Needham History Center & Museum

Needham Declares Independence in June. Nation Follows 11 Days Later.

The old Center, Central Avenue near Nehoiden Street, as it would have looked when the militia mustered in 1775. Painting by Timothy Newell Smith, circa 1860.
The old Center, Central Avenue near Nehoiden Street, as it would have looked when the militia mustered in 1775. Painting by Timothy Newell Smith, circa 1860.

“If the Honorable Congress … of the United Colonies Declare them independent of the kingdom of Great Britain, they the Said Inhabitants [of Needham] will Solemnly Engage with their Lives and fortunes to Support them in ye measure.”

 

It always puzzles me when people say that they are “not interested in history,” or (worse!) that “history is boring.” How can history be boring?  History has everything – Love, Death, Heroism, Sex, Tragedy, Courage, Betrayal, Redemption! Like Game of Thrones – only real.

That’s one of the great advantages of studying local history – you get to see the details, and how people’s small actions ultimately lead to the larger events. A town’s history is really everyone’s history.  It’s easy to dismiss local history as small and boring when compared to national history, until you stop to consider that national history always starts as local history. No one got up one morning and said “Let’s have a Revolutionary War today.”  Big national events break out because they spent years churning as local events. 

So, as we celebrate July 4th and look back at the events of the Revolution, it becomes clear just how involved Needham was, and how closely the town watched and debated the events of the 1770s. For example, in 1772 Sam Adams and Dr Joseph Warren formed what would become the first of the Committees of Correspondence in Boston. Over the next couple of years they reached out to all 220 towns in Massachusetts to create local Committees, to coordinate the opposition of the individual towns toward the British actions, pass along important intelligence, and generate propaganda – they were agitators, and they were spies. 

At first, Needham wanted no part in the doings of their troublesome Boston neighbors. Town Meeting in 1773 took up the question of forming a Committee of Correspondence, and (in the language of the day), it “passed in the negative” – ie, the article was defeated.  Needham was one of only fourteen towns in Massachusetts that declined to form a Committee at Adams’ and Warren’s request.

By mid-1774, however, this attitude had begun to change.  As the Intolerable Acts became more restrictive, Needhamites became increasingly restive.  In the words of First Parish Minister Rev. Samuel West, “Nothing but ye most impolitic conduct in Britain could have produced that reverse in ye general spirit which now discovered itself… Every week and almost every day produced something new either to manifest or increase ye irritation of ye people…  The measures pursued by ye government in great Britain were precisely such as to keep up ye ferment without having any tendency to accomplish their purpose.” 

Then in 1774, the British Parliament passed the Massachusetts Government Act, which dissolved the MA General Court.  It also forbade Town Meetings without the Royal Governor’s specific consent, and restricted their articles to strictly local matters of town maintenance.

So by 1775, Needham was all-in.   With or without permission, Town Meeting continued to meet, and also began to take up matters that were expressly forbidden. Town Meeting in 1775 met in March, and then deferred some of the articles to May.   At that meeting they debated whether to not only create a Committee of Correspondence with Capt. Robert Smith as its representative, but also if they should elect Col. William McIntosh as their representative to the new Provincial Congress.

Town Meeting Minutes, dated 29 May 1775:  

            Article 7:  “It was Put to the Vote of the Town; To See if the Town would send a Person to Represent them in a Provincial Congress to be held at Watertown on the 31st of this Instant May; It was past in the affirmative.  Col. William McIntosh was chosen to Represent the Town in a Provincial Congress to be held at Watertown on the 31 Day of this Instant May.” 

            Article 8:  It Was put to the Vote of the Town; To See if they would Chuse a Committee of Correspondence; and it past in the Affirmative.  It Was put to the Vote of the Town; To See if they would Chuse one person for a Committee Man; and it was past in the Affirmative, Capt. Robert Smith, was Chosen.

By these actions, Needham publicly and officially declared that the town was in rebellion against the British Crown.

In the April between the two sessions, of course, they sent the militia in response to the Lexington Alarm.  Don’t underestimate how much courage this took. Every Massachusetts town had militia companies for defense, and they were required to train weekly to be in readiness. But in reality, their training consisted of scant copies of old British training manuals supplemented by whatever practical knowledge they could gain from men who had served in the French and Indian War about 20 years before.  Their weapons were miscellaneous, and because of the cost and scarcity of powder, their practice did not often include the necessary skills of loading and shooting their temperamental muskets.  And Needham was sending this poorly-trained militia – 185 men, every able-bodied man in town over the age of 16 (and a few younger) – to fight against the most powerful empire on earth. 

Rev. Samuel West was worried – and rightly so. While our Founding Fathers showed great courage, at least they had a network of supporters to watch their backs.  Needham was on its own – no one would come to our rescue.  Rev. West feared daily that a vengeful British army would soon be sweeping up the country byroads, exacting revenge and re-establishing their authority and discipline in the harshest manner:  “We even anticipated the enemy enraged as they were at our doors and in our houses acting over all the horrors which usually attend the progress of a victorious exasperated army especially in civil wars like this.  Whatever I had read on ye subject now came fresh to my mind & produced ye most painful apprehensions.”  Needham was literally risking everything they possessed – this took serious guts.

But Lexington and after – they carried on.  Town Meeting records for 1775 and 1776 give the details of Needham’s increasing involvement – supply quotas, muster rolls, service records – an oddly public recording of what amounted to disobedience and treason.  But alongside the smaller logistical details of wood and axe deliveries, the town also took up the Big Issue – Independence:

Town Meeting Warrant, 24 June 1776“To See if it be in the mind of the Inhabitants of the town to Instruct and Advise their Present Representative, that if the Honorable Congress for the Safety of the United Colonies Declare them independent of the kingdom of Great Britain, that they the Said Inhabitants will Solemnly Engage with their Lives and fortunes to Support them in ye measure.”

The Article passed.  About two weeks later, Town Clerk Robert Fuller transcribed into the Needham Town Meeting minutes the entire text of the new Declaration of Independence.

Re-enactors as a regiment of the American militia.
Re-enactors as a regiment of the American militia.

Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum