In Occupied America, Donald F. Johnson chronicles the everyday lives of ordinary people living under British military occupation during the American Revolution. Focusing on port cities, Johnson recovers how Americans navigated dire hardships, balanced competing attempts to secure their loyalty, and in the end rejected restored royal rule.
2020 | 304 pages | Cloth $34.95
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Table of Contents
Introduction. The Experience of Occupation
Chapter 1. Revolutionary Occupations
Chapter 2. Collaborator Regimes
Chapter 3. Within the Lines
Chapter 4. Starving amid Plenty
Chapter 5. Ambiguous Allegiances
Chapter 6. Making Peace
Epilogue. Forgetting Occupation
The Experience of Occupation
The quotidian experiences of military occupation and the transformations they wrought were central to the failure of British authority in North America. The American Revolution transformed deeply held beliefs in radical ways. The results of this upheaval are well known: by 1783, a group of anti-tax revolutionaries had defeated the most powerful empire in the world and established an independent republic. But despite two centuries of historical study, the experience of revolution for ordinary Americans remains frustratingly unclear. Rejection of imperial authority did not take place only, or even primarily, in the abstract realm of political philosophy. Nor did change happened solely based on social conditions or military campaigns. Rather, it occurred for most people in the course of their everyday lives, in intensely personal and highly contingent ways, especially when confronted with the most visceral aspects of the Revolutionary War. Most women and men living in what became the United States did not switch their loyalties in an instant but did so gradually, as their lived experiences of enduring war altered their attitudes toward British rule. Nowhere is this everyday process of political change more evident than in the port cities the British Army occupied during the war.
We are not accustomed to thinking of the American Revolution in terms of intense and prolonged personal struggles. In 1815, an aging John Adams influenced centuries of popular memory when he reflected that the American War of Independence "was no part of the revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it." For the second president, "the revolution was in the minds of the people"; rejection of British authority had already occurred "before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington." Although Adams's words have shaped numerous historical interpretations, many of his contemporaries would have balked at the idea that the war played no role in shaping their politics. William Tillinghast—a physician living in occupied Newport, Rhode Island—had a profoundly different experience of the American Revolution; one that reflects how the wartime experience of occupation, more than radical political arguments during the imperial crisis, caused many to abandon their faith in royal rule.
Tillinghast, who had trained with the physician Benjamin Rush in Philadelphia before the war, remained politically neutral and continued his medical practice when British forces occupied his native Newport in late 1776. A devout Quaker, he likely supported an early address delivered by many of the city's most prominent Friends congratulating General Sir Henry Clinton on his bloodless conquest of Aquidneck Island, praising Clinton's "distinguished lenity" to the local population and professing their hopes that the general would "restor[e] peace and Tranquility to this (at present) distressed Country." As a man of learning, Tillinghast likely socialized with the British military and their loyalist allies as well. In late 1777, he was elected librarian of the Redwood Library, which during the occupation was frequented by a wide array of royal officers and their loyalist allies—although, in the words of one British observer, its books were "not very well-chosen, & worse preserved." Tillinghast and his wife also had their first two children under occupation, and as evidenced by his account book, the doctor conducted a thriving practice among Newport's military population as well as its civilians.
Indeed, the soldiers and sailors of the occupying force may well have boosted an otherwise lackluster endeavor. In his medical treatments, Tillinghast came into close daily contact with the British Army, which certainly enriched him. The physician's account book, which spans nearly the entire three-year occupation, describes many encounters with members of the British military, from camp followers to the British officer corps. One of the first patients listed in the book is a soldier's wife the doctor visited and charged three shillings for a course of pills to cure a heat rash. In April of 1777, Tillinghast prescribed General Hugh Earl Percy—Newport's then-commander—a dose of purgatory pills and followed up a week later to make sure that his directions were followed. In May, he treated a "Mr. Barns" of the royal artillery for venereal disease—a feat he repeated in June when he cured the gonorrhea of a sailor aboard a British transport. Over the next two years, treating such ailments would become one of his most common services, as dozens of entries in his account book attest. Tillinghast also regularly visited the British hospitals, receiving compensation for treating the wounds that his Majesty's soldiers had suffered in battle against his countrymen. Such work was vital to his practice, as the British Army paid in cash, whereas civilians often did not. One civilian patient he visited paid him with "a breast & neck of Pork," while another used a pair of stockings and a piece of beef to recompense the doctor's services. Others seemingly never paid, or their bills were still outstanding upon his death in 1785. Tillinghast's business, thus, likely depended on the British military for its solvency.
