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, December 31, 2023

Ending the Year by Burning Tea

In my write-up of the Charlestown tea burning, I mixed up the date of the town meeting when everyone agreed to stop selling tea (28 Dec 1773) with the date the townspeople burned their stocks of tea (31 December, or 250 years ago today).

That in turn led to misdating when a crowd from Boston confiscated Ebenezer Withington’s tea in Dorchester.

I’ve corrected those postings.

To my chagrin, I found that I’d actually flagged a source to discuss on this date, but while traveling during this holiday season I overlooked that draft.

So here is a timely account of the events of 31 Dec 1773 from our old friend, merchant John Rowe:
The People of Charlestown collected what Tea they could find in The Town & burnt it in the View of a thousand Spectators.

There was found in the House of One Withington of Dorchester About half a Chest of Tea

the People gathered together & took the Tea Brought it into the Common of Boston & Burnt it this Night about Eleven of Clock—

This is Supposed to be part of the Tea that was taken out of the Ships and floated over to Dorchester—
Rowe’s recounting (probably second-hand) adds a couple of details to the newspaper report: the large crowd in Charlestown and a more precise timing of the tea-burning on Boston Common.

Overall, these incidents show that, despite fears of how the London government would react to the destruction of East India Company property, Bostonians were closing out the year by getting more strict about enforcing their tea boycott on everyone.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

“Poor Boston will feel the whole weight of ministerial vengeance”

One facet of the Boston Tea Party that I’m thinking about this season is how many observers expected quick retaliation of some sort from the London government.

But those same Massachusetts men got busy convincing themselves that reaction would be no worse than they would have suffered anyway, given Lord North’s established policies.

A day and a half after the tea destruction, the merchant John Andrews wrote to his brother-in-law in Pennsylvania:

However precarious our situation may be, yet such is the present calm composure of the people that a stranger would hardly think that ten thousand pounds sterling of the East India Company’s tea was destroy’d the night, or rather evening before last, yet its a serious truth; and if your’s, together with ye. other Southern provinces, should rest satisfied with their quota being stor’d, poor Boston will feel the whole weight of ministerial vengeance.

However, its the opinion of most people that we stand an equal chance now, whether troops are sent in consequence of it or not; whereas, had it been stor’d, we should inevitably have had ’em, to enforce the sale of it.
On 17 December, John Adams worried in his diary:
What Measures will the Ministry take, in Consequence of this?—Will they resent it? will they dare to resent it? will they punish Us? How? By quartering Troops upon Us?—by annulling our Charter?—by laying on more duties? By restraining our Trade? By Sacrifice of Individuals, or how.
But in a letter to his friend James Warren (shown above), Adams was more dismissive of the dangers. First he quoted the Wellfleet merchant Elisha Doane: “The worst that can happen, I think, Says he in Consequence of it, will be that the Province must pay for it. . . . it will take them 10 Years to get the Province to pay for it. If so, we shall Save 10 Years Interest of the Money. Whereas if it is drank it must be paid for immediately.”

Then he tried to convince Warren and himself that the consequences of the tea destruction couldn’t be worse than paying the tea tax in the first place:
the final Ruin, of our Constitution of Government, and of all American Liberties, would be the certain Consequence of Suffering it to be landed. . . .

Threats, Phantoms, Bugbears, by the million, will be invented and propagated among the People upon this occasion. Individuals will be threatened with Suits and Prosecutions. Armies and Navies will be talked of—military Execution—Charters annull’d—Treason—Tryals in England and all that—But—these Terrors, are all but Imaginations. Yet if they should become Realities they had better be Suffered, than the great Principle, of Parliamentary Taxation given up.
In response, Warren agreed with Adams on 3 Jan 1774:
They have now Indeed passed the River and left no retreat and must therefore Abide the Consequences. What those will be seems to be the great matter of Speculation and as People are determined by Reason or by the frightful List of Scarecrows and Bugbears (mentioned in your last and which are Employed on this Occasion) their speculations will differ.
Adams and Warren both insisted that the real blame for the crisis lay with Gov. Thomas Hutchinson and the Customs Commissioners for being such sticklers about the law.

So did their friend Samuel Adams. Anticipating a crackdown, he wrote to Arthur Lee in London on 28 January:
The Destruction of the Tea is the pretence for the unprecedented Severity shown to the Town of Boston but the real Cause is the opposition to Tyranny for which the people of that Town have always made themselves remarkeable & for which I think this Country is much obligd to them. They are suffering the Vengeance of Administration in the Common Cause of America.
Adams offered that spin even before the details of the imperial government’s “unprecedented Severity” and “Vengeance” became clear.

A transatlantic crossing in this era took about six weeks. That meant it would be three months, or until mid-March, before Boston would hear about how people in London were responding to the tea destruction, and at least a couple of more weeks before they learned about Parliament’s official reaction.

Friday, December 29, 2023

“A Number of the Cape or Narragansett-Indians” in Dorchester

On 31 Dec 1773, as recounted yesterday, Charlestown burned its tea at high noon. Everyone could see that happen, but of course bonfires are even more visible at night.

As that action took place across the Charles River north of Boston, another drama was playing out to the south in Dorchester.

Last year I quoted sources about the search for tea that survived destruction in the harbor, floated across to the Dorchester shore, and was reportedly being sold by a man named Withington.

After searching two houses (with the assent of two homeowners named Withington), a crowd said by local Samuel Pierce to be “from Boston” found the rumored tea at the home of Ebenezer Withington.

Leaving Dorchester to deal with the man through its town meeting, the Bostonians carried that tea back to Boston and used it to fuel their own bonfire after dark on Boston Common.

When the Boston Gazette reported on this event on 3 Jan 1774, it said the search had been carried about by “a Number of the Cape or Narragansett-Indians.” This was, I believe, the first time the press had referred to the men destroying tea not merely as dressed like Indians but actually as Indians (wink, wink).

When Edes & Gill first reported on the destruction of the East India Company tea, their 20 December Boston Gazette printed two accounts which described the actors quite differently.

The story on Page 3 said the raiders were “A number of brave & resolute men, determined to do all in their power to save their country from the ruin which their enemies had plotted.” That account treated those men as respectable members of Massachusetts society, taking collective civic action.

However, “An Impartial Observer” on page 2 described “a number of persons, supposed to be the Aboriginal Natives from their complexion,” and later referred to those people as “Savages.” These destroyers came from outside civilized society, so Boston couldn’t be held responsible for their action. That approach prevailed in the following months.

The Boston Gazette’s account of events on 31 December showed that dichotomy. North of Boston, the people of Charlestown acted through their town meeting, through collective boycotts, and at high noon. South of Boston, “the Cape or Narragansett-Indians” carried out intimidating actions, destroyed imperial property, and acted in the dark.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Charlestown’s Tea Burning at High Noon

As I noted back here, when the Boston Gazette reported on the people of Lexington burning their tea on 13 Dec 1773, the newspaper said Charlestown was about “to follow their illustrious example.”

It took a little while, and perhaps a boost from the Boston Tea Party, but on 3 Jan 1774 the Boston Gazette was able to report:
The Inhabitants of Charlestown, agreeable to a unanimous Vote of said Town the Tuesday proceeding [28 December], on Friday last voluntarily bro’t all their TEA into the public Market Square, where it was committed to the Flames at high Noon-Day.—An Example well worthy Imitation.!!
The tea burned in Lexington and Charlestown (and in other communities later) had already come ashore, so importers had already paid the tariff on it (unless they smuggled it in, of course). That tea was also owned by private citizens and local shopkeepers, not by the distant, rich East India Company.

The folks burning their tea were thus making a bigger sacrifice than the men on Griffin’s Wharf, and for a purely symbolic result—signaling their solidarity with the continent-wide tea boycott. That sort of commitment is hard to square with the idea that the Tea Party movement was driven by a handful of tea smugglers. There was real communal fervor.

In his new study, Tea, James R. Fichter writes that Charlestown’s businesspeople agreed at that Tuesday town meeting to divide up their losses so the people who had large inventories of tea wouldn’t be wiped out financially.

Prof. Fichter will no doubt speak of this event when he talks tea, international commerce, and revolution to the Charlestown Historical Society next weekend. That event will take place on Sunday, 31 December, starting at 1:00 P.M. at the Bunker Hill Museum, 43 Monument Square.

TOMORROW: Meanwhile, on the other side of Boston…

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

The Return of the Angels at Old North Church

This fall, in addition to archeological work in its crypt, Old North Church had its four carved angels conserved and repaired.

Old North Illuminated explained the origin of these artifacts:
The four Baroque angels date to the 1620s and were likely carved in what is now known as Belgium. It is unknown where they spent their first century. In 1746, however, they were on board a French ship en route to a Catholic Church in Quebec.

During this time period, England and France were almost constantly at war, and one of the ways the war was waged was economic: ships, and their cargo, were fair game. Privateers were legally sanctioned to act like pirates and pillage the ships they captured. British privateer Captain Thomas Gruchy captured the French ship on its way to Quebec and seized its cargo, including these angels.

He and his investors sold most of the goods, but Captain Gruchy, a North End resident, donated the four angels to Old North Church, where he worshiped.
The angels are thus decades older than the church, which is itself one of the oldest buildings in Boston.

Originally all four figures held trumpets, but only two of those instruments survived. Chris Gutierrez of Manzi Appraisers & Restoration also noted “evidence of previous damage that nearly split one of the angels in half,” as well as cracks that had developed over the decades.

Gutierrez and his team cleaned the figures, fabricated two new trumpets, and touched up the painted surfaces to make the two-foot-tall angels look good without hiding their age.

The angel statues returned to their places on the gallery railing in front of the church’s pipe organ in time for the Christmas season.

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Fun with the 26th of December

TFD Supplies sells earbuds and headphones. The enterprise is trying to appeal to the educational market, promising products for libraries and discounts for teachers.

Part of that outreach appears to be its “Today in History” blog, including this post, headlined “Five Fun Facts about December 26 in Massachusetts History.”

Those five facts are:

1. The Boston Tea Party Occurred on December 26, 1773:…
Actually, as we’ve just commemorated, the destruction of the tea happened on 16 December.
2. The Pilgrims Celebrated the First Boxing Day in Plymouth, 1620:…
The term “Boxing Day” doesn’t appear in British sources until the mid-1700s. The Pilgrims didn’t recognize the traditional Christmas holiday since it has no Biblical support, and therefore saw nothing special about the day after 25 December, either.
3. The Salem Witchcraft Trials Continued: Many of the accused witches in the infamous Salem Witchcraft Trials of 1692-93 were still being held in prison on December 26, as the trials dragged on for months. The trials resulted in the execution of 20 people and the imprisonment of dozens more.
The Salem witchcraft crisis did begin in January 1692, and the last trials were held in January 1693, with Gov. Sir William Phips halting the process at the end of that month. Of course, that doesn’t make 26 December any more special than any other date in the year.

Nineteen people were executed, one was killed by torture, and at least five died in jail.
4. John Adams Married Abigail Smith, 1764: Future U.S. President John Adams married Abigail Smith on December 26, 1764,…
The Adamses married on 25 October.
5. The Boston Bruins Played Their First Game, 1924: Hockey fans in Massachusetts may be interested to know that the Boston Bruins played their first official game on December 26, 1924, against the Montreal Maroons. The Bruins lost 2-1, but went on to become one of the NHL's most successful franchises.
The Bruins played their first game on 1 Dec 1924. They beat the Montreal Maroons, 2–1.

It looks like someone used an A.I. program to compose lots of “Today in History” blog posts for different states. The software obliged with what looks very much like information but is just a mélange of common phrases not necessarily connected to facts.

The result doesn’t make me trust the earbuds and headphones.

Monday, December 25, 2023

The Messages from Philadelphia’s “Committee for Tarring and Feathering”

The Boston Tea Party was splashing up in other American cities two hundred fifty years ago today, on 25 Dec 1773.

The Boston committee of correspondence had sent a silversmith named Paul Revere south with its version of the tea destruction on 17 December.

Revere rode through New York and then headed to Philadelphia, arriving on 24 December. The news from Boston was printed as a special supplement to the Pennsylvania Gazette, combining newspaper reports and the committee’s statement.

That news encouraged the people of Philadelphia to maintain their resistance to the East India Company tea—which was plenty strong already.

The following day, the ship Polly appeared in the Delaware River, heading upstream. It carried almost seven hundred chests of tea (I’ve seen sources putting the count at either 697 or 698), more than double the number from the three ships the Bostonians had raided.

Back in mid-November, a broadside had appeared in Philadelphia, warning “the DELAWARE PILOTS” and the populace that “a Ship loaded with TEA was now on its way to this Port.” That handbill was ominously signed “THE COMMITTEE FOR TARRING AND FEATHERING.”

This of course was not an official Philadelphia committee, unlike Boston’s standing committee of correspondence, the ad hoc committees the Boston town meeting named to confer with different men, or even the similar committees later named by “the Body of the People.”

It’s therefore impossible to say how much support Philadelphia’s “committee for tarring and feathering” had at the start of the confrontation. That group could have been just a handful of guys with access to a printing press. But their broadside rallied people to take a hard stand.

In case the initial threat wasn’t clear enough, on 27 November the committee distributed a second broadside promising that any pilot who helped guide the tea ship into the port of Philadelphia would find “TAR and FEATHERS will be his Portion.”

That ship was now identified as “the (Tea,) SHIP POLLY, CAPTAIN AYRES; a THREE DECKER.” As for Samuel Ayres himself, the committee warned him of “a Halter around your Neck----ten Gallons of liquid Tar decanted on your Pate----with the Feathers of a dozen wild Geese laid over that to enliven your appearance!”

The committee spoke again on 7 December. It now said the Polly was not a three-decker after all, but “an old black Ship, without a Head, or any Ornaments.”

As for Capt. Ayres:
The Captain is a short, fat Fellow, and a little obstinate withal.----So much the worse for him.----For, so sure as he rides rusty, We shall heave him Keel out, and see that his Bottom be well fired, scrubb’d and paid.----His Upper-Works too, will have an Overhawling----and as it is said, he has a good deal of Quick Work about him, we will take care that such part of him undergoes a thorough Rummaging. . . .

We know him well, and have calculated to a Gill and a Feather how much it will require to fit him for an American Exhibition.
That sort of pressure had already convinced the East India Company’s consignees in Philadelphia to disavow their assignment and thus any responsibility for the tea. But of course that didn’t necessarily mean anything to His Majesty’s Customs Service.

The Dartmouth had entered Boston harbor, as the Customs department defined it, before anyone in town could warn off Capt. James Hall. That started the clock for the ship’s owners to unload or face confiscation. Customs supervisors refused to bend their rules.

The physical and legal geography of Philadelphia was different. Even though by 25 December the Polly was as far north as Chester, Pennsylvania, clearly within the North American mainland, it was still twenty miles away from the port of Philadelphia. Thus, under Customs standards it hadn’t officially arrived, and Capt. Ayres could turn around without suffering legal consequences, loss of his cargo, or damage to himself.

Which he did.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

“A lesson in the popularity of historical commemoration”

Johanna Yaun, historian of Orange County, New York, visited Boston to see last weekend’s Tea Party commemoration. She shared her thoughts on her Revolutionary N.Y. blog:
Anthropologists will tell you that engaging in acts of “Ritual Drama” like this is a universal, cross-cultural behavior - the exercise of commemoration puts us in touch with our human nature. As momentum builds, people are drawn into the action and derive a sense of belonging and meaning from participation. In our secular society, these opportunities are often centered on mythologizing the Founding history of our Nation.

This “ritualizing” of history was on grand display with the heavily narrated, theatrical 30-minute summarization of a Boston Tea Party (simultaneously live streamed to the Nation) showcasing a polished version rather than an exact history. But the dramatization accomplished what it intended to do on an emotional level and those wanting to know more were able to crack open replica tea chests with an ax in Boston Common or attend exhibits and events that were presented by a variety of historical institutions in the weeks leading up to the commemorative date. From an educational standpoint, the digital footprint of social media postings, video conference presentations and commemorative research will likely shape our public understanding of this historical event for 50 years to come. . . .

But on this particular December 16th, the takeaway for me was that perhaps because of all the distractions of modern life, access to endless scrolling on personal devices, worry in the profession about growing historical illiteracy, and the diminution of government investment coordination of important commemorations, there was genuine surprise about just how popular this “happening” ended up being.

It was clear that the City of Boston left much of the work to volunteers and loosely organized (notoriously underfunded) historical stakeholders. There was not enough signage through the city in the days leading up to the event, hotel workers seemed to be unaware of the significance, I never saw any notable Police presence and staff (volunteers?) bearing the America 250 logo at the reenactment itself were quickly overwhelmed and unable to keep walkways safely clear during the event. It was a lesson in the popularity of historical commemoration, the apathy of government support and a reminder that if local planners design, fund, promote and staff these events properly, they have the potential to have a powerful impact on our local economies and tourism branding.
Yaun concludes by encouraging local governments, both in her area and elsewhere, to do more to support upcoming commemorations.

(I suspect the logo Yaun saw volunteers wearing was the one created for the event, shown above. America 250, the Congressionally-certified national celebration organization based in and focused on Philadelphia, has had enough challenges on its own.)

Saturday, December 23, 2023

The Fortunate Timing of the Boston Tea Party

Last Saturday we enjoyed ideal weather for the sestercentennial of the Boston Tea Party: cool enough to remind us it was December, but not bitter, rainy, or windy.

Two days later, a storm blew through eastern Massachusetts, with downpours, high winds, and many power outages.

So we were lucky.

That happy concatenation made me think about a point James R. Fichter has been making in his book Tea and his talks about it: just a couple of days’ change in how the tea ships crossed the Atlantic Ocean could have produced a very different outcome.

As soon as Bostonians raided one tea ship, Fichter argues persuasively, the royal authorities would have taken steps to guard the others, most likely by bringing them under the protection of the Royal Navy.

Why didn’t Gov. Thomas Hutchinson and Adm. John Montagu do that already? Because they adhered to the British legal system, in which the military didn’t act without civilian government requests, and the civilian government didn’t call on the military until a crime was actually under way or had taken place.

Imagine, Fichter asks, if the Dartmouth had arrived within the bounds of Boston harbor a couple of days earlier. In that case, its Customs-regulations deadline for unloading would have fallen on 14 December, when the Beaver was still in smallpox quarantine off Rainsford Island and thus not within reach of the populace.

Or if the Beaver had arrived two days later than it did, it would still have been in quarantine on the night of 16 December, when the Dartmouth’s time was up.

Either way, the men of the Tea Party could have emptied the Dartmouth and Eleanor as they did, but the navy would probably have escorted the Beaver to Castle Island, where its tea could have been stored in the fort. That was where almost all the tea from the William, wrecked on Cape Cod, would end up shortly afterward.

As it was, the Beaver was moved to Griffin’s Wharf late on 14 December, giving the town’s radical activists a day to complete their planning before the authorities made their final refusal to let the Dartmouth sail back.

Would the destruction of two cargoes of tea instead of three, more than £6,000 worth of property instead of £9,000, have changed the response from the royal government? It’s impossible to say, but the complete destruction of all the tea in the harbor at once certainly looked like a bigger triumph for the Bostonians and a bigger crime to London.

Or another possibility: What if the ship carrying tea to Charleston, the London, was delayed long enough that its Customs-reglations deadline fell after news of Boston’s destruction of the tea had arrived in the city? Would the Charleston radicals have felt emboldened to destroy that tea instead of letting it be landed and stored? Would the Charleston government officials have felt safe with the same arrangement?

And if more than one American port had destroyed expensive shipments of the East India Company’s tea, would Lord North and his colleagues have thought that Coercive Acts aimed at one colony would work?

We have no way of knowing, but we do know the men destroying the tea on 16 Dec 1773 had ideal weather for their work.

Friday, December 22, 2023

How Many People Were at the Old South Tea Meetings?

Last weekend, I served as announcer for the reenactment of the “Meeting of the Body of the People” in Old South Meeting-House.

The most striking moment was hearing noises from outside the building, glancing through the window behind me, and seeing the sidewalk and street absolutely packed with people.

The sight reminded me of all the reports from 1773 of throngs outside that same building, locals straining to hear the developments and lending their bodies to the popular pressure. It was even rather spooky.

The crowd also brought up a historical question that appeared both in the introduction to the event and backstage discussions: How many people were at the tea meetings in Old South in late 1773?

In a letter to Arthur Lee about the whole tea crisis dated 31 Dec 1773, Samuel Adams wrote that on 28 November “the Old South meeting-house [had…] assembled upon this important occasion 5000, some say 6000 men.” And later on 16 December, “the meeting…had consisted by common estimation of at least seven thousand men.”

But of course we recognize Adams as a master of propaganda. Here he was using the technique of crediting lots of other people with saying what he wants to say.

The merchant John Andrews wrote similarly about the latter day:
A general muster was assembled, from this and all ye neighbouring towns, to the number of five or six thousand, at 10 o’clock Thursday morning in the Old South Meeting house, where they pass’d a unanimous vote that the Tea should go out of the harbour that afternoon.
But as a rule, I assume Andrews has inflated his numbers by 50–100%.

For example, Andrews wrote that John Ruddock was “the most corpulent man among us, weighing, they say, between 5 and 600 weight.” That would have put the magistrate in the same range as David Lambert, Georgian Britain’s example of corpulency. Justice Ruddock was heavy, but not heavy enough to be able to display himself. He was probably closer to 300 pounds.

Andrews said the cannon now labeled “Adams” and “Hancock” (at the heart of The Road to Concord) must “weigh near seven hundred weight apiece.” The National Park Service has found those guns “weigh about 450 pounds each.”

Finally, we all know that estimating the size of a public crowd, especially at a political event, is notoriously prone to exaggeration. Even today, when we can collect photographic evidence, crowd estimates can be frought with bias, wishfulness, and in some cases simple narcissism.

