Johnny Tremain | Study Guide

Esther Forbes

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Johnny Tremain | Context


Colonial Boston

Johnny Tremain takes place in colonial Boston, Massachusetts, during the years leading up to the start of the American Revolution in 1775.

Boston's Geography

The Boston of the novel was provincial, Protestant, and patriotic. Connected to mainland Massachusetts by Boston Neck—a thin strip of land that crossed the mudflats—Boston was virtually an island, one square mile in size, with a population of 15,000. It was the third largest port in the American colonies and had 50 wharves and shipyards. The largest wharf, Long Wharf, was the center of the shipping industry that fueled Boston's financial health.

Johnny Tremain notes many of the problems, largely caused by the city's geography, that the British faced when attempting to maintain control of Boston. For example, in April 1775, on the eve of the Battles of Lexington and Concord—which began the American Revolution—British troops set out from Boston for Concord to seize a stash of military arms. Because Boston was nearly surrounded by water, the troops either had to march south across narrow Boston Neck at the southern end of the city or be ferried across the harbor in the north to Charlestown. Knowing this information, patriot Paul Revere (c. 1735–1818), who intended to ride into the countryside to alert colonial soldiers, arranged for patriots to signal which route the British were taking. Lanterns hung in the steeple of Christ Church, the tallest structure in the city, would send the signal—one lantern would mean the British were traveling by Boston Neck, and two would mean they were traveling by water.

Boston's People

The city was fiercely Protestant, with attitudes largely unchanged since Puritan days. The Puritans were religious protesters who sailed to America from England. In 1630 they founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, with settlements in Boston and other Massachusetts cities. Puritan morals stressed hard work and strict religious observation; all businesses were closed on Sundays.

Merchants made wealthy by the port's busy shipping industry lived in mansions around the city's Beacon Hill neighborhood. In Johnny Tremain these merchants include real-life patriot John Hancock (1737–93) and Johnny Tremain's nemesis, the fictional Jonathan Lyte. But many young people like Johnny lived above their shops while working in a trade as apprentices for no pay, indentured to their masters for seven years.

One in five Boston families owned slaves, and as in the southern colonies, many Bostonians feared a slave revolt. But some African Americans in New England had already taken on new roles in society. Poet Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784) was a slave whose poetry eventually found a publisher in England. Crispus Attucks (1723–1770), a former slave, was one of the first men to die in the fight for American independence. He was killed in the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770, when British soldiers fired on an angry group of citizens.

Boston's Politics

Boston was a hotbed of anger and frustration regarding British control of the colonies. Whigs publicly debated Tories in Faneuil Hall, the city's main marketplace, or in Old South Meeting House, the city's largest facility.

The terms Whig and Tory originated in 17th-century Great Britain. Whigs supported the British Parliament, which is responsible for making laws, determining taxes, and overseeing the government. They embraced capitalism and religious freedom and tended to be strongly antislavery. Tories were fiercely loyal to the British monarchy and the Church of England. In 18th-century colonial America, Whigs were mostly concentrated in the northern colonies; also known as patriots, revolutionaries, or Yankees, among other terms, they supported revolution against the British Crown. Tories, also known as loyalists or royalists, were more common in the southern colonies and supported continued British rule.

Taxation without Representation

By the 1760s Great Britain was a world power with an empire that stretched around the world. The cost of maintaining the empire was great, however, and Parliament—Britain's ruling body—thought it was reasonable to expect its colonists in North America to help pay the bill. While their trading ships were protected by the British navy and their frontiers were patrolled by the British army, colonists paid on the average only sixpence a year in taxes to the Crown. For residents of Great Britain, the tax bill was 50 times higher.

To generate more income from the colonies, Parliament approved the Stamp Act in 1765. The act imposed a tax on all printed materials in the colonies, from wills to playing cards. Colonists widely resisted the act, and in Boston a mob attacked the home of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson (1711–80). Parliament repealed the Stamp Act the following year. In 1767 Parliament approved the Townshend Acts, which included customs duties on imports such as glass, paper, lead, and tea and provided for housing British troops in public and private buildings. The Townshend Acts were expected to raise enough money to keep colonial governors, appointed by the British king, independent of colonial opposition groups.

