, were not thinking of these eternal principles, but of specific powers.  The New England towns had the power to govern themselves—more power over their own affairs, in fact, than any other communities in the British Empire.  This meant that people in the towns would disagree, they would argue with their neighbors, but ultimately they, not a distant force, would how to run their town.

The army occupying Boston had come to put a stop to this local control.  The forces of progress in the British Empire would now govern the colonies more efficiently and effectively, bringing the towns of Massachusetts, where people relied on “the Bible, the Catechism, Watts’ psalms and hymns, and the almanacs” for their world view, into step with the enlightened metropolis of London.

The people of South Boston have inherited the responsibility of telling this story, every year with our commemorations of Evacuation Day.  Other communities in the country have single observances of Revolutionary events—Lexington and Concord, Charlestown, Washington’s crossing on the Delaware.  Only South Boston makes a month of it.

What if the British army had not left Boston?  Men like Preston, who had marched to the war in April 1775, were already going home.  Washington had to recruit a new army in December 1775, as the first rush of troops decamped.  He had to do this without tipping off the British that his men were leaving and he was desperately enlisting new ones.  Could he replace these new recruits and maintain a longer siege?  Or would this army, encamped in an arc from Prospect Hill (in what is now Somerville) to the shore of the South Bay in Roxbury and Dorchester, simply go home?  What then?

The war would be over.  People would not be happy with conceding to the British Parliament the power to govern them, but would concede that Parliament had more power than they did to enforce its will.  There would be grumbling, but what choice would these deluded people have?  Preston, and Washington, and the other men in the army, recognized that this was their only chance to preserve their power to decide for themselves how they would live.  For Washington, getting artillery to Dorchester Heights was not just a tactical move to force the British out of Boston; it was an essential step to preserving independence, not of the country, but of the individual citizens of Massachusetts.

John Adams, in Congress at Philadelphia, received Washington’s report of the British evacuation on March 24.  The next morning, while British warships still anchored in Boston’s harbor awaiting a favorable tide, Adams proposed that Congress present a gold medal to Washington commemorating this signal victory.  Adams, John Jay of New York, and Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island were the committee to oversee the medal.  Adams conferred with a Swiss-born artist, Pierre Eugene du Simitiere, who was also designing a great seal for the United States.  In the design, Liberty leans on Washington as the British fleet sails away.  Neither the artist nor the design were used for the medal.  Congress paid du Simitiere $32 for his trouble.

By the time Adams and Thomas Jefferson arranged for the medal to be struck, the war was over.  This one, done in France, shows Washington and his officers on Dorchester Heights.  He points to the evacuating British fleet, or to Castle Island.  At their feet are four cannon (the artist, Pierre Simon Benjamin Duvivier, inscribed his name on one), representing the artillery Henry Knox brought from Ticonderoga.  Above their heads is the Latin motto, Hostibus Primo Fugatis, or, “For the first time the enemy flees.”

Perhaps it was best that Washington receive the medal after the war, as there was no certainty in March 1776 that the enemy would flee again.   The British would occupy New York until 1783 (New York has an Evacuation Day on November 25), and during the war would hold at different times Philadelphia, Newport, Charleston, and Savannah.  But Washington, and the men who served in the Boston campaign, understood that their military task was not to hold cities or fight armies.  Instead, their task was to maintain the support of the American people, and to ensure that those men and women continued to have the power to govern themselves.

Robert J. Allison is president of the South Boston Historical Society; he teaches history at Suffolk University and the Harvard Extension School.

Photo Image of Medal Compliments of The Massachusetts Historical Society