The Colonial Society of Massachusetts
Graduate Student Forum in Early American History
Ph.D. Candidate in History
University of Virginia
Advisor: Peter S. Onuf
My dissertation explores the relationship between constitution-writing and war in Massachusetts during the American Revolution. My sources include hundreds of manuscript petitions written by individuals and towns that offer new insights into the political culture and political thought of Massachusetts inhabitants during the founding era. After briefly sketching the scope and argument of my dissertation, I will discuss the petitions I draw on and explain why they provide the basis for an innovative approach to the study of the period.
The title of my dissertation, “War and Constitution-Making in Revolutionary Massachusetts, 1754-1788,” suggests how my work challenges a number of assumptions about the era of the American founding. The word “constitution” conjures up images of Founders discussing political philosophy as they invent new forms of government and draft documents that we continue to revere today. In my account, however, such well-known figures play important but decidedly supporting roles. I aim instead to recapture the political-cultural, social, and popular-intellectual contexts in which all Americans—not just elites—considered and debated issues foundational to their communities. War and its burdens, I contend, formed the backdrop for every discussion of what made for legitimate and effective government. I examine frontier settlements whose beleaguered inhabitants reminded their state government that “protection and allegiance are reciprocal.” I analyze what local leaders meant when, overburdened with demands to supply men and money for the war effort, they insisted that government consider the “peculiar circumstances” of each town and apportion burdens according to “equity.” And I join ordinary farmers like one Joseph Andrews as he drops off hay for his sheep before attending a town meeting to discuss and debate the Articles of Confederation or the new state constitution with his fellow freeholders. My definition of “constitutional history,” in other words, encompasses a far wider spectrum of experiences and concepts.
Focusing on one state, Massachusetts, allows me to explore the development of the American federal republic from a new perspective. Instead of beginning from an anachronistic national framework, I approach the broader history of the era from the viewpoint of people who retained a strong sense of Massachusetts corporate identity. When Massachusetts militia confronted British regulars in 1775, colonists did not necessarily think of themselves as “Americans.” Nor could anyone have foreseen the creation of the United States just over a decade later.
Massachusetts inhabitants mobilized to fight the Revolutionary War in a far more uncertain context. The American confederation they first helped to create contrasted sharply with the British Empire, whose administrative framework and fiscal-military powers they had long taken for granted. I begin my study with a chapter on the French and Indian War in order to demonstrate how colonial Massachusetts’s military and constitutional affairs had always depended on the province’s place in a broader imperial structure. The new challenges and greater demands that resulted from independence and war—and from the Continental Congress’s relative incapacity—forced people in Massachusetts to reconsider their own state’s frame of government and its underlying values. How, for instance, should representation be assigned to the towns of Massachusetts when they varied in their contributions to the war effort? What forms of participation in government would citizens demand now that so many of them were risking their “blood and treasure” on behalf of the common weal? In Massachusetts, war and constitution-making occurred simultaneously, as complementary aspects of the same Revolutionary process. Yet the celebrated state constitution adopted in 1780 could not shield Massachusetts from the Confederation’s shortcomings. Many in Massachusetts, fearing that their state might itself collapse, favored a stronger union. Hence a war they began to preserve the corporate rights of Massachusetts eventually led Massachusetts inhabitants to support the creation of an American national government that replicated many features of the British Empire—albeit in ways amenable to the people’s raised expectations.
Too often, the history of the founding era is written in ways that isolate its various dimensions—intellectual, military, constitutional, social—from one another. The question then becomes, as an historian, how to bridge these artificial distinctions. Constitutional developments during the Revolution have received much attention from scholars. This focus is well-deserved, as Americans at the time identified constitutional achievements as some of the most important legacies of the period. Massachusetts inhabitants certainly believed that they had made great contributions to the science of government by being the first state to draft a constitution in a convention and to ratify it by popular referendum. Historians of Massachusetts have drawn on a large collection of documents related to this formal process of constitution-writing; an excellent volume edited by Oscar Handlin and Mary Handlin contains the responses of each Massachusetts town to the various constitutional proposals made between 1775 and 1780. As revealing as these documents are, focusing on them exclusively—while also defining too narrowly what are the proper sources for “constitutional” history—can lead to misleading conclusions, including the impression that people in Massachusetts viewed constitutional questions in strangely abstract terms. But people could not separate “constitutional” matters from the practical concerns of government in these years. They knew that any constitutional innovations would be superfluous if they neglected the demands of wartime mobilization and succumbed to military defeat.
