The Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association

It was a long-standing goal of Paul Revere to rise above his station – economically, socially, and politically. This aspiration was not just for himself, but for all mechanics. In the 18th and 19th century the term “mechanic” meant any skilled craftsman that produced a finished product (e.g., silversmiths, blacksmiths, woodworkers, printers, tailors, etc.). The greatest roadblock to upward mobility was the very rigid class system in English (and thus in Colonial American) culture. Society was broken down into three categories – at the bottom were the “meaner sort” which included farmers and unskilled laborers, and at the top was the “better sort” – lawyers, doctors, politicians and the like. Between these extremes were the “middling sort” – people with trades, merchants, and mechanics. 

As evident from the inherent bias in the names, moving from one of these social classes to another was extraordinarily rare. No matter how much success or money Revere and his colleagues acquired they would always be middling sort because they were born as middling sort. Knowing they could never be the better sort, they sought to make middling as good as possible.

The very beginnings of the industrial revolution at the end of the 18th century strained social structures more than almost anything before it, and many people struggled to adapt. In 1794 a group of concerned mechanics, including Revere, gathered at the famed Green Dragon Tavern to discuss the issue of runaway apprentices. Many younger mechanics were leaving their training to get easier, less skilled work as wage-laborers in large shops and factories. Realizing that factories and mass production were taking over their world, these mechanics formed an organization for the mutual aid and benefit of those who wished to continue as skilled craftsmen. In 1795 they formed the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association and elected Paul Revere as its first president.

The MCMA’s constitution states that it was “formed for the sole purposes of promoting the mechanic arts and extending the practice of benevolence.” It goes on to state that “the association of [mechanics] will prove highly beneficial to them, by promoting mutual good offices and fellowship; — by assisting the necessitous; — encouraging the ingenious; — and rewarding the faithful.” From the beginning the MCMA advocated for the continuation of skilled trades and crafts, and provided aid to the widows and families of members who had passed. The association was officially incorporated in 1806 allowing it to expand both in influence and altruism. Through the 19th century the MCMA regularly held exhibitions of mechanical innovations – predecessors to the modern tradeshow. The organization also helped establish the first public high school in America – the English High School of Boston in 1821. The association hosted both its own library and trade school for a time, though both ceased operation around the start of the 20th century.

The Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association is still in operation today with their primary focus “…on charitable support for Massachusetts organizations that themselves either teach mechanical arts or use vocational training and workshops as a key part of their programs.” Founded by Revere and his contemporaries with the goal of improving both their own lives and the lives of those around them, the MCMA was in many ways the antecedent of 20th century unions. This is the legacy that Paul Revere wanted to leave; he did not want to be remembered for riding a horse, but rather as someone who made the world a better place for himself and the people around him.

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