- As If an Enemy’s Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution
In this new installment in Oxford University Press’s Pivotal Moments in American History series, Richard Archer examines the events surrounding the British Army’s occupation of Boston between October 1768 and March 1770. For historians of the Revolutionary era, this book offers an accurate but not especially innovative retelling of familiar events. For undergraduate and lay readers, the audience that I suspect Archer is most interested in attracting, As If an Enemy’s Country delivers on what are the hallmarks of the Pivotal Moments series: a well-paced narrative informed by sound archival research, illuminated by engaging anecdotes and biographical sketches, and attentive to bigger themes in American history. In that sense, this book provides a tale well told, although not likely to supplant classic works on the same topic by Bernard Bailyn, Hiller Zobel, and John Shy, and sometimes in need of closer engagement with more recent related scholarship by T. H. Breen and Brendan McConville.1 By virtue of the series in which it appears, As If an Enemy’s [End Page 137] Country also raises questions about what qualifies as “pivotal” in the coming of the American Revolution that it does not answer entirely.
Although Archer’s focus is on the British occupation of Boston, he devotes half of the book to the back story, explaining the ministerial decisions, Parliamentary acts, and colonial responses that led to the fateful decision to bring troops into Boston. He provides a skillful explication of the issues and events that divided Boston into a “court faction” (15) led by Francis Bernard and Thomas Hutchinson and a “popular faction” (15) led by James Otis, Jr. and John and Sam Adams. Although Archer exhibits an appreciation for nuance when discussing the patriot cause—its stops and starts, divisions within its ranks, alternatives devised and discarded—he tends to paint the British and their loyalist supporters too broadly as ham-fisted and tone-deaf blockheads who never grasped the nature or severity of colonial grievances. Describing Lord Hillsborough’s response to colonial petitions in 1768, Archer writes, “The arrogance, clumsiness, and insensitivity of the British reaction grated on colonial ears” (91). Maybe so, but from the perspective of Scotland, Ireland, or any other provincial realm of the British Empire in the 1760s, the British ministry seemed to be exercising remarkable patience and restraint with the recalcitrant Americans.
In its second half, As If an Enemy’s Country shifts away from London politics and policy to focus on the rising tensions between soldiers and civilians in occupied Boston. Archer’s discussion of desertion, military discipline, and labor competition provides the foundation for the book’s closing chapters on the origins and aftermath of the Boston Massacre. When the troops finally leave their encampment on the Commons for Castle William, something has irrevocably changed: “They [Boston’s citizens] increasingly perceived themselves as Americans rather than British. The first American revolution was in Bostonians’ sense of their identity” (228). As Archer would have it, seventeen months of military occupation had turned the loyal British subjects of Boston into rebellious Americans.
That conclusion wraps up the book nicely, but it is not sustained by [End Page 138] the narrative that precedes it. Archer does not make a convincing case that the British occupation was the pivotal point on Boston’s road to revolution. Anglo–American tensions in Boston and the colonies in general eased after the repeal of the Townshend duties and the trial of the soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre. Arguably, the Boston Tea Party in December 1773, not the occupation of 1768–70, provided the catalyst for the events that led to Lexington and Concord. Of course, it is hard to state precisely when colonial Americans stopped thinking of themselves as loyal Britons, and Archer’s claim that it happened after British troops fired on a Boston mob in March 1770...