Johnny Tremain | Study Guide

Esther Forbes

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Johnny Tremain | Themes

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Communal Nature of Revolution

As Johnny Tremain becomes adept at gathering intelligence, he learns the value of developing inside sources (people with access to places he cannot go). The novel suggests that revolution must be born from and enacted through the people themselves—only when communities work together can such a massive social and political upheaval be successfully accomplished.

Mrs. Bessie, the cook at Jonathan Lyte's home, is one such devoted believer in the revolutionary cause. Her employer is a staunch Tory—a supporter of the British Crown—but Mrs. Bessie is a proud Whig who backs the Sons of Liberty, the secret group that aims to undermine British authority. When Lyte plans to take his family to the safety of the countryside, Mrs. Bessie tells Johnny that the Sons of Liberty plan to attack Lyte's house. Johnny also learns that Mrs. Bessie is a longtime acquaintance of Sam Adams (1722–1803). "If there were Daughters of Liberty," she tells Johnny, "I'd be one."

Johnny also finds an ally at the Afric Queen tavern, next door to the Boston Observer newspaper office. British officers are billeted, or housed, at the Afric Queen, and their horses are stabled there as well. When Johnny is in the stable caring for his own horse, Goblin, he makes friends with Lydia, the black laundress at the tavern. Lydia first helps Johnny keep Goblin from being confiscated by the British officers by spooking the horse, making him seem difficult to manage. She also passes to Johnny an officer's letter that helps the patriots raid a British outpost and steal valuable arms and ammunition.

Divided Loyalties

The American Revolution, as seen through Johnny Tremain's eyes, gets off to an uncertain start. It begins as a matter of taxes; the British government believes that American colonists should pay for the protection their mother country provides. Trade between England and the colonies, however, is robust and makes merchants and traders, such as John Hancock (1737–93), wealthy on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. People such as Jonathan Lyte try to play both sides of the fence for their own benefit. For example, Lyte agrees not to import British goods until the Stamp Act—the act taxing newspapers and paper goods—is repealed, but he secretly continues importing and profiting. As Rab Silsbee tells Johnny Tremain, Lyte is "trying to ride two horses—Whig and Tory."

Other colonists' loyalties were strained between love of their mother country and opportunities in the new world. But, in the end there was little middle ground between being a Whig—in favor of self-rule for the colonies—or a Tory, loyal to the British Crown.

Johnny himself feels conflicted when he sees how roughly the rebel mobs can treat Tories. A loyalist is beaten outside the Boston Observer office by the Sons of Liberty, a secret organization of young men who intimidate those with British leanings. When Jonathan Lyte moves his family out of Boston to Medford, an angry crowd attacks his house and forces the family back to the city. On the other hand, Johnny experiences kindness from some British soldiers, such as Lieutenant Stranger and Pumpkin. And a British medical officer tells Johnny, "We're all one people, you know."

But when fighting begins at Lexington and Concord, Johnny realizes people will have to choose one side or the other. Johnny chooses the patriots, but a great many colonists remain loyal to England.

By the end of the novel, readers will understand that the war was no longer about taxation or trade. Liberty and independence became the guiding lights of the revolution. As historian Rick Atkinson has noted, the war became a battle between people with a shared heritage divided by "conflicting visions of the world."

Why We Fight

When James Otis appears unannounced at the Boston Observers' final meeting in the autumn of 1774, he is aware that the colonies are on the path to war and asks each of the Observers if he knows what the patriots are fighting for. To kick the British out of Boston, some answer; to protest taxation without representation, say others. No, Otis replies. It is something bigger than that. It is a fight against tyranny, a fight so "a man can stand up."

Otis is not only speaking to the revolutionaries of Boston. Johnny Tremain was published in 1943, while the United States was embroiled in World War II (1939–1945). A new generation of young men was being called upon to defend democracy.

When Otis speaks of tyranny, he is referring not to the British but rather to a larger menace: the suppression of any group of people. Prophetically, in words Esther Forbes's readers knew to be true, Otis says that the colonists' cause is the same fight for liberty that will free French peasants (French Revolution, 1787–99) and Russian serfs (Russian Revolution, 1917). His words also apply to the soldiers fighting against Nazi Germany and its allies in World War II.

Otis's words stay with Johnny as he sees colonial militiamen marching toward Boston. He is filled with love for this land, but he sees a future "wet with blood." Like Johnny, American boys in 1943 faced an equally uncertain future, and many died "so a man can stand up."

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