In what ways is Johnny Tremain’s life shaped by the social and economic practices of colonial America on the eve of the Revolution? What does the novel reveal about these practices?
In the time period leading up to the Revolutionary War, the customs and values of the colonies were evolving. Some traditional practices were still in place, while others were slowly changing. Although America had begun separating from England, the colonies still followed some of its traditional socioeconomic practices. For example, in colonial Boston, education was not compulsory. Although literacy was higher in the colonies than in England, the ability to read, write, and do simple arithmetic was considered a solid education outside the upper class. Unless a child came from a wealthy family, his or her labor was necessary to his or her family’s support. Families paid skilled artisans to take their sons in as apprentices. In return for the valuable training the apprentice received, all products of the apprentice’s labor belonged to his master for seven years. As a result, Johnny begins training and working as a silversmith from a very young age. Because his parents are deceased, he is fortunate to live with the Laphams, who are a middle-class family. Johnny had an incredible opportunity for upward mobility by working with a skilled tradesman like Mr. Lapham. Thus, his dream of owning a silver shop in colonial America is realistic. Johnny would not have this opportunity if he lived in England, where social class dictated one’s station in life.
What does Johnny Tremain reveal about marriage customs in colonial America?
While it is true that colonial Americans enjoyed more social mobility than the inhabitants of Britain, the marriage possibilities available to colonials were still determined to a large extent by their social class. Mrs. Lapham is eager to marry one of her daughters to Johnny because there are no sons to inherit the silver shop. Moreover, Johnny is her father-in-law’s most promising apprentice, and, therefore, the one with the most future earning potential. Although he is only fourteen years old, Johnny is a good marriage prospect for any middle-class family in colonial America. Social status, and not love, often influenced relationships in America, just like in England. However, although it was normal to marry for money and not love, many younger colonials did marry for love, suggesting a separation from British customs. For example, Dorcas will not marry Mr. Tweedie to keep the silver shop in the Lapham family; instead she marries the poverty-stricken Frizel, Jr., because she falls in love with him.
What role does religion play in Johnny Tremain’s world?
Religion plays an important role in Johnny’s colonial world because it directly affects laws and societal norms. A person could be punished for not observing religious law, such as the decree against working on Sundays. However, at the time in which the novel is set, some religious restrictions on colonial society were becoming more relaxed. Mr. Lapham is strictly pious, but his family regards him as old-fashioned. Mrs. Lapham encourages Johnny to finish John Hancock’s basin on time by working on Sunday, for example. The younger generation embraced more relaxed religious attitudes, partly because of the increasingly cosmopolitan character of the city, and also because of an ideological shift from religion to science as a source of truth and enlightenment. As a result, Johnny and other colonials routinely break old religious practices. Thus, the Boston Observers can meet on Sunday and secretly plan their rebellion against England.
Contrast James Otis’s rousing speech about the need for revolution with Samuel Adams’s attitude toward rebellion. Which do you think Johnny finds more appealing, and why?
The novel suggests that Samuel Adams and James Otis had very different attitudes toward the revolution. Adams’s personal history implies that he may want to start a war with Britain out of revenge. The British Parliament ruined his father’s finances by destroying the bank where he kept his money. Adams’s rhetoric expresses his anger and outrage at the British, as evidenced by his posters and propaganda. He tries to rouse the colonists to resist British rule by using words that convey that England is an inhuman, machine-like enemy. He does not focus on the natural rights of man and the independent spirit of the colonists. Rather, Adams expresses how the British government is oppressive, a tyranny that is destroying the lives of the colonists. War is a necessary evil that the colonists must use to gain their independence from such a tyrannical government.
On the other hand, James Otis wants to fight so that “a man can stand up.” He challenges Adams’s reasons for fighting the war, which are not for peace but for destruction and conflict. Otis wants the colonists to have the right to choose who rules over them, and not fight simply to protect the money of the Americans. His rousing speech to the Boston Observers focuses on the natural rights that free men should enjoy. He has an idealistic vision of an independent America; however, he cannot drive the colonists to war merely on ideals and hopes. Adams’s passion and fervor, coupled with Otis’s reasons and ideals, ignite the revolutionary spirit.
James Otis may have loftier reasons than Samuels Adams for inspiring the Revolutionary War. However, the end result is the same, which is that many colonists will sacrifice their lives, and kill many innocent British men, to achieve American independence. Samuel Adams did his duty, and he was able to incite many colonists to fight the war, particularly when many Americans were still loyal to the British. However, Otis provided the colonists with rational, heartfelt reasons for fighting the war. At first, Johnny is similar to Adams, and he searches for ways to get revenge instead of to forgive. Later, Johnny redirects his passions and fervor and wants to fight for the rights of his fellow men. Thus, Johnny’s patriotism toward his country is based on both Otis’s and Adams’s attitudes. Otis’s soft, low voice and Adams’s passion are appealing in different ways. When Johnny dreams about the lobsters with human eyes, he also sees how both sides of the war effort are unappealing: Hancock’s pity of humanity and Adams’s pleasure at cruelty. Ironically, both of these attitudes led to a war that caused the loss of human lives, and also the freedom of the human spirit.
1. How does Jonathan Lyte serve as a foil to Johnny? How does their relationship dramatize the tension between the colonies and Britain?
2. Compare how Rab and the Lornes influence Johnny’s psychological development.
3. How does Johnny Tremain address race in colonial America?
4. Why is the relationship between the colonists and British troops complex and often ambivalent?
5. Do you think Johnny Tremain would have helped the Whigs in their fight for independence if he had not injured his hand?
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