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 16, 2020

Some Say the Tea Will End in Fire

Today’s the 247th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, which is impressive, though not quite at Sestercentennial level.

Earlier this month a student working on a History Day project asked me why the Sons of Liberty tossed the East India Company tea overboard instead of burning it.

I wrote back about the radicals’ goal to keep the tea from being brought on shore because then the tea tax could be legally collected, but also their need to preserve all property besides the tea from harm. Fire was too risky an element to add to the event.

That exchange got me thinking about whether the destruction of the tea by water in Boston harbor and the detailed press coverage of it established a template for when other groups of radicals wanted to destroy tea. People also threw tea into the ocean at:
  • Boston in March 1774.
  • New York in April 1774, as recounted starting here.
  • Chestertown, Maryland, in May 1774.
  • Charleston, South Carolina, in November 1774.
In Charleston, the initial shipment of East India Company tea in December 1773 had been confiscated and warehoused under an agreement between the local Whigs and government authorities. But the radicals destroyed a second shipment by water. Did they have the same practical reasons for doing that as the Bostonians, or were they consciously imitating that Bostonians?

Back in 1765, the Loyall Nine, the Boston crowds, and the Boston printers established the way to protest the Stamp Act: effigies with signage to ensure their message was clear, a procession, a bit of house-mobbing, and a bonfire after dark—followed by a detailed report in the newspaper. That’s what happened in Boston on 14 August, and then with local variations in Newport, in New Haven, in Halifax, in Virginia’s Westmoreland County, on St. Kitts, in New York City, and so on.

We can see the same pattern emerge with Liberty Poles. At New York, a very tall pole flying a British flag had become a bone of contention between British soldiers and locals who put up that banner in a show of being more committed to the British constitution than whoever was running Parliament. In 1774 that model inspired New England towns to erect their own flagpole, and then to compete in the newspapers over who put up the tallest poles or adorned their flags with more stirring mottos.

Those specific forms of protest were memes—a coinage I’m using in its original and more interesting sense, as an idea or cultural practice that spreads from one person or group to another like a gene or an germ. Was tossing tea into the nearest deep water that sort of idea? Certainly the image of that action has become an emblem of the American Revolution since the 1830s, commemorated and adapted for other causes.

Flames also destroyed tea, though, as that student had noted. Three days before the Boston Tea Party, the people of Lexington burned tea on their town common. They weren’t trying to prevent the new East India Company tea from being landed; they were promoting a wider tea boycott. They also had a much smaller amount of tea and more open space than the Bostonians, so fire made more sense than tossing the tea into Vine Brook.

Even after the destruction of the tea in Boston harbor was widely reported, smaller New England towns continued to follow the Lexington model—or to build the bonfire simply because it was easier. I can think of public or semi-public tea burnings at:
  • Marshfield on 19 Dec 1773.
  • Princeton, New Jersey, in January 1774.
  • Provincetown in January 1774, along with men disguised as Indians in “black face.”
  • Lyme, Connecticut, on 16 Mar 1774. 
  • Salem, sometime in 1774.
  • Greenwich, New Jersey, on 22 Dec 1774.
In Annapolis, Maryland, a ship and its cargo of tea were burned together on 19 Oct 1774, as shown above, combining fire and water. And in September 1774, people in York, Maine, disguised as Indians took away some tea but apparently returned it after that symbolic destruction was complete and it was safe to go back to drinking it.

Thus, I conclude that while tossing tea into the water became a meme in pre-Revolutionary America, people didn’t feel the need to follow that model in every detail. If a harbor was handy, they used that to destroy the tea. If they needed to hide their identities, they adopted Indian disguises—whether or not they actually destroyed tea. But if a bonfire was legally safe and easy, flames it was.

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