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The Democratic Moment: The Revolution and Popular Politics

Abstract and Keywords

Direct democracy was practiced within town meetings in colonial New England, driven by four overarching principles. First, citizens had a political voice as members of a specific geographic community, rather than as individuals. Second, “the mind of the town,” as it was called at the time, could be readily determined through public discourse in meetings of the enfranchised citizenry. Third, this collective will could be relayed to higher governing bodies by issuing specific and binding instructions to elected representatives. Finally, citizens who opposed the mind of the town could be forced to abide by it through community pressure. While the American Revolution elicited its own examples of popular, democratic politics outside of official chambers, the overall trend was in the opposite direction. Formal representational structures generally superseded meetings of the body of the people by liberty trees and liberty polls, county conventions of committees of correspondence, and local committees of safety, inspection, and observation.

Keywords: democracy, politics, American Revolution, town meetings, New England

On a September evening in 1774 Abigail Adams, at home in Braintree, Massachusetts, held a ringside seat to a revolution-in-the-making. From her window, Mrs. Adams watched some two hundred men who had gathered to seize gunpowder from the local powder house and force the sheriff to burn two warrants he was attempting to deliver. Some might call these men a “mob,” but Adams observed otherwise. Successful in their missions, the men wanted to celebrate with a loud “huzza.” Normally they would, but there were extenuating circumstances this time. Should they, or should they not, disturb the Sabbath? “They call’d a vote,” Abigail reported to John, who was in Philadelphia at the time attending the First Continental Congress, and “it being Sunday evening it passed in the negative.”1

Such men (and they were all men and virtually all men of property), and their fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers before them, had plenty of experience with voting. For more than a century, Massachusetts citizens meeting basic property requirements, estimated variously as 60 percent to 90 percent of the adult male population, had been voting in their town meetings for selectmen, town clerks, treasurers, constables, sealers of leather, clerks of the market, collectors of highway taxes, fence viewers, tithing men, deer reeves, hog reeves, and a score of other local officers, including grave diggers. They had voted, too, on such pressing matters as whether to offer bounties for “grown wild cats” and what those bounties (p. 122) should be. They voted for representatives to the General Court, and then they voted on the instructions these representatives were to follow. “All officers are nothing more, than servants to the people,” the town of Worcester reminded its representative. Even town committees were given detailed instructions and then told they were “hereby wholly forbidden to act any thing to ye contrary whatsoever.” In this communitarian society, where individuals were expected to worship together and govern together, the will of the people was to be discovered by democratic means and then enforced. No individual, and certainly no “leader,” could violate it.2

These colonials, in a word, kept their democracy close to home. They delegated tasks but not authority. The town meeting, not its agents, set policy on matters small and large. No colonial political development was more indicative of this fact than the profusion of specific instructions, issued by voters to their representatives and intended very clearly to circumscribe the authority of the latter. By 1689 citizens of Boston, for instance, had already issued instructions to their representatives on at least eighteen occasions. Through the early decades of the eighteenth century, these local imperatives became common practice. Towns throughout Massachusetts routinely instructed their representatives on how to vote about a range of both local and provincial issues. And by the imperial crisis of the 1760s, the citizenry was well accustomed to speaking its collective mind through instructions.3

This kind of direct democracy, as practiced within town meetings in colonial New England, was driven by four overarching principles. First, citizens had a political voice not as individuals but as members of a specific geographic community. There was no “I” without “We.” Second, “the mind of the town,” as they said at the time, could be readily determined through public discourse in meetings of the enfranchised citizenry. Third, this collective will could be transmitted to higher governing bodies by issuing specific and binding instructions to elected representatives. Finally, people who opposed the mind of the town could be forced to abide by it through community pressure. Civil liberties might be shielded against intrusions by the Crown or its placemen, but townsfolk who found themselves in a political minority received no protection from their neighbors if they interfered with what had been declared the public good.

The close connection between localities and their representatives differed sharply from English practice. As a host of British statesmen tried to explain to the rebelling colonists, in England nobody was “actually” represented, in the colonial fashion. That is, Britons had no expectation that representatives in Parliament would subscribe to the specific wishes of those who elected them. Rather, they understood themselves to be “virtually” represented. Although they elected members of Parliament, those MPs were in no way bound to any particular constituency. As one well-known defender of the principle put it, “every Member of Parliament sits in the House, not as Representative of his own constituents, but as one of that august Assembly by which all the Commons of Great Britain are represented.” Edmund Burke, the Irish-born parliamentarian who would later be known for his support of the patriot cause, explained to his Bristol constituency, “Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the (p. 123) whole, where not local purposes, not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole.” It is difficult to imagine two more different forms of representation than those prevailing in Georgian Britain and pre-Revolutionary Massachusetts.4

The democratic processes of early Massachusetts had little in common with those of the modern, democratic United States. At present, Americans elect representatives who then make decisions with no more than informal feedback from their constituencies, and the resultant policies are carried out by a different set of officials entrusted with executive power. In pre-Revolutionary New England, on the other hand, the citizenry gathered in local deliberative bodies that debated and acted directly on the issues of the day, and once policies were set, the community as a body enforced them. The people were both the legislative and the executive branches of government. This kind of democracy, raw and direct, was ideally suited for revolutionary activity. If citizens favoring radical actions prevailed at town meetings, they could influence the provincial assembly by issuing binding instructions to their representatives while simultaneously suppressing opposition to their program within their home communities.

