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, December 22, 2010

The Man Who Named the Boston Tea Party

Early in 1826, this little item ran in several American publications:

One of the party of “about forty unknown people dressed like Indians,” who boarded the ship Eleanor, in Boston, in 1773, and threw overboard 114 chests of tea, now lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is, says the Crisis, a temperate, hardy old veteran, supports his family by the sweat of his brow, and often boasts of the “Boston tea party.”
Ben Carp’s Defiance of the Patriots cites this item from the 28 January issue of the Baltimore Patriot. Before looking that up, the earliest example I’d found was the Providence Patriot & Columbian Phenix of 4 Feb 1826. Within the next few days the same paragraph was reprinted in the Boston Commercial Gazette, the Norwich (Connecticut) Courier, the Telescope of New York City, and several other publications along the east coast. Some capitalized and/or hyphenated “Tea Party,” and others didn’t.

All those papers credited a periodical called the Crisis. That must be the Cincinnati Emporium, which according to the American Antiquarian Society’s catalog (and who would know better?) was retitled the Crisis and Emporium before going belly up. [Frankly, I’m not surprised at that failure. Crisis and Emporium is a real mixed message, isn’t it?]

This newspaper item appears to be the earliest use of the phrase “Boston Tea Party” for the destruction of the tea in Boston harbor on 16 Dec 1773. It refers only to one ship and its cargo, so the unnamed man was apparently being scrupulous about what himself had done. Few other participants had spoken to printers like this, but they were starting to tell stories at patriotic events. No doubt the passing of the Revolutionary generation and the fiftieth anniversary of American independence were prompting more interest in stories about that night.

The Cincinnati connection allows us to identify the man on the Eleanor as Joshua Wyeth. In July 1827, the Rev. Timothy Flint’s Western Monthly Review included a “Revolutionary Reminiscence of Throwing the Tea Overboard in Boston Harbour” that named, described, and quoted Wyeth. In September, Hezekiah Niles reprinted that item in his National Register, thus ensuring a wider and lasting audience for the story.

Interestingly, Flint’s article doesn’t quote Wyeth as using the term “Boston Tea Party,” as this newspaper item did. But the phrase had already entered the culture. On 20 July 1826, the Essex Register of Salem reported that a 93-year-old man living in Warren, Rhode Island, named Nicholas Cambell (usually spelled Campbell) had “made one of the celebrated Tea Party in Boston harbor,” and printed his account of the night. Several papers ran shorter items about Campbell that summer, some choosing to refer to him by the older term, “one of the destroyers of the tea.”

As Carp points out in his book, at this early point the word “party” referred to the men involved in destroying the tea, not the event itself. Participants were “of the Tea Party,” not “at the Tea Party.” Which makes the recent political use of “Tea Party” for a group into a return to the earlier form.

TOMORROW: But was Joshua Wyeth’s story reliable?

5 comments:

Bob said...

Google's new Ngram Viewer gives us a nice picture of how the term really took off in popularity after the Civil War.

J. L. Bell said...

I’ve been playing with the Ngram Viewer, too! I plan to post about that and other terms before the end of the year.

Peter Ansoff said...

Interesting point about the contemporary meaning of "party." Nowdays, the term "Boston Tea Party" has an ironic quality -- everybody knows that it wasn't a party but a major act of civil disobedience. Apparently it would not have the same double meaning in the early 19th century. I wonder when the modern meaning of "tea party" (a sedate social gathering at which tea is consumed) came into vogue.

J. L. Bell said...

There are lots of early-1800s references to “tea parties” as social affairs organized around tea. So I think using the term for a political event that carried at least the threat of violence, in Lyme or Cincinnati or Boston, always had that ironic double meaning to it. There seems to have been an additional double meaning in what “party” meant, which we’ve lost.

Charles Bahne said...

I did a quick experiment with Google's Ngram Viewer and found that the dates of publication can be extremely inaccurate. For example, I found a reference to the "Tea Party" in Boston in a book allegedly published in 1755. (It's a 20th-century biography of Alexander Hamilton, focusing on his life from 1755 to 1788.) Another "1774" book talks about preparations for the upcoming National Centennial (in 1876). George Washington's diaries for the period starting in 1771 is counted as a "1771" book -- and the reference to the Boston Tea Party is in a modern editor's note.