In addition to attending the soldiers themselves, Tillinghast's practice also put him in the midst of frequent liaisons between the British military and the local population. One of his patients was Sally Leake, whom one British officer noted operated "a house of Pleasure" in Newport during the occupation. Likely, many of the women that Tillinghast saw were forced to engage in prostitution or other, more informal relationships with British soldiers to survive. Tellingly, civilian women outnumber civilian men in his account book, indicating that these encounters often led to the same venereal diseases that the physician treated in military personnel. Some of these affairs had more long-lasting consequences. In June of 1778, Tillinghast delivered a child for Sally Allan at her grandfather's house in Middletown, a few miles from Newport. The doctor identified Allan as the "girl" of one Mr. Griffin, purser to HMS Kingfisher, which was then stationed in Newport. Whether or not the affair between Griffin and Allan was consensual, the delivery's location at Allan's grandparents' house rather than Griffin's quarters, as well as the transitory nature of the entry, suggests that it did not last long beyond the Kingfisher's posting, likely leaving Allan and her family with a fatherless child to care for. While the details he recorded for most patients were more fleeting, in his day-to-day work Tillinghast must have seen his fill of the seedy underbelly of British military culture.
Beyond soldiers, sailors, and their sexual partners, Tillinghast's practice also gave him unique insight into the myriad traumas inflicted on city residents by British military rule. In addition to the horrors he must have witnessed at the British military hospitals he visited, the doctor also paid regular visits to Coasters Island, where a smallpox hospital had been set up and where American prisoners of war faced isolation to contain the disease. Tillinghast also visited at least one—and likely more—of the prison ships in Newport Harbor, on which both rebel soldiers and civilians suspected of revolutionary sympathies were exposed to harsh weather, starvation rations, and frequent illnesses. The families of those interned suffered more; as one witness recalled, "Great Numbers of Inhabitants who are now imprison'd have Left their families in great Distress" and "Upon Application to the [British] General For Relief [they] are Treated with Contempt and Turn'd out." Tillinghast had a personal stake in the treatment of those in the smallpox hospital and on the prison ships. In the summer of 1777, his kinsman, Charles Tillinghast, died in the smallpox hospital, and in October another relative, Joseph Tillinghast, was interned aboard the Lord Sandwich prison hulk for refusing to sign an oath of loyalty to the Crown. It also could not have been lost on the pious Quaker that one of the military hospitals he frequented was located in Newport's Society of Friends Meeting House, with injured German mercenaries displacing the Friends' congregation. Moved by the plight of his patients, his family, and his coreligionists, by the end of Newport's occupation Tillinghast had abandoned his allegiance to the British cause and seemed ready to embrace revolutionary rule. When several dozen transports arrived in October 1779 to carry the British force back to New York City, Tillinghast named them "the Blessed Fleet of empty ships," a striking descriptor in an otherwise unemotional account book. Over the course of a three-year occupation whose countless ordeals he had seen closer than most, the doctor had gone from a position of neutrality or even tacit support for the British at their landing to sighing relief at their departure.
Disillusioned by military occupation in Rhode Island, Tillinghast's wartime experience belies Adams's assertion that rejection of British authority was all but completed by the outbreak of war in 1775. For the physician, and for thousands of Americans, the experience of the war—and of military occupation in particular—was crucial to the transformations wrought by the American Revolution. Frustrations, privations, threats, and humiliations at the hands of the British military caused people like Tillinghast to question and ultimately discard their allegiance to the only form of government most had ever known. This process was extremely intimate and varied greatly from person to person. The aggregate effect, however, is clear enough. By the end of the war, for a variety of reasons, most people who lived under British military rule had renounced their loyalty to the king, and British authority had unraveled. In this way, occupation played a critical role in deciding the outcome of the American Revolution.