And why limit democracy to formal town meetings? “Out-of-doors” or “out-of-chambers,” as they said at the time, in public houses or by liberty trees and liberty poles or in open-air forums proximate to the seats of official authority, people would soon gather to make and implement policy. Overwhelming numbers of the citizenry, crossing social classes and acting in concert, would prove impossible to contain. The people would have their say and their way.

Any full sense of the American Revolution must come to grips with this remarkably open political culture. It must explain just how it functioned, and perhaps, most important, just how it shaped the course of the Revolution. Only in doing so do we gain an accurate picture of political experience during the Revolution. What that picture suggests is that the years leading up to and immediately proceeding independence witnessed a dramatic intensification of popular assertions of sovereignty.

Starting in the mid 1760s, town meeting instructions both challenged parliamentary authority and promoted a more democratic and equitable society within Massachusetts. In 1764 and 1765 Samuel Adams struck his first blows against imperial overreach by drafting instructions to Boston’s representatives, demanding they oppose Parliament’s latest efforts at taxing colonials. Likewise, John Adams drafted instructions for Braintree: “We, the freeholders and other inhabitants, legally assembled for this purpose, must enjoin it upon you, to comply with no measures or proposals for countenancing the same [the Stamp Act], or assisting in the execution of it.” At least forty-eight other Massachusetts towns instructed their representatives to oppose execution of the Stamp Act. With the Stamp Act’s repeal, emboldened and politicized citizens eyed other issues. In 1766 the town of Worcester instructed its representative “to use the whole of your influence and endeavor” to open proceedings of the assembly and Council, to end the practice of multiple officeholding, and to terminate tax-supported Latin schools, of no use to (p. 124) ordinary citizens. The following year, they told their representative to “take special care of the liberty of the press” and to “use your influence to obtain a law to put an end to that unchristian and impolitick practice of making slaves of the humane species in this province.” These were not requests but demands. Worcester’s representative was told that only if he would “adhere to these our instructions, would [he] avoid our just resentment.”5

In 1772 activists in Boston conjured a way to involve town meetings even more deeply in the resistance movement. On behalf of the Boston town meeting, they sent a letter to each town meeting in Massachusetts, suggesting it form its own committee of correspondence. Such committees had emerged in some locations in the 1760s, but they failed to take root in rural communities, where farmers living miles apart could not find the time to attend frequent political gatherings. Now, in Massachusetts and possibly other New England colonies, committees of correspondence would exploit the existing town meeting infrastructure. In each town local activists would be appointed to the committee of correspondence, thereby giving them official standing and the ability to place issues on the town meeting agenda. The committee would also alert local citizens to the threats of imperial overreach while coordinating with committees from other towns. Most towns responded favorably to the idea, and by midsummer of 1773 committees of correspondence had been established throughout the countryside, where the overwhelming majority of the population resided.6

So by 1774, when Parliament passed the Coercive Acts, a democratic revolutionary infrastructure was firmly in place throughout Massachusetts—and it was put to use. While the Boston Port Act triggered strong resistance, it was the Massachusetts Government Act that brought the province to the point of revolution. That bill outlawed town meetings, except under strict supervision by the royal governor; it also stipulated that members of the governor’s powerful council, formerly elected by the people’s representatives in the assembly, were to be appointed by the Crown, and that lesser officials, formerly under community control, were to be appointed by the governor. Effectively disenfranchised, people gathered formally in town meetings, committee meetings, and county conventions of the committees of correspondence, and informally in taverns, blacksmith shops, and village greens, to plot a two-pronged strategy. First, they would continue to govern themselves through their own town meetings, contrary to the new law. And second, they would shut down all other levels of provincial government until the offending measures were repealed.

“The towns through the country are so far from being intimidated,” wrote Boston merchant John Andrews, “that a day in the week does not pass without one or more having meetings, in direct contempt of the Act, which they regard as a blank piece of paper and not more.” One meeting gained particular notoriety. Governor Thomas Gage, hoping to put the seat of provincial government at some distance from radicals in Boston, had removed his office to Salem, fifteen miles to the north, but people there proved as difficult to govern as those in Boston. When the local committee of correspondence (not the town’s selectmen, as was the (p. 125) custom) announced a town meeting, Governor Gage summoned the seven perpetrators and ordered them to call it off. The committee members responded, “the inhabitants being assembled, they would act as they saw fit.” Two companies of British regulars, on duty nearby, marched to the town entrance, loaded their guns, and continued toward the courthouse, but by then the meeting had finished its business. When Gage arrested the seven alleged leaders who had defied him, some three thousand locals gathered quickly and marched on the jail to set the prisoners free. Rather than risk open warfare, Gage ordered the soldiers not to confront the crowd, and a judge soon released the prisoners. “Notwithstanding all the parade the governor made at Salem on account of their meeting,” Andrews wrote, “they had another one directly under his nose at Danvers [the neighboring town], and continued it two or three howers longer than was necessary, to see if he would interrupt ’em. He was acquainted with it, but reply’d—‘Damn ’em! I won’t do any thing about it unless his Majesty sends me more troops.’”7

To shut down the provincial government, county conventions of delegates from the committees of correspondence called upon “the inhabitants of this county, to attend, in person,” the quarterly sessions of the county courts. The Court of Common Pleas, which heard civil cases, and the Court of General Session, which heard criminal appeals from justices of the peace and served as the administrative arm of local government, constituted the outer limit of British authority under the detested Massachusetts Government Act. To shut down the courts was to deny Britain’s ability to rule, and that was exactly what the committees of correspondence set out to do. In each shire town (county seat), on the day the courts were slated to open, great numbers of local citizens showed up to make certain they did not.8

