Beyond the Powder Alarm

Guest Submission by Moira Crooks

Many Americans like us have probably forgotten more about the Revolutionary War than students in today’s schools have learned about it. We know of the Tea Party in Boston Harbor in 1773. We know of Paul Revere’s ride, the cold bitter winter at Valley Forge, and the battle at Yorktown. Perhaps what is often lost in history’s great moments are the pivotal events that led to the birth of our nation. Long before the Declaration of Independence was drafted but after our famous high tea in Boston Harbor, events like the Powder Alarm of 1774 shaped a revolution.

In the months following the Tea Party, the British Government imposed a series of acts on the colonies including the Massachusetts Governments Act. This legislation was described as, “an act for the better regulating the governments of the province of the Massachusetts Bay, in New England.” This act had a devastating effect on the existing governments in the Massachusetts colony. It removed the selection of the governor from the general courts or assemblies of the colony and vested that authority in the Crown. It further provided that all counselors, judges, commissioners, the attorney general, provosts, marshals, and justices of the peace, would be appointed by the Governor and approved by his Majesty. The final indignation came when the act required that all agenda items from town meetings had to have approval of the royal Governor, and that only the annual town meetings, in March and May, may be held, without permission of the Governor. Business as usual was no longer an option. The impact of this second act, the Massachusetts Government Act, was felt more severely in the rural communities outside of Boston. The people of Boston were preoccupied with the occupation by the British troops, and though their governments had been suspended, their concerns were other than those of the farmers. Suddenly, these small communities were unable to conduct the business of keeping their government functioning.

In response to these actions, the local communities formed a governing body known as the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. Part of the congress’ mission was to raise money, supplies and men for the local militias. Readying the militias and keeping all units informed involved clandestine meetings, intricate and dangerous message delivery systems and bravery. Many of the patriots in the Massachusetts Bay Colony whose names are so familiar to us today ran the risk of being hanged for treason if their plans were discovered. The successful organization of the militia was proven on when they issued a powder alarm.

The local militias had stores of gunpowder throughout the colony. This, in itself, was not illegal, nor was the forming of militia. It was its intended purpose that rankled with the General. One such store of gunpowder was kept in Charlestown. On September 1, 1774, General Thomas Gage ordered 260 regulars to go to the storehouse and remove 250 barrels of gunpowder. This caused some rebels to believe that they British were preparing to attack and they sounded the alarm. Discontent began that evening when colonists streamed into Cambridge and began to wonder what had transpired. As the hours pressed on, rumors and speculation took on a life of their own. Stories of soldiers firing on civilians and warships bombarding Boston spread quickly. Beacon fires, which had not been used since the French and Indian War, were lit by local residents to summon the surrounding country to action. The following morning a crowd of approximately 4,000 gathered in Cambridge. Throughout the countryside, tens of thousands of men armed themselves and marched for Boston.

As the members of this spontaneous colonial army approached Boston, they passed inhabitants of other towns who spurred them on towards their goal. According to Ezra Stiles, one witness who “passed thro’ the whole at the very time of the convulsion,” noted that “all along were armed Men rushing forward some on foot some on horseback.” Many communities surrounding Boston “scarcely left half a dozen Men in a Town, unless old and decrepit, and in one town the Landlord. . .was the only Man left.” Marching toward Boston and an impending civil war, the men of the New England countryside were encouraged not only by their brethren in arms, but by the entire community. “At every house [there were] Women and Children making Cartridges, running Bullets, making Wallets, baking Biscuits. . .animating their Husbands and Sons to fight for their Liberties.” Even after the men left their own homesteads, “Women kept on making Cartridges and after equipping their Husbands, bro’t them out to the Soldiers which in Crowds passed along and gave them out in handfuls.” 1

Out of the Powder Alarm of 1774 arose a widespread movement with a single shared objective: to fight for the common liberties of the body of people. The significance of this militant uprising was obvious. The Yankees flexed their collective muscle and successfully achieved all they desired that day. Their success begged the question: Would they now return to their homes and allow the normal political players to do what they would with the situation? Or, would the actions of that day live on, and the agency they displayed continue in similar forms in the future? What was the enduring legacy of that impressive mobilization?

As supporters of Gov. Palin and ultimately as a body of people desiring ‘sudden and relentless reform’ to restore America, the same questions might be asked of us. We have successfully engaged, or perhaps enraged those wanting to expand the reach of our federal government under the auspices of a Palin run for President, but now that Gov. Palin has decided not to run, do we just return home to our quiet lives content to let the GOP establishment do what they will with the situation? Or will the actions we have taken thus far live on?

The spark of ordinary individuals, an engaged citizenry throughout the colonial countryside all those years ago created a movement. That movement sparked the War for Independence and birthed a new nation; a republic. Even though the Powder Alarm consisted of a singular event confined to two days, its effect on the future course of events in New England and America proved significant. The actions and lessons learned during that time energized the country people and hardened their resolve to resist English rule. The moves taken by General Gage and the British Parliament were intended to isolate Boston and reduce the provinces’ ability to resist English rule. These efforts backfired. The acts mobilized New Englanders to resist the authority of Britain at all costs.

What will history say of our movement? Will it be that we put everything into one moment – getting Gov. Palin elected President, that we forgot the larger picture? No, I would like to think not and I don’t think Gov. Palin would want us to pack up and go home. That is not who we are. We have kept our powder dry long enough. Now is the time to use it. The reality is as Palin has said all along – it is not about her. It is about “We the People”. We need to press our demands, make our voices heard, and effect political change. All of us, not just the elite political class, but we farmers, artisans, merchants, and houswives need to continue our efforts. We can’t hide behind someone else’s skirts and wait for them to do the hard work of returning America to her glory. Today’s Powder Alarm has come and gone. We are the driving force and we need to get involved in all levels of government, not just concern ourselves with the top of the ticket. We need to write letters to the editor, attend Central Committee Meetings, and even run for office ourselves. We need to stay focused, energized, and ready to restore America.

1 Primary accounts of the troop movement can be found in the Boston Gazette, Sept 5, 1 774; Dexter, ed., Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles p 480

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