Boycotts and the Boston Massacre

Whigs in the colonies—led by Massachusetts—retaliated by boycotting British goods. Colonists began producing their own clothes and shoes and established stronger ties of commerce among the colonies. They also smuggled goods into America from foreign nations. The boycott wounded the British economy, and as a result the Townshend Act duties were repealed, with the exception of the tax on tea. Parliament voted on the repeal on March 5, 1770. Later that same night, a Boston mob attacked a squad of British soldiers who fired on the crowd, killing five. The event became known as the Boston Massacre.

Britain had retained the tea tax, in part, as Associated Press writer Sid Moody (d. 2012) claims, "as a mark of the supremacy of Parliament, and an efficient declaration of their right to govern the Colonies." More importantly, the financially troubled East India Company had too much tea. Parliament decided to force the American colonists to take the tea at a considerable discount, but only through approved and appointed agents. In effect, colonists were forced to purchase tea from a monopoly. At the same time, smugglers and merchants who provided tea from outside sources stood to lose considerable business. Colonists' anger at Britain's manipulation finally erupted on the night of December 16, 1773. During the Boston Tea Party, colonists loosely disguised as Mohawk Indians dumped hundreds of chests of tea into Boston Harbor. In Johnny Tremain the title character takes part in the protest.

Punishment and Its Consequences

In 1774 Parliament responded to this insubordination by passing the Coercive Acts, known in the colonies as the Intolerable Acts. The acts closed the port of Boston until colonists reimbursed the East India Company for the cost of the lost tea. Other provisions put control of the Massachusetts colony in the hands of the Crown-appointed governor. Colonists were restricted from sitting on juries, and British officials could be tried outside the colonies. Troops that had been withdrawn following the Boston Massacre returned, and quartering—housing British troops in local homes—was established once more.

As a result of the Coercive Acts, the colonies' bonds grew stronger. Massachusetts received support in the form of food and other goods from colonies to the south. The acts also impelled the colonies to convene a Continental Congress in Philadelphia in the fall of 1774 and join in a common effort against Britain. While delegates voted to retaliate with a unified boycott of British goods, the citizen militia—men trained in using weapons and willing to defend their communities—began stockpiling arms.

American Revolution

Also known as the U.S. War of Independence, the American Revolution lasted from 1775 to 1783.

As tensions escalated between colonists and British officials, with the colonists pushing back against British control, American militiamen around Boston prepared for an attack. Their first battles with the British army occurred at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, on April 19, 1775. The Battles of Lexington and Concord began as a raid by about 700 British troops on weapons stockpiled in Concord and led to an armed confrontation when the troops met militiamen gathered in nearby Lexington. The soldiers were preparing to throw down their weapons when a shot was heard; to this day historians do not know which side fired it. A fight began in earnest. Eight patriots died and nine were wounded; only one British soldier was injured. Fighting and more bloodshed continued as the British troops marched on to Concord.

Britain's Struggles

Britain found itself dragged into a war it was ill prepared to pursue. Britain's King George III (1738–1820; reigned 1760 to his death) and his ministers didn't believe that a few angry radicals in Boston represented the feelings of most colonists, and they were sure a show of force could easily quell any unrest. This perception turned out to be untrue. As the conflict grew, Britain found it nearly impossible to amass sufficient troops across the Atlantic Ocean.

The Battle of Bunker Hill, which took place after the events in Johnny Tremain, was fought on June 17, 1775, on the hills overlooking Charlestown River. Although it was a British victory, it was the war's costliest battle in terms of British casualties, with 1,054 killed or wounded.

Washington Takes Charge

Following the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Continental Congress elected George Washington (1732–99; U.S. president 1789–97) as commander in chief. Washington laid siege to Boston, but the British forces withdrew to New York City. By 1776 a growing majority of the colonists favored independence from Britain. On July 4 of that year, the Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, separating the 13 American colonies from Great Britain's rule.

Under Washington the coalition of troops from various colonies merged into a relatively stable force known as the Continental army. Many of the troops were farmers and laborers who lacked the military training of British troops. The army struggled to keep the men paid and fed, and many men deserted over the course of the war. Much of Washington's strategy was a waiting game punctuated with small—but deadly—battles.

The War's Conclusion

The French ultimately aided the Americans in forcing the British to surrender at the Battle of Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, although fighting continued for two more years. England formally acknowledged American independence during negotiations at the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783.

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