On September 6, approximately half the adult male population of Worcester County gathered to depose the judges and court officials. Although the numbers rivaled those of the largest urban crowds in Boston, the manner and organization was altogether different. Participants came not as autonomous individuals but as members of militia companies from their respective towns. Breck Parkman, one of the participants, went through the ranks and counted them all: 45 men from Winchendon on the New Hampshire border, 156 from Uxbridge on the Rhode Island line, and so on, a total of 4,622 citizen-soldiers from thirty-seven distinct townships. Each company had already elected a captain, its military leader, and as soon as the men arrived in town they selected a political representative, empowered to serve for one day only. These thirty-seven men formed a committee to deal with the two dozen judges and court officials who huddled inside Daniel Heywood’s tavern, having been denied access to the courthouse. That committee then chose a smaller subcommittee “to wait on the judges” and hammer out the details of a formal recantation, which the judges and other officials would have to sign. After completing a draft, the subcommittee turned it over to the thirty-seven representatives, who took it back to their various militia companies for approval—or disapproval, as it turned out. The judges’ statement, in Parkman’s words, “was not satisfying.” So the committee returned to the judges, composed a new draft, and (p. 126) sent it out once again for the consideration of all 4,622 citizen-soldiers, who had the final say. The militia companies were functioning as mobile town meetings.9

By midafternoon, with the recantation approved, the ceremonial surrender of authority could commence. The militia companies arranged themselves along Main Street for the quarter-mile stretch between the courthouse and Heywood’s tavern, half on each side. Then, as each court official emerged from the tavern, hat in hand, he recited his recantation first to 120 militiamen from Templeton, closest to Heywood’s, then to Upton’s company of 100, and in like manner to each of the other companies in succession, ending with the 156 from Uxbridge, standing closest to the courthouse. Every militiaman heard every official pledge “that all judicial proceeding be stayed…on account of the unconstitutional act of Parliament…which, if effected, will reduce the inhabitants to mere arbitrary power.” With this humiliating submission, all British authority, both political and military, disappeared forever from Worcester County.10

Worcester County’s committees of correspondence, now a de facto governing body, convened two weeks later to prepare for an expected British counteroffensive. They reorganized the county’s militia into seven regiments, asked each township to enlist one-third of its men “to be ready to act at a minute’s warning,” and recommended that each militia company elect its own officers, who would then choose field officers for their regiments. Electing captains was common practice, but electing higher officers was something new. This was to be a thoroughly democratic army of citizens, from bottom to top.11

Two weeks after that, on October 4, 1774, the Worcester town meeting issued instructions to Timothy Bigelow, its representative to a forthcoming provincial congress. With the 1691 Massachusetts charter no longer binding, the meeting told him, “you are to exert yourself in devising ways and means to raise from the dissolution of the old constitution, as from the ashes of the Phenix, a new form, wherein all officers shall be dependent on the suffrages of the people.” Twenty-one months before the Declaration of Independence, the independent-minded citizens of Worcester, voting democratically in their town meeting, declared they were ready to form a new government, “whatever unfavorable constructions our enemies may put upon such procedure.”12

In Boston, with its differentiated society and varied constituencies, revolutionary democracy was less personal and cohesive. Political activists, gathering in their various organizing caucuses, certainly worked closely with each other—the Boston caucus had been influencing city politics since the 1720s, and several groups emerging during the Revolutionary era enabled greater participation than the large town meeting could allow—but the many mass events, from the initial Stamp Act protest on August 14, 1765, to the climactic meeting of the Tea Act crisis at Old South Meeting House on December 16, 1773, lacked intermediate bodies such as the militia companies in Worcester, which enabled each participant to take an active role in decision making.

Urban political actions depended on alliances among constituencies with differing but often complementary interests and skill sets. Initially, merchants led (p. 127) the protests against imperial policies. When James Otis challenged the writs of assistance before the Superior Court in 1761, he had been hired to do so by a group of sixty-three merchants. More than half a century later John Adams tried to credit Otis with starting the whole affair, but for two years before Otis’s court challenge, merchant-smugglers, protecting their livelihoods, had been suing for damages, signing petitions, and persuading their own trade organization, the Boston Society for Encouraging Trade and Commerce, to take an active role in resisting a customs crackdown.13

This mercantile resistance gave way to much broader, more-inclusive patterns with the passage of the Stamp Act, a measure ideally suited to broadening the base of resistance. The act required all colonists to purchase government-issued stamps for “every skin or piece of vellum or parchment, or sheet or piece of paper” they used for court documents, contracts, licenses, newspapers, almanacs, and even playing cards. Instead of petitioning and pleading their case in court, as had the Boston merchants, diverse groups took to the streets. Although a small group calling themselves the Loyal Nine—two distillers, two braziers, a printer, a jeweler, a painter, a merchant, and a ship’s captain—seem to have planned the August 14, 1765, demonstration that was soon replicated in other cities, the staging bears a close resemblance to the annual Pope’s Day festivities, distinctly lower-class affairs in which an effigy of the pope was paraded through the streets and burned. The nominal leader who marched at the head of subsequent Stamp Act protests in Boston was Ebenezer Mackintosh, a common shoemaker with extensive Pope’s Day experience.14

