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MIKE KEELER: May 1774: The Empire Strikes Back

On May 13, 1774, a large vessel sailed into Boston Harbor. It wasn’t a whaler, it wasn’t a trading ship of any kind. It was the HMS Lively, a 20-gun post ship of the Royal Navy that was commissioned in 1756 and had seen action against the French throughout the 7-Years War. But on this day her role was to deliver a new Royal Governor to the Colony of Massachusetts, a man named General Thomas Gage.

Gage was no stranger to North America. He had first arrived in the New World in 1755 as part of General Braddock’s expeditionary force that tried and disastrously failed to remove the French from the Ohio Valley. As part of that campaign, Gage had fought alongside George Washington in the Battle of Monongahela. He went on to fight in numerous battles of the French and Indian War, and by the war’s end in 1763, he was Commander in Chief of all British forces in North America.

Throughout the 1760’s he dealt with the tensions rising in the colonies over Parliament’s passage of the Stamp Act and Quartering Act by pulling British soldiers out of the frontier and redeploying them in New York and Boston. This inflamed the citizenry and led to, among other things, the Boston Massacre in 1770.

Gage and his wife – the former Margaret Kemble, an American beauty of the Schuyler family – were central to New York society, and though she was suspected of having “Patriotic” leanings, Gage wrote that “democracy is too prevalent in America” and “America is a mere bully, from one end to the other, and the Bostonians by far the greatest bullies.” In 1773, he and Margaret sailed for England, probably relieved that their long term of duty in America was finally over.

But then came the Boston Tea Party that December. And Parliament responds in March of 1774 by passing the Boston Port Act, which locks the harbor down and puts it under military control. They need a military man to enforce the order, and they choose General Gage.

As he arrives, he is at first well received, since he is replacing Governor Thomas Hutchinson, long hated by the people of Boston. But the good feelings last only about a week. On May 20, Gage will begin enforcement of the Massachusetts Governing Act – which rescinds the right of the colonials to nominate their own representatives – and the Administration of Justice Act – which protects royal officials from having to be tried by juries of colonials.

Parliament and Gage believe that by making an example of Boston, they can convince the other colonies to get in line. But by the end of May, in response to these acts that the colonists deem “Intolerable,” the House of Burgesses in Virginia will call for a Day of Fasting in support of Boston. And right next door to Massachusetts, the leaders of the colony of Rhode Island will call for an “Intercolonial Conference.”

By the time all the other colonies join in and the conference meets in the fall, it will be known as the Continental Congress…

  • Mike Keeler

    Mike Keeler

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