Sunday, July 11, 2010

Did the American Revolution begin in Worcester?

(Published in InCity Times, July 2, 2010)

Revolution.

The word defines who we are as a people. Whether our ancestors came across the Bering Straits 10,000 years ago or just arrived here from Ireland or Nigeria, we are the people who inherited the Revolution we celebrate every July 4. We march up and down, shoot off fireworks, listen to patriotic speeches – and sometimes - more and more often of late - we sit around the barbecue pit talking about how out of control our government has gotten, and how we need a new revolution, or are headed for one - though most of us, for all our bravado, see it as something really scary that we’re not ready for.

Our Declaration of Independence starts with the assertion of our right to make a revolution when we need to, but most of us know very little about revolutions, and our minds are full of images that scare us away if we get too close. Because “we need a revolution” connects to “peasants with pitchforks” and Minutemen with guns – and that usually stops us. Because if we think that a revolution is a war, anyone who understands what a war really is knows that we don’t want one if we can help it.

Yes, we Americans celebrate the Revolution – our own special kind of revolution. We’ve all heard Jefferson’s quote about the Tree of Liberty needing watering from time to time with the blood of tyrants and patriots. But the Revolution we know about, the one in our storybooks, is a strange affair. Our books tell of a revolution that was also a war, one that was started and led by wealthy Boston gentlemen and Virginia planters in powdered wigs who refused to pay their taxes, and who met in attics and back rooms and conspired to organize and lead an armed uprising,

I never understood just why average farmers and workmen cared enough about a tea tax to rise up in revolt against the most powerful empire in the world, risking death, ruin or exile. And as I read about what happened in other countries, and as I’ve watched history unfolding around the world over the years, I was always puzzled why their revolutions always seemed so different from our own.

The story of what happened in Worcester in the Summer of 1774 holds the key to that mystery. The answer is that our revolution wasn’t so different after all. It’s just that what we’ve been getting is the rich folks’ side of the story, as seen from Boston!

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Historian Ray Raphael, with the help of Worcester City Clerk David Rushford, spent some time digging around in the town and city archives of Worcester County, collecting town records and correspondence about the events of the Summer and Fall of 1774, about a revolution which reached a climax in the streets of the shire town of Worcester in the hills of rural Massachusetts on Sept. 6, 1774. This material was organized into the book “The First American Revolution, Before Lexington and Concord” (New Press, 2002). A 2-page summary, “Before Lexington: The Worcester Revolution of 1774”, is available at the City Clerk’s Office.

Raphael’s book tells a story, mostly in the words of ordinary people from letters and town meeting records, about that time, of a thoroughly democratic and non-violent revolution that came out of a summer of open discussions involving most of the people across the whole colony of Massachusetts. It is the story of a non-violent revolution that was not a conspiracy, not a tax revolt, not a war and not led by gentlemen in powdered wigs.

It tells of a revolution that was about regaining control of our local and provincial legislatures, governor and courts, after the British Parliament – controlled by the great corporations of the day such as the British East India Company – had placed Massachusetts under the direct rule of General Gates in the Spring of 1774. A revolution that was driven by ordinary people’s concerns and fears - not about taxes but about debts and foreclosures, and about who would have the power to enforce them and drive them off their land.

This Massachusetts Revolution in the late Summer and Fall of 1774 wasn’t centered in Boston. Rather it grew in the countryside, where 95% of the people lived then, and came to a head in Worcester. There, on Sept. 6, 1774, called together by the Committees of Correspondence, 4,700 mostly unarmed militia from 37 towns, assembled along Main Street in defiance of an ultimatum from General Gates and prevented the puppet government’s courts from meeting.

A week before the “Worcester Revolution”, the Committees of Correspondence had issued a declaration which stated that “The Citizens of Massachusetts are intitled to life, liberty and the means of sustenance, by the Grace of God, and without the leave of the King.” Note that they said not “pursuit of happiness”, but “means of sustenance”. This revolution was not about a lifestyle choice. It was about survival, for ordinary people.

The Worcester Revolution marked the end of British authority outside of Boston. The following month, in October 1774, delegates from across the Commonwealth assembled in Concord to organize a provisional government. Six months later, British troops marched out of Boston in a first attempt to re-conquer Massachusetts and reverse the revolution. The war we call the Revolutionary War, but which perhaps we should call the War to Defensd the Revolution, was on.

