In school, students learn about the daring actions of famous Americans like Samuel Adams, John Adams, and John Hancock that fueled the colonies towards a revolution against Great Britain. While these individuals played crucial roles in establishing the United States, Russell Bourne’s Cradle of Violence: How Boston’s Waterfront Mobs Ignited the American Revolution chronicles the contributions of the often-forgotten groups and individuals of the Boston waterfront that laid the groundwork for the American Revolution. Before the Sons of Liberty, Boston’s waterfront workers were the first individuals to experience the effects of British legislation and to act against these new policies. In his book, Bourne details the stories of these mistreated maritime laborers and how they made a stand against the oppressive British Parliament. Bourne examines the decades of social unrest perpetuated by the lower-class members of Boston by tracing the city’s history from its founding in 1630 to the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775. This review will examine Bourne’s fundamental purpose, the points he illustrates to support his purpose, and an assessment of the book’s structure and effectiveness in delivering its intended message.
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Bourne’s purpose in writing his book is to exemplify the actions of the maritime workers of Boston. He argues that the American Revolution would not have materialized without their contributions. He illustrates the actions of these sailors, dock workers, apprentices, slaves, and other lower-class citizens that historians and prominent historical figures have overlooked. Bourne’s main motivation comes from John Adam’s labeling of the five individuals who were killed by British soldiers in the Boston Massacre. John Adams held the task of defending the British soldiers from the Boston Massacre in court. In defense of the soldiers, John Adams regarded those killed in the massacre as a “motley rabble of saucy boys, Negroes and Mulattoes, Irish Teagues, and outlandish Jack Tars” (Bourne, 2006, p. 167). Adams’s prejudiced language influenced the public perception to disregard the actions of the mob due to their low rank in society. Bourne agrees that these individuals were daring and violent, but believes they served a greater purpose in guiding the colonies towards change and resistance. Their unheralded acts of mob violence provoked the British to send troops to Boston to suppress the rebellion. The waterfront mobs of Boston were the most influential in creating rebellious attitudes as Boston was a center of commerce and had endured decades of riots against oppression. Bourne uses his book as a platform to inform the reader of how the actions of these lesser-known heroes are responsible for the formation of the United States. History remembers the famous high-class figures who had a voice in bringing about political change. Bourne wants people to remember those who delivered their message through actions rather than words.
Bourne establishes that Boston was the city intended to fuel the rebellion due to its sense of autonomy and confidence. Boston’s location along Massachusetts Bay gave it a distinct advantage in trade and seafaring activities. Triangular trade between Europe, Africa, and the West Indies aided Boston into becoming one of the most prosperous cities in the colonies. The rise in wealth created feelings of autonomy among citizens and a willingness to protect their profitable port at all costs. In 1662, the General Court of Massachusetts issued a statement stating that Massachusetts would defend itself against anyone who tried to interfere with their way of life. This autonomous mindset would be further embraced when Parliament began levying taxes on the colonies. At the end of the French and Indian War, Great Britain taxed the New England region to recover lost expenses from the war. Boston was a town of confident and independent-minded citizens that were willing to fight anyone that would interfere with their economy and society. Boston, with one of the most established economies in the colonies, was the most qualified in resisting British policies. Additionally, Boston was home to many citizens that were ready to fight the authority after years of social unrest.
Bourne shows how the waterfront mobs ignited the revolution by providing examples of mob resistance. Mob violence began early in Boston’s history, with the first major revolt against Sir Edmund Andros, the unpopular and tyrannical governor of New England, in 1689. The oppressed were willing to fight against those who mistreated them, even their fellow Bostonians. While Boston thrived as a seaport town with the triangular trade, there were many impoverished citizens in Boston. The elites dominated trade, creating a large gap between the wealthy and the poor. The elites disregarded the poor, which led to uprisings throughout Boston’s history. The lower class endured decades of hardships, which created rebellious attitudes in the succeeding generations. After the British Parliament's instituted of the Stamp Act in 1765, mob violence against British authority increased. Mobs drove out British customs officials through violent acts of tarring and feathering and burning down the officials’ houses. Mob violence forced Great Britain into sending soldiers to suppress the rebellion. Without the need to send troops, a war between Great Britain and the United States would not have materialized. The mob demonstrations along the waterfront created the necessary friction for Great Britain to engage in battle against the colonies.
Bourne emphasizes the importance of knowing who these mob individuals were by providing background information about their lives. Most of the waterfront mob members did not envision themselves as heroes; they saw themselves as part of the crowd. Bourne sees them as the first soldiers of the American Revolution as their mob demonstrations made the fight against Great Britain possible. Bourne educates the reader about some of the most influential personas from the waterfront mobs. He details the lives of Ebenezer Mackintosh and George Robert Twelves Hewes. Mackintosh led numerous house raids that forced the customs officials out of Boston, and Hewes took part in the Boston Tea Party and the tarring and feathering of John Malcolm, a loyalist who worked for the British customs service. Additionally, Bourne provides relevant information about those killed in the Boston Massacre. While many know Crispus Attucks was the first casualty of the American Revolution, the story of his life is unknown. Bourne took the time to research the story of Attucks; he details his exploits of becoming enslaved, escaping from slavery, and arriving in Boston. Adams’s prejudiced description of those killed in the Boston Massacre disregarded the purpose of their actions. Bourne counters Adams’s remark by exhibiting the lives of these individuals and showing their importance in being among the first to combat Great Britain.
Bourne makes a compelling argument in favor of the waterfront mobs. While mob demonstrations are sometimes regarded as terroristic, their actions were instrumental in starting a rebellion in Boston that led to a revolution against Great Britain. Bourne’s systematic approach creates a chronological and organized list of necessary events for understanding the cause and effect relations of the mob’s demonstrations. Bourne provides essential information and analysis to convince his audience that the waterfront mobs were the first heroes of the American Revolution. He displays an engaging writing style by exhibiting consistency and clarity in each chapter. While he provides extensive background information and many examples that strongly support his arguments, his examples become repetitious. Each chapter includes interesting facts and unique stories, but continually reestablishes similar points, which becomes tedious when reading several sections at once. Additionally, the British vocabulary is difficult to read at times, but does not diminish enjoyment in reading this book. Bourne created a fascinating story that is suitable for those with an interest in American history.
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Russell Bourne’s Cradle of Violence: How Boston’s Waterfront Mobs Ignited the American Revolution is an engaging and informative narrative detailing the lives of the Boston waterfront mob and their impact on influencing a war with Great Britain. Bourne takes the reader on an adventure from the early days of Boston to the first conflicts with the British. An individual who is well-educated in history will still learn new information about this rebellious time in United States history. Bourne effectively illustrates the oppression endured by the impoverished along Boston’s harbor, while giving these individuals the acknowledgment they deserve for having a substantial role in forming the United States. Bourne honors these forgotten heroes by revealing their mark on igniting the rebellion.
- Bourne, R. (2006). Cradle of violence: How Boston’s waterfront mobs ignited the American Revolution. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
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