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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Saturday, March 13, 2021

Tales of the Second Boston Tea Party?

Boston’s first tea crisis lasted two months. The town heard about East India Company tea coming to certain merchants by 18 October, when the Boston Gazette published the news. The men and boys who destroyed that tea headed home late at night on 16 December.

In contrast, the second tea crisis in March 1774 was resolved in less than thirty-three hours. The town learned of the brig Fortune’s arrival with 28 1/2 chests of tea at three o’clock on Sunday afternoon. By eight o’clock Monday evening that tea was going into the harbor.

Dumping tea before the tax could be collected on it had become almost ho-hum. Back in December, John Adams had exulted in his diary:
There is a Dignity, a Majesty, a Sublimity, in this last Effort of the Patriots, that I greatly admire. The People should never rise, without doing something to be remembered—something notable And striking. This Destruction of the Tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important Consequences, and so lasting, that I cant but consider it as an Epocha in History.
In March, Adams simply wrote: “Last Night 28 Chests and an half of Tea were drowned.”

With far less tea to destroy, the March action would have taken fewer men and/or less time. Still, it’s remarkable how little documentation we have for the second Boston Tea Party.

We don’t have detailed letters from the night, like merchant John Andrews’s much-read account of 16 December. The press reports appeared in a sort of code, as I’ll discuss tomorrow.

We don’t have signs of the nineteenth-century Boston newspaper editors keeping track of old men who had participated in the March tea destruction. The two books that helped to popularize the December event and the joshing term for the men involved, Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party and Traits of the Tea-Party, don’t mention the March follow-up at all. Families didn’t pass down dramatic stories of the second Boston Tea Party.

Or did they? Is it possible that some of the tales people told about “the Tea Party” were actually about the March tea destruction, not the one in December? If the same men took part in both, did the details meld together in their memories?

Some specifics of the December action can be pinned down through other sources. For example, Ebenezer Stevens’s recollection that his future brother-in-law, Alexander Hodgdon, was a mate on one tea ship. And the way leaves piled in the shallow water beside the ships; astronomers have confirmed that the harbor was at low tide at the crucial hours on 16 December.

But do other memories come from March? Have we inherited tales of the second Boston Tea Party without knowing it?

COMING UP: The code of the Tea Party.

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