The nonimportation and nonconsumption agreements of 1768–1770 (prompted by the Townshend duties, named for Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend) further expanded popular political activism. Merchants who traded abroad, the most prosperous group in Boston, stood to gain once the duties were repealed, but with fewer wares to sell, they would lose in the short run. Artisans, on the other hand, stood to gain immediately. With these shifting economic implications came shifting political alliances as patriots worked to insure the integrity of the nonimportation movement. Now, instead of a collection of only merchants—whose economic interests were seriously damaged by both the Townshend duties and the colonists’ response—Boston patriots set out to expand their base of support. They thus transformed the Boston Society for Encouraging Trade and Commerce, which had been primarily a merchant organization, into the Merchants and Traders of Boston, whose membership was now open to small traders and even artisans. Then, seeking to further expand the scope of nonimportation, in January of 1770 the group broadened its base again, welcoming every citizen of Boston.15

Now referring to itself as “the Body of the Trade,” or often simply “the Body,” the new group gathered in Faneuil Hall, a large meeting room Peter Faneuil had constructed above his marketplace in 1742 (the building was gutted by a fire in 1761 but quickly resurrected). The hall had been serving as home of the Boston town meeting, but now the Body—the voice of the people—would meet here to promote nonimportation. Men with no significant property but lots to say, people like (p. 128) William Molineux, a petty merchant, and Thomas Young, a country doctor who had come to Boston specifically to engage in its radical politics, assumed leadership roles. “What a noble school is our spacious hall,” Young wrote, “where the meanest citizen ratable at £20 beside the poll, may deliver his sentiments and give his suffrage in very important matters, as freely as the greatest Lord in the Land!”16

Indoors, the Body plotted; outdoors, it marched on the businesses and even homes of recalcitrant merchants who continued to sell British goods. The number of men who actually spoke at these large gatherings was relatively small, but those who participated were numerous. A march on a merchant, for instance, could include over one thousand men and teenage boys. But it was perhaps in consumption—or lack thereof—that the most democratic political gesture lay. Female heads of households, in particular, drove the protest against the British Empire through their purchasing choices.

Other major port cities, central to the success of nonimportation, lacked the organizational structure of a town meeting and the physical structure of a Faneuil Hall, but “the body of the people”—a contemporary term that presumed an authority even higher than that of Parliament—still drove a revolutionary agenda. In New York, where the mayor and other leading officials were appointed by the colonial governor and his council, activists took their politics to taverns and to open-air forums such as the Common (also known as the Fields). There, participants responded to the harangues of privateer captains Isaac Sears and Alexander McDougall and fellow radical John Lamb. On one occasion, dubbed the battle of Golden Hill, New York toughs hurled stones and wielded clubs against British soldiers; on another, radicals physically scuffled with moderates over control of the resistance movement. Artisans calling themselves variously the Body of Mechanics or the Mechanics in Union pushed for radical measures, but when this group urged New York’s Provincial Congress to push for independence in 1776, the Provincial Congress rejected the request, claiming the Mechanics in Union was no more than a “voluntary association” without “any authority whatsoever in the public transactions of the present times.” Only in New England, with its town hall governance, were local bodies officially entitled to speak for the people; elsewhere, revolutionary organizations professing to represent the people’s will had to fight for recognition.17

In Philadelphia the peoples’ outdoor venue was the State House Yard, adjacent to the official seat of government, which the Pennsylvania Assembly defined as “a public open green and walk forever.” At several critical junctures thousands of people gathered there to shape public policy. Large crowds forced the Stamp Act distributor to resign in 1765, supported the Massachusetts Assembly’s circular letter defying Secretary of State Lord Hillsborough in 1768, sent a ship laden with tea back to London in 1773, endorsed the formation of a Continental Congress in 1774, and “unanimously agreed” to take up arms in response to the British assault on Lexington and Concord in 1775. On May 20, 1776, in a driving rain, a gathering estimated at four thousand people decided to replace the conservative assembly and establish a new government.18

(p. 129) In Charleston, South Carolina, an unincorporated city without any governmental structure of its own, Christopher Gadsden and twenty-five artisans who called themselves “defenders and supporters of American Liberty” commemorated the repeal of the Stamp Act by joining hands around a large oak on the edge of town that they, like their counterparts in Boston, christened “Liberty Tree.” This became not only the adoptive home of the local resistance movement but also the site of de facto, extralegal town government. In 1768, meeting announcements were addressed to “mechanics and many other inhabitants of this town.” In September 1769, a newspaper announcement referred more broadly to a “General Meeting of inhabitants…at liberty tree,” and at this meeting, citizens were expected not only to address nonimportation but also “to consider of other Matters for the General Good.” By 1770 Liberty Tree meetings were held monthly, and those who attended were referred to as “the body of the people,” as in northern cities.19

As politics moved outdoors, the nature of political authority changed. Formerly, politics in Charleston had been considered the province of those with ample property, but now, ordinary people who worked with their hands joined with their “betters.” The gathering of July 22, 1769, is telling. In the preceding weeks, mechanics and planters had hammered out a nonimportation agreement that prohibited, among other items, the sale of mourning clothes; merchants, with large quantities already in stock, countered with a less stringent measure. The opposing factions then engaged in detailed negotiations, and finally, at the July Liberty Tree meeting, Gadsden, a prominent merchant and planter who was allied with artisans, read aloud the joint agreement, paragraph by paragraph. The people discussed and voted on each measure, and in the end the joint agreement was approved and signed by 268 men. The meeting then appointed a committee to enforce the agreement, composed equally of thirteen mechanics, thirteen planters, and thirteen merchants. (Enslaved people, who composed a majority of the city’s population, were not included in any of this.) The success of nonimportation, and later the Revolution itself, depended on alliances that transcended particular interests, and here in Charleston such an alliance was implemented on a formal basis.20