Between 1775 and 1783, every large North American city—Boston, New York, Newport, Philadelphia, Savannah, and Charleston—fell under British military rule for some period. As centers of population and commerce, these cities should have been bastions from which the British could restore order and inspire loyalty to the Crown. Revolutionary authorities recognized as much, and they moved to secure them as they established new governments in late 1775 and early 1776. Neither were imperial officials ignorant of the importance of cities. In each one, British officers and prominent American civilians collaborated to craft municipal governments intended to entice Americans to pledge their allegiance to the Crown. Under these administrations, military rule provided avenues for many people, especially women and the enslaved, but also free men and even British soldiers, to transform their lives for the better. These enticing new opportunities came with dire risks, as the military also ushered in repression and violence, and many people found themselves newly vulnerable to harassment, robbery, assault, rape, and even murder. Still, the hope of bettering their lives tempted thousands to embrace restored British rule.
Although the official policies of military occupation defined the nature of these new, precarious, opportunity-rich societies, civilians and soldiers contributed equally to their creation. Soldiers imposed a distinct military culture on each port town, which many civilians eagerly joined. From the socializing of elite officers to the earthier customs of ordinary soldiers, British military culture played out in the theaters, dance halls, gambling dens, and illicit grogshops that popped up wherever the army encamped. It was in this milieu that military personnel and civilians arranged political alliances, made business deals, and discussed all manner of topics. In the process, local residents incorporated British soldiers into the rhythms of their everyday lives. They accepted officers into their voluntary societies, charitable organizations, and churches. They invited them to their tea parties and soirees. They rented rooms and houses to military personnel and their families. They hired off-duty soldiers to work on ships and in workshops. In each city they occupied, British soldiers courted and married local women, worked alongside local artisans and contractors, and drank and relaxed with locals of all social and ethnic backgrounds. While this growing familiarity brought the army and the local population together in new and intimate ways, it also highlighted the differences between them and, when cracks appeared, served to cleave urban populations from their loyalty to the Crown.
Despite its promise, military occupation failed to bring about a restoration of the British Empire in America. By the end of the war, the experience of occupation had weakened imperial authority to its breaking point. Armies that in some places outnumbered the civilian population by more than half created severe food and fuel shortages. These deprivations forced even the most loyal subjects to turn to smuggling, begging, and other illicit means to feed and shelter themselves. To facilitate these activities, and to navigate the treacherous political waters of the revolutionary period, those living in occupied cities also learned by necessity to obfuscate their loyalties. They took advantage of the British military's periodic offers of generosity to those who declared themselves loyal while maintaining ties to the rebel camp as well. The need to preserve allegiances on both sides steadily undermined the legitimacy of British governance as occupations persisted for months and years. In city after city, by the time the army withdrew, most residents, even many who had supported the Crown at the onset of the conflict, no longer saw restored royal rule as a viable option. Their belief in self-governance was forged through the intimate experience of military rule.
After the war, those who endured occupation reinterpreted their experiences to align with new, postwar realities. For these survivors, this process was a matter of necessity. Their wartime actions left many vulnerable to prosecution by revolutionary authorities, and many less fortunate found themselves imprisoned or forced into exile after the conflict's end. Early historians and public figures, many of whom had firsthand experience with occupation, came to these survivors' aid, creating a new public memory of the American Revolution in which all but the worst of those who had embraced British military rule could be forgiven and integrated into republican society. Forgotten were individual experiences of accommodation and compromise under harsh conditions; in their place, early national leaders crafted a founding mythology in which heroic patriots resisted and fought against villainous British soldiers and misguided loyalists. This new narrative proved so successful that even now much of the complexity of occupation experience during the Revolutionary War has disappeared from our collective memory.
Occupied America recovers that lost history, revealing how the lived experience of military occupation shaped the outcome of the Revolutionary War. Using accounts of those who lived under military rule in the six American cities occupied by the British Army, this book demonstrates how, over the course of the eight-year conflict, military occupations slowly frayed and eventually severed the bonds of imperial authority. Although the experience of occupation differed from place to place and person to person, common themes persisted from Boston to Savannah and from the poorest wretch to the wealthiest member of the colonial elite. Despite the goals of British commanders for reconciliation and peace, military occupation served to muddy allegiances, fracture what economic ties remained between the colonies and their former mother country, and alienate civilians both inside and outside of the zones controlled by the British military. Yet occupied cities also provided spaces for individuals on both sides to make their own personal peace at the end of the conflict; they served as bargaining chips for both the republic and the empire in the formal peace process, and as rhetorical symbols of resistance in the face of oppression for those who sought to build a new national culture. The intimate experiences of those living under British occupation thus had a profound effect on both the American Revolution and the new world that it produced.