Thousands of extant petitions help provide a more holistic view of how people in Massachusetts experienced the Revolution. Petitions had long comprised an essential aspect of colonial political culture. They were a ubiquitous means to accomplish practical ends. The expectation that the government would respond to petitions served as one of the foundations of its legitimacy. Individuals and towns petitioned to make the government aware of certain circumstances that might influence legislation or policy. They also petitioned to request special intervention that would correct some injustice. Petitioning, then, did not necessarily undermine the legitimacy of government, but instead functioned to integrate the political community. As a practical matter, the General Court in Boston depended on petitions to inform members about the situation and concerns of people in distant locations. In order to ensure that their requests would be plausible, petitioners offered detailed descriptions of their circumstances and actions, and appealed to the prevailing normative values of their society.
The number of petitions increased dramatically during the Revolution as inhabitants coped with unprecedented demands on their resources and cooperation. Throughout the War of Independence and its aftermath, the members of the Massachusetts General Court probably spent a majority of their time considering and acting on petitions sent to them from all parts of the state. These petitions are included in the Massachusetts Archives collection housed at the Massachusetts State Archives in Boston. Much of my research has focused on the petitions addressed to the General Court between 1775 and 1783 (especially Mass. Arch. Vols. 180-88). While I have surveyed hundreds of petitions from individual Massachusetts residents, I have given special attention to those petitions written on behalf of towns. These petitions serve as excellent complements to the towns’ formal constitutional returns that have been published and closely examined by scholars. With some exceptions, historians of Revolutionary Massachusetts have largely passed over these sources, noting their existence but rarely analyzing their contents. The sheer number of petitions as well as the tedious investment of time required to read these manuscript documents probably accounts for the oversight. Brief abstracts of hundreds more petitions from the period are available in published form—in the “whereas” clauses of General Court resolves—in the relevant volumes of the Massachusetts Acts and Resolves.
These petitions comprise statements of political thought that are just as important and relevant to the history of constitutional development as the sources on which historians and political theorists usually focus. Massachusetts inhabitants articulated their understandings of legitimate government as they tried to overcome the myriad real-world problems they encountered as a result of war. In August 1779, to take just one suggestive example, the coastal town of Gloucester petitioned for relief from the burdens imposed by the legislature:
In a Word, we are very poor, and very much affected by the War. We rely on the Justice of the Honourable Court who have given us a Rule to be our guide in Town Affairs Viz. If any Individual is overtaxed in the Town Assessment—upon Application to the Assessors, with a state of their Circumstances, they are to be Abated. We are asured, when the General Court weigh our Situation they will follow so equitable a Rule. We boast of our attachment in General to the public Weal, We are not against bearing our proportion of the public Burthens—But if ye above Rule holds good respecting an Individual in a Town, by A parity of reason, it holds good in respect to a Town in a State. (Mass. Arch. Vol. 185: 254)
After emphasizing the impact of war on the lives of all inhabitants, the Gloucester petitioners urged the General Court to act on the principle of “equity,” which they believed ought to operate on the level of the state as well as the town. Such sophisticated statements remind us why Revolutionary Americans considered constitutional issues to be so crucial. For people in Massachusetts, questions about government and the constitutional future of their polity directly affected every aspect of their lives. They did not limit themselves to expressing their views only on those occasions when the legislature explicitly asked for their thoughts on a particular draft of a constitution. On the contrary, they offered their perspectives constantly—in petitions whose value historians have not yet fully appreciated.