While the boycotts resulting from the Townshend Acts were limited to specific regions, the Continental Association of 1774 provided means for every person in the colonies to participate in revolutionary activity. Responding to pressures from constituents, delegates to the First Continental Congress revived nonimportation and called for its implementation on a pan-colonial scale. Previously, merchants and other patriots had signed local agreements; this time, Congress created an “agreement” on behalf of the entire populace, assuming for itself a quasi-legislative function. The congressionally sanctioned “Association,” as it was known, became the voice, and force, of Revolutionary America. The key lay in its implementation, outlined in section eleven:

That a committee be chosen in every county, city, and town, by those who are qualified to vote for representatives in the legislature, whose business it shall be attentively to observe the conduct of all personals touching this association; and when it shall be made to appear, to the satisfaction of a majority of any such (p. 130) committee, that any person…has violated this association, that such majority do forthwith cause the truth of the case to be published in the gazette; to the end, that all such foes to the rights of British-America may be publicly known, and universally contemned as the enemies of American liberty; and thenceforth we respectively will break off all dealings with him or her.

With this provision Congress created a new level of quasi-official, democratically elected authority that would effectively challenge imperial rule. Each local enforcement committee, called a committee of safety, committee of inspection, or committee of observation, assumed legislative, law enforcement, and judicial powers in all. Over the next two years, before new states formed official constitutions, local committees effectively governed their communities. The committees for Albany and Schenectady, for instance, not only supplied the army and seized contraband goods but also provided water, repaired pumps and bridges, inspected chimneys, fought fires, maintained roads, operated ferries, licensed taverns, administered jails, forbade smallpox vaccinations, mediated custody disputes, set the town clocks, and so on.21

These committees, while providing an infrastructure in the absence of formal government, embodied the democratic spirit of these early Revolutionary years. Historians have estimated that some ten thousand free white men, of widely varying socioeconomic backgrounds, were elected to these various local committees. As patriots reached ever deeper into the populace for support, the committees grew to incorporate wider constituencies. New York City’s committee expanded from 51 to 60 to 100, Albany’s from 15 to 153, Tryon County’s from 4 to 30. Committees assumed the moral authority, if not the legal authority, to govern precisely because they were elected by the people at large, not appointed by political action groups or even legislative assemblies. A writer calling himself “A Poor Man” boasted that under committee-based rule “the people have all the weight and influence they ought to have, and are effectually represented.” The Albany Committee actually mandated popular democracy, making presence at a public meeting compulsory for all men “whatsoever able to attend.”22

From the late summer and fall of 1774, when British authority effectively disappeared, until the early summer of 1776, when Americans fully embraced independence, extralegal bodies, including both crowds and committees, justified their actions by claiming that in the absence of legal, representational authority, the body of the people must rule directly. In Longmeadow, Massachusetts, townsfolk raided the store of Samuel Colton to protest his allegedly exorbitant prices. Later, toward the end of the war, Colton petitioned the General Assembly for restitution, claiming “a great number of persons blackt and in disguise” had “carried away the whole of his rum and salt &c, except a trifle left for private use, ransacking and searching his house from top to bottom plundering and carrying away what they saw fit.” Justifying their actions, 126 citizens (including 16 with the last name of Colton) argued that at the outset of the “contest” with Great Britain, “there was a considerable time when the courts of justice were shut up and the operation of the laws of the land suspended and all power having originated from the body of the (p. 131) people reverted back to is source and fountain and was in fact exercised by them in some instances and in others by committees appointed by the people for that purpose.” During that period, “it was found necessary to hinder some members of the community from acting contrary to the general welfare….Many things were done by the body of the people and by their committees, which could not be justified at a time when justice was administered by the law of the land, tho at the time of doing them they were not only justifiable but necessary and commendable as being done for the general good.” The assembly agreed, granting immunity to the extralegal raiders of Colton’s store.23

In addition to the official committees charged with enforcing the Continental Association and the unofficial crowds they inspired, examples of revolutionary democracy during this period could be found in militia units and volunteer military associations. In the mobilization following the Lexington alarm, volunteer military organizations in Pennsylvania and Virginia mimicked the democratic organization of New England militias, with the volunteers voting for their own officers and even shaping policy. In Virginia, this conduct sparked a backlash; the gentry quickly revamped the provincial military structure, eliminating the volunteer companies and placing in their stead a more organized and coordinated army of “minutemen” in which officers were to be appointed, not elected, and paid between twelve and one hundred times as much as privates. In Philadelphia and nearby towns, on the other hand, a revolutionary organization called the Committee of Privates enabled each militiaman to have his say in public affairs. Allied with a cadre of radical activists that included Thomas Paine, the Committee of Privates helped dismantle the Pennsylvania Assembly, stage a constitutional convention, and create the radically democratic Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776. Among the more radical provisions of the latter, all proceedings in the legislature would be open to the public, all proposed bills would be published in advance, and no bill would become final until after the next set of elections. Each of these measures was designed to ensure the people’s direct influence on policy.24

In the spring of 1776, many of these bodies used the medium of instructions to weigh in on the great debate consuming the rebellious colonies. The historian Pauline Maier’s list of eighty-five official and quasi-official bodies that instructed representatives during the march to independence includes fifty-seven Massachusetts towns but also nine state assemblies or conventions (including six outside New England), eight county conventions in Virginia and Maryland, five militia units and military associations in Pennsylvania, three grand juries in South Carolina (grand juries there and elsewhere performed many functions of local government), and two districts in New York. Even New York City’s Mechanics in Union instructed their representatives in Congress to vote for independence. Issuing instructions had become standard practice for any group presuming to embody the citizenry. While Maryland’s delegates to Congress had originally opposed independence, four county conventions in June forced them to change their votes. “See the glorious effects of county instructions,” Samuel Chase boasted to Adams in a letter Adams opened on the floor of Congress on July 1, 1776.25