These experiences find little resonance in most conceptions of the American Revolution. Until recently, most historians have located political change in the years prior to or just after the Revolutionary War, discounting the effect of the war itself in changing attitudes toward the British Empire. Rather than treating the vagaries of war as an integral part of the revolutionary experience, these histories—following Adams's lead—tend to deal with "the American Revolution" and "the War for Independence" as disparate events. Although this approach is commonplace for the American Revolution, it is unusual in studies of revolutions elsewhere in the world. Few historians would treat the French or Russian Revolutions without including the long civil wars they spawned and the radical changes that occurred during those conflicts. By taking the Revolutionary War seriously as a vehicle for political change, we deepen our understanding of how the experiences of ordinary people shaped the radical transformations wrought by the American Revolution.
The pages that follow bring to bear questions, techniques, and concepts honed in the studies of occupations elsewhere to the experience of the American Revolution. Histories of other times and places reveal that the transformative experiences born of occupation are a distinctive feature common to many revolutionary upheavals. For example, during the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, highly contingent, localized social conditions shaped ordinary people's politics. Studies have demonstrated that political identities during that period were of a malleable, pragmatic character, one which was based in local community contexts and shaped by surprisingly mundane considerations. In many cases, these considerations—protecting families, securing food and shelter, and preventing destruction of property—caused ordinary English people to switch sides multiple times or even take a hostile attitude toward both sides during the war. In an Atlantic context, a recent study of the British occupation of Havana, Cuba, during the Seven Years' War reflects many of the same themes but also demonstrates how commercial and interimperial contacts shaped peoples' allegiances in surprising ways—in many cases causing once-loyal Spaniards to cooperate with the British occupation force. In addition, Britain and Spain both disrupted Cuba's racial hierarchy, alternately offering freedom in exchange for service and renewed enslavement as punishment for resistance in much the same way that Britain and the American revolutionaries would twenty years later. Studies of the French Revolution bear these trends out even more, as historians have demonstrated that allegiances changed a great deal based on geography and individual experience, and—perhaps most importantly—that they depended on everyday hardships, experiences with revolutionary and counterrevolutionary violence, and radical challenges to racial, gender, class, and religious hierarchies. These processes, which occurred in the course of everyday life, changed the politics of millions of ordinary French people in very real and visceral ways, which in turn shaped the course of events, from the deposition of Louis XVI to the terror of the military coup of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Iterations of these same themes occur in occupation experiences beyond the eighteenth century. Literature on the occupation of the South in the aftermath of the American Civil War and of occupied territories during World War II, for example, are well populated with examples of how military violence, conflicting notions of race and class structures, and contingencies of place and circumstance combined to shape the course of important events. In each of these situations, ordinary people had to carefully negotiate their allegiances to multiple sides in order to ensure their survival, in a careful triangulation that had dire consequences if one guessed wrong. All of these phenomena—localized, quotidian concerns; challenges to the existing social order; contingent allegiances; and, above all, the experience of wartime violence and deprivation—were also present in the American Revolution, shaping the course of the event and the coming of American independence.
Scholars have only recently begun to seriously consider how similar dynamics of allegiance, violence, and everyday experience molded the course of the American Revolution, and their work has yet to be fully incorporated into popular understandings of the event. This book builds on a spate of new studies of the revolution that examine the intricacies of how ordinary Americans chose and switched sides over the eight-year war. Over the past generation, scholars of loyalism have incorporated both contingency and change over time in histories of loyalty formation on local and regional levels. Works on conflict zones and "no-man's-lands" have also challenged the stability of concepts of patriotism and loyalism in the face of social pressure and wartime conditions, most recently leading to a new analytical category of neutral or "disaffected" Americans who favored neither side strongly, and who indeed feature prominently in the history of occupation. Histories of Native American groups and enslaved people during the war have added further nuance to the concept of loyalty by explicating how those two groups overwhelmingly sided with the Crown for a variety of political and economic reasons. Despite all of this new research, however, we still do not fully understand how everyday experiences shaped the larger political and social changes wrought by the war. Examining British occupation both fleshes out the ambiguities and contradictions of the revolutionary experience and reveals the critical role that ordinary people played in determining the political and social outcome of the conflict.