Using my formula for interpreting John Andrews’s numbers, we should translate his and Adams’s reports of 5,000–7,000 people into about 3,000. That’s still about equal to all the adult white men in Boston.

It’s also far more than the legal capacity of Old South today. But back in 1773 the building’s main floor didn’t have displays in the back, the first gallery had benches instead of individual seats, and the second gallery was open. Most important, people were smaller and had different assumptions about personal space, so they probably crowded together more densely.

Three thousand adults would still probably have been beyond tight—but what if we also count crowds on the streets outside?

Thursday, December 21, 2023

“His hat and clothes were covered with tea dust”

The Rev. Dr. John Prince (1751–1836, shown here) had an unusual path to the pulpit, and an unusual sideline afterward.

He was apprenticed and trained as a tinsmith and pewterer in Boston before entering Harvard at age twenty-one, several years older than a typical undergraduate of the time. After college and a master’s degree, Prince became a minister for Salem’s First Meeting.

Prince’s early practical training allowed him to become an expert on scientific instruments in the early republic. He invented, produced, evaluated, brokered, and repaired apparatus for several institutions, including his alma mater.

Back while he was an undergraduate, Prince was a close witness of the Boston Tea Party and its aftermath. He preserved his recollections of the event in a letter published in the Salem Gazette on 24 Sept 1833:
Mr. Editor,—There is a mistake in the Salem Mercury of last Wednesday, where, in speaking of the tea, it is said “there is a venerable Clergyman in Salem who took a part in the tea frolic, and assisted in emptying the chests into the sea”—

As there is but one clergyman now in Salem, who was a boy old enough to have assisted in the destruction of the tea at that time, viz. Dec. 16, 1773, it is evident who is meant by the “venerable Clergyman,” and he sends you this note to correct the mistake, and inform you that he was only a quiescent spectator of the transaction, and had no hand in destroying the tea. He stood upon the quarter deck of the vessel, leaning over the rail which crossed the deck, while the persons, disguised as Indians, were unloading her, and could plainly see what was doing, though it was principally in the evening.

Two men stood at the hatchway on the main deck, with axes in their hands, and as the chests were hoisted out of the hold they knocked off the tops and emptied the tea into the dock, and threw the chests after it. The tide was out, and the tea was piled up on the flats by the side of the ship as high as her gunwales.

The boy, as the Clergyman is called, was then more than 22 years old, and was not “an apprentice at that time.” He crossed the vessel’s deck in going on shore, and so much of the tea was scattered on it as to be over his shoes, which he found full when he got home; and his hat and clothes were covered with tea dust as a miller is with meal in his mill.

He went on to the wharf the next morning, where a great concourse of people was assembled to view what had been done the night before, (by the Mohawk Indians, it was said). Amongst the people assembled was the old British Admiral, ([John] Montague) who looked with astonishment on the scene of devastation, and said, the Devil is in this people, for they pay no more respect to an act of the British parliament, which can make England tremble, than to an old newspaper, and then went off of the wharf.

In the morning after the tea was thrown overboard the ebb tide carried most of it away, and the empty chests were seen floating down the harbor on the Dorchester shore in a line, extending to the castle. The business of destruction of the tea was conducted without any tumult or great noise; nor was any damage done to the vessel, or to any other effects whatever. The writer of the above knew several of the Indians who did the patriotic work.
Although the Salem Gazette didn’t print Prince’s name with this letter, the Gloucester Telegraph reprinted it on 28 September and blew his anonymity. Prince wrote several more reminiscences of the Revolutionary period for the Salem Gazette, their authorship not confirmed until his death notice.

This 1833 letter put Adm. Montagu at Griffin’s Wharf while complaining about the locals on the morning of 17 Dec 1773, as I discussed yesterday.

As part of its program to mark the graves of seemingly all known, suspected, rumored, or claimed Tea Party participants, the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum has included Prince as an “honorary participant.” I think that’s more than fair, given that he was actually on board one of the ships and would surely have faced criminal charges if there had been a royal police force to break up the action.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

“Who was to pay the fidler”?

As I wrote yesterday, George R. T. Hewes’s story of Adm. John Montagu exchanging words with Tea Party leader Lendell Pitts as the men were marching off Griffin’s Wharf on 16 Dec 1773 seems unlikely, in both its details and its essence.

And yet there is contemporaneous support for one point of that story, which might have been the seed it grew from.

On 23 December, Gov. Thomas Hutchinson wrote to his ally Israel Williams about the event. That letter said:
Because a number of Gentlemen, who without their knowledge, the East India Company made the Consignees of 400 Chests of Tea would not send it back again, which was absolutely out of their power, they have forced them to fly to the Castle [for] refuge and then have destroyed the property [commi]tted to their care. Such barbarity none of the Aboriginals were ever guilty of.

The Admiral asked some of them next moring who was to pay the fidler.
That last remark echoes how Hewes would quote Montagu:
“Well, boys, you have had a fine pleasant evening for your Indian caper—havn’t you? But mind, you have got to pay the fiddler yet!”
We also have a Massachusetts source from 1833 saying that Adm. Montagu was on Griffin’s Wharf the morning after the tea went into the harbor, complaining about what the Bostonians had done. (I’ll share that account soon.)

Thus, it’s quite plausible that Montagu asked “who was to pay the fidler” on Griffin’s Wharf the day after the Tea Party, locals who heard him told others, and Hewes incorporated the phrase into his stories of the night, jiggering the details.

Lendell Pitt’s reputed response to the admiral appears to be an example of staircase wit—what Hewes (and his audience) wished someone had a chance to say back to a royal official.

Such scholars of the Tea Party as Benjamin Woods Labaree and Benjamin Carp have recreated events this way, putting Montagu on the wharf on 17 December but not the night before.