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Historian Ray Raphael calls the events that unfolded in Worcester on Sept. 6, 1774 the “pivotal event in the Massachusetts Revolution”, and thus of the entire American Revolution that followed. He records that Sept. 6 was celebrated as Revolution Day in Worcester County up until about 1820. Perhaps that custom died out because it never got written into the school books, or perhaps it was because somehow it didn’t fit with the narrative of the people who had come out on top in the end.

Eight years after the publication of Raphael’s book, nine years after Rushford began distributing his pamphlet at City Hall, even most people who grew up in Worcester and have lived their entire lives here know little or nothing about this dramatic episode in our history.

When I ask people what they know about Worcester’s history they can list who was born here, but every place had someone famous who was born there.

They mention things that were invented here, but every city has something that was invented there.

They mention the fact that George Washington slept here, but every city and town east of the Appalachians can tell you about when George Washington slept there.

When I ask them why a visitor from Europe or Japan should make a side trip to see Worcester, or whether anything really important ever happened here, they generally never have an answer. Hardly anyone mentions that Worcester was where the first women’s rights convention was held, or that Worcester was where slavery was first abolished in the English-speaking world in 1781.

And hardly anyone knows that Worcester was where events that marked the start of the American Revolution – events arguably at least as important as what happened in Concord in 1775 or in Philidelphia in 1776 - took place.

So why does hardly anyone in Worcester know this history?

And why does it matter?

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Almost all regular people agree: our government isn’t listening to us, and it’s out of control. People are suffering, fear and anger are growing, and there is a great feeling of hopelessness and desperation on the land. Foreclosures are continuing to increase, entire city blocks are being emptied and boarded up, the “recovery” isn’t happening for ordinary people, the foreign wars just go on and on, and our environment is becoming a disaster.

We managed to elect new governments in Massachusetts in 2006 and Washington in 2008 on campaigns of hope and change, but that change isn’t happening.

An overwhelming majority of the people supported a Medicare for All, solution to the health care crisis, but that was never even “allowed on the table” for discussion, and now Medicare is being gutted to pay for the Insurance Reform that we got instead.

Obama came in sounding like the reincarnation of Roosevelt, but gave those same banks - whose money helped elect him - a trillion dollars of public money with no strings attached, and now we’re getting a toothless “bank reform bill” that doesn’t touch their power!

The real unemployment rate is 20% or 25%, and Congress seems unable to reauthorize emergency extensions of unemployment insurance, which will dump 2 million long-term unemployed off the rolls and onto the streets, and in any case every week tens of thousands pass beyond the emergency 99-week limit and fall through the safety net.

We voted to end the wars, but the wars go on and on. We voted for transparency a return to the rule of law, an end to torturing prisoners - but the abuses go on and only get worse. Now Obama is openly ordering “hits” on American citizens abroad, without even a judicial review!

BP cut corners, took huge risks and produced a huge environmental disaster which could destroy the entire Gulf of Mexico, and our well-meaning President of the United States is exposed as powerless to do anything about it, reduced to the humiliation of playing “chief complainer and bottle washer!”

Governor Patrick in the meantime is running for reelection on excuses for why he wasn’t able to do much, blaming the Democratic legislature (!), the public workers, and “the economy”, yet he’s continued giving away money hand over fist to the large corporations. Under his Administration 97% of all corporate requests for tax breaks have been granted, but he can’t find money for teachers, fire, police or health care workers, stimulus money is sitting un-spent and the layoffs and violated union contracts continue!

The final straw for many of us was the Citizens United case the Supreme Court recently decided, which eliminates all limits on how much money a corporation can give to political candidates!

I could go on. The list of outrages against the people and against our democracy seems endless. But the upshot is that an overwhelming majority of ordinary people have concluded that we have lost control of our government, that the situation has become intolerable, and that something dramatic has to be done to take it back.

The best word we have for that kind of change is “revolution”. What stops us is perhaps that we don’t really know what a revolution is, and that the images we have of it scare us away.

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So as we celebrate Independence Day this July 4, the importance of learning about, talking about and celebrating the Worcester Revolution of 1774 is not just that it would put Worcester on the map, bring lots of tourists and give us a sense of pride and identity.

It’s also that it would give us a new sense of what is possible, a new sense of what democracy means, a new sense of the possibility the common people can reclaim our governments, our rights and our futures in a peaceful, democratic and dignified way.

Because the story of the Worcester Revolution of 1774 is a story of a time when ordinary people like ourselves, right here in Worcester, in a moment that was eerily like the present, actually did that and changed the world.

Let’s celebrate July 4 with real spirit, but let’s also plan to celebrate Revolution Day on Sept. 6, the way our forbearers used to!
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