The Messenger | The Mechanicks of Boston and the American Revolution
By Hugh Evans
On New Years Day of 1762 or ’63, young apprentice shoemaker George Robert Twelves Hewes called upon the gentleman John Hancock at his residence. Hewes’s master had instructed him to exchange well wishes for the coming year. Hewes, the man who would be made famous when he was “rediscovered” in the 1830s as being perhaps the oldest surviving participant of the Boston Tea Party, was nervous. He was apprenticed to a shoemaker as a boy, which put him on one of the lowest rungs of the hierarchy of the “mechanicks”, i.e. skilled artisans, in Boston. Hewes, in the last year of his apprenticeship, was aware of the purpose of this visit and how it solidified the hierarchical relationship between himself, his master, and Hancock. The audience was brief, but Hewes’s account reinforces that clear subordination of himself to his master’s patron, Hancock, as Hewes made a laudatory speech before Hancock enjoined him to take a seat. Hancock reinforced the reciprocal nature of this patronage relationship by sharing a glass of wine with Hewes (a ceremony in which Hewes felt he had “acquitted himself with a creditable dexterity” despite never having done so before[i]) and giving him a crown-piece, with Hewes then making a hasty but polite exit. This delineation of social hierarchy, exemplified in the Hewes’ short first meeting with Hancock, clearly established who was superior and who was inferior, based not on skill, occupation, or even necessarily wealth, but instead on vertical networks composed of client-patron relationships.
By 1773, this vertical hierarchy of patron-client relationships had transformed quite dramatically. While there had long been pressure valves to allow for the “lower” and “middling” sorts to blow off steam at their superiors — think of the Pope’s Night riots for example — or the use of mob action against those elites seen as harming the “common wealth,” the Revolution saw the budding of a class consciousness which, even if only haltingly, shifted Boston society from a vertical to a more horizontal structure. This did not come with any general levelling in terms of wealth or privilege, but instead allowed skilled artisans such as Hewes to see themselves as equals to men like Hancock in terms of citizenship and political participation. The next meeting between Hughes and Hancock, on December 16 of 1773, typifies this reorientation. That was the night of the Tea Party, and as Hughes recollected to interviewers in the 1830s, on that night he had worked alongside Hancock to destroy the tea. Even if Hewes was mistaken in his recollection, that he thought the situation possible is important. That two men, previously separated by a vertical system of deference, were now laboring side by side to accomplish a dangerous but revolutionary act, speaks to the transformations in Boston during the period.
The Revolution saw a dramatic change in the socio-economic structure of Boston. The artisans of Boston, the “mechanicks,” through their participation in revolutionary struggle, came to be one of the major forces which helped reorganize society from a vertical system of patronage to a more horizontal structure based on a growing consciousness of their own shared interests as artisans. The mid-1760s Boston was still largely organized into the vertical patronage networks that existed throughout the British Empire. Rather than feeling bound together in affiliation based on occupation or trade, Bostonians recognized that they existed in an environment of networks with defined hierarchies. Wives were subordinate to husbands, children to parents. Apprentices were subordinate to master artisans. These artisans were in turn subordinate to the gentlemen who, even if it did not have the formal titles attached to the elite of the British metropole, nevertheless saw themselves as filling the same role as the landed gentry and the nobility across the Atlantic.
Subordination was not seen as degradation, but rather as the natural order of society. While this structure was often based on unwritten rules, there were formal institutions which propped it up. The sons of the elite studied at Harvard, where they not only gained a rarified education but solidified the exclusivity of their status by closing off admission to most who did not share their background. Equally defined paths were set for those who came from less advantaged backgrounds. The son of a skilled mechanick could expect to become an apprentice for a long time and be legally bound to serve his master. Once a master artisan in his own right, with members of the elite providing patronage, he would take his own apprentice and begin the cycle anew. Further down the socio-economic ladder, those born into a family of sailors, laborers, or fishermen would have little expectation of any different life, instead serving their own masters, frequently the ship captains and merchants who made Boston a major trade center. These businessmen would in turn be dependent on the patronage of that Harvard attending elite, who were often loath to engage in the grubby daily operations of buying and selling but were more than willing to bankroll it to reap a share of the profits. While social mobility within this environment was possible, it was almost always sponsored from the top down and thus controlled by those patrons who sat atop the system.
