Study Guide

Johnny Tremain Politics

By Esther Forbes

Politics

"My master, Mr. John Hancock, Esquire, bids me leave these coins—one for each of the poor work-boys—hoping they will drink his health and be diligent at their benches." Then he was gone.

"Hoping they will vote for him—when they are grown up and have enough property."

"Don't you ever vote for Mr. Hancock, sir?" asked Johnny.

"I never do. I don't hold much with these fellows that are always trying to stir up trouble between us and England. Maybe English rule ain't always perfect, but it's good enough for me. Fellows like Mr. Hancock and Sam Adams, calling themselves patriots and talking too much. Not reading God's Word—like their parents did—which tells us to be humble. But he's my landlord and I don't say much." (1.3.42-45)

There are a couple of things going on here. The first is possible bribery: is Mr. Hancock just a nice guy, or is he greasing the wheels of the old political machine? The second is the issue of Mr. Lapham's feelings about Whigs: is it possible to be both patriotic and humble?

"He's sly. When the merchants agreed not to import any English goods until the Stamp Act was repealed, he was one of the first to sign—then imported secretly. Sold through another name. Made more money. Sam Adams spoke to him privately—scared him. He says he won't do that again. He's trying to ride two horses—Whig and Tory."

Johnny's life with the Laphams had been so limited he knew little of the political strife which was turning Boston into two armed camps. The Whigs declaring that taxation without representation is tyranny. The Tories believing all differences could be settled with time, patience, and respect for government. (4.2.27-28)

There's a third camp: the merchants, trying to make as much money as possible off both sides. Johnny and Rab are talking about Merchant Lyte here, but he's hardly the only person in history to have done this. Also, note the great definition of Whigs and Tories that we get here. Keep it for handy reference.

So Rab was one of the semi-secret famous Sons of Liberty, those carefully organized "mobs" who often took justice into their own hands. They frightened royal officers out of Boston, stopped British admirals from impressing Yankee seamen, as they were impressed in England. They could at will paralyze trade, courts, government. Many a night Johnny had heard their whistles, conch shells, and cries of "town-born, turn out," the running of their feet. And next day had seen the effigies they had hung, the Tory fences they had torn down or windows broken, and heard that Royal Commissioner So-and-So had been frightened out of Boston. Or such-and-such a merchant had wept when haled before the Liberty Tree and sworn never to do trade with England until all grievances had been righted. The Laphams had hated such lawless seizure of government by the Sons of Liberty. Johnny had not thought much about it. Seeing the medal at Rab's throat made him think it might be fun to be out with them. (4.4.2)

The Sons of Liberty are often depicted as no less than heroes in popular culture, but some of Johnny's encounters with them indicate that they weren't quite as noble as they've been painted. As we can see from this paragraph, they didn't mind taking the law into their own hands. Still, Johnny's thinking he might have fun with them. Is this because he agrees with their mission or because he's looking for a place to belong?

By reading the papers, talking to Rab and Uncle Lorne, listening to the leaders of opposition about Boston, he quickly became well informed. In only a few weeks he changed from knowing little enough about the political excitement, and caring less, to being an ardent Whig. (5.2.25)

This doesn't really surprise us because when Johnny gets excited about something, he really gets excited about it. What changes do we see in Johnny's life based on his new beliefs?

England had, by the fall of 1773, gone far in adjusting the grievances of her American colonies. But she insisted upon a small tax on tea. Little money would be collected by this tax. It worked no hardship on the people's pocketbooks: only threepence the pound. The stubborn colonists, who were insisting they would not be taxed unless they could vote for the men who taxed them, would hardly realize that the tax had been paid by the East India Company in London before the tea was shipped over here. After all, thought Parliament, the Americans were yokels and farmers—not political thinkers. And the East India tea, even after that tax was paid, would be better and cheaper than any the Americans ever had. Weren't the Americans, after all, human beings? Wouldn't they care more for their pocketbooks than their principles? (6.1.2)

Here's the funny little kicker about the Boston Tea Party that often gets forgotten: this tea was great and pretty darn cheap. Can we totally blame Britain for wondering what the colonials were so upset about? Come to think of it, what are the colonials so upset about? How does Sam Adams explain it?

The attic where the boys commonly slept looked strange enough with those chairs pulled out and arranged for the meeting. John Hancock sat in the moderator's chair. His face looked white and drawn. Probably his head still ached. Beside him was Sam Adams leaning toward him, whispering and whispering. Johnny thought how the Tories were saying that Sam Adams seduced John Hancock, even as the Devil had seduced Eve—by a constant whispering in his ear. (6.3.20)

That's creepy, Sam Adams. But we've got to hand it to the man—he can get people on his side. Look at Sam Adams's relationships with other Boston Observers, and even with Rab and Johnny. How does he go about getting his way?

Almost every day and sometimes all day, the mass meetings at Old South Church went on. Tempers grew higher and higher. Boston was swept with a passion it had not known since the Boston Massacre three years before. Riding this wild storm was Sam Adams and his trusty henchmen, directing it, building up the anger until, although the matter was not publicly mentioned, they would all see the only thing left for them to do was destroy the tea. (6.5.2)

As he's depicted in Johnny Tremain, Sam Adams is a spin-doctor extraordinaire. He basically convinces people that his ideas are their ideas. What is the point in building up anger? What is he trying to accomplish? How do political thinkers use emotion to get the public where they want them?

People were standing in angry knots talking, gesticulating, swearing that yes, they would starve, they would go down in ruin rather than give in now. Even many of the Tories were talking like that, for the punishment fell equally heavily upon the King's most loyal subjects in Boston and on the very "Indians" who had tossed the tea overboard. This closing of the port of Boston was indeed tyranny; this was oppression; this was the last straw upon the back of many a moderate man. (7.1.4)

Bad move, Britain—you just lost a lot of friends with this whole close-Boston-Harbor move. Think about it: even though popular history depicts everyone rising up together and overthrowing British rule, it didn't happen like that. Most people don't have the inclination to rebel simply for the sake of ideals, so part of what initiated the war was Britain pushing colonists to a very practical breaking point.

Sam and John Adams were standing and the other members were crowding about them, shaking hands with them, wishing them success at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. They were starting the next day. Everyone was ready to give them advice on whom to see, what to say, or to prophesy the outcome of this Congress. Paul Revere and Joseph Warren were apart a little, making plans for that spy system which was needed badly. They called Johnny to them, but he could hear one of the men standing about the two Adamses saying, "But there must be some hope we can still patch up our differences with England. Sir, you will work for peace?"

Sam Adams said nothing for a moment. He trusted these men about him as he trusted no one else in the world.

"No. That time is past. I will work for war: the complete freedom of these colonies from any European power." (8.5.23-25)

What is your deal, Sam Adams? You're always so happy whenever anything bad happens—it's weird, yo. But this is our friend Sammy's goal: he wants total separation, complete freedom, no matter what the cost. The usual goal of diplomacy is to avoid war. How would you feel about sending a representative to Congress who says he will work for war, not peace? Is there ever a situation in which war is desirable?

"Even you, my old friend—my old enemy? How shall I call you, Sam Adams? Even you will give the best you have—a genius for politics. Oh, go to Philadelphia! Pull all the wool, pull all the strings and all the wires. Yes, go, go! And God go with you. We need you, Sam. We must fight this war. You'll play your part—but what it is really about…you'll never know." (8.5.62)

If politics is a dirty game, Sam Adams has some of the dirtiest hands around. What is Otis saying when he tells Adams that he'll never understand what the rebellion from Britain is about? Are the practice of politics and the upholding of ideals totally opposed?