(p. 132) While the Revolutionary War elicited its own examples of popular, democratic politics outside of official chambers, the overall trend was in the opposite direction. Meetings of the body of the people by liberty trees and liberty polls, county conventions of committees of correspondence, and local committees of safety, inspection, and observation were for the most part superseded by formal representational structures. According to the preamble of New York’s 1777 constitution, popularly elected committees were “temporary expedients…to exist no longer than the grievances of the people should remain without redress.” Once the new state constitutions were in place, extralegal venues undermined legitimate channels of authority, and they could even be outlawed by new state law. Even Samuel Adams, no stranger to popular political activism, now opposed unauthorized protest: “County Conventions & popular Committees served an excellent Purpose when they were first in Practice [but] as we now have constitutional & regular Governments and all our Men in Authority depend upon the annual & free Elections of the People, we are safe without them. To say the least, they are become useless.”26

Still, one vestige of an earlier politics remained: “those simple democracies in all our Towns which are the Basis of our State Constitutions,” as Adams called the New England town meetings. Because Massachusetts’s 1780 constitution guaranteed the right of the people “to give instructions to their representatives,” governmental authority still rested firmly on town meeting democracy. (That constitution, unlike those of other states, had required approval from the towns before it could take effect.) The constitutions of three other states—Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Virginia, as well as Vermont, which was not yet a state—insured people the right of instruction. The notion that people should be directly involved in decision making, rather than vesting elected representatives with discretionary authority, was still ingrained in popular revolutionary ideology.27

During the agrarian unrest that culminated in the Massachusetts Regulation of 1786–1787 (often called Shays’s Rebellion), towns issued more than one hundred instructions, telling their representatives to push for paper money, shift the tax burden from land to commerce, move the state capital from Boston to the interior, or even terminate the entire legal profession. Protestors gathered in extralegal county conventions and tried to shut down the courts, as they had done in 1774. But the situations were not the same, nor were the results. During the earlier protests, an overwhelming majority opposed measures that had disenfranchised the citizenry; now, the people were divided. Votes in the Worcester town meeting during the latter rebellion were persistently split down the middle, with the narrowest of majorities supporting the county conventions. In 1774, when people gathered by the thousands to close the courts, they faced little resistance; this time, the numbers were smaller and the resistance stronger. There was no body of the people per se, just a collection of factions. In this context, direct democracy—people voting on every matter—lost both moral force and practical utility. The will of the people could not be easily determined, and attempts to do so out-of-doors only seemed to invite civil discord.28

(p. 133) During the Pennsylvania Regulation of 1794 (dubbed by Alexander Hamilton the “Whiskey Rebellion”), protestors gathered once again under liberty poles and liberty trees. The Democratic-Republican Societies and similar groups in the 1790s asserted the right of the citizenry to assemble and determine its own political destiny. But direct democracy, in which the people created and enforced public policy or dictated to their representatives exactly what they should do, was taking a new turn. Although New England town meetings continued to issue instructions on broad political issues, and although people out-of-doors still issued instructions of their own, these directives no longer carried their former weight. What once might have been considered the will of the people was now treated as the interest of particular groups. In the early stages of the Revolution, advocates of direct democracy could imagine a unified body politic, acting collectively to compel government to express its will; now, democracy appeared a cacophonous jostling of interests, paralyzed by never-ending, contentious debate.29

The expanding size of the nation certainly contributed to this shift, but so too did the entrenchment of the nation-state. Direct democracy was (and still is) inherently revolutionary. If government is based immediately on the will of the people, and that will changes, so too can the government. In 1776, Virginia’s Declaration of Rights had stated, “Whenever any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community hath an indubitable, unalienable and indefeasible right to reform, alter or abolish it.” But in 1789, when Madison proposed to amend the Constitution with a Bill of Rights, he solemnly noted “that the people have an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform or change their government, when it be found adverse or inadequate to the purposes of its institution.” No longer was “abolish” an option, for there was now a higher order, even above the people themselves: the Constitution, which the people had endorsed.30

The fate of the right of instruction is yet a further indication of the shift. On August 15, 1789, in the first federal Congress, when a House committee brought to the floor a slightly altered version of Madison’s original Bill of Rights, Dr. Thomas Tucker, a South Carolina Anti-Federalist, noted a troublesome omission. One of the committee’s suggestions, which would soon evolve into the First Amendment, was based on an amendment first proposed by the Virginia Ratification Convention. That amendment had stated “that the people have a right peaceably to assemble together to consult for the common good, or to instruct their representatives; and that every freeman has a right to petition or apply to the Legislature for redress of grievances.” The committee left most of this language intact. But Tucker wondered why “the most material part,” the phrase about instructions, had been left out, and he moved to reinstate it. This triggered a debate more intensive, and seemingly more heated, than that provoked by any other component of what would become the Bill of Rights. For the better part of a day, congressmen declared in favor of either a representative government, in which elected leaders were free to deliberate and decide on their own, or a pure democracy, in which the people led and leaders followed, or something in between, in which people maintained the right to issue instructions but representatives could reject them with good cause.31