During the Revolution, this system began to transform with a budding class consciousness at several levels, especially amongst the mechanicks of Boston. It is evident in the organization of revolutionary action itself. While it would be grossly incorrect to classify elites such Joseph Warren, John Adams, or John Hancock as artisans, critical figures such as Paul Revere embodied this coalescing class. Revere’s renowned skill as a silversmith and his membership in the Freemasons allowed him to make business and personal connections with both fellow artisans as well as elite patrons. Already respected, he could then use these connections and influence to organize Revolutionary activity, responsible for so much more than just his famous midnight ride of April 18, 1775.
The formation of Committees of Safety and Correspondence, the creation of spy networks, the enforcement of non-importation agreements, the procurement of arms and the drilling of militias, in short, the necessary tasks of revolution, featured artisan involvement at every level. Even in communities outside of Boston they played a crucial role, such as Timothy Bigelow of Worcester. A master blacksmith by the early 1770s, Bigelow used his business and personal connections in much the same way that Revere did. The elites of Worcester were largely opposed to the Revolution, and so it fell to men like Bigelow and other artisans to organize revolutionary activity, such as the local Committees of Safety. Bigelow did not shy away from the fighting either, receiving a commission as a Colonel and helping to organize the Worcester militia and Minute companies. The dirty work of revolution, which is often glossed over in text books in favor of more “respectable” actions by men such as Hancock or John Adams, was carried out by this artisan class, and in so doing they solidified their own class identity through increased contact and recognition of mutual interests.
This trend did not stop in 1783. In the post-war period, in the flush of building a new country, Revere was instrumental in organizing the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association, which fought to keep alive the memory of the role that the mechanicks of Boston played in organizing the Revolution and to solidify their political influence. Conservative elites tried to rewrite the history to downplay this radical transformation and reassert the control of vertical patronage networks, but the changes of the 1760s and 70s were impossible to dismiss. The “rediscovery” of people like Hewes in the 1830s and the recording of their exploits by journalists interested in the untold stories of the Revolutionary generation speaks to the continued interest in the experiences of the non-elite revolutionaries.
Even if the role of the artisans of Boston was ignored by many historians in the 19thcentury, the feeling of a new class consciousness amongst these men is evident. Revere and others like him were proud to call themselves mechanicks and tradesmen in the post-war years, a dramatic change from the pre-revolutionary norm. They no longer saw themselves as inherently inferior to the elite, and they recognized the shared interests that bound them together in a horizontal class, breaking from the vertical hierarchies of before. This trend can be seen throughout American society during the first half of the 19thcentury and with the rise of Jacksonian democracy it became almost a point of pride for men to speak of their humble origins, their skilled trades, and their lack of effete pretension seen as inherent in the non-laboring elite. Eventually, these artisans formed the nucleus of what we today call the middle class, the critical center around which so much of American society rotates.
It would be going too far to say that this reorientation from vertical patronage to horizontal class structure was complete, permanent, and universal, nor was it the cause of the Revolution. It was a consequence, one of many, of the turbulent upheaval of the Revolutionary period. But it is perhaps one of the more important transformations of the era. The mechanicks of Boston were crucial to driving the Revolution forward, and in so doing they organized themselves into a coherent group with shared interests, impacting Boston and American society in ways we still feel today.
Originally from Northern California, Hugh has a BA in history from the University of California Santa Cruz and a MA in International Security from the University of Sydney. He has worked in education and historical interpretation in Massachusetts for several years. He led interpretive programs at Minuteman National Historical Park, taught history at Revere High School, and served as an educator for the Old North Church & Historic Site. He currently works for the National Park Service, splitting his time between teaching at the Tsongas Industrial History Center at Lowell National Historical Park and serving as a Park Guide at Boston National Historical Park. He and his wife currently live in Salem, Massachusetts.
Forbes, E. (1942). Paul Revere and the World He Lived In. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Hoerder, D. (1976). “Boston Leaders and Boston Crowds 1765-1776.” In A. F. Young, The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism. DeKalb IL: Northern Illinois University Press.
Howe, G. B. (1890). Genealogy of the Bigelow Family of America. Worcester, MA: Charles Hamilton.
Wood, G. S. (1992). The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Young, A. F. (1999). The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.