We all know that our first glorious Revolution of the British American colonies began on April 19, 1775, when the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” was fired on the hallowed public “green” in Lexington, Massachusetts, a place I’ve walked on several times over the years. (It’s one of my very favorite places in the entire nation). Eight colonists were killed by the British Regulars on or near the Green, and ten were wounded. That’s when it started. Right? Then, it began to blossom a few hours later in Concord, Massachusetts, a few miles from Lexington, as our guys made a stand against that same group of British regulars at the Old North Bridge, over which I’ve walked several times (the several times rebuilt bridge, that is). So April 19, 1775 is the day that our first American Revolution began. Everybody knows that (well, everybody used to know that, but today not everybody does know it).
Well, maybe not exactly. There were a “few” events leading up to that fateful day, events that surely precipitated the incidents in Lexington and Concord and, in my mind at least, should also be considered as seminal events in the War of the Revolution. I’ve written previously here in The Times Examiner of these historical “time lines” that surely firmed up the resolution of so many of our revolutionary ancestors to part ways with their British overlords. For example, we’ve all heard of the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773, when a group of irate patriots left the “South Church” in Boston disguised (barely) as Native Americans, marched to the harbor where several British ships were tied up, broke into one of them (The Beaver), and proceeded to dump its cargo of expensive British tea overboard into the harbor (to protest the hated “Tea Act” and the despised “Townshend Act” and the earlier “Stamp Act), and other laws made by the British Parliament “without representation”). No other damage to British property was perpetrated that night, and even the lock that had secured the tea in the hold of the Beaver was replaced. My wife, daughter, and I did that very same thing on the recreated “Beaver” back in 1988 as we also “dumped tea” (dummy tea chests) into Boston Harbor. It was a glorious feeling. So was that really the start of our Revolution? Maybe not.
What about The Gaspee Affair of June 9, 1772, when the British warship Gaspee, which had been lured by Rhode Islanders into shallow water at low tide, was grounded, and captured and burned in Narragansett Bay by patriots, because Gaspee had been used for the previous several months to interdict illegal smuggling (the Rhode Islanders called it legitimate shipping activities), over which our patriot ancestors took great umbrage. Was that event the real beginning of our revolution? Well, probably not. Two other British “atrocities” (in the minds of our patriot ancestors) occurred even earlier. One was The Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770, during which five Bostonians (including Crispus Attucks—a former slave) were killed in front of the Boston State House (I’ve stood on the spot several times, although it’s now in the middle of heavy Boston traffic. I’ve also been in that old Boston State House a couple of times, which once was the seat of British government in the Massachusetts Bay Colony). The Brits called it a “riot”, but it thoroughly incensed our Bostonian ancestors, although perhaps not as much as another event which took place in Boston about two weeks earlier. It was the killing, during a protest against him, by a Boston merchant, a British sympathizer, of eleven-year-old Christopher Seider on February 22, 1770. That tragedy did lead to riots and protests. So were these two events part of the underlying causes of our revolution? Without a doubt they were.
However, long before these more-or-less familiar historical events occurred, there was another, historically overlooked and almost unknown, “revolution” that surely prepared the way for the events that paved the road to American freedom beginning on April 19, 1775. Long before those events that are (or used to be) inculcated into the very psyches and characters of all Americans, something happened that surely must have laid the groundwork for “our” American Revolution. It began on April 18, 1689, 86 years to the day when Paul Revere and several other men began their famous ride of warning. This usually overlooked event was, to my mind, THE seminal event that prepared our revolutionary ancestors to revolt against their British masters, 86 years later. Was this event America’s First Revolution? I believe it was!
(I’m indebted to a great article about this event in the September/October 2005 issue of American Spirit Magazine, published by National Society Daughters of the American Revolution (Volume 139, No. 5), and to the article therein titled: “The First American Revolution”, by Judith Jacobson, from which I first learned of this unique historical event, and from which I quote freely.)
On that long ago morning, April 18, 1689, at about 9:00 A.M., armed men began to gather on the outskirts of the town of Boston. Young boys ran through the muddy streets, yelling, with large clubs in their hands. Soon, drums began to beat and a signal fire was lit right on Beacon Hill. I’ve stood on Beacon Hill, as near as anyone can now estimate, right where that signal fire was ignited. What had happened to sow these seeds of rebellion among these British American colonists? As Jacobson commented in the conclusion of her article, “Curiously, the same loss of freedoms that precipitated the revolution of 1689: the right of self-determination, the freedom of speech and the press, the right to a representative government, levying taxes and the freedom of assembly—led to the American Revolution of 1776. The difference was that in 1689, the colonists rebelled against their leaders, not England itself. Nevertheless, England did not learn its lessons and--87 years later, the colonists revolted again. Only this time it was not bloodless.”
So what caused this “Boston Revolution of 1689? It wasn’t really that complicated, because it involved the trampling (perceived or actual) on the rights of the colonists by their own government officials and by the arrogant British Parliament that acted “in the name of the king”. We all need to recall that from their earliest arrival in this “new world”, the Plymouth Pilgrims of 1620, and the Massachusetts Bay (Boston) Puritans of 1630 believed quite firmly that their English Charter from the king gave them a degree of self-determination. These two unique groups, soon after they arrived in this ‘new world’, established a representative form of government and a somewhat independent court system. They coined their own money, levied taxes on themselves to help pay for ‘government’, and they began voting for their own representatives. If you want to discover the origins of our once-honored American constitutional system, look to these two groups as its progenitors here on the North American continent.