(p. 134) Predictably, Tucker’s motion was greeted with disdain by confirmed Federalists. Pennsylvania’s Thomas Hartley, for instance, sounding like Thomas Hutchinson or Edmund Burke, declared, “Representation is the principle of our Government; the people ought to have confidence in the honor and integrity of those they send forward to transact their business….Happy is that Government composed of men of firmness and wisdom to discover, and resist popular error.” John Page, a Virginia Anti-Federalist, countered by equating the right of instructions with the fundamental notion of popular sovereignty: “Our Government is derived from the people, of consequence the people have a right to consult for the common good; but to what end will this be done, if they have not the power of instructing their representatives? Instruction and representation in a republic appear to me to be inseparably connected.” The sparring continued. Roger Sherman, a veteran of the Constitutional Convention, argued that instructions from local constituencies would prove detrimental to passing “such acts as are for the general benefit of the whole community.” Deliberation would come to an end, he said. A congressional representative would simply “produce his instruction, and lay them on the table, and let them speak for him.” Elbridge Gerry, a veteran of the convention but one of the three nonsigners, countered, “The friends and patrons of this constitution have always declared that the sovereignty resides in the people,…[but] to say the sovereignty vests in the people, and that they have not a right to instruct and control their representatives, is absurd to the last degree.” This heated rhetoric only aggravated Michael Jenifer Stone, a prominent fifth-generation planter from Maryland, who declared boldly, “I think the clause would change the Government entirely; instead of being a Government founded upon representation, it would be a democracy of singular proportions.”32

Increasingly restless after several hours of back-and-forth, several congressmen pushed to end the debate, but diehards resisted. The conclusion is best described in the contemporary register of the congressional debates: “The question was now called for from several parts of the House; but a desultory conversation took place before the question was put. At length the call becoming general, it was stated from the chair, and determined in the negative, 10 rising in favor of it, and 41 against it.” So ended the right of instructions to federal representatives. While some states still protected the right to instruct representatives within state government, no town meeting or county convention or grand jury or any other body would have the right to instruct an elected federal official. A representative could do as he pleased, at the risk of being turned out of office in the next election. Once every two years, the people could give a simple up or down vote on the representative they had chosen, but that was all.33

Rejection of the right to instruct on national matters, along with the decline of popular venues in which the will of the people could be meaningfully determined, permanently reshaped democracy in America. What we think of today as the “Age of Democracy”—Jeffersonian agrarianism, Jacksonian democracy, and so on—lay in the future, but these would assume forms that differed significantly from the direct democracy that figured so prominently in forming the nation. People would (p. 135) debate public matters in the press, in taverns, or on the streets, and as Alexis de Tocqueville famously observed, they would come together for a host of political, social, and religious purposes. While these associations came to characterize and define American society as “democratic,” they did not allow the body of the people, as defined in Revolutionary days, to enact public policy. Strangely, the American people were never again so directly in charge of their effective governing apparatus as they were during the brief period after British rule had begun to collapse and before a new set of republican constitutional principles were fully enacted.


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                                              (1.) Abigail Adams to John Adams, September 14, 1774, in Adams Family Correspondence, ed. L. H. Butterfield (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963), 1:152.

                                              (2.) Franklin P. Rice, ed., Worcester Town Records from 1753 to 1783 (Worcester, MA: Worcester Society of Antiquity, 1882), 2, 142; Michael Zuckerman, Peaceable Kingdoms: New England Towns in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970), 166, 212–213.

                                              (3.) Kenneth Colegrove, “New England Town Mandates,” Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Publications 21 (1919): 416, 428–430, 433–435; Edmund S. Morgan, Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America (W. W. Norton, 1988), 212–213.

                                              (4.) Thomas Whateley quoted in Gordon S. Wood, Representation in the American Revolution (1969; rev. ed., Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008), 4. Burke quoted in ibid., 6.

                                              (5.) Colegrove, “Town Mandates,” 436–437. Morgan, Inventing the People, 213; Papers of John Adams, ed. Robert J. Taylor et al. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1977–) 1:129–144; Boston Gazette, October 14, 1765; William Lincoln, History of Worcester, Massachusetts, from Its Earliest Settlement to September, 1836 (Worcester: Charles Hersey, 1862), 66–68.

                                              (6.) Richard D. Brown, Revolutionary Politics in Massachusetts: The Boston Committee of Correspondence and the Towns, 1772–1774 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1976), 94–99.

                                              (7.) John Andrews, “Letters of John Andrews of Boston, 1772–1776,” Massachusetts Historical Society, Proceedings 8 (1864–1865): 348; Salem Committee of Correspondence to Boston Committee of Correspondence, August 25, 1774, in Province in Rebellion: A Documentary History of the Founding of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1774–1775, ed. L. Kinvin Wroth (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975), 817 (document 281).

                                              (8.) Worcester County Convention, August 31, 1774, The Journals of Each Provincial Congress of Massachusetts in 1774 and 1775, and of the Committee of Safety, with an Appendix, Containing the Proceedings of the County Conventions, ed. William Lincoln (Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1838), 632.

                                              (9.) Worcester County Convention, September 6, 1774, Lincoln, Journals of Provincial Congress…County Conventions, 635; Ebenezer Parkman, Diary, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, MA.

                                              (10.) Parkman, Diary; Lincoln, Journals of Provincial Congress…County Conventions, 637.

                                              (11.) Worcester County Convention, September 21, 1774, Lincoln, Journals of Provincial Congress…County Conventions, 643.

                                              (12.) Rice, Worcester Town Records, 244.

                                              (13.) Their writs of assistance petition, which Otis presented and supported, continued in this vein, but it was hardly “the first scene of the first act of opposition,” as Adams claimed. John Adams to William Tudor, March 29, 1817, in Familiar Letters of John Adams and His Wife Abigail Adams, during the Revolution, ed. Charles Francis Adams (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1876), 10:248; John W. Tyler, Smugglers and Patriots: Boston Merchants and the Advent of the American Revolution (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986), 25–63.

