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, August 20, 2011

Peeking into Old South on the Night of the Tea Party

Among the “Political Crisis” pins in the Bostonian Society’s “Mapping Revolutionary Boston” website/app are a couple describing the public meetings that led up to the Boston Tea Party.

In 1964, Benjamin Woods Labaree published the first scholarly study on that event for decades Most previous books about the Tea Party had simply presented it as a heroic event, isolated from both the unusual circumstances that led up to it and the bureaucratic reaction. The Boston Tea Party looked at the tea destruction in context, especially its wider economics.

And then, one year after Labaree’s book appeared, a detailed eyewitness account of the Tea Party meetings in Old South was published for the first time, instantly rendering the book’s description of those events out of date.

Of course, there’s other good material in Labaree’s Boston Tea Party. His description of the actual night of 16 December 1773 was, in fact, hazy and too generous toward questionable sources. The book’s value lay elsewhere.

The new document was a report titled “Proceedings of ye Body Respecting the Tea,” written by an anonymous witness and found in the Sewell Papers at the Public Archives of Canada by L. F. S. Upton, who transcribed it for the William and Mary Quarterly.

Jonathan Sewall was the last royal Attorney General of Massachusetts, and his son Jonathan became an important jurist in Canada. Two other reports in the same handwriting described the “Powder Alarm” mobs around their family home in Cambridge in September 1774. Those are marked “Colman,” the surname of some Sewall cousins, so quite possibly a Colman was in the crowd at Old South.

Among the document’s revelations:

  • As I noted back here, Bostonians’ memories that merchant John Rowe had posed a question like “Who knows how tea will mingle with salt water?” had been right all along. For decades, historians had trusted the suggestion of his diary (and its editors) that he disapproved of the tea protests. Rowe may have done so, but he wasn’t above playing to the crowd.
  • After Francis Rotch returned from Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s home without getting permission to send his ship away, Samuel Adams announced “he could think of nothing further to be done, that they had now done all they could for the Salvation of their country”—quite similar to what his descendants later quoted him as saying. But, contrary to their memory, about ten minutes passed before “an hideous Yelling in the Street.”
  • Then “Mr. Adams Mr. Hancock Dr. Young with several others called out to the People to stay” rather than sending them off to the waterfront. Those who stayed got to hear Young speak for a quarter-hour on “the ill Effects of Tea on the Constitution”—he was a doctor, after all. And then they spent the rest of their lives wondering why they’d wasted their time listening to that instead of going down to the docks to watch the real action. 
  • Among the last to leave Old South were “Mr. Samuel Adams Mr. John Hancock Mr. William Cooper Mr. John Scollay Mr. John Pitts Dr. Thomas Young, Dr. Joseph Warren”—i.e., those are the men we know were not at the docks destroying tea. In fact, they probably stayed behind and kept hundreds of people with them to create airtight alibis. Notably, however, “Mr. [William] Molineux was not present at the last Meetings.”


Charles Bahne said...

John, do you have a citation (year/date/issue/page) to the WMQ article? I realize that you can't provide a link, since it's a pay-to-subscribe service (via JSTOR, I assume), but an issue and page number would help us readers find it.


Kelly Weaver said...

Thank you for your continuing commentary on "Mapping Revolutionary Boston." I'm enjoying going through the interactive map, and my mind is filling up with lesson plan ideas going through my head.

J. L. Bell said...

“Proceedings of ye Body Respecting the Tea” and Upton’s comments appear in the April 1965 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, third series, vol. 22, pp. 287-300. That is available through JSTOR, which at least some of the public libraries in the region subscribe to.

Anonymous said...

Another interesting point of the L.F.S. Upton account are the comments by Sam Adams--even before Rowe suggested mingling the tea with salt water. Adams remarks suggested that vessel owner Francis Rotch would not suffer financially because he could file a "protest" at the customhouse. This administrative procedure allowed importers to avoid the payment of duty in the event their cargo was lost at sea due to a storm, or some "other unforeseen accident." And here, suggests Adams, Rotch could honestly protest that he was compelled by a "political storm" to return the tea to London and thereby escape liability for payment of duty.