The story begins in the Boston, Massachusetts silversmith shop of Ephraim Lapham, where protagonist Johnny Tremain is a promising apprentice. The Lapham shop soon receives a challenging order from wealthy merchant John Hancock. While preparing Hancock’s order, Johnny’s hand is badly burned when Dove, another apprentice, gives him a cracked crucible that leaks molten silver. Johnny’s hand is crippled beyond use, and he can no longer be a silversmith. It is later learned that the injury is not as severe as he has been told and enough use can be restored through minor surgery for Johnny to do simple and rough tasks—like firing a musket.
After a series of rejections, Johnny Tremain turns to Mr. Lyte, a successful businessman. Johnny explains that his mother told him that he and Mr. Lyte were related. Lyte requests proof, and Johnny shows him a silver cup with the Lyte family’s coat of arms. Lyte claims it was stolen from him, and Johnny is arrested. Eventually, Johnny is freed by the court. Johnny settles into a job with a newspaper, The Boston Observer. The Observer is a Whig publication, and Johnny is introduced to the larger world of pre-revolutionary Boston politics. As months go by and tension between Whigs and Tories rises, Johnny becomes a dedicated Whig himself. Johnny matures and re-evaluates many personal relationships, including that with Cilla, who becomes a trusted friend and fellow Whig. Johnny and his older friend and mentor, Rab, take part in the “Boston tea party,” in which Boston “patriots” throw a shipload of tea into Boston harbor rather than allow the ship’s owner to unload the tea and pay a tax imposed by Parliament in London without the consent of the people of Britain’s American colonies. In retaliation Britain sends an army to occupy Boston and closes Boston’s port, inflicting hardship upon the inhabitants of this commercial and trading town.