Colonial Rebellions and Armed Civil Unrest

views updated

Colonial Rebellions and Armed Civil Unrest (1607–1775).Rebellions and armed unrest did not so much punctuate as define the history of colonial British America. All three of colonial society's constituent groups—Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans—took part. The Stono Rebellion by South Carolina slaves in 1739 and the New York City slave conspiracies in 1712 and 1741 were important points in setting the terms of black‐white relations. “Frontier” warfare was not so much a matter of continuous Indian dispossession as a means by which Indians and whites dealt with one another within a social order they shared.

Unrest stemmed in part, then, from the unprecedented encounter of three groups, each ignorant of the others, that created “early American” society. In part, too, it arose from the character of colonial social organization. “Mobs, a sort of them at least, are constitutional,” commented Thomas Hutchinson in 1768, three years after he had seen his own house thoroughly sacked by his fellow Bostonians. But he knew that a volunteer fire company, a militia unit, or a posse was just a “mob” drawn into ranks and given official standing.

In this sense white Americans and Europeans shared a great deal. For both, popular uprisings could be a means of negotiation across class and community lines, within a framework that recognized “liberties” but made no pretense of equality. Such was the “Knowles Riot” in Boston in 1747, named for the British naval officer who ordered the impressment of Bostonians despite local procedures and customs. For merchant sailors and fishermen, resisting the press meant protecting their own lives. For community leaders, it meant protecting the town, because during a press neither merchant nor fishing vessels would sail. Similarly, a community might respond to food shortage by forcing merchants to release reserves of grain at “just” prices, or prevent pestilence by keeping smallpox victims away. Such uprisings rested on three assumptions. First, local customs bound rulers and ruled, rich and poor alike. Second, both official actions and uprisings offered means by which “society” rightly controlled its members. Third, the subject could usually be negotiated. A press gang might withdraw, releasing its victims. The price of salt, bread, or grain could be adjusted.

This dimension of colonial‐era uprisings fit perfectly with the ancien régime in Europe. One historian has described the same thing in England as “the moral economy of the crowd”; another has written about “the reasons of misrule” and “the rites of violence” in early modern France. Marie Antoinette's suggestion that Parisians protesting the absence of bread might “eat cake” showed her profound ignorance of what obligations a time of shortage imposed upon her class. Thomas Hutchinson knew better.

Rural upheaval was another matter. Among the major events were mid‐eighteenth‐century land rioting in New Jersey and New York, the Green Mountain Boys' insurrection that led to the creation of Vermont, and separate 1760s “Regulator” movements in the two Carolinas.

Uncertainty about the basic conditions of rural life, especially landholding, underpinned all of these episodes. Who would hold and develop the land could not be compromised among whites, any more than between whites and Indians. Colonial‐era land distribution was extremely haphazard. A grantee could “locate” land almost at choice, with virtually none of the regularity that the national‐era grid system was intended to provide. The ultimate example was how Kentucky became “shingled” four times over with conflicting claims.

Individual claims had their counterpart in ill‐drawn provincial boundaries. A map of 1774 shows Massachusetts towns extending into New York and New York manors reaching into New England. Charter grants overlapped, as Connecticut's claim to the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania and the claim of both New Hampshire and New York to the Green Mountains showed. In such circumstances would‐be owners clashed repeatedly over possession, typically creating extended movements rather than short‐lived risings.

Of the movements, only the Green Mountain Boys achieved all they wanted. They originated among Yankee settlers who had New Hampshire titles to lands between the Upper Connecticut River and Lake Champlain and who proposed to organize the region in New England style. New York also claimed the territory, perhaps with the better title, and imposed its own system of counties and of large estates where “amiable and innocent tenants” would toil. The New England migrants created a countergovernment and found the chance in 1777 to claim statehood.

Others traveled the same path, but not so far. Hudson Valley land rioters denied the validity of the region's great manorial land grants, broke jails open, and flourished rhetoric about mobs overcoming kings. In 1766, they staged a great rising between New York City and Albany. New Jersey rioters who claimed land under Indian titles established their own courts and “a gaol [jail] back in the woods.” Authorities responded as strongly as they could, with laws that condemned known rioters, like Vermont's Ethan Allen, to death by name. New York officials sent British troops against the Hudson Valley rioters in 1766.

The southern situation offers a variation on this theme. North Carolina's huge land grants were the subject of contention. But the problem both there and in South Carolina was as much poor government as poorly defined land claims. The immediate subject that sparked the North Carolina Regulation was Tryon's Palace—an elaborate mansion constructed at public expense for the royal governor. Like northern land riots, this turned into a dispute about public power, as perhaps 8,000 Piedmont farmers resisted the taxes and closed courts to prevent collection. The authorities responded with strong force, crushing the armed rebels in 1771 at the Battle of the Alamance. The South Carolina Regulators did not come to blows with government. Aspiring farmers who wanted to develop a stable slave society, they claimed that colonial authorities did nothing to protect them against mixed‐race bandits, and set up their own institutions to remedy the problem. Those bandits themselves present a case of a colonial rising that still awaits its historian.
[See also Bacon's Rebellion.]


Peter Wood , Black Majority: Negroes in South Carolina from 1670 Through the Stone Rebellion, 1974.
William Pencak and and John Lax , The Knowles Riot and the Crisis of the 1740s in Massachusetts, Perspectives in American History, 10 (1976), pp. 163–214.
Dirk Hoerder , Crowd Action in Revolutionary Massachusetts, 1977.
Edward Countryman , A People in Revolution: The American Revolution and Political Society in New York, 1760–1790, 1981.
A. Roger Ekirch , “Poor Carolina”: Politics and Society in Colonial North Carolina, 1729–1776, 1981.
Thomas L. Purvis , Origins and Patterns of Agrarian Unrest in New Jersey, 1735–1754, William and Mary Quarterly, 39 (1982), pp. 600–27.
Rachel Klein , Unification of a Slave State: The Rise of a Planter Class in the South Carolina Backcountry, 1760–1808, 1990.
Michael Bellesiles , Revolutionary Outlaws: Ethan Allen and the Struggle for Independence on the Early American Frontier, 1993.

Edward Countryman