The following is another excerpt from the forthcoming book....
Yet despite the practice of mixed husbandry, the town was not a collection of self-sufficient farms. There was a great interdependence among the residents of Lexington. Cooperation and mutual welfare were common customs in Massachusetts towns and villages. Residents assisted each other with a variety of tasks and in a number of emergencies: preparing meals, building homes, plowing, felling timber, caring for one another when ill or injured or simply offering counsel and advice.
This concept of interdependence spilled over into Lexington’s economy as well. When goods or services were exchanged, cash was rarely utilized. Instead, transactions on the local level were recorded in the form of debts and credits. Debts were listed in terms of monetary value and recorded by creditors in account books. At any given time, a yeoman would be both a creditor and a debtor to dozens of his neighbors. Economic success not only required tolerant creditors, but shrewd debtors able to avoid settlement too quickly or frequently. Manual labor was the service most frequently exchanged on the local level. If there was either an individual need or general demand for items that could not be produced locally (such as gunpowder, high-grade cloth, needles and pins), local residents such as William Munroe purchased the goods in Boston, Salem, Plymouth or Newburyport and then resold them at their own stores in Lexington.
Because of this economic system, the web of interdependence was strengthened and families continued to rely heavily on one another. The economy thus served as powerful social cement promoting community cooperation and neighborly behavior at all levels.
The extent of cooperation did, however, have limits. The increase in Lexington’s population in the mid-18th Century, coupled with a fixed supply of land available as an inheritance forced many young men in Lexington to seek land north or west of Lexington, purchase smaller tracts of land inside Lexington or share with their brothers a divided inheritance.
Worse, many Lexington residents were saddled with overwhelming debt. In 1759, fifteen percent of Lexington men saw a forced sale of all or part of their real estate to settle at the time of their death. By 1779, the percentage had risen to almost twenty-nine percent. By the end of the American Revolution, a staggering forty percent of Lexington estates faced forced sales.
Although society in 18th century Lexington was fluid, it was not as mobile as modern society. Residents of Lexington, like most New Englanders, believed that the upper orders of society were to rule, while the lower were expected to obey. Lower class citizens were viewed with contempt and disdain if they attempted to assert influence or power beyond that expected of their station, and were quickly reminded of their proper place in society. Leaders had to be men of distinction, respected by all. By 18th century standards, failure to adhere to this societal structure would not only result in disorder, chaos and anarchy, but would also anger God.
The clergy stood at the pinnacle of 18th century Lexington society. Due to their own considerable talents, and bolstered by the religious doctrine of the 17th century, the Reverend John Hancock and his successor as pastor, Jonas Clarke, were the most important individuals in Lexington society. As ministers, they were the spiritual and moral leaders, the political commentators and when the town was without a schoolteacher, the educators as well. The minister held an unchallenged position within society. The citizens of Lexington were expected to entertain him when he called upon them to appear at his home.
The minister’s function was to help maintain stability and order within Lexington. Thus, he frequently set aside his personal needs for the benefit of Lexington as a whole. Jonas Clarke received a very generous salary, but he often donated part of it to Lexington at the yearly town meetings. In times of need, citizens naturally turned to the minister for assistance. Frequently he involved himself in settling the daily squabbles that arose between residents. Reverend Hancock often settled land disputes by driving a stake into the ground and telling the involved parties that the stake was the borderline and there would be no further quarrel about it. The minister even influenced the education of the town’s children, taking a leading role in preparing Lexington boys for Harvard.
Below the ministers stood the selectmen and other town leaders. These were the substantial yeomen and tradesmen who usually had greater wealth and held more property than the average Lexington farmer. These leaders were viewed as role models for the doctrine that ultimately success could only be attained through hard work. Their positions also entitled them to other benefits, including first choice in the purchase of family pews and burial plots, and the right to represent Lexington, first in the House of Representatives in Boston and later in the Massachusetts Provincial Congress.
Individuals rarely exercised local political leadership until they had reached middle life and achieved economic independence. It was assumed that only those who had established a place in society, whose accumulation of property ensured that their interests were dependant on no man, could be relied upon to wisely lead the community. Between 1769 and 1779, twenty seven of the town’s selectmen were between the ages of fifty and fifty-nine. Another seventeen were between the ages of forty and forty-nine. No one under the age of thirty served as a selectman. Thus, dependent sons, laborers, poor farmers and servants had no right to accept leadership positions.
Below the town politicians in the social order was the general male population, or yeoman. Hard working and dedicated to their beliefs, these men were concerned primarily with raising their families and cultivating their farmlands. A review of Lexington’s tax valuations of property in 1774 reveals the wealthiest resident of Lexington, William Reed, Esq., was assessed 16 shillings, one pence. The town’s poorest resident, Ephraim Winship, was assessed a mere ten pence. As such, most of the residents in Lexington were considered “yeoman”. The average Lexington yeoman owned at least five cows, two oxen, at least six acres of tillage and produced at least sixty bushels of grain per year.
A yeoman could vote in town elections and participate in town meetings if he had resided in Lexington for one year, was at least twenty-one years old and possessed an estate that would rent for £3:6:8 a year according to the valuation of the local assessor. As in many other towns, the average Lexington farmer made up the rank and file of the militia. He could read, possessed high moral standards and was often easily influenced by the Whig propaganda emanating from Boston. His daily duties began at dawn and continued, almost without interruption, until after sunset.
Beneath the yeomen were the landless and poor. By 1774, nearly one third of Lexington men were landless. Many were young men, transients or non-inheriting sons who remained in town. More troubling was the number of poor who were dependent upon the town for support. In 1764, there were twelve individuals who were dependent upon the town. By 1775, the number doubled to twenty-four. To curb the rise in government dependency, the town resolved to prosecute any resident who allowed nonresident poor to reside in their homes without first seeking permission of the selectmen. Fines assessed for conviction of minor misdemeanors were to be diverted to the support of the poor as was rotted and old wood found on town property.
Popular belief to the contrary, slavery did exist in Massachusetts, and there were slaves living in Lexington at the outbreak of the Revolution. In fact, slavery had existed in Massachusetts almost from its founding, but the institution had never flourished. On the eve of the American Revolution, seven slaves resided in Lexington. The largest slaveholder was Samuel Hadley with three servants.
In some households, male slaves worked side by side with their masters as coopers, blacksmiths, shoemakers and wheelwrights. In other homes they ran errands, functioned as valets and performed heavy work for their masters. In Boston, slaves worked closely with sailors and merchants. The few female slaves in Lexington were required to carry out the various household tasks their mistresses demanded.
Massachusetts slaves were not without rights. Unlike slaves in the southern colonies, New England slaves could hold property, serve in the militia (as was the case with five of Lexington’s slaves: Prince Estabrook, Pompey Blackman, Samuel Crafts, Cato Tuder and Jupiter Tree) and testify in court against both whites and other blacks. On rare occasions they were permitted to petition the colony for legal assistance. In 1774, several African-Americans addressed the Massachusetts General Court and demanded that they too have the right to enjoy the benefits of liberty.
A slave could also sue for freedom, as was the case with a female mulatto slave named Margaret. On November 20, 1770, Margaret appeared in a court in Cambridge represented by a local Boston lawyer named Jonathan Sewall. John Adams, who was currently in the midst of the Boston Massacre trial, represented her masters, the Muzzey family of Lexington. At the end of the hearing, which lasted most of the day, the court freed Margaret.