Set inBoston, Massachusetts during the early days of the American Revolution, Johnny Tremain is the story of a young silversmith’s apprentice who finds himself involved with many important historical figures, including John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and Paul Revere. As his adventures unfold, Johnny discovers a great deal about himself and his emerging country.
Chapter I. Up and About
Chapter one opens with the dawning of a new summer day in a small house on Hancock’s Wharf in Boston Harbor. The home is occupied by Mr. Ephraim Lapham, a Boston silversmith; Mrs. Lapham, daughter-in-law of Mr. Lapham; Mrs. Lapham’s four daughters, Madge, Dorcus, Cilla, and Isannah; and three apprentices, Dove, Dusty Miller, and Johnny Tremain.
At 14 years old, Johnny Tremain is not the oldest apprentice, but it is clear that he commands the others. Johnny is fit, energetic, and excellent with his hands. Johnny has gained the Laphams’ favor so much that Mrs. Lapham, whose husband is deceased, has consented to allow him to marry her youngest daughter, Cilla Lapham, and Mr. Lapham has decided that Johnny shall inherit the silver business. While not necessarily in love with Cilla, Johnny has consented to the union, considering it to be a smart match. In contrast to Johnny, the older apprentice Dove is overweight, lazy, and resents the fact that Johnny commands them. Dusty, the youngest apprentice, admires Johnny but also somewhat resents Johnny’s bossy attitude.
When the boys are dressed, Johnny sends Dove off to fetch water for the morning’s breakfast. Then he and Dusty open Mr. Lapham’s shop so that they can get the furnace going. As he prepares for his day’s work, Johnny reflects on how much he likes life at the wharf and his chosen trade.
At breakfast, Mr. Lapham makes Johnny read aloud several passages from the Bible concerning the issue of pride. The other children marvel at Johnny’s ability to read well, a skill which his deceased mother had insisted that he master. Johnny understands that the passages assert that pride comes before a fall; however, he is somewhat angered by Mr. Lapham’s method of instruction. Mr. Lapham then makes Johnny repeat an oath that he will attempt to be more humble and modest.
As the men head to the shop, the youngest girls tease Johnny about their grandfather’s lecture.
As the business day begins, Johnny reflects on how Mr. Lapham is an excellent craftsman but doesn’t pay close enough attention to the details of his business. Johnny goes off to check on the supply of charcoal for the furnace and finds himself daydreaming about how he would run such a business. Suddenly, he is called back to the shop. John Hancock, the owner of Hancock’s Wharf and the richest man in New England, has come to have Mr. Lapham create a silver sugar basin.
When Johnny reenters the shop, he orders Dusty and Dove to make themselves busy and quietly approaches Lapham and Hancock so that he might unobtrusively record the details of Hancock’s order. Johnny marvels over the fine craftsmanship of the sample piece Hancock has brought and inquires if it had been created by John Coney, a well-known silversmith. To his surprise, Johnny learns that the piece was actually created years ago by Mr. Lapham, for Hancock’s deceased uncle. When Lapham hesitates to take Hancock’s order—because he doesn’t know if he can still produce such intricate work—Johnny, who is quietly urged by Mrs. Lapham to say something, asserts that they will gladly create the piece. While Hancock is surprised by Johnny’s outspokenness, Mr. Lapham is glad that he spoke.
Before Hancock departs, he has his young slave, Jehu, bring in a coin for each apprentice. When Jehu leaves, Lapham expresses his disgust with men like Hancock and Sam Adams, men who call themselves “patriots” and are not content with the way England is governing the colonies. In Lapham’s words, they are always “trying to stir up trouble.”
Throughout the hot day, Johnny works diligently to create the angel-shaped handles for Hancock’s sugar basin. But after Mr. Lapham goes to take a nap and Dusty and Dove sneak off to go swimming, Johnny finds himself alone in the sweltering shop. Johnny works past dinner but isn’t able to successfully copy the handles. Cilla has waited for him and prepares his dinner. While Johnny eats, Isannah tells Johnny how Cilla has been working on a master’s mark he can use when he finally becomes a master silversmith. Johnny mentions that when he is a master he will use all three of his initials. Though the girls press him, Johnny won’t reveal what his middle initial, “L,” stands for. Johnny returns to the shop, but it is so hot that he can’t work properly, so he too heads off to the wharf for a swim.
Johnny returns to the shop and it is midnight before he finally perfects the handles. He decides to sleep on a mattress in the kitchen, but he is awakened by Cilla, who informs him that Isannah isn’t feeling well and needs to get a breath of fresh air. The three head down to the wharf, in hopes that a breeze might be blowing. As they sit on the wharf’s end, the girls beg Johnny to tell them the story of his middle name. As Johnny weaves his tale, Isannah falls asleep. Johnny then reveals to Cilla that his middle name is “Lyte,” the same as a rich local merchant. He also explains that his mother was born of “gentlefolk” and before her marriage was named Lavinia Lyte, the same as Merchant Lyte’s daughter. Johnny tells Cilla that his mother knew she was going to die and so she made arrangements to get him taken on as an apprentice to Mr. Lapham. Johnny’s mother told him he was related to Merchant Lyte but that he should only approach Lyte if he fell upon very dire straights. In that case, he was to show Mr. Lyte a cup, which his mother had given him, bearing the crest of the Lyte family. Cilla begs to see the cup, and Johnny agrees, if she will promise to keep it a secret. As morning breaks, Johnny picks up the sleeping Isannah, and they return home.
Johnny puts Isannah to bed then goes to the attic to retrieve his cup. They go outside, and he shows the cup to Cilla, who reads the motto: “Let there be Lyte.” As the sun begins to rise, Johnny comments that it’s just like the rising sun on the crest. Cilla quips that the crest might be a setting sun, but Johnny counters that his mother had told him it was a rising sun.
The opening chapter presents Johnny Tremain as a fit, hardworking, industrious, though somewhat overconfident, young man. It is clear that he is a born leader. Dove, who is older but is also overweight and rather lazy, serves as a clear contrast to Johnny. While Mr. Lapham openly chides Johnny for his pride, the Lapham’s willingness to have Johnny marry Cilla and inherit the family business is evidence of just how much they trust and believe in him. It is also a reflection of the belief that hard work can lead to good things.
The chapter introduces the theme of pride. The bible verses Mr. Lapham makes Johnny recite all center on the notion of pride leading to a fall. Johnny’s ability to read and his comprehension of the passages are both indicators of his strong intellect.
The crest of the Lyte family—a rising sun over the sea—can be seen as a metaphor for Johnny, who is a “son” who will eventually “rise” to great heights. It also links to the notion of Johnny as a young “son” of liberty. Though Johnny is not technically a member of the famous Sons of Liberty, he cavorts with many who are and certainly acts like one. In essence, readers of the novel get to watch this young “son” of early Revolutionary America rise.