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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Sunday, November 29, 2015

Viewing the Tea Party in Context

If you attend the Boston Tea Party reenactment at Old South and the Boston Tea Party Ships, I have two things for you to keep in mind about what you’re hearing.

As I’ve written before, it’s unlikely that many friends of the royal government came to Old South to debate what to do about the tea. To begin with, those mass gatherings weren’t official town meetings, so even showing up would grant them more legitimacy than most Loyalists wanted.

At least one supporter of the royal government was there to take notes and report back to the authorities, and of course that man, apparently named Colman, wouldn’t have called attention to himself. He did note who spoke and about what, and he didn’t mention many political compatriots. Unless they were trying to save their property (John Rowe) or their new in-laws (John Singleton Copley), Loyalists kept far away from the other side’s rally.

Voicing only anti-Tea Act opinions would therefore be a more accurate depiction of the final tea meeting, but that would provide a false impression of the larger debate in Boston and in America in late 1773. There really was a political dispute, as well as smaller disagreements about tactics. So there’s a good reason the script includes more Loyalist voices.

As for that script, a lot of it ends up in the hands of the audience as people take turns reading arguments about what to do off cards they receive when they come in. Ideally, there would be a one-to-one ratio of speakers and arguments. In other words, everyone who wants to speak would have something to say, and nobody would repeat anyone else. But of course life doesn’t work that way.

Instead, the way it works out is that an audience member who’s eager to participate lines up, waits her turn, and then reads off her card—even if someone else has read the same argument already. There’s a lot of repetition, and speakers don’t respond to what others have just said. However, I’m quite sure the event organizers know all that, and there’s really no smoother way to incorporate the audience into the discussion. The value of being able to participate in the reenactment—especially for younger audience members—outweighs the drawbacks of this approach.

While listening to all those debating points last year, I heard a lot of political anachronisms—rhetoric that might be appropriate during the Revolutionary War, but not two years earlier. In 1773, American Whigs weren’t yet attacking King George III. They were still focusing their anger on what they saw as a corrupt Parliament and corrupt government ministers while proclaiming loyalty to the king and the British constitution.

Similarly, there were no British army troops patrolling Boston in 1773. They had been there from October 1768 to March 1770, and they were ordered back in May 1774 as a response to the Tea Party. Any complaints you hear about redcoats in the streets during the Tea Party would also be anachronistic. The Crown hadn’t yet taken any steps to close the port or disarm the colonists.

As with the criticism of King George, such complaints arise from looking back at the Revolution at such a distance that the distinctions between particular years blur together. But seeing how they accumulated and how American thinking evolved is useful in understanding that the Revolution developed. The Tea Party of 16 Dec 1773 was a particular moment in a gradual process.


Anonymous said...

I've learned there will be somewhat less repetition in the Tea Meeting reenactment this year. The OSMH was able to channel some intern hours towards creating additional arguments.
-Chris H. the Woburnite

J. L. Bell said...

A good use of intern time! Now let’s hope there’s more said about ministerial perfidy instead of King George.