The title character and hero of Johnny Tremain is a fourteen-year old boy living in colonial Boston. When we first meet Johnny, he is arrogant, ambitious, slightly cruel, and wholly self-centered. In part, these vicious character traits stem from his prodigious gifts: he is unusually bright and well educated for an apprentice, and he is widely considered the most talented young silversmith in Boston. His insecurity and cruelty may also stem from his lack of a loving family, as his parents died when he was very young. Johnny works as an apprentice in a silversmith’s house, learning the craft in the hope that one day he can open his own shop. As an apprentice in his master’s house, Johnny has a status only a little above a servant, but he acts as tyrant, ordering around not only the other two apprentices but even his master and his master’s four granddaughters.
Johnny’s disdainful treatment of others leads to resentment, and this resentment leads to a disfiguring accident that ruins Johnny’s future as a silversmith. With a crippled hand, Johnny cannot find skilled work, and he allows himself to feel self-pity and despair. Dangerously close to giving up all hope of an honest life, Johnny almost turns to crime. Yet, due to his new job with the Boston Observer, the Whig newspaper, and his friendship with Rab Silsbee, the Lornes, and the leaders of the revolution, Johnny takes a more honest path. Inspired by their idealism and self-sacrifice, Johnny finds himself transforming from a selfish boy into a patriotic man. On a conscious level, he models himself after his new best friend, Rab, trying to imitate the older boy’s quiet, unassuming confidence and mild temperament. Unconsciously, as Johnny devours books in the Lornes’ library and soaks in the rhetoric of such acquaintances as Samuel Adams and James Otis, he begins to care about something much larger than his own petty ambitions and comforts. Johnny suddenly becomes an ardent Whig and a soldier, not because he is part of the Lorne family but because he rationally believes in freedom and rights for the colonists. At the novel’s end, Johnny has finally overcome his psychological and emotional handicaps. Faced unexpectedly with the prospect of a restored hand, Johnny is less concerned about whether he will be able to resume his job as a silversmith than whether he will be able to fire a gun and serve his nascent country.