Joseph Clarke's Letter about the Rebellion in Springfield

(August 30, 1774)

The American Revolution was a war for independence from England. For a hundred years before the Revolution, the colonies were torn by class conflict: tenants against landlords, riots of the poor. That internal conflict would now be temporarily obscured by the struggle against England. But it was still there, bursting out now and then even during the war, and emerging again after victory over the British Empire.

The Declaration of Independence contained the stirring language of egalitarianism and democracy, that "all men are created equal," and promised the rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." But the reality behind those inspiring words was that a rising class of important people needed to enlist on their side enough Americans to defeat England, without disturbing too much the relations of wealth and power that had developed over 150 years of colonial history.

During the Revolution, mutinies in the Continental Army, and after the war, farmers' uprisings in Massachusetts and other states, were evidence of the continued existence of class anger in the new nation. The Founding Fathers were conscious of that, and worried about future rebellions. The Constitution they framed was designed to control that rebellious spirit and maintain "law and order."

Here is one striking example of the class anger and spirit of popular rebellion at the time, from a letter1 that Joseph Clarke, the adopted child of Joseph Hawley, a well-known Massachusetts politician, sent to an unknown friend.

From Voices of A People's History, edited by Zinn and Arnove

We arrived in town about noon this day and found all the people gathered before us. A committee from the body of the county had just waited upon the court to demand a satisfactory answer, that is, whether they meant to hold their commissions and exercise their authority according to the new act of parliament for altering the constitution of the province, which being answered in the negative, It was put to vote after the Sd [said] message and answer were read to the people assembled before the meeting house, whether they were willing the Court should sit; it passed in the negative.

Then the people paraded before Mr. Parsons [Landlord Parsons], from thence marched back again to the meeting-house and demanded the appearance of the judges. The judges came according to their desire, and amidst the Crowd in a sandy, sultry place, exposed to the sun as far as they were able in such circumstance gave a reasonable, and, to the major part, a satisfactory answer to such questions as were asked.

It was also demanded of them that they should make a declaration in writing, signed by all the justices and lawyers in the County, renouncing in the most express terms any commission which should be given out to them or either of them under the new arrangement, which was immediately complied with and executed accordingly.

The People then reassembled before Mr. Parsons house. . . . [Major] Catlin falling into a personal quarrel, at length gained the attention of the people. They considered him as an object worthy of their malice, as he was an officer of the court. He was treated with candor and too mildly to make any complaint. His boasted heroism failed him in the day of trial, and vanished like a puf[f] of smo[ke]. He and O[liver] Warner, who came to his assistance in the quarrel, made such declarations as were requested of them, and then were dismissed, unhurt, and in peace. Your uncle may say what he pleases with regard to their abuse of him, but I was an eye witness to the whole, and you I believe will be satisfied that no abuse was intended when I tell you what easy terms they requested and were satisfied with, namely, only a declaration that he would not hold any office under the new act of parliament.

Col. [John] Worthington was next brought upon the board. The sight of him flashed lightening from their eyes. Their spirits were already raised and the sight of this object gave them additional force. He had not refused his new office of counselor. For that reason especially he was very obnoxious. But the people kept their tempers. He attempted to harangue them in mitigation of his conduct, but he was soon obliged to desist. The people were not to be dallied with. Nothing would satisfy them but a renunciation in writing of his office as Counselor and a recantation of his address to Gov. [Thomas] Gage, which last was likewise signed by Jonathan] Bliss and Caleb Strong....

Jonathan Bliss next came upon the floor, he was very humble and the people were very credulous. He asked their pardon for all he had said or done which was contrary to their opinions; and as he depended for his support upon the people, he begged to stand well in their favor.

Mr. Moses Bliss was brought into the ring, but the accusation against him was not well supported, and he passed off in silence. The Sheriff was the next who was demanded; he accordingly appeared. He was charged with saying some imprudent things, but none of them were proved, and he departed. But he was humbled. Col. [Israel] Williams took the next turn. He went round the ring and vindicated himself from some accusations thrown upon him and denied some things that were laid to his charge.

He declared in my hearing that "altho' he had heretofore differed from the people in opinion with regard to the mode of obtaining redress, he would, hereafter, heartily acquiesce in any measures, that they should take for that purpose, and join with them in the common cause. He considered his interest as embarked in the same bottom with theirs, and hoped to leave it in peace to his Children."

Capt. [James] Merrick of Munson was next treated with for uttering imprudent expressions. I thought they would have tarred and feathered him, and I thought he almost deserved it. He was very stubborn, as long as he dare be, but at length he made some concessions. But not till after they had carted him. No man received the least injury, but the strictest order of justice were observed. The people to their honor behaved with the greatest order and regularity, a few individuals excepted, and avoided, as much as possible, confusion.

The people of each town being drawn into separate companies marched with staves and musick. The trumpets sounding, drums beating, fifes playing and Colours flying, struck the passions of the soul into a proper tone, and inspired martial courage into each.


1 Joseph Clarke's Letter about the Rebellion in Springfield (August 30,1774). Letter to Major Joseph Hawley. In James Russell Trumbull, History of Northampton, Massachusetts, from la Settlement in 1654, vol. 2 (Northampton, MA: Gazette Printing Company, 1902), pp. 346-48.

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