- After the Siege: A Social History of Boston, 1775–1800
The town of Boston played a prominent role in the early stages of the American Revolution, providing the setting for the Stamp Act riots, the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Port Act, and the occupation by British troops followed by their expulsion. But for the period after March 1776, historians invariably turn either to more specific topics or to discussions of other regions that exclude Boston's unique urban experience. Consequently, Jacqueline Carr's After the Siege takes on a particular significance. Her examination of Boston's social history during and after the war helps to fill an important gap in our understanding not only of Boston, but of how revolutionary the Revolution was for those living in that community.
On the eve of the American Revolution, Boston had a population of approximately 15,000; by 1800 that number had increased to only 25,000. The intervening twenty-five years had been profoundly disruptive ones in which Boston's civilian residents numbered only 3,000 during the British occupation in 1775–1776. The ensuing years of war and [End Page 665] economic depression also took a toll on the devastated town. As late as 1780, Boston "teetered on the edge of complete collapse" (7), according to Carr, but then, in the postwar era, the community recovered its population and prosperity with increasing rapidity and confidence. Carr traces the turbulent twenty-five-year transformation of Boston by analyzing the "Tax-Taking Books" compiled by local assessors for each of Boston's twelve wards. This mine of largely untapped data, along with newspapers and town, probate, and church records, enables her to trace patterns of migration, occupation, property ownership, and residence for individuals as well for the aggregate population, while concentrating especially on the middling and lower classes.
After describing the physical destruction and chaos left behind by the departing British troops and Loyalists, Carr examines Boston's renaissance from the standpoint of four themes. In "The Character of the Town," she provides a topographical/demographic overview reminiscent of the second edition of Walter Whitehill's Boston: A Topographical History (1968). A series of maps helps readers to understand Boston's physical evolution, although in several instances they are poorly placed and so small as to be difficult to read. In "A Well-Ordered Town," Carr describes the restoration of civilian government among Boston's diverse and highly mobile war-time population. Bostonians perpetuated their traditional town meeting frame of government, more suitable for a rural village than an urban metropolis struggling to cope with problems of poverty, sanitation, disease, fire protection, the regulation of commercial activity, and the restoration of public education.
How men and women made a living in Boston is Carr's third theme. Despite the destruction and dislocations brought about by enemy occupation, war, and postwar depression, the increase in Boston's population created an expanding domestic market that in turn stimulated employment in laboring, house construction, shop keeping, and ship building with its associated skills. For the first time, Boston began gradually to experience a redistribution of population based on wealth as housing for the elite began to appear on Beacon Hill in Boston's West End. Carr does not indicate that class hostility accompanied this process of regional/social stratification, perhaps because Boston's wartime and postwar society was still so fluid. Carr does emphasize the increasing number of African Americans who, while still subject to racial discrimination, benefited from the demand for laborers and artisans. For instance, recent [End Page 666] black immigrants Butterfield and Clarissa Scottland rose from poverty to respectability as property owners and church members.
In a society where men were in short supply, single white women experienced the least social and economic opportunity. Women were often limited to working as domestics, keepers of boarding houses, shops, and taverns, or in Boston's new industrial enterprises to avoid the indignity of the poorhouse. Under these...