Other accounts, built more from tradition than from analyzing early sources, continue to repeat Hewes’s anecdote—as does Johnny Tremain. So it will be with us for a while yet.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

“The house of a Tory, named Coffin”

As I quoted yesterday, in 1835 George R. T. Hewes told a story about Adm. John Montagu scolding the Bostonians who had just destroyed the East India Company’s tea and Lendell Pitts answering him.

That exchange took place, Hewes said, “at the house of a Tory, named Coffin, who lived at the head of the wharf.”

Montagu did have a connection with a Loyalist named Coffin. Nathaniel Coffin (1725–1780) was the cashier and receiver general in the Boston Customs Office.

Nathaniel’s son Isaac (1759–1839) joined the Royal Navy in 1772, and both the Naval Chronicle and Gentleman’s Magazine stated that Montagu sponsored the teenager’s commission. (Isaac Coffin went on to become an admiral himself.)

That said, Nathaniel Coffin’s house wasn’t at the head of Griffin’s Wharf. It was on the corner of Essex Street and modern Harrison Avenue. Though that estate was waterfront property, it didn’t abut Griffin’s Wharf.

We also have the evidence of Adm. Montagu’s report to his superiors in London, written on 17 Dec 1773. In that document, he said nothing about being in town to witness the destruction of the tea. It’s plausible that if he had been that close, the admiral wouldn’t have included that detail lest it raise questions about why he didn’t use his personal authority to stop the rioters.

But that scenario wouldn’t square with what Montagu did write in that report:
During the whole of this transaction neither the governor, magistrates, owner, nor the revenue officers of this place, ever called for my assistance. If they had, I could easily have prevented the execution of this plan, but must have endangered the lives of many innocent people by firing upon the town.
That sounds like Montagu was on his flagship, fully armed with cannon crew and marines who could shoot at the men on Griffin’s Wharf—at the risk of hitting the hundreds of other people watching them.

But if Montagu had been waiting for a request from the “governor, magistrates, [or] revenue officers” to use such force against the rioters, the last place he would have been would be in a house right beside that location and thus in firing range himself.

TOMORROW: And yet…

Monday, December 18, 2023

“A fine pleasant evening for your Indian caper”?

One of the stories about the Boston Tea Party that I’ve long been skeptical about involved Adm. John Montagu’s remark on the affair to the tea destroyers themselves.

The earliest print appearance of the tale is in Traits of the Tea Party, published in 1835. Benjamin Bussey Thacher wrote that book based on interviews with George R. T. Hewes (shown here) and others.

After describing the destruction of the tea Thacher wrote:
It is remarkable, that all this transaction was carried through in plain sight (and by a fine moonlight too) of the British squadron, which partly lay perhaps less than a quarter of a mile distant from the scene, and at hours when those who belonged to it must have been generally both aboard and awake.

The Admiral, indeed, is believed to have witnessed most of the affair at a much more convenient point, and even to have come ashore for the purpose. When the people marched off, according to Hewes, he shewed himself at the house of a Tory, named Coffin, who lived at the head of the wharf, running up the window, where he sat as they came along, and crying out, “Well, boys, you have had a fine pleasant evening for your Indian caper—havn’t you? But mind, you have got to pay the fiddler yet!”

“Oh, never mind!” shouted Pitts, “never mind, ’Squire! Just come out here, if you please, and we’ll settle the bill in two minutes!”

This raised a shout—the fifer struck up a lively air—the Admiral put the window down in a hurry—and the company marched on.
Hewes identified “Lendall Pitts, a well-known Whig,” as the “commander” or his “division” in the operation.

This type of story that comes up often in nineteenth-century accounts of the Revolution: a British official expressing frustration about Yankee daring and ingenuity, with a Yankee sometimes getting in the last word as well.

It’s a good anecdote. American newspapers started to quote it soon after publication. Many non-fiction authors repeated it. Esther Forbes even used the exchange in her novel Johnny Tremain.

It’s possible Adm. Montagu chose to be in town on the night the Customs department’s deadline for the Dartmouth arrived. But how likely was it that he actually saw men coming off Griffin’s Wharf? How likely was he to have raised a window to tell those men they would have to “pay the fiddler” (suffer the consequences of their action) but do no more? Did Pitts really respond to him like this?

All told, this anecdote seemed too good to be true. It felt like a story made up of what Bostonians imagined royal officials saying and what they wished they could say back.

TOMORROW: Reasons for doubt, and yet…

Sunday, December 17, 2023

“A score of Indian figures were at work”

In 1836, the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge published the picture above and an article called “The Boston Tea Party.”

That magazine was edited by Nathaniel Hawthorne, but we don’t know who wrote this piece. The author did disclaim knowledge of “Mr. Thacher’s lecture on the same subject,” which rules out Benjamin Bussey Thacher, author of Traits of the Tea Party.

I discussed this article in yesterday’s presentation about the shifting significance of the Indian disguises that some men wore to destroy the tea, two hundred fifty years ago this week.

Just check out this rhetoric from a period well after those perpetrators’ identities had to be hidden, and at a time the U.S. of A. was expanding west and shoving real Native Americans away.

The story picks up as Francis Rotch reports that Gov. Thomas Hutchinson wouldn’t bend the rules to allow the Dartmouth to sail away without unloading the tea.
But the dead hush, that pervaded the multitude after hearing the Governour’s resolve, was suddenly broken by what seemed an Indian war-cry from the gallery. Thitherward all raised their eyes, and perceived a figure in the garb of the old forest-chiefs, who had not then been so long banished from their ancient haunts, but that a solitary survivor might have found his way into the church.