Occupied America also contributes to a new wave of histories that both recover the violence of the American Revolution and examine its effect on the contours of the event. In the last several years, historians have begun to take a tack first suggested by John Shy in the 1970s, demonstrating that violence had a transformative effect on the revolution—transforming what had been understood to be a relatively conventional war for national independence into a chaotic and asymmetrical revolutionary struggle. In these new narratives, we find that armed conflict begat seemingly endless cycles of revenge killings on the frontiers, the destruction of Native American communities throughout North America, the deaths of tens of thousands of enslaved and free blacks, and the mistreatment of prisoners of war on all sides. Historians have begun to argue convincingly that this bloodshed radicalized, intensified, and changed the stakes of the revolutionary project just as much as political developments and the social changes that occurred alongside the butchery. The story of urban occupations fits into this new, violent turn in studies of the American Revolution, demonstrating how intimate experiences of military conquest and martial rule changed the nature of imperial authority—and people's responses to it—over the course of the war.
Although it does not feature in most narratives, military occupation and the experience of the revolution in cities have not totally escaped the notice of American historians, and this study owes a great deal to works which have allowed us to understand urban life in revolutionary America. A long tradition of urban social history has demonstrated port towns' essential role in the course of the revolution, analyzing politics in the social context of municipal development. Still, most stop short of the war years, instead focusing on the period of imperial crisis between 1763 and 1775. Several works have analyzed the events of military rule in each city occupied by the British, revealing important social, political, and cultural aspects of each specific context. Most recently, explorations of occupied Philadelphia and Charleston use military rule as a canvas to depict the fungibility and interconnectedness of political authority, allegiance, and social relationships under wartime conditions. As a comparative study, Occupied America synthesizes many of these contributions, using the rich backdrop they provide to focus on the lived experience of occupation across the temporal and geographic breadth of the entire Revolutionary War.
Because of the volume of ink spilled on the American Revolution over the past two centuries, and because of the paucity of surviving records from a chaotic, unstable period, many of the sources used to explore the revolutionary occupations will be recognizable to students of the era. The stories of individuals like the enslaved South Carolina carpenter Boston King, the Philadelphia diarist Elizabeth Drinker, the restored Georgia governor Sir James Wright, and the New York jurist William Smith Jr. have been told by other scholars—often at great length. But, drawn together, these narratives and other, lesser-known ones shed new light on the commonalities of experience across their respective cities. Still, some familiar figures, such as the political economist Tench Coxe and the reluctant loyalist Joseph Galloway, play unexpected roles when examined in the context of military rule. And other, more obscure people, such as customs collector Andrew Elliot of New York and colonial attorney general James Simpson of South Carolina, assume new significance when considered for their roles in conceiving and administering occupation governments. These well-known narratives, combined with lesser-known archival evidence—drawn from contemporary newspapers, the writings of civilians and soldiers in occupied cities, official military records, and other sources depicting life on the ground under military rule—give as full an accounting as possible of the experience of occupation for people of diverse ethnicities, social backgrounds, and nationalities. In so doing, they demonstrate that the experience of military occupation played a decisive role in the course and outcomes of the American Revolution.
Military rule marked urban life during the Revolutionary War, from its earliest days until its close. In Boston, the presence of British forces to enforce trade regulations became a full-fledged occupation with the appointment of General Thomas Gage as military governor of Massachusetts in 1774, displacing the colony's civil government. After Boston's evacuation in March 1776, New York City became British headquarters for the remainder of the war; its citizens lived under army authority from September 1776 until November 1783. In the winter of 1776, imperial forces garrisoned Newport, Rhode Island, to secure its valuable harbor, protect the Royal Navy's route to New York, and combat rebel privateers operating out of New England. The British Army occupied Philadelphia during the winter of 1777 and the spring of 1778, as part of a wider campaign to retake the middle colonies and break the will of the Continental Congress, and then withdrew after France's entry into the war forced the Crown to deploy troops elsewhere. In late 1779, British commanders focused their efforts on the southern colonies. They abandoned the garrison at Newport and invested troops in Savannah, Georgia, and, in the summer of 1780, Charleston, South Carolina, both of which remained under military rule until late 1782. One by one, occupied cities became strongholds from which the British government attempted to restore imperial rule to the rest of the colonies and also served as refugee camps for those fleeing violence or persecution in the revolutionary-held countryside.
