Eighteenth-Century Boston

Though the rate of immigration to Massachusetts lagged behind that of other colonies, its population grew sixfold in the eighteenth century, mainly from natural increase. As the population increased, Puritan communities lost much of their cohesion, and new networks emerged that centered on trade and manufacturing. Many New England residents lived on relatively small family farms, which were connected to the cities through trade. Farmers acquired manufactured goods from cities; in return, they provided urban dwellers with surplus grain and livestock. About one-third of Boston’s adult men were skilled tradesmen, but it was the wealthy merchants who dominated Boston’s commercial economy. New England’s wealthiest and most powerful merchants lived in Boston. They bought and sold imported goods and owned and insured the ships that carried the goods. The commerce generated by wealthy Boston merchants affected the entire New England economy. Throughout the eighteenth century, a marked polarization of wealth became increasingly apparent in Boston. By the 1760s, the richest Boston merchants built sumptuous mansions along King Street in the fashionable North End; they imported ornate luxury items and used servants and slaves to perform the menial tasks of daily living. By 1770, the richest 5 percent of Boston’s residents owned half the city’s wealth. In contrast, the share of wealth owned by the city’s poorest two-thirds decreased during the eighteenth century from one-sixth to less than one-tenth. During the eighteenth century, approximately 5 to 6 percent of New England’s population qualified for poor relief, which was usually distributed directly to local families or through almshouses. To minimize taxes, Boston also built workhouses in the hope that poor residents would earn their keep. Although New England was comparatively better off than other colonies, as well as England, during the eighteenth century, the explosive growth of transatlantic trade caused serious social and economic inequities. During the eighteenth century, Boston also found itself at the center of a number of social, political, and economic conflicts. The Sugar Act (1764) and the Stamp Act (1765), which were meant to curb smuggling and increase revenue for the British Crown, enraged Boston residents, who destroyed the home and office of Andrew Oliver, the Massachusetts collector, and then hanged him in effigy. The Stamp Act was repealed the following year. The Townshend Acts (Revenue Act of 1767) were met with similar resistance from angry Boston merchants, who organized residents in a boycott of British-made goods. Their actions led, at least in part, to the presence of British troops in Boston and the famous Boston Massacre (1770). The Townshend Acts were repealed in 1770 with the exception of the tax on tea. To avoid rising tea prices, as well as the tax, Boston merchants smuggled Dutch tea into the city. Parliament decided to provide Boston residents with less expensive tea by allowing the East India Company to import tea directly from India, thus avoiding the tax. Fearing the loss of profits gained from the sale of smuggled tea, Boston merchants turned radical and on November and December 17, 1773, staged the historic Boston Tea Party. England responded with the Boston Port Bill (1774), which severely crippled Boston’s economy and imposed a formidable military presence on the bay. Initially, a number of Boston merchants favored simply paying for the tea that had been cast into the harbor, but England’s rapid issuance of a whole series of Coercive Acts in the wake of the Boston Tea Party ultimately changed many colonists’ minds. In September 1774, Massachusetts, along with every other British colony in North America except Georgia, sent delegates to the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Michael A. Rembis See also: Boston Massacre; Boston Port Bill; Boston Tea Party; Bunker Hill, Battle of; Cities; Harvard College; Massachusetts; Massachusetts (Chronology); Massachusetts Bay Colony; Puritanism; Revolutionary War; Documents: Newspaper Account of the Boston Massacre (1770); The Boston Port Act (1774). Bibliography Boston Looks Seaward: The Story of the Port, 1630 1940. Compiled by the workers of the Writers’ Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Massachusetts. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1985. Kennedy, Lawrence W. Planning the City upon a Hill: Boston Since 1630. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1992. Levesque, George A. Black Boston: African American Life and Culture in Urban America, 1750 1860. New York: Garland, 1994. Rutman, Darrett B. Winthrop’s Boston: A Portrait of a Puritan Town, 1630 1649. New York: W. W. Norton, 1972. Tager, Jack. Boston Riots: Three Centuries of Social Violence. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001. Tyler, John W. Smugglers and Patriots: Boston Merchants and the Advent of the American Revolution. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986. Vale, Lawrence J. From the Puritans to the Projects: Public Housing and Public Neighbors. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000. Wright, Conrad Edick, and Katheryn P. Viens, eds. Entrepreneurs: The Boston Business Community, 1700 1850. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1997. Zobel, Hiller B. The Boston Massacre. New York: W. W. Norton, 1970.
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