Norton chronicles road to American Revolution in new book, ‘1774’

Early American historian Mary Beth Norton gives a detailed account of the crucial 16 months when the American Revolution fomented, from the Boston Tea Party to the Battles of Lexington and Concord, in her new book “1774: The Long Year of Revolution” (Alfred A. Knopf).

Norton is the Mary Donlon Alger Professor Emerita of American History at Cornell and a Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow.

She follows a timeline from the protest in December 1773 in Boston Harbor to the “discussions” among the colonies’ traditional loyalists to King George III that led to their acceptance of the inevitability of war against the British Empire; through the first Continental Congress in September-October 1774 and, finally, the clashes at Lexington and Concord in mid-April 1775.

The book is the first in-depth recounting of 1774 as a critical “long year” for revolutionary change – not centered exclusively on Boston and Philadelphia, but with a broader sweep. Norton meticulously incorporates events, developments and little-remembered figures in this history in all 13 colonies, where new provincial governments led the campaign opposing imperial rule – the first stirrings of independence.

“1774” begins with shipments of 600,000 pounds of East India Company tea headed to the colonies just before the iconic Boston event, and their fate in four large East Coast cities in the wake of the British Parliament’s Tea Act of May 1773.

In Charleston, South Carolina, the tea was seized by customs officials. In New York and Philadelphia, the ships were intercepted and forced to return with their full cargo. Norton’s first chapter also covers boycotts and the intricacies of the burgeoning tea-smuggling trade. “Illegal tea was much cheaper than its legal alternative,” she notes.

The ensuing political discourse throughout the colonies comes to life in the book, reconstructed from extensive research drawing on pamphlets, newspapers and personal correspondence. Norton follows this discourse as locally elected committees and allied provincial congresses are formed that would ultimately usurp the authority of colonial governors.

“1774” also is available as an audiobook, narrated by Kimberly Farr.

Norton’s book “Founding Mothers & Fathers: Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society,” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1997. She is the principal author of the widely used two-volume history textbook, “A People and a Nation,” first published in 1986. She served as general editor of “The AHA Guide to Historical Literature” (1995) and as president of the American Historical Association in 2018.

Her other books include “Separated By Their Sex: Women in Public and Private in the Colonial Atlantic World” (Cornell University Press, 2011); “In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692” (2003); “Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800” (1980; available from Cornell Press) and “The British-Americans: The Loyalist Exiles in England, 1774–1789” (1972).

Read this article in the Cornell Chronicle.

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 Book cover of "1774: The Long Year of Revolution"