At All Things Liberty: The Journal of the American Revolution, Elizabeth M. Covart has contributed a series of articles on the interpretation of Loyalism in Boston’s Harborfest activities this year.
Among the sites Liz visited was the Old South Meeting House, which encourages visitors to help reenact the debate over the issues raised by the new tea tax of 1773. That church was the site of huge protest meetings in November and December, with thousands of people showing up to express their opposition to landing the tea and paying the tax. How many people showed up in 1773 to support the new Crown policy? Practically no one.
Our best source on the actual discussions at the tea meetings is a memo titled “Proceedings of ye Body respecting the Tea,” which L. F. S. Upton published in the William & Mary Quarterly in 1965. It was written by someone present at the tea meetings in November and December 1773. Similar reports in the same handwriting are marked “Colman,” suggesting the observer was Benjamin or William Colman, either way a cousin of Massachusetts Attorney General Jonathan Sewall.
The end of this report listed the eight “chief Speakers at the Meetings”: Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Dr. Joseph Warren, Dr. Thomas Young, Josiah Quincy, William Phillips, William Cooper, and William Molineux. Those men cover the political spectrum from radical Whig to deeply committed Whig. There was not much debate.
The tea meetings at Old South in late 1773 were not official town meetings, though they were conducted along similar lines. They were special meetings called to protest the tea tax. No one had to attend. Some friends of the royal government probably saw going to those meetings as lending them legitimacy that they didn’t deserve. Others might have gone and found the anti-tea sentiment so strong that they kept from speaking out.
The Colman report described just a few future Loyalists speaking at these meetings, and in limited ways. On 30 November Stephen Greenleaf, sheriff of Suffolk County, came in with a letter from Gov. Thomas Hutchinson (also father of two tea importers), “requiring him to read a Proclamation for them to disperse.” He read that proclamation to “a confused Noise and a general Hissing.” And then the gathering voted to ignore it. Greenleaf evidently went away again. He lost his job as sheriff in independent Massachusetts (his younger brother William took over), but he never left Boston.
John Singleton Copley also appeared. But he didn’t argue that loyalty to the British Empire should outweigh local economic needs, or that the principle of “no taxation without representation” could be safely bent for a small tax on one imported product. Instead, he came to the meeting as a representative of his new wife’s family, the Clarkes, who had imported a lot of the tea. He just asked for a guarantee of their safety if they returned to town, as the people had demanded. Later he returned to say that the tea consignees “thought it not prudent and would serve no valuable Purpose to appear at the Meeting.” Copley went away, apparently satisfied with his job as a go-between. He would sail to Britain the next year and live there for the rest of his life.
Francis Rotch, whose family owned the Dartmouth, was in and out of the meetings a lot. But he didn’t argue for the necessity of obeying Parliament’s laws, or the value of paying taxes for public services, or the divine right of kings. The Rotches were Quakers from Dartmouth, Massachusetts, and they kept out of Boston politics. Francis Rotch simply pleaded with the crowd not to do things that would cause his ship to be damaged or confiscated. Rotch spent the war in London, thus qualifying as a Loyalist, but in these meetings he spoke from a neutral perspective as a man caught in the middle.
John Timmins appeared as agent for the cargo on the Beaver and briefly promised that he wouldn’t unload the tea. Timmins also moved to England during the war.
Finally, there was John Rowe, wealthy merchant and part-owner of the Eleanor. Some people in the crowd identified him as “a good Tory” when he arrived. So what arguments did he make?
he expressed his Sorrow that any Vessel of his should be concerned in bringing any of that detestable and obnoxious Commodity, (Tea)” and seeing the Audience were pleased with what he had said, he proceeded and among other Things he asked, “Whether a little Salt Water would not do it good, or whether Salt Water would not make as good Tea as fresh.” And when he had done speaking and at several other Expressions in his Speech, the People testified their Applause by Shouting Clapping etc.The report author heard crowd members saying quietly that “Mr. Rowe had now become a good Man and they should soon make all the Rest of the Tories turn to their Side as Mr. Rowe had done.”
Rowe went home that night and wrote bitterly in his diary but didn’t record his own words. Clearly he had been cowed by the people, or perhaps just eager for their approval. And in fact he managed to last out Bostonians’ distrust to remain in town through the war, eventually even becoming a representative to the Massachusetts General Court.
If the reenactments of the tea meetings followed that record as a script, the audience wouldn’t hear Loyalist political arguments. In Rowe’s case, we’d be hard put to distinguish his words from those of the most radical Whigs. (Indeed, Bostonians remembered Rowe as being the first to publicly raise the possibility of getting rid of the tea into the ocean. That may have helped his political career.)
I think Old South does good work by making sure visitors are exposed to a debate on the issues surrounding the tea in 1773. That can’t happen unless someone speaks up in favor of the British government. That viewpoint is all the more valuable in being less familiar to most modern Americans, and thus more effective at making us think in new ways. But in providing a forum for the Loyalists’ political positions, today’s Old South is offering a much broader spectrum of voices than people heard in that same space in late 1773.