A Crisis of Community: The Trials and Transformation of a New England Town, 1815-1848

A Crisis of Community: The Trials and Transformation of a New England Town, 1815-1848

A Crisis of Community: The Trials and Transformation of a New England Town, 1815-1848

A Crisis of Community: The Trials and Transformation of a New England Town, 1815-1848


In the first decades of the American republic, Mary White, a shopkeeper's wife from rural Boylston, Massachusetts, kept a diary. Woven into its record of everyday events is a remarkable tale of conflict and transformation in small-town life. Sustained by its Puritan heritage, gentry leadership, and sense of common good, Boylston had survived the upheaval of revolution and the creation of the new nation. Then, in a single generation of wrenching change, families, neighbors, church, and town descended into contentious struggle. Examining the tumultuous Jacksonian era at the intimate level of family and community, Mary Babson Fuhrer brings to life the troublesome creation of a new social, political, and economic order centered on individual striving and voluntary associations in an expansive nation.

Blending family records and a rich trove of community archives, Fuhrer examines the "age of revolutions" through the lens of a rural community that was swept into the networks of an expanding and urbanizing New England region. This finely detailed history lends new depth to our understanding of a key transformative moment in American history.


When a heavy-laden ox team lumbered into Boylston in the spring of 1842, there were many who believed it was hauling 1,000 pounds of trouble. the wagon drew up in the barnyard of Capt. John Howe—possibly the most cantankerous man in this rural village—to deliver its load: a newly cast steeple bell. Howe had engineered this moment, and he was exultant. As townsmen gingerly raised the bell upon timbers to transport it to the new town hall, the clapper swung clear. the deep tone of the bell rang out resoundingly, heralding its arrival. For some in this central Massachusetts village, it was a peal of victory; for others, it tolled alarm and dismay.

Bells had long ordered community in rural New England. Before the advent of household clocks and pocket watches, the meetinghouse bell marked the passage of time, sounding the noon and 9:00 P.M. hours. All who lived within the sound of the great bell heard its call to worship and town meeting. It was the bell that alerted townsfolk to their neighbor’s distress or sounded the alarm when fire threatened or danger approached. Its deep tones tolled the death of neighbors, in numbered strokes that called out the gender and age of the deceased and so announced who was no longer of this world. in times of war, the town bell was often hidden to prevent foes from seizing this symbol of communal authority. Summoning townsfolk to shared duties, joys, and griefs, the town bell was a sonorous artifact of community order.

Yet this bell did not signify order: it heralded strife. Captain Howe’s faction had encountered fierce resistance in its battle to bring the bell to town. the opposition protested: the town already had a bell. It hung in the steeple of the old meetinghouse on the common, and it had rung out its calls to community for years. By the mid-1820s, though, that community—like so many others across Massachusetts—had splintered, and now competing factions battled for control of building, bell, and the authority they embodied.

Captain Howe’s party of discontents fought for more than a decade to ring that bell. Year after year, in town meeting debates that exhibited “great . . .

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