Book Review: The Spirit of ’74
by Marie and Ray Raphael
The New Press, 2015
When Benjamin Franklin tries to reassure John Adams, in Sherman Edwards’ play 1776, that the history books will clean up the tawdry aspects of their story, Adams has a sarcastic retort at the ready. “I won’t be in the history books anyway, only you,” he says. “Franklin did this and Franklin did that and Franklin did some other damn thing. Franklin smote the ground and out sprang George Washington, fully grown and on his horse. Franklin then electrified him with his miraculous lightning rod and the three of them – Franklin, Washington, and the horse – conducted the entire revolution by themselves.”
Franklin’s laconic response is, “I like it.”
And judging from the sheer number of books published every year that start the clock of the American Revolution in 1776, he’s not the only one. In a certain sense, such a narrative makes for cleaner storytelling: George Washington is already in command of the fledgling Continental army, King George III has already decided that the rebellion must be met with “blows” rather than more bumble-footed parliamentary maneuvering, sides are already drawn. But the clean truncation sacrifices the tale of a great deal of heroism on the part of ordinary New England men and women who took the enormous risks of moving an idea of resentment into a cause of rebellion. It was only after Great Britain had reason to crack down on New England that the South and the Middle Colonies saw the handwriting on the wall.
This is the starting point of The Spirit of ’74, a lively and thoroughly-researched new book by Marie Raphael and Ray Raphael; “Only after the British strike,” they write, “did other colonies embrace the fight and turn the Massachusetts revolution of 1774 into America’s Revolution.”
Their book covers local discontent and sporadic uprisings from Salem to Charlestown, always pausing to provide vivid portraits of the individuals involved, many of whom have long since faded from the larger 1776-style perspectives:
During this time [spring of ’74], the blacksmith Timothy Bigelow came to occupy a central position in the workaday world of Worcester, as blacksmiths often did. No town or hamlet could sustain itself without the nails or scythes, plow blades, latches, or axes that such an artisan made. He had not only shoed horses but supplied the hardware for a harness, bridle, or wagon, propping up the era’s sole transport system. Bigelow served everyone, and everyone could pick him out of a crowd – he was six feet tall, some five inches taller than the average adult male, and powerfully built. Inevitably men gathered at his shop, across the street from the county courthouse, where he had lived and worked since 1762. It was an ongoing attraction – the mighty forge and anvil, the hammer striking red-hot iron, the waft of smoke from burning charcoal, the smith’s boy working the bellows. There men gossiped about local concerns and discoursed on the looming imperial crisis.
Committees of correspondence, letters of grievance, and never a lazy weekend for Paul Revere: here’s the story of beleaguered Boston stirring her sister cities to open resistance which, as our authors feelingly point out, became even more frightening when things in Boston turned from organization to occupation:
The thought of impending conflict terrified Bostonians. If British troops set upon the countryside, provincials might fire on the British garrison and turn their own town into a battlefield. Residents fled in droves, taking what they could and locking up what they left, even if no barred door or window could deter rampaging British soldiers who sought entry.
The story of The Spirit of ’74 has been told before, of course, many times (Brian Deming’s excellent Boston and the Dawn of American Independence being the best of the recent bunch), but it’s unlikely to be done any more fleetly – or grippingly – than this compact little gem the Raphaels have given us.