The signal shout was immediately responded by twenty voices in the street. That loud, wild cry of a departed race must have pealed ominously in the ears of the ministerial party, as if the unnatural calmness of the mob were at length flung away, and savage violence were now to rush madly through the town.

By the people, such a signal appears to have been expected. No sooner was it given, than they sallied forth, and made their way towards the tea-ships with continually increasing numbers, so that the wharves were blackened with the multitude.

Already, when the crowd reached the spot, a score of Indian figures were at work aboard the vessels, heaving up the tea-chests from the holds, tearing off the lids, and scattering their precious contents on the tide. But it was the people’s deed, they had all a part in it; for they kept watch while their champions wrought, and presented an impenetrable bulwark against disturbance on the landward side. . . .

Having done their work, the Indian figures vanished, and the crowd, with a thrill, as if ghosts had walked among them, asked whither they had gone, and who those bold men were. . . .

We will not strive to wipe away the war-paint, nor remove the Indian robe and feathery crest, and show what features of the Renowned were hid beneath—what shapes were in that garb, of men who afterwards rode leaders in the battle-field—or became the people’s chosen rulers, when Britain had sullenly left our land to its freedom.
How many times did this author use the Vanishing Indian trope?
  • “the old forest-chiefs”
  • “banished from their ancient haunts”
  • “solitary survivor”
  • “wild cry of a departed race”
  • “the Indian figures vanished”
And you can’t get more Vanishing Indian than “the Indian figures vanished,” can you?

Saturday, December 16, 2023

“I went contentedly home & finishd my tea”

One of my favorite accounts of the Boston Tea Party comes from the merchant John Andrews.

He cultivated a sense of detached irony in his letters. So much so that he can come across as barely able to rouse himself and find out what was going on.

Andrews wrote this letter on 18 Dec 1773, more than a day after the event, so he had a chance to digest it and polish his observations.

This extract picks up Andrews’s account as ship-owner Francis Rotch has returned from Milton with the not-unexpected news that Gov. Thomas Hutchinson wouldn’t let the Dartmouth carry its load of tea back to London.
upon readg it, such prodigious shouts were made, that induced me, while drinkg tea at home to go out, & know the cause of it, the [Old South Meeting] house was so crowded could get no further than ye porch, where I found ye moderator [Samuel Phillips Savage], was just declaring the meetg to be dissolvd, which causd another general Shout, outdoors & in, of three cheers; what wth that, & the consequent noise of breaking up the meetng, you’d tho’t the inhabitants of the infernal regions had broke loose.

for my part, I went contentedly home & finishd my tea, but was soon informd what was going forward, but still not crediting it without ocular demonstration, I went & was satisfied–

they mustered I’m told upon Fort hill, to the number of about 200 & proceeded, 2 by 2 to Griffins wharfe, where [the ships captained by James] Hall, [James] Bruce and [Hezekiah] Coffin lay, each with 114 Chests of the ill-fated article on board, the two former with only that article, but ye lattr arriv’d at ye wfe only ye day before, was freighted with a large quantity of other goods, which they took the greatest care not to injure in the least, and before nine O Clock in ye eveng, every Chest, from on board the 3 vessells, was knocked to pieces and Flung over ye sides–

they say the actors were Indians from Naragansett, whether they were, or not, to a transient observer they appeard as Such, being cloathd in Blankets, wth their heads muffled & copper colord countenances, being each arm’d with a hatchet or axe or po [pair of] pistols, nor was their dialect different from what I conceive those geniueses to speak, as their jargon was uninteligible to all but themselves–

not the least insult was offerd to any person, save one Capt [Charles] Conner, a letter of horses in this place, not many years since immergd from dear Ireland who had ript ye lining of his coat & waistcoat under the arms, and watchg his oppoty had nearly filld ’em wth tea, but being detected, was handled pretty roughly, they not only Stript him of his cloaths, but gave him a coat of mud, wth a severe bruising into the bargain, & nothing but their utter aversion to make any disturbance prevented his being tard & featherd.
Conner was also mentioned (though not by name) in the Whig newspapers and in the Rev. Samuel Cooper’s report to Benjamin Franklin. Boston’s political leaders really wanted people to know the men who destroyed the tea (whoever they might be) were acting on principle and not for private gain.

(The depiction of the Tea Party above comes courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum, where I’m typing these words. It was engraved in 1856 by John Andrew, who I don’t think was any relation to the merchant.)

Friday, December 15, 2023

The Dangers of Guarding the Tea Ships

There’s so much Boston Tea Party content being posted that I can’t keep up, especially as I’m putting the finishing touches on my two new presentations in the next two days.

But here’s one item that caught my eye in the artist Cortney Skinner’s feed.

On 9 Dec 1773, the Boston News-Letter published the following bits of local news about the people’s response to the tea ships:
Upon Capt. [James] Bruce’s Arrival on Friday last, he was directed to carry his Ship to the same Wharf where Capt. [James] Hall lay, whereby the Watch, voted by the People, may the more easily take Care of both Vessels:

Twenty-five Men have watched each Night since the 29th ult. sometimes with Arms.—

A List of the Commanders each respective Night has been sent, but cannot be inserted unless it is at the Request of the Gentlemen themselves—which, when signified to us, we shall readily comply with.

Capt. Bruce had no Tea on board excepting the Teas shipped by the East-India Company.—Capt. Shepard who arrived on Saturday had no Tea on board.

Capt. [Hezekiah] Coffin in a Brig who has some of the East-India Company’s Tea on board, is arrived at Nantasket. . . .

