The 'commoner's' role in Boston's storied past

There's more to Boston politics than John Kerry and the Kennedys. Now, as the city becomes America's political center for a brief moment next week, historians and others are digging through the past to glean insights into a nation's birth.

What they're finding is forcing a reassessment of how the city shaped US politics - and how the past may echo in pronouncements from the podium next week.

Already, a list of Boston's heroes reads like a roll call of America's past - from Puritans to transcendentalists to Irish bosses.

But no generation of Bostonians was more influential than that which tipped East Indian tea into the Atlantic. Yet as much as Bostonians would like to celebrate the Adamses and Otises, Hancocks and Reveres, historians have begun focusing on a long-neglected figure: the little guy.

Even here, where a coterie of agitators willed confrontation with the British, the ideology and actions of regular Bostonians proved decisive. Consider, for instance, some of these figures and factoids:

• Sure, Paul Revere was probably the nation's first celebrated spy, or at least its first early-warning system in a tricorn hat. But historian David Hackett Fischer points out that at least 80 other riders set out on that famous night to warn of the British landing.

• Common folks declared their independence in town meetings - months before the Second Continental Congress followed suit.

• George Robert Twelves Hewes, a shoemaker, was present at some of the Revolution's most important moments. He was in the crowd at the Boston Massacre in 1770 and on board the Dartmouth during the Tea Party of 1773.

Experts have long portrayed such people as part of a mob. But new histories offer a far different perspective. "It was people like Hewes who really made things happen," says Alfred Young, a Hewes expert at Northern Illinois University.Hewes based his change in heart on the sight of a British soldier beating a woman, and another cuffing a small boy.

Historians also have a new appreciation for the sheer number of people who joined the movement. Three thousand attended a protest after the Boston Massacre. More than 5,000 went to the Old South Meeting House in preparation for the Tea Party.

The Revolution's spirit, many historians argue, emerged from the people. "Sam Adams had to write from the Continental Congress to get the Revolution to slow down," says Ray Raphael, author of "A People's History of the American Revolution."

Nor can it be characterized by the quiet sanctity of Independence Hall, where lawyers in knee-britches deconstructed the idea of monarchy. The city's emotions were raw, and often swelled into violence.

But this side of the Revolution is largely absent from popular memory. Consider the lost legacy of Boston's Liberty Tree - an enormously popular symbol in its day. At the corner of Washington and Essex streets, the tree was a gathering point for protests. It was here that royal governors were hung in effigy, then paraded around town. But many believe it portrays the violence that officials would just as soon repress. Now, only a tiny plaque remains.

Though the rebellion marked a growing recognition of inalienable rights, its record has neglected the chaos of a mass movement. "The 19th-century version ... wasn't comfortable telling the story of a people's revolution," says Mr. Raphael. "They didn't want to give the people any ideas."

But now, even popular histories are growing more balanced. David McCullough's biography of John Adams portrays the founder as a man who, bit by bit, adopted a constellation of values that defies stereotypes of the time.

Despite the new interest in shoemakers and midwives, Americans will probably continue to confront the Revolution - and the present - through the founders' eyes. And that may be the greatest challenge for historians: getting regular Bostonians of the present to care about regular Bostonians of the past.

"Ordinary folks tend to go back to our founders in moments of crises," says Gordon Wood, a historian at Brown University. "I think you need to look at both the founding fathers and the carpenters."

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