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 14, 2011

“‘Owning’ the Tea Party has been a political act”

In the Boston Review, Alfred F. Young, author of The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, examines the long history of interpreting the the destruction of the tea in Boston harbor through political lenses.
At Boston’s centennial observance of the event in 1873, Robert Winthrop, former congressman and longtime president of the Massachusetts Historical Society, condemned the Tea Party “as a mere act of violence.” He went so far as to suggest that the founders had no part in it: “We know not exactly…whether any of the patriot leaders of the day had a hand in the act.” And in 1876, amidst a new wave of labor agitation at the centennial of American Independence, he called for a renewal of “the spirit of subordination and obedience to law.” The same year at a celebration marking the last-minute rescue of Old South Meeting House from the wrecking ball, Winthrop shed no tears over the near loss of the building famed as the place where the Tea Party action began.

But [Wendell] Phillips, by 1876 a labor radical, proposed that it be preserved as a “Mechanics Exchange,” referring to the name artisans had taken for themselves in the Revolutionary era. “It was the mechanics of Boston that threw the tea into the dock,” he proclaimed, and “held up the hands of Sam Adams,” sending him to Philadelphia and the Continental Congress. “The men that carried us through the Revolution were the mechanics of Boston,” he said. Phillips’s interpretation of the relationship of Samuel Adams to the mechanics ran counter to the view held by conservatives at the time of the Revolution and since then by historians of varied persuasions. Phillips defied the notion that the Revolution belonged exclusively to the founders, while working people did as they were told.
Young counters that notion of top-down steering by running the numbers on public participation in the tea protests:
With so many threats aroused, resistance to the Tea Act in Boston was broader and more furious than to any previous British measure. The relatively small number of men boarding the three tea ships—[Benjamin] Carp estimates a hundred to 150—can be misleading. Their action was preceded by three massive meetings of the “body of the people” on November 29 and 30 and December 14–16, 1773, at which the leaders dropped the property and age requirements for voting in official town meetings.

The results were unprecedented. Boston had a total population of about 16,000 (of whom roughly 600 were African Americans, all but a handful enslaved). In 1773 there were between 2,500 and 3,000 men 21 or older, the legal age. The property requirement, while relatively small, kept large numbers from voting. In the years before the Revolution, the highest turnout at town meetings was for the spring election of delegates to the Massachusetts Assembly, which, on average, attracted about 500 voters. Faneuil Hall, the site of official meetings and then less than half the size of the present building, was “capable of holding 1200 or 1300 men,” Samuel Adams wrote.

But meetings called for the body of the people could be held only in the largest building in town, Old South Meeting House, men jamming the pews, aisles, vestibules, and balconies. Adams wrote privately of an attendance of “5000, some say 6000 men” and of “at least 5000,” while one conservative guessed 2,500. The final meetings were swelled by country people from five surrounding towns, crowds overflowing into the streets. The meetings at Old South were thus five to ten times larger than the biggest official town meetings.
And the protests and destruction in Boston were only one part of a continent-wide movement, with major political action in Charleston, Philadelphia, and New York. The sheer scale of the American opposition to the tea tax undercuts any thought that the Boston event was orchestrated by a small group of Boston merchants or politicians for their own interests.

Young’s essay also has interesting things to say about Benjamin L. Carp’s Defiance of the Patriots and Barbara L. Smith’s The Freedoms We Lost. More about those books here and here, respectively.

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