Benjamin L. Carp is an Assistant Professor of History at Tufts University. His new book, Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution focuses on political activity in colonial America’s five most populous cities, tracing how everyday interactions in taverns, wharves, and elsewhere slowly developed into more serious political activity. In the original piece below Carp shows up the progression of violence in the colonies.
September 1764: the lawyer John Dickinson lodged a protest against the Pennsylvania Assembly’s petition to the king for a royal government. Assemblyman Joseph Galloway was outraged enough that he followed Dickinson out of the State House in Philadelphia and tried to seize Dickinson’s nose and whack him with his cane. Dickinson struck back with his own stick, and the two grappled until bystanders broke them up.
September 5, 1769: at the British Coffee House in Boston, the customs officer John Robinson took a cudgel to the lawyer James Otis’s head, leaving a large gash. Otis had been one of the principal opponents of British policy (including customs collection) in Massachusetts, but he was already showing signs of mental illness and an early biographer claimed that the wound accelerated his “derangement.”
January 3, 1775: the Loyalist John Case, sitting in a New York City tavern, got into an argument with a group of patriots about the imperial crisis. When words failed, the patriots gave him the silent treatment, and one may have threatened to brand Case’s rear end with a hot gridiron.
Wealthy, elite Americans, it seems, didn’t pull punches in the eighteenth century. In these three incidents, politics and personal disagreements had degenerated (or nearly so) into upper-class brawls. In some sense these moments were no different than dozens of others in the history of colonial America. Yet in all three cases, the relationship between the American colonies and the British Empire were at stake.
Brawls usually do not make history—or when they do, they are usually seen as the product of society’s rougher elements. Yet it’s also worth remembering that even among the elite, the coming of the American Revolution was not just a matter of abstract ideals. It was a process of political mobilization that unfolded in town squares, country courthouses, and city streets.
Why were politically charged brawls more likely to occur in cities? In each of these cities, you had 10,000 to 30,000 people crammed onto a small peninsula or island. People of all walks of life were in each other’s faces every day. The cities were the sites of international commerce and transportation, provincial politics, customs inspection, leading congregations, printing presses, the very wealthy, and the very poor. If fights over imperial policy were going to happen anywhere, they were going to happen here.
The process of mobilization shows just how difficult it was to convince a diverse group of city dwellers to form a coalition and argue against British policy. Yet the differences among city dwellers also allowed for creativity, uplift, and improved tactics. Not everyone had a taste for brawls, but nobody ever said revolution was going to be easy.