Into this mix of a principled and religiously oriented society entered the first ‘villain’—a man named Edward Randolph, who was an experienced emissary from the king far away in England. Jacobson calls Randolph “a hardworking but tactless zealot who tried to do his duty as HE saw it, but accepted no one else’s point of view. He fueled the king’s wrath with reports of the colony’s failure to observe the Navigation Acts and other English laws, and the colonists despised him.” Essentially, Randolph was a 17th century version of Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff, Eric Swallwell, Dianne Feinstein, Hillary Clinton, etc. al., wrapped in one unpleasant personality: smarmy, smooth talking, arrogant, and totally untrustworthy.
In the election of 1686, the Massachusetts Bay colonists elected Simon Bradstreet as their governor. But shortly thereafter, the arrogant Randolph showed up in Boston, brandishing a decree that COMPLETELY OVERTURNED the colonists’ royal charter. Suddenly all of their rights had dissolved. Their newly elected governor was ‘fired’, their general court system was abolished. Randolph presented to the colony’s leaders a royal order that established a new government consisting of new offices. It appointed the second ‘villain’, Joseph Dudley, who just a short time before had lost to Simon Bradstreet, as the new interim ‘president’ of the colony.
Dudley began making changes right from his first day. He fired the old county clerk and replaced him with his own teenage son. Randolph, villain no. 1, began to confiscate ships in Boston harbor, including their cargoes. The famous clergyman, Increase Mather, was chosen by the Bostonians to go to England and speak for them, but Randolph tried to have him arrested. In late 1686, ‘villain no. 3’ appeared on this tumultuous scene. His name was Sir Edmond Andros, and he announced that he was Governor of the New Dominion of New England, that combined ALL of New England, New York, and East and West Jersey. Andros attempted to explain to the Bostonians that this new “dominion” was conceived to better combat French aggression, but the colonists soon discovered that it was nothing more than a thinly disguised attempt to dilute the political power of each colony, and they began to bitterly resent Andros and his new royal charter.
Governor Andros quickly began to exercise absolute power, governing by ‘royal decree’ and making no attempt to form any kind of a representative assembly that the colonists had lived under previously since coming to the new world. He soon became a petty tyrant doing all he could to extort money from the colonists to enrich himself. All this he did without any kind of vote of the people or their almost powerless representatives. He began to show great disdain for all civilians in the colony and maintained order via his military force, the members of which these Puritans found “unsavory”.
Jacobson explains what happened next: “When John Wise, the parish Pastor of Chebacco, declared that taxes should not be levied without ‘consent of an assembly chosen by the Freeholders’, he was jailed, fined, relieved of his ministerial duties, and ordered to pay a 1,000 pound bond to ensure good behavior. Although claiming to support religious freedom, Gov. Andros angered Puritan Boston with his blatant preference for the Anglican Church. When he requested the use of one of the three churches (in Boston at the time) for Anglican services, the minister politely refused. In response, Andros seized the Old South Meeting House (many years later of ‘Boston Tea Party’ fame), which was being used as a Puritan church, and eventually authorized the construction of the Anglican ‘Kings Chapel’ (which still stands but is no longer a Christian church) on top of the public burial ground.” This, as should have been expected, infuriated Bostonians.
Gov. Andros’, however, became aware of his “impending doom” in April of 1689 when he was informed that William of Orange had toppled his own father-in-law, King James of England. Andros realized that once word of King James’ overthrow in Mother England became public knowledge, the people would move to eject him from his ‘governorship’. He tried unsuccessfully to keep this news about the new English king from the people, and he jailed anyone who was found with a copy of the “Prince of Orange” declaration. But two weeks later, the 1689 Revolution began! The truth had come out.
Bostonians armed themselves. Drums began beating. Signal fires were lit. Twenty militia companies marched through Boston’s streets, while at least another 1,000 colonists gathered in Charlestown, across the bay. Jacobson goes on: “When Andros learned of the rebellion (he) headed for the fort on Castle Island in Boston Harbor (I’ve sailed by it on a cruise boat). .,..At the same time, high-ranking members of Andros’ government were jailed.” Gov. Andros tried to escape by rowing out to HMS Rose, a British warship anchored in the harbor. But the rowboat coming to rescue him was spotted and the militia captured it before Andros could reach it. “At noon, former magistrates read a declaration of independence of sorts signed by influential men of the colony, that listed tyrannies suffered by the people since their charter had been usurped. After a group headed by John Nelson captured several cannons and pointed them directly at the Castle Island fort, Andros and those with him finally surrendered.”
Soon all of the militia in Charlestown were told that the rebellion was a success. But when things should have begun to calm down at this point, a large armed mob entered Boston, and threatened to tear down the house where former governor Andros was being held. For his safety he was taken to the Castle Island fort and the mob was ordered to disperse. In the meantime, the arch ‘villain’, Edward Randolph, found himself locked up in a Boston jail, and all of the rest of the Andros administration were imprisoned at the Castle Island fort. Joseph Dudley, the erstwhile ‘president’ of the colony, was placed under house arrest due to ill health, but he was thereafter considered to be a traitor, since he was a ‘local’ boy.
Finally, in December of 1689, influential citizens were selected to gather up evidence to be used against the three main ‘villains’. Randolph, Dudley, and Andros faced over 100 charges each against them. Many of their political ‘cronies’ were also arrested and faced charges. Jacobson explains their fate: “In all, the prisoners of the rebellion were confined for 10 months before King William ordered Andros, Randolph, and their associates returned to England. Once there, the king exonerated Andros of any misconduct, and in 1692 appointed him Governor of Virginia. At the end of the bloodless revolution, a council was organized to govern during the emergency. It was eventually concluded that the governor and magistrates chosen just before the charter was nullified in 1686 should return to their elected offices. That government served until a new charter arrived in 1692.”
And THAT, dear reader, was, in my opinion, the FIRST AMERICAN REVOLUTION. And if it wasn’t, it surely WAS the forerunner of the one that began in 1775!