                                              (14.) Alfred F. Young, “Ebenezer Mackintosh: Boston’s Captain General of the Liberty Tree,” in Revolution Founders: Rebels, Radicals, and Reformers in the Making of the Nation, ed. Alfred F. Young, Gary B. Nash, and Ray Raphael (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 15–33.

                                              (15.) Tyler, Smugglers and Patriots, 138–169. The Boston Gazette, cited by Tyler, explained why the merchants’ trade organization could become so inclusive: since “the Town itself subsists by trade,…every inhabitant may be considered as connected with it.”

                                              (16.) Thomas Young to Hugh Hughes, March 22, 1770, Huntington Library, quoted in Ray Raphael, Founders: The People Who Brought You a Nation (New York: New Press, 2009), 80–81.

                                              (17.) Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York: Vintage, 1998), 68. For the absence of town meeting–styled venues outside New England see Colegrove, “Town Mandates,” 422.

                                              (18.) Ray Raphael, “Revolutionary Philadelphia,” History Now 11 (March 2007).

                                              (19.) R. W. Gibbes, ed., Documentary History of the American Revolution (New York: Appleton, 1855), 1:11; Boston Post-Boy, June 2, 1766; Pauline Maier, “The Charleston Mob and the Evolution of Popular Politics in Revolutionary South Carolina, 1765–1784,” Perspectives in American History 4 (1970): 183.

                                              (20.) Raphael, Founders, 72.

                                              (21.) Journals of the Continental Congress, Library of Congress, American Memory, A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation,, 1:75–80; Edward Countryman, A People in Revolution: The American Revolution and Political Society in New York, 1760–1790 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1981), 178; New York Office of the State Comptroller, New York in the Revolution as Colony and State: A Compilation of Documents and Records (Albany, NY: J. B. Lyon, 1904), 2:138–140.

                                              (22.) David Ammerman has calculated that at least seven thousand men, including many from middle and lower economic levels, were elected to the various local committees, and T. H. Breen, in his more-recent calculations, upped that estimate to ten thousand. David Ammerman, In the Common Cause: American Response to the Coercive Acts of 1774 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1974), 106–110; T. H. Breen, American Insurgents, American Patriots: The Revolution of the People (New York: Hill & Wang, 2010), 145; Countryman, People in Revolution, 141, 145.

                                              (23.) “Merchant Samuel Colton Documents,” Proceedings at the Centennial Celebration of the Incorporation of the Town of Longmeadow (Longmeadow, MA: Centennial Committee, 1884), appendix 1:213, 217; Petition of Nathaniel Ely, Restus Colton, and Azariah Woolworth to the Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, January 7, 1781, Massachusetts Archives, Boston, 231:136; Barbara Clark Smith, After the Revolution: The Smithsonian History of Everyday Life in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Pantheon Books, 1985), 3–42.

                                              (24.) Michael A. McDonnell, The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 49–102; Richard A. Ryerson, The Revolution Is Now Begun: The Radical Committees of Philadelphia, 1765–1776 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1978), 163–164, 138–139, 146–147, 161–162, 210–211; Steven Rossworm, Arms, Country, and Class: The Philadelphia Militia and the “Lower Sort” during the American Revolution, 1775–1783 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987), 49–108.

                                              (25.) Maier, American Scripture, 217–223; Samuel Chase to John Adams, June 28, 1776, Taylor et al., Papers of John Adams, 4:351. Although grand juries were representative bodies, not venues for direct democracy, their presentments offered opportunities for local comment on wider issues.

                                              (26.) Countryman, People in Revolution, 179; Adams to Noah Webster, April 30, 1784, in Writings of Writings of Samuel Adams, ed. Harry Alonzo Cushing (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1908), 4:305–306. Countryman notes that despite the injunction against them, committees during the war years continued to deal with price issues. We should also note that while out-of-doors political activity subsided to some extent, there was a marked shift downward in the wealth of legislators during and following the war, dramatically so in the North but also noteworthy in the South. (See Jackson Turner Main, “Government by the People: The American Revolution and the Democratization of the Legislatures,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., vol. 23 [1966]: 391–407.)

                                              (27.) Cushing, Writings of Samuel Adams, 4:306; Morgan, Inventing the People, 213; Colegrove, “Town Mandates,” 442–443.

                                              (28.) Colegrove, “Town Mandates,” 428; Ray Raphael, The First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord (New York: New Press, 2002), 216; Kenneth J. Moynihan, A History of Worcester, 1674–1848 (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2007), 98–102.

                                              (29.) Gordon Wood, in The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), treats the emergence of interest-based democracy as both the most radical and enduring effect of the American Revolution, but he is comparing it to an earlier republicanism, in which supposedly wise and virtuous leaders were supposed to lead the way. When compared with the revolutionary, direct democracy, the interest-based model does not appear quite so “radical.”

                                              (30.) Bernard Schwartz, The Bill of Rights: A Documentary History (New York: Chelsea House, 1971), 2:1026.

                                              (31.) Merrill Jenson et al., eds., Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1976–), 10:1553; Schwartz, Bill of Rights, 2:1090–1091.

                                              (32.) Schwartz, Bill of Rights, 1091–1101. Compare Hartley with Hutchinson, “To hold each representative to vote according to the opinion of his town…contradicts the very idea of a parliament the members whereof are supposed to debate and argue in order to convince and be convinced” (Pole, Political Representation, 72) or with Burke, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion” (Morgan, Inventing the People, 218).

                                              (33.) Schwartz, Bill of Rights, 1105.