The Reluctant Republicans

The title of this beguiling study is a little misleading, taken from a sympathetic Englishman’s reference to the people of Boston who defied British authority. The book itself is not about bravery in Boston. It is about a year in the lives of three people who happened to have been born there but who spent most of the year in question, from mid-1774 to mid-1775, in London. Since their lives in that year intersected only incidentally and the biographical details are pretty well known, this would seem an unlikely means for approaching “the coming of the American Revolution.” Because it is so unlikely, Philip McFarland’s success in creating a coherent and revealing narrative is a small tour de force, especially as the point of no return in the coming of the Revolution may have been reached by the time he brings his characters into view.

For ten years before that time the American colonists had been denying the right of the British Parliament to tax them, while Parliament had adamantly insisted on the right, albeit through levies that actually brought in less than the cost of collection. Each side stood its ground as a matter of principle, demonstrated in acts of righteous indignation that invited righteous retaliation. By 1774 Parliament had answered the Boston Tea Party with a set of punitive measures (closing the port of Boston and reducing popular participation in the local government) that left the colonists no choice between a humiliating submission and armed resistance to what was then the most powerful country in the world.

The three Americans in London were caught in the middle. They could have prevented the coming of the Revolution only by persuading Goliath to back off from David’s slingshot. As we learn in these pages, Thomas Hutchinson, the colonial governor of Massachusetts, had no disposition for so thankless an effort, and the other two found it an exercise in frustration. What all three discovered was the limitations of rational discourse in the conduct of imperial politics. McFarland makes good use of their own words in diaries and letters to convey their dismay and despair in making that discovery.

Josiah Quincy, Jr., the least well known of the three, serves well as an illustration of the illusions a bright young provincial could still harbor in 1774 about talking the British to their senses. Before trying it in person, he had published a powerful attack on the unfairness of the Boston Port Act. Arriving in London in November, he surprisingly succeeded in meeting at length with the ministry as well as with some leaders of the opposition. He doubtless believed that his face-to-face statement of the American cause might avert the disastrous policies of military coercion then forming. But after four months of fruitless entreaties tuberculosis sent him prematurely back to America, where he died just as his ship docked, cutting short what promised to be a brilliant career as a Revolutionary leader.

Hutchinson and Benjamin Franklin were much more in the…

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