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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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Lyme Tea Party

Yesterday I suggested that when young people in Lyme, Connecticut, celebrated Independence Day in 1805 by toasting “The Tea Party,” they didn’t mean the Boston Tea Party.

Here’s a description of what they did mean, from the Connecticut Journal of 23 Mar 1774, as quoted in John Warner Barber’s Connecticut Historical Collections in 1836:

Lyme, March 17, 1774.

Yesterday, one William Lamson, of Martha’s Vineyard, came to this town with a bag of tea (about 100 wt.), on horseback, which he was peddling about the country. It appeared that he was about business which he supposed would render him obnoxious to the people, which gave reason to suspect that he had some of the detestable tea lately landed at Cape Cod; and, upon examination, it appeared to the satisfaction of all present to be a part of that very tea (though he declared that he purchased it of two gentlemen in Newport [Rhode Island]; one of them, ’tis said, is a custom-house officer, and the other captain of the fort). Whereupon, a number of the Sons of Liberty assembled in the evening, kindled a fire, and committed its contents to the flames, where it was all consumed and the ashes buried on the spot, in testimony of their utter abhorrence of all tea subject to a duty for the purpose of raising a revenue in America—a laudable example for our brethren in Connecticut.
That “detestable tea lately landed at Cape Cod”? Four ships carrying East India Company tea left England for Boston together. By 10 Dec 1773, the Eleanor and Dartmouth were moored in Boston harbor. The Beaver was still five days out. On that day the fourth ship, the William, ran aground near Provincetown.

The William’s captain salvaged the 58 tea chests, and Jonathan Clarke, one of the original consignees, moved most of them into Castle William, from which about half got onto the open market. Patriots tried to hunt down and destroy all this tea. The crowd at Lyme in March 1774 thought they were doing their part for that effort.

The 1805 toast in Lyme must have commemorated that event, which deprived one peddler of about 100 pounds of tea. It’s possible that there was also a “general search” for tea in town, with people tossing their household stores into the fire to signal their commitment to their political values. There had been such a tea-burning in Lexington, Massachusetts, back on 13 Dec 1773, as the National Heritage Museum describes here.

But the “Tea Party” toast from 1805 didn’t allude to the much bigger event in Boston on 16 Dec 1773. The Lyme collation may indeed have been the first time Americans are recorded as calling the politicized destruction of tea in 1773-74 a “tea party,” but it wasn’t the Tea Party we remember.

TOMORROW: So who was the first to call the destruction of the tea in Boston harbor “the Boston Tea Party”?


Daud Alzayer said...

Interesting that this would be called a tea party as well. As I understood it, the purpose of the name tea party was invented by 19th century people to soften a potentially frighting act of civil disobedience.

This event, however, doesn't seem quite so threatening. So, I'm suprized that the same term was used.

J. L. Bell said...

We don’t really know what the purpose of changing the “destruction of the tea” into the “Tea Party” was because people didn’t leave many clues about their choice. But the cultural effect of the change, historians like Alfred F. Young have argued, was to domesticate a major act of anti-government, anti-corporate sabotage. Young suggests that the same broad anti-radical attitude was behind the elevation of the Boston Tea Party into a major, celebrated event after years of relative secrecy, raising its profile above more violent riots.

The “tea party” name might apply better to the Lyme, Connecticut, event since (as remembered in 1805) it involved domestic supplies of tea, and the small community coming together politically and literally around tea. I’m not sure Lamson would have seen it that way, though.

Charles Bahne said...

What sense of the word "party" did they mean when they used that term in 1805 (in Lyme) or the 1820s (in Boston)? I doubt that anyone meant "a social gathering of invited guests" or "a formally constituted political group". I'm guessing that the coiners of the term "tea party" meant either "a group of people taking part in a particular activity" or "a person or people forming one side in an agreement or dispute". Of course, they may have been aware of the potential pun with the "social gathering" sense. [Definitions copied from the New Oxford American Dictionary, which came bundled with my computer.]