J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

Benjamin Rice and the Boston Tea Party

Yesterday I noted how the appendix in the back of Traits of the Tea-Party (1835) listed “Benjamin Rice” among the men who had helped to destroy the East India Company tea on 16 Dec 1773. What do we know about that man?

In Tea Leaves (1884), Francis S. Drake reprinted that list, but he couldn’t find anything more about Benjamin Rice. His book offered capsule biographies of every possible participant he could identify, but not Rice.

After that, authors identified two men as being or possibly being the Benjamin Rice of the Boston Tea Party, and in neither case is the evidence strong.

The first candidate was Benjamin Rice (1723-1796) of North Brookfield. He was a militia captain and occasional town representative. On 7 Dec 1773 he was one of a five-man committee, which also included Jeduthan Baldwin, that wrote this about the tea tax:

We think it our indispensable duty, in the most public manner to let the world know our utter abhorrence of the last and most detestable scheme, in the introduction of Tea from Great Britain, to be peddled out amongst us, but which means we were made to swallow a poison more fatal in its effects to the national and political Rights and Privileges of the People of this country, than ratsbane would be to the natural body—

Therefore, Resolved, that we will not by any way or means, knowingly encourage or promote the sale or consumption of any Tea whatever, subject to a duty payable in America, but all persons whoever they may be, who shall be concerned in a transaction so dangerous, shall be held by us in the utmost contempt, and be deemed enemies to the well being of this country.
This quotation appears in J. H. Temple’s History of North Brookfield, published in 1887. That book didn’t connect Rice to the actual destruction of the tea, however.

Twenty years later, Ellery Bicknell Crane supervised the publication of Historic Homes and Institutions and Genealogical and Personal Memoirs of Worcester County, Massachusetts, one of many local histories produced by the Lewis Publishing Company for sale to libraries and prominent families in the area. And that book says:
Captain Benjamin Rice, great-grandson of Edward Rice, was of the party of “Mohawks” who threw the tea into the Boston Harbor, was a town correspondent of the committee of safety, and served in the legislature in 1776-77 and in 1783-84. He married Sarah Upham, a descendant of Lieutenant Phineas Upham, who is written of elsewhere in this work.
The four-volume set offers no evidence for that statement, however.

I suspect that Crane’s team saw Benjamin Rice’s name on the North Brookfield’s committee report and in Tea Leaves, and concluded it was the same man. But from North Brookfield to the old part of Boston is more than sixty miles. It’s hard to imagine a fifty-year-old farmer making such a journey in December 1773 on the chance that Boston’s tea dispute would still be unresolved when he reached the capital. Furthermore, the Boston radicals who planned the secret, risky raid on the tea ships surely recruited men they knew and trusted, not men who happened to show up from out of town. So I don’t find this identification convincing.

Another Benjamin Rice appears to have been in Boston in 1773. He had been born in Westborough in 1749, graduated from Harvard in July, and started to study medicine. He would marry Martha Bent in January 1774, and die eight years later. However, this Benjamin Rice had grown up in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, from the age of eleven. Like the farmer from North Brookfield, he was probably not a familiar and trusted face to Boston’s radicals. The earliest suggestion I’ve found that this Benjamin Rice was involved in the Tea Party dates from 1974, and again seems to be based on no more evidence than his name.

In sum, the list in Traits of the Tea-Party appears to be our only document or tradition dating from before 1900 to indicate that a man named Benjamin Rice participated in the Boston Tea Party.

Which brings me back to John Rice, the subject of yesterday’s posting. According to William Cooper’s notes on public meetings, Harvard student John Rice (or his forty-six-year-old father) volunteered to help keep the tea from landing in November. He held important positions in town during and after the Revolution, and married into a family of Tea Party participants. As I wrote yesterday, some current descendants of John Rice report a family tradition connecting him to the destruction of the tea.

So which story seems more likely: that John Rice joined in the Tea Party in 1773, but six decades someone misstated his first name as Benjamin, or that one of the men named Benjamin Rice participated in the Tea Party but never left any other evidence of radical political activity in Boston?

Of course, both of those scenarios are possible, and I can imagine still more ways to explain why the name “Benjamin Rice” appears in Traits of the Tea-Party. It’s quite easy to think that the Rice family tradition stems from how their ancestor patrolled the docks in November 1773, not from the tea destruction the next month. Still, I think John Rice deserves more scrutiny.

And what about the tradition “that one of his shoes, filled with tea, was in the Boston Atheneum”? A John Rice, possibly the son of the Boston official born in 1783, was one of that library’s founding members.

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