Johnny Tremain

Johnny Tremain Summary and Analysis of Chapter 4


In the morning, Johnny is excited about his prospects with the Lytes. He hopes they will adopt him, and he will be able to buy expensive gifts for Cilla and Mr. Lapham. When Johnny arrives at Mr. Lyte’s the servants tease him because they think he is there to propose to Lavinia. When he finally meets Mr. Lyte, the rich merchant cruelly laughs at Johnny, insults his mother, and tries to send him away. However, Johnny carefully describes the cup that his mother left him to prove that he is related to the Lytes. Mr. Lyte and his servant, Sewall, both recognize the cup from Johnny’s description. Mr. Lyte tells Johnny he can come back at suppertime and that he should bring the cup.

Johnny goes back to the Laphams’ house to get the cup. When he gets there, Mrs. Lapham tells him that he has to move back to the attic so that Mr. Tweedie can have the birth-and-death room. She also tells Johnny that he must stop insulting Mr. Tweedie, and that he shouldn’t be friends with Cilla anymore since there is no hope of them marrying. Johnny rudely insults Mr. Tweedie and says that he doesn’t want to marry Cilla anyway.

Before the supper at the Lytes’ house, Johnny goes to visit Rab. Rab warns him that Merchant Lyte is “crooked” and tries to take advantage of the political strife in Boston. Lyte promised to participate in the boycott against the Stamp Act, but then sold English goods in secret so he could make more money. Although Rab suspects the Lytes won’t help Johnny, he lends the younger boy a nice set of clothes so he can look presentable at the dinner.

When Johnny gets there, Mr. Lyte and his relatives make fun of his appearance. They ask to see the cup, and when Johnny takes it out, they accuse him of stealing it from the house last year. Johnny insists that he didn’t, but it’s no use. Even worse, they accuse him of stealing the fancy coat he borrowed from Rab. Mr. Lyte says that Mrs. Lapham has vouched for Johnny’s bad character. The sheriff arrests Johnny and takes him to jail.

The next morning, Rab comes to visit Johnny. He brings blankets and books. Johnny notices that Rab is wearing a medal of the Sons of Liberty. The Sons of Liberty are a group of young men who use force and riots to rebel against the British government and to intimidate Tory figures. Because the prison guards are also Sons of Liberty, Rab is able to get Johnny transferred to a better cell. Since Johnny showed Cilla the cup before the date Mr. Lyte says it was stolen, he will be found innocent if Cilla testifies at his trial. If she doesn’t, Johnny will be hanged. Rab reports that Mr. Lyte has made a large order with Mr. Lapham as a kind of bribe, and that Mrs. Lapham has locked Cilla up so she can’t testify. The situation seems bad, but Rab has convinced the famous lawyer Josiah Quincy to help Johnny for free. He also says that he can help Cilla escape in time for the trial.

The trial seems to go badly at first. The judge and the crowd are impressed by Mr. Lyte’s wealth and confidence. However, when Johnny tells his side of the story, they are touched. Rab shows up on time with Cilla, who testifies that Johnny showed her the cup in July, before Mr. Lyte says it was stolen. Cilla’s testimony would have been enough, but at the end of the trial, Isannah bursts in and says that she saw the cup as well. She is lying, but the little girl melts the crowd’s hearts and the judge lets Johnny go. Josiah Qunicy takes Johnny, Rab, and the Lapham girls out to lunch at a tavern. On the way there, Isannah becomes emotional and kisses Johnny’s burned hand.


On page 74, Johnny mentions that Mr. Lyte’s skin is yellow. This is called jaundice, and it is a symptom of many different kinds of illnesses. Most illnesses that cause jaundice can be tied to poor nutrition. This is historically realistic, since fresh fruits and vegetables were hard to find in colonial New England. Merchants like Mr. Lyte would have been even worse off, because they spent so much time on ships without healthy food. By pointing out Mr. Lyte’s yellow skin, Forbes also foreshadows his cowardly actions later in the book. “Yellow” was a slang word for a “coward,” and it was in popular use in both the eighteenth century and when Esther Forbes wrote Johnny Tremain in 1943.

In this chapter, Esther Forbes introduces many moral problems that don’t have an easy answer. For example, Sewall and Lavinia both stay out of the room when Johnny is arrested. This suggests that they are uncomfortable with Mr. Lyte’s trick. However, they don’t intervene to help Johnny; they simply stay out of things. This kind of willful ignorance––observing that something is wrong, but not doing anything to solve the problem––is something that Forbes rejects throughout the book. Despite this early gesture toward sympathy for Johnny, Lavinia quickly returns to her snobbish ways. At the trial, she says that she has never seen anyone like Isannah, “. . . not even in some lane in London” (92). Although young Isannah thinks this is a compliment, it is actually an insult. In the 18th century, Drury Lane was home to many alcoholics and criminals.

Even the good characters are morally complicated. Rab is part of the Sons of Liberty. Although they are Patriots and make some good political points, they also use intimidation tactics to frighten important Tories. Johnny thinks that joining the Sons of Liberty would be fun, but Mr. Lapham also makes an important point when he accuses them of mob-like behavior.

Similarly, Isannah uses her youth to trick the jury into acquitting Johnny. Forbes emphasizes that Isannah is lying, and many of the chracters—including Rab and Josiah Quincy—feel uncomfortable with it. This shows that even young people can make mistakes, and Isannah’s dishonesty could have harmed Johnny as easily as it helped him. Forbes demonstrates this by showing how quickly Isannah befriended Lavinia.

Overall, the legal system in colonial America is portrayed positively. When Johnny is arrested, the sheriff is kind to him and tells him about his rights. Mr. Lyte tries to influence the case by bribing the Laphams, but he is unsuccessful. Both sides get a chance to state their cases, and the judge listens to Johnny even though he is a poor boy with a low social status. Through Johnny’s trial, Forbes demonstrates why a democratic, constitutional society is a good thing that is worth fighting for.