In 1774 Town Meeting was illegal in Massachusetts, but that didn’t stop towns from holding them. And when Gen. Thomas Gage threatened to arrest the organizers, Town Meeting in Salem set an attendance record.
By August of 1774 it had grown apparent that Parliament and the King were losing the upper hand in dealing with rowdy Massachusetts colonists. The previous year they had thrown a ship load of tea into Boston Hrbor in protest of English policies.
Gage, the newly appointed governor, had begun to enforce the Coercive Acts passed by Parliament. The Acts closed the port of Boston and restricted colonists from meeting to plot strategy. The new laws belonged to the campaign to force Massachusetts to pay for the tea destroyed in the Boston tea party.
But the Coercive Acts didn’t work. Food and supplies flowed into Massachusetts from neighboring colonies supportive of the protest. And within Massachusetts, defiance to British authority only grew.
A Well-Attended Town Meeting in Salem
By August, towns held meetings to elect representatives to plan further responses to England. Gen. Gage, who had arrived in the spring, had his orders. The towns in the colonies were not to meet more than once a year to conduct their business.
John Andrews, Boston merchant, regularly wrote to his brother-in-law in Philadelphia to keep him apprised of the situation in Boston. He recorded the mood of the people of Massachusetts.
“The towns through the country are so far from being intimidated that a day in the week does not pass without one or more having meetings, in direct contempt of the Act; which they regard as a blank piece of paper and not more,” he wrote.
In Salem, townspeople scheduled their meeting for the 24th and Gage sent troops to stop it. But this only further enraged the colonists. They rapidly held the meeting to choose their delegates to a larger gathering while they stalled the troops. When ordered to come to court to face charges of high crimes and misdemeanors, two colonists posted bail. But the rest refused and were released with no bail. The British asked the members of the town’s committee of correspondence to surrender to the magistrate to answer charges. They didn’t get the reply they’d hoped for.
John Andrews Reports
The latest accounts we have had from there was at ten o’clock P.M., when there was upwards of three thousand men assembled there from the adjacent towns, with full determination to rescue the Committee if they should be sent to prison, even if they were obliged to repel force by force, being sufficiently provided for such a purpose; as indeed they are all through the country — every male above the age of I6 possessing a firelock with double the quantity of powder and ball enjoined by law. The Marblehead people sent them word that they were ready to come in at a minute’s warning sufficiently provided to lend assistance. George William. Captain Derby, and members of the Committee told the Governor if the ninetieth part of a farthing would he taken as bail, they would not give it, and very impertinently retorted upon him if he committed them (to jail) they must abide by the consequences — for they would not be answerable for what might take place.
With thousands of angry colonists on one side and far smaller contingent of British soldiers on the other, there was little Gage could do but watch as Roxbury scheduled a town meeting and one was held in Danvers in direct contradiction of the law.
“Damn them,” Gage responded. “I won’t do anything about it unless his Majesty sends me more troops.”
This story last updated in 2022.