It is morning in Boston. In her house on Hancock’s Wharf, the silversmith’s wife Mrs. Lapham wakes up her husband’s three young apprentices. Their names are Dove, Dusty Miller, and Johnny Tremain, and they sleep in the attic. At fourteen, Johnny is the second oldest apprentice, but he is the “boss of the attic” (3). Sixteen-year-old Dove is jealous of Johnny’s skills with silver and his place of authority in the household. Dove trips Johnny when he isn’t looking, and the two boys start to argue. Johnny ends the argument by sending Dove to fetch some water. Because of his easy-going nature and his strong work ethic, everyone admires Johnny––even Dove. This is why Johnny is able to boss the older boy around. Johnny takes advantage of this, choosing to bully Dove more than necessary.
Mrs. Lapham has four daughters. They like to tease Johnny––especially Cilla, who is Johnny’s age. The two teenagers are supposed to marry when they grow up, and together they will inherit the silver business. Johnny is not attracted to Cilla, but he doesn’t mind marrying her if it helps his career. Mr. Lapham considered having Johnny marry Isannah, who is younger and angelically beautiful. However, Isannah is so sickly that no one thinks she will live to adulthood. Dove is annoyed when Johnny points out that the spoon he made yesterday is the wrong size.
After breakfast, Mr. Lapham asks Johnny to read aloud from the Bible. Mr. Lapham is a deacon at the church and is therefore very pious. Johnny is the only one in the household besides him who can read well. Cilla tries but she has never had any formal education. The passages he is supposed to read are all about pride, which Mr. Lapham thinks Johnny has in excess. Johnny keeps his cool in front of his master but storms out angrily when the meal is over.
At work, Johnny tries not to act proud but he can’t help it. He is naturally a leader in the shop, since Dove and Dusty don’t know what they’re doing and Mr. Lapham himself can be absent-minded. So when John Hancock comes in to order a sugar basin for his aunt, Johnny stands quietly in the background and writes down the order, in case Mr. Lapham misses the details. Mr. Hancock is very wealthy and his patronage could help the Laphams financially.
Since the sugar basin is supposed to replace one that was melted, Mr. Hancock wants it to match the silverware he already has. He has brought a beautiful pitcher to show Mr. Lapham the design he wants. Johnny asks if the pitcher was made by John Coney, but it turns out that it was made by Mr. Lapham himself. Mr. Lapham hesitates before taking the assignment; he worries that he no longer has the skill to make such a fine object. Johnny steps in and assures Mr. Hancock that the sugar basin will be done on time and to his standards. Mr. Hancock leaves tips for Johnny, Dove, and Dusty. Mr. Lapham explains that this is political. Mr. Hancock wants the apprentices to vote for him when they are old enough. As for himself, Mr. Lapham disagrees with Mr. Hancock’s politics. He thinks that Americans should humbly submit to English rule.
Johnny works late making molds for the sugar basin. When he comes in, Cilla has made him dinner and is drawing something on her slate. She explains that she is making Johnny a seal, so that when he is a master-smith he can stamp his work with his initials. Johnny says the seal is not bad, but he wants it to include his middle initial, “L.” When Cilla and Isannah ask what the “L” stands for, he refuses to tell them.
In the middle of the night, Cilla wakes Johnny up. Isannah is feeling nauseous and needs some fresh air. He reluctantly agrees to carry her to the wharf so her stomach will feel better. As the three young people sit together, Johnny feels so close to the girls that he decides to tell them his middle name. It is Lyte, and the girls speculate that Johnny is related to the rich Merchant Lyte. Johnny himself has thought about this, and they all joke about Merchant Lyte’s wealth. He tells them the story of his childhood. He is originally from Townsend, Maine, but his mother moved the family to Boston so he could be apprenticed to a good silversmith. She also taught him to read and write. His mother, Lavinia Lyte Tremain, “came of gentlefolk” (24) and has rich relatives, but he is never to contact them except as a last resort. She gave him a cup to prove that he is related to Merchant Lyte. When they get home, Johnny shows the cup to Cilla, on the condition that she keeps it a secret. It has the Lyte family crest on it.
In Chapter 1, Esther Forbes introduces many of the main characters in Johnny Tremain. Although most of them only get a short introduction, they are still complex. The most notable example of Forbes’s characterization is in the bickering between Johnny and Dove. Dove comes across as petty, lazy, and mean. However, Forbes also encourages readers to pity him. She does this directly, by pointing out that he was lonely, and indirectly, by mentioning that Dove is so alone in the world that no one remembers his last name.
Dove’s upbringing stands in stark contrast to Johnny’s. Although his family was poor, Johnny emphasizes that his mother tried her hardest to set him up for a good life. She taught him how to read and even moved to another state so he would have a chance to pursue his dream of being a silversmith. In contrast, Dove seems to have no one who cares for him in the world; he has no family to speak of and the Laphams constantly mock him for his laziness and ineptitude. Although he is the book’s first antagonist, Forbes also encourages readers to have some sympathy for Dove.
Johnny is also a complex character. In the opening scene, Forbes lists all the reasons people like Johnny: he is reliable, he is a good smith, and he has a good sense of humor. However, there are also some negative aspects to Johnny’s character. He enjoys bullying Dove, and he puts on airs when John Hancock comes to order the sugar basin.
Johnny’s airs are part of Forbes’s exploration of the theme of pride. As Johnny grows throughout the novel, he will learn important lessons about why it is good to be humble, even if you think you are smarter than the people around you. She also explores this theme through other characters. For example, Dorcas tries to act like she has more money and a higher social status than she really does. And Merchant Lyte and his daughter seem to have let their wealth go to their heads.
This chapter introduces John Hancock. Today, he is most remembered for his role as a patriot in the American Revolution, and for his large, flamboyant signature on the Declaration of Independence. During his lifetime, he was best known as a successful merchant and a local statesman. The novel hints at the coming political strife when Johnny observes that Hancock looks stressed and exhausted. Forbes refrains from idealizing the founding father. He seems good-natured, but Mr. Lapham points out that there is an ulterior motive to his generous tipping. While he may genuinely want to help the apprentices, he also wants their votes when they are older and have property (a requirement for voting at the time).