The Minutemen and Their World by John Gross was written in 1976, at the height of the popularity of the New Social History. While others used legal documents, inventories, and other sources to produce town studies designed to tease out the lived experience of non-elites, Gross’ work was more ambitious. He wanted to place everyday people into the context of the American Revolution. Concord, Massachusetts was an obvious choice of town to study, since it played such an important role in the start of the war. When Gross combined his social history with the standard political history of the revolution, something new emerged that was different from both social and political history; it became a study of the ways in which everyday people become politicized enough to revolt.
Gross argues that colonial Americans saw themselves in local terms. In other words, their social position was mediated through local relationships. And in late 18th century Concord, there were cracks in the social cohesion. Part of this is the nature of the New England town, where taxpayers supported religion and everyone was expected to participate to a degree. By this time elites were full church members, but most people were not. As economic pressures expanded town boundaries, going to church meetings became a huge burden on those in remote areas, yet they were unable to get support to form their own churches because they were still expected to fund the main town church, which mainly benefited the elite. It is in this circumstance that revolutionary rumblings from Boston reached Concord. Gross argues that these divisions allowed everyday people to confront traditional authority. Coupled with Britain’s desire to more tightly control colonial affairs, Concordians became revolutionaries.
The newfound ability to question traditional authority did not turn the world upside down. In fact Concordians kept and respected social strata in their militias and elsewhere, but it did make them more attuned to abuses of elite power and the ways in which it could circumscribe their own lives. They wanted elite power to be good and right, as was the contemporary ideal, and would do anything to defend such power. Only when they felt their own rights were being abused would they complain, and ultimately revolt.
Even when they decided to resist the restrictions placed upon them from London, they still desired to keep their community whole. Pressure was placed on those who resisted embargoes to comply. The political ideals of the day meant that elites who wished to resist revolt could not even argue their point as that would have seemed self-interested, which would have put one’s elite status into question. Divisions, therefore, were negotiated away rather than argued for their own sake. Revolutionary rumblings actually united the town more solidly than it had been in the previous decades as these negotiations appeased those in the outskirts who were asserting their rights against the town core.
Concord became, as a result of its geography, the place where the Massachusetts government chose to stockpile arms. Thus the townspeople participated in a militarization of their town. Militia musters increased greatly in frequency, and took place in the center of town. While elite status still meant an elevated status in the militia, Gross points out that compared to British regulars who had deep class divisions when compared to officers, the local nature of the Concord militia meant that the divisions were far more subtle and actually increased town cohesion as all the locals were expected to defend their town.
Gross sees the restrictions of the town structure, and the lack of availability of new land, as important in making young people resist parental authority. If one wanted to inherit parental land when the town was new and the farms still fertile, it was important to obey one’s parents. But as farmland was worn out, and dividing up town farms further would not give a person the means to support himself, this obedience to parental authority waned. Entering a trade was an insecure proposition, as it relied on indebtedness and the fluctuations of the market. Gross sees the insecurity of young people’s prospects as being important to the move toward revolt, as elders saw the world they expected to pass on to their sons disappearing, and sons resisted the figurative authority of the crown as they resisted the authority of their fathers.
When the first shots were fired at Concord, the town became a place where American identity was created against British identity. British regulars raped; Minutemen scalped. Women used cunning to protect American interests, while the British threatened to kill their newborns. In the end American ingenuity saved the common goods so that the Minutemen could fight another day, and the British atrocities were borne and survived.
After the battle, Concordians began to see themselves as part of a wider world intent on revolution. As the war dragged on structural changes occurred that would permanently alter the townspeople and how they saw themselves. Young, landless men serving in the army saw parts of the country they would not have otherwise seen. Students from Harvard College relocated temporarily to Concord and brought with them exciting new social prospects. Economic changes shook up the class hierarchy of the town. The birthrate slowed. Occupations changed to focus on the war effort. Even the deference afforded to elites in most instances changed. But at the end of the war, the same problems with the availability and fertility of the land still existed, and young people, having experienced the outside world, still left.
Gross shows how older forms of town cohesion changed as elites started voluntary associations and asserted their authority through them instead of the community. The community suffered because of this as membership in one meant a distancing from those not associated. Young people, in the face of economic prosperity, altered traditions and threw off older styles completely, even those that had supported the revolution that allowed them to do so. The revolution was one that sought to protect the status quo, but Gross argues that the demonstrated ability to throw off authority that was no longer working altered the way the next generation saw their world, and allowed them to remake it.
The fact that this is, at heart, a social history means that individual actions are sometimes subsumed to statistical probabilities. While a cultural historian looks for all of the discursive possibilities, the social historian assumes that people act in the most probable ways based on data. This is a shortcoming of social history in my view, but does not lessen the quality of Gross’ work for the innovation that it was.
It may be this drive for probability that causes Gross to be rather critical of the practice of sustenance farming. While I agree that there were serious problems with the model, Gross’ distaste for the practice verges on the edge of proclaiming that market capitalism is the natural state of things. In this work, too, the absence of cultural history methods reduces women and the enslaved to statistical footnotes, since records on them are far less common. Gross did try to include these groups, but the coverage seems understandably thin based on the method.
Lastly, Gross’ reflection in the afterward that his fascination with the youth of Concord was related to the counter-cultural movement of youth in the 1960s is understandable, but I wonder if this would have been better served with some emotional distance. The cultural changes of the 1960s ultimately led to the conservative triumph of the 1980s and historians are exploring how that process occurred and showing how the youth movement was often very conservative. Since the radical nature of the American Revolution also turned rather conservative in the post-War era, this would be something worth exploring vis-à-vis youth culture of the late 18th century.