These six cities—Boston, New York, Newport, Philadelphia, Savannah, and Charleston—comprised the most prominent towns in colonial British North America, yet contained less than 1 percent of its population. And although cities were experiencing rapid growth on the eve of the revolution—they increased in population by 35 percent in the fifteen years from 1760 to 1775—most Americans lived in small towns, in rural communities, or on isolated farms and plantations. These places also experienced military rule. At various points, the British Army controlled vast territories of the hinterland in the thirteen rebelling colonies. During the northern and mid-Atlantic campaigns of 1776-1778, British forces took control of large swaths of New Jersey, all of Staten and Long Islands, parts of upstate New York, slivers of Maryland, and areas of southeastern Pennsylvania and Delaware. King George III's army also launched occasional incursions into coastal Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, exerting control beyond formally occupied territories. During the southern campaigns of 1778-1781, the king's troops at one point controlled virtually the entire states of Georgia and South Carolina, as well as outposts in North Carolina and Virginia. No colony was left untouched by British military occupation. Urban occupation was by no means the only, or even the dominant, experience of military rule during the revolution.
Still, the experience of occupation in cities was crucial to the outcome of the conflict, because of the important roles port towns played in the British Atlantic world and the intensity and frequency of the civilian-military interaction in urban areas. People living in cities experienced occupation on a much more intimate and regular basis than their neighbors in the countryside. In rural communities, a civilian could go for weeks or even months without seeing a single British soldier, whereas in port towns, locals often interacted with the occupying force multiple times a day. The small size of colonial cities made these interactions ever more personal and ever more political. The crowded houses, commandeered public buildings, and busy streets of occupied ports fostered friendships, rivalries, flirtations, and business relationships between civilians and soldiers—all of which became freighted with political meaning. Selling produce to the army or renting rooms to soldiers could be both acts of economic survival and potential signals to one's neighbors of loyalty to the king, while failing to attend a ball hosted by British officers because of another obligation could just as easily be construed as a sign of revolutionary sympathy. Because urban occupations played out in tight spaces with limited casts, cities provide the perfect laboratories to understand how the dynamics of military rule changed individual allegiances over the course of the revolution.
Beyond the intensity of the occupation experience in urban areas, cities played a role in British American society that made them more important than their small population sizes might indicate. Eighteenth-century British ports served as the nodes of a commercial empire, transmitting goods, people, and ideas across oceans. Lumber and fish from New England were funneled through Boston and Newport to supply sugar plantations in the West Indies, as were rice and indigo from Charleston and Savannah. Agricultural produce from the mid-Atlantic came through Philadelphia and New York for sale across Europe. In exchange, each port city became a depot for European manufactures, as urban merchants imported farm equipment, building materials, textiles, and luxuries from the workshops of Europe. Some urbanites dealt not only in imported goods but in people. The slave trade existed in each city, but especially in Charleston and Savannah, where enslaved men and women constituted a majority of the population, and where slave ships arrived regularly to sell their human cargo to plantation owners from the surrounding countryside. Philadelphia and New York were hubs for the arrival of hundreds of thousands of German and Scotch-Irish farm laborers, often under terms of indenture. The vast majority of these migrants stayed in the city only a few weeks, quickly moving on to more sparsely settled areas of the colonial frontiers. Still, even though they had relatively few permanent residents, port cities had an outsize position as centers for the distribution of both goods and people throughout the British Empire. By disrupting these economic relationships, the experience of military occupation of these towns influenced the lives of the majority of British subjects in America who were not themselves city dwellers.
