Worcester in the American Revolution, Part I: The Revolution of 1774

By Timothy Jarvis

Contrary to popular opinion, the American Revolution did not start on April 19, 1775 in Lexington and Concord.

Well, that’s what many historians argue at least.

When the British regulars engaged in combat against hastily assembled patriots on the Lexington green they were trying to regain authority over a colony of which they had already lost control: Massachusetts.

The power of the colony laid in patriot hands for more than six months before the events at Lexington and Concord even took place. This feat was accomplished by thousands of farmers and artisans, who eliminated every Crown-appointed official in Massachusetts outside of Boston.

To ensure Massachusetts’ autonomy, in late summer 1774, a large number of infuriated citizens made sure that every court session to be held under the crown’s authority never met. Theses patriots, to whose actions can be traced the origins of the nation, were enraged with the Massachusetts Government Act, which disallowed all rights of the colonists to participate in any form of colonial government or court affairs. The patriots of Massachusetts feared this could be the first in a long line of arbitrary acts; and in retrospect, they were not wrong, as other more famous taxation acts soon followed.

Surprisingly, Worcester, Massachusetts took the spotlight as the center of activity for the uprising. The surrounding towns and cities took cues from Worcester in the fight for independence. The events in the greater Worcester area were on par with events like the Boston Tea Party of 1773, the 1770 Boston Massacre, and the Battle at Lexington and Concord in 1775.

It was the patriots of Worcester who first called a meeting of several counties to coordinate the resistance movement. On September 6, 1774, the British conceded control of the countryside. In the previous months, General Thomas Gage vowed he would hold the colonists’ line at Worcester by deploying British regulars to defend the courthouse, but on the day it actually occurred, he backed down.

As there was virtually no British resistance, the 4,722 militiamen from 37 towns in Worcester County lined both sides of Main Street in Worcester. The militia forced every British official and prominent Tory in Worcester to resign from their position or renounce the crown–thirty times in total–as they made their way through the gauntlet from Heywood’s Tavern (at Exchange Street) to the County Court House.

This was by far the greatest assembly of people ever to gather in the city of Worcester, which had fewer than 250 voters. Some towns, having armed and trained for a month, sent virtually every adult male.

As this process was ongoing the patriots of Worcester made every decision through direct democracy. Any decision regarding Worcester’s restructuring had to pass the full body of people before a decision was reached.

According the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a revolution is: “the usually violent attempt by many people to end the rule of one government and start a new one.” There is no doubt the people of Worcester staged a revolution before the fighting at Lexington and Concord was even being planned.

This Revolution has been obscured from history for several reasons: it was bloodless, it had no famous leaders, it was basically middle-class (unlike most of the American Revolution), it was far from the media center in Boston, and overtime, it has been overshadowed by the repeated telling of Paul Revere’s ride. However, those who study history should recognize the Worcester patriots of 1774, who were brave enough to stage this revolution, and whose names have since been forgotten by the masses.

The astonishing power of the revolutionaries left the heavily outnumbered Tories no choice but to surrender. Officers of the British military looked on helplessly, not knowing how to deal with an uprising of such caliber. The British soldiers withdrew to Boston, and General Gage reported to London that “the flames of sedition had spread universally throughout the country, beyond conception.” For seven months, the patriots reigned supreme in rural Massachusetts, unchallenged until the counter-revolution of April 19, 1775.

If the radicals in Worcester had their way, Massachusetts would have declared independence on its own. But, in the end, they did not get their way, and instead it was several years before the Worcester patriots would experience full independence from the British.

One could argue that Worcester, not Lexington or Concord, was ground zero for the American Revolution. The birth of the world’s most powerful nation began in the humble city of Worcester, Mass; a place many Americans are not even aware of. Despite this, today’s Worcester residents can take pride in the fact that it was on the very streets they walk today that America was born.

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