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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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Missing the Points in Sons of Liberty

In assessing the history in Sons of Liberty, a graphic novel for young readers by Iowa historian Marshall Poe and comics artist Leland Purvis, I’ll start with the good stuff.

The book quotes directly from George R. T. Hewes’s account of the Boston Tea Party and from Paul Revere’s narrative of his midnight ride when depicting those events. Even in edited form, that gives young readers a sense of early American language, and of how first-hand accounts inform our understandings of the past.

Purvis was obviously careful to use visual references: we can recognize Old South Meeting-house, the Boston peninsula, and other settings. There are small glitches with clothing: women not wearing caps, boys outside without hats and waistcoats. But there aren’t any men with beards, women wearing fashions from half a century later, or similar missteps I’ve seen in other history comics.

The story, however, has some real historical anomalies. The first conflict is a mob attack on British soldiers who have confiscated John Hancock’s ship Liberty. The British government stationed soldiers in Boston after that riot, precisely because Customs officials said it and earlier fights showed they weren’t safe.

Most baffling is this explanation of the tea crisis of 1773, put into the mouth of none other than George III:
What’s the phrase I’m looking for? Oh, yes. Utterly and completely wrong.

The East India Company tea was taxed. That’s why most American colonists objected to it. It was taxed in such a way that as soon as the tea was landed on shore, the duty could be collected in London; the tea agents expected to repay themselves by selling the tea, and since that was a desired and untraceable commodity they probably could have. Meanwhile, the tea revenue went to salaries for the Customs service and other royal officials, thus insulating them from popular opinion in the colonies. That was why the tea was so controversial.

Some colonial merchants were selling tea smuggled in from Holland, and their business would have taken a hit from having to compete with East India Company tea sold at rock-bottom prices. But those merchants didn’t “have to charge higher prices” because “they have to pay taxes on their goods,” as the king says above. No one paid taxes on smuggled tea. That was the point of the smuggling.

The tea conflict is complex; back here I argued that such a tempest over tea makes sense only if we consider all the earlier “taxation without representation” debates that led up to it. It would take some effort to summarize that history for kids. But the depiction in Sons of Liberty is simply bass-ackwards.

As reviewed here, Marc Aronson’s The Real Revolution is a much better grounded, heavily illustrated, and nonfiction history of the tea conflict for young people. Not a graphic novel, but highly recommended.

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