Port cities in British North America were also established centers of political and legal authority. As administrative hubs of their colonies, each city hosted not only a permanent coterie of royal officials but also, at various times of the year, legal courts and colonial assemblies. When these bodies met, the populations of these provincial capitals could swell by hundreds of people with business before the government or the courts. Beyond lawmaking and justice-seeking, cities were also prime places for power-jockeying, as different factions used the loyalty of city dwellers to put pressure on colonial governments or to express dissatisfaction with their policies. By the 1770s, each major city had developed its own distinct form of street politics in which everyday people—artisans, laborers, apprentices, sailors, and others on the margins—organized and involved themselves in the business of governing both the municipality and the surrounding province. While street politics varied, from the chaotic waterfront of Boston's rioting sailors to the peaceful and civic-minded voluntary associations of late eighteenth-century Philadelphia, through their political actions urbanites had an outsize role in how power was exercised in late colonial America. In the sense that city dwellers were used to being courted for political allegiance, British occupation would continue a long-standing tradition.
Each of the six cities occupied by the British Army during the American Revolution had its own particular economy, politics, and culture, and to ignore their differences would be a mistake. Even though all were connected in the commercial Atlantic, urban economies differed drastically in the American colonies—the mid-Atlantic cities of Philadelphia and New York largely focused inland, connecting incoming migrants to the vast and rich rural areas surrounding them and providing a place to sell their produce to the rest of the world; the southern capitals of Charleston and Savannah resembled their counterparts in the British Caribbean as centers for both the importation of enslaved labor and the export of products produced by that labor; and the New England cities of Boston and Newport were diversified commercial ports whose merchants, sailors, and ships captains carried people and goods across the entire British Empire. Each city's politics differed vastly as well. In Boston and Newport, wealthy merchants ruled with the support of sailors and laborers, while in New York and Philadelphia merchants and artisans competed with landed gentry for control over city and colony politics. Rural farmers in the surrounding hinterlands pressured the elites in all of the northern seaports, especially Boston and Philadelphia, where the countryside became far more radical than the cities in the opening stages of the imperial crisis. In Charleston and Savannah, wealthy plantation owners—many of whom did not even reside in the capitals full-time—dominated society in both town and country. Demographically, Boston retained much of the culture and ethnic stock of its seventeenth-century Puritan founders, while Newport, New York, and Philadelphia were ethnically and religiously diverse. Enslaved Africans outnumbered Europeans in both Charleston and Savannah, but whereas the former was home to opulent mansions maintained by wealthy South Carolina planters and a sizable middle class of artisans and merchants, the latter maintained a more rough-and-tumble character befitting its relatively recent founding—only forty-two years before the revolution—and its role as a center for Native American diplomacy in the Southeast. These local differences shaped the nature of military rule just as much as strategic objectives and army policy.
Still, similar elements of military occupation persisted from city to city, and the pages that follow seek to draw out these common threads. All of the occupations came on the heels of earlier, armed repression of dissent by revolutionary groups that assumed power in 1775 and 1776. In every occupied port, military officers and civilian officials collaborated to create functioning regimes. These administrations evolved as the war went on, with later occupation governments learning from the successes and failures of those already in existence. Over the course of occupation, elements of each town's population saw opportunities for social advancement as well as disastrous risks. To varying degrees, each port city experienced both plenty and scarcity, with influxes of cheap luxuries but soaring prices for food, fuel, and housing. These conditions forced inhabitants to turn to illicit and often desperate means to ensure their survival. In the process, residents of each city developed flexible loyalties that helped them navigate the tumultuous social, economic, and political climate of military rule. At the end of occupation, inhabitants of each city cannily negotiated their own wartime settlements, using connections with those in rebel-held areas to achieve personal peace settlements, as elite diplomats agreed to a deal in Paris. Finally, early historians in the postwar era created a new narrative of the revolution in which the complexities of occupation everywhere had very little importance.
Despite its near erasure from our collective memory, the experience of occupation during the Revolutionary War played a crucial role in the outcome of the American Revolution as a political and social event. An examination of the everyday lives of those living under military rule reveals that the failure of British imperial authority in America did not come with the drafting of the Declaration of Independence or the Continental Army's victory at Yorktown; rather, the failure occurred gradually in the course of the ordinary lives of ordinary people. As occupations wore on, those living under military rule alternately accommodated, collaborated with, took advantage of, and subverted the structures of royal authority during their day-to-day lives. As they did so, royal authority's grip on their allegiance weakened to the point where, by the end of the war, and for a majority of city dwellers, it no longer even existed.