Last Tuesday Evening, being very dark, and rainy,…one of the Watch of the Tea-Vessels, accidentally fell from the Wharf, into the Dock, but the Tide being down and the Place muddy, he was taken up without Hurt.
In this article, dock means, as Dr. Samuel Johnson wrote, “A place where water is let in or out at pleasure, where ships are built or laid up.”

On that same Tuesday night a shipwright named Stephen Ingels fell off Ballard’s Wharf in the North End and drowned, leaving “a poor Widow and two or three Children,” so I know I shouldn’t laugh at the man falling off Griffin’s Wharf while protecting the town from tea. But I’m getting a little punchy.

Thursday, December 14, 2023

The Committee of Correspondence and the Stringer Bell Rule

The Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum social media has been sharing an image from the Boston committee of correspondence records, showing what that group of hard-core activists was doing in December 1773.

Or rather, not showing.

These records are now held by the New York Public Library. The pages in question are in the subcollection “Minutes,” volume 6, pages 463–4. The whole collection is digitized but not transcribed, so you have to read a lot of pages or know what you’re looking for.

The committee of correspondence was an official arm of the Boston town meeting, and thus had some responsibility to keep public records. Most of those records are the letters the committee sent to committees in other towns and colonies, copied by town clerk William Cooper. It was a committee of correspondence, after all.

However, like the Continental Congress making itself a committee of the whole to debate sensitive matters like a little light treason off the record, the Boston committee had ways around openness.

As Stringer Bell reminded us on The Wire, you don’t take notes on a criminal conspiracy.

On Sunday, 12 December, a day after sending a subcommittee to meet with Francis Rotch about his ship Dartmouth and a day before meeting with colleagues from neighboring towns, the Boston committee gathered at the selectmen’s chamber in Faneuil Hall after dark on the Sabbath. But the record of that meeting is:
No Business transacted to be made matter of Record
The discussions with the other towns’ committees “continued thru. the Evening” on Monday. Not that we know what anyone said.

On Tuesday, the Boston men gathered again in the morning.
No Business transacted, matter of Record—
And in the evening.
No Business transacted, matter of Record—
There were no meetings on 15–16 December. Presumably all the committee members were busy at Old South Meeting-House and, well, elsewhere.

On 17 December, with tea leaves floating in the harbor, the committee chose five members of their group to write a “Declaration” about the destruction of the tea. Those men included several of the most radical writers in Boston: Samuel Adams, Dr. Benjamin Church, Dr. Thomas Young, and Dr. Joseph Warren. The fifth was Nathaniel Appleton (1731–1798), since these committees needed someone to represent the town’s merchants.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Hours and Hours of Boston Tea Party Content

Some critics might call this posting a “link dump,” but so many media outlets are sharing material about the Boston Tea Party in slight advance of its Sestercentennial that the anniversary will be well past if I point to each item on its own.

History Hit is a British company issuing videos, podcasts, and articles. Last fall, the founding host Dan Snow came to Boston to look into the destruction of the tea, and I was one of the heads he talked to, along with Bob Allison and folks at the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum and Revolutionary Spaces, as well as the Benjamin Franklin House in London.

History Hit makes some of its videos available ad-free to subscribers, and “American Revolution: The Boston Tea Party” is one of those. I understand I appear in the latter half of these 46 minutes. The website offers a free trial, and using the code BOSTONTEAPARTY gets a 50% discount on the first three months. (Other sorts of History Hit videos are shared free on YouTube.)

History Hit’s podcasts can be heard (with advertising) on all regular podcast services. One is American History Hit with Don Wildman, and its latest episode is “The Boston Tea Party Explained.” Wildmon gets answers from Prof. Benjamin L. Carp, author of Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America. [ADDENDUM: The next episode continues to conversation as “Tea, Tax & Revolution: Boston Tea Party Aftermath.”]

Ben Carp also spoke with Callie Crossley of WGBH’s Under the Radar program, along with Evan O’Brien of the Boston Tea Party Ships and Anjelica Oswald of American Ancestors’ Boston Tea Party Descendants Program. That story is titled “250 years later, local experts consider the complex legacy of the Boston Tea Party.”

Back across the ocean, the B.B.C.’s History Extra service talked with Ben Carp for a members-only podcast on “The Global Legacy of the Boston Tea Party.” The free website offers the article “Boston Tea Party: your guide to the protest that ignited a revolution.”

On History.com, Dave Roos interviewed Ben for his article “Why Some Founding Fathers Disapproved of the Boston Tea Party,” focusing on why George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were less enthusiastic about the destruction of the tea than the Adams cousins and others in New England.

Small State, Big History is a growing collection of articles about Rhode Island’s oversized past, organized by indefatigable author Christian McBurney. It now features my article “Narraganetts (Not Mohawks) Blamed for Boston Tea Party,” on how Bostonians evolved from saying that the tea destroyers were dressed as generic “Indians” to pretending they were “Narragansetts,” followed by the late-1800s triumph of the label “Mohawks.”

As the American Studier blogger, Fitchburg State professor Ben Railton launched a series of postings about the Boston Tea Party with even more links.

And Evan O’Brien, he of the Boston Tea Party Ships, spoke with Bob Allison for Revolution 250’s podcast about this weekend’s commemorations.

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

The Departure of Jacob Bates

On 12 Dec 1773, two and a half centuries ago today, the equestrian Jacob Bates left America.

We know this from a couple of newspaper items published the next day.

The Boston Evening-Post:
Yesterday Morning sailed for London the Brig Dolphin, Capt. Scott, in whom went Passengers, Mr. Nathan Frazier, Merchant; Capt McKenzie, of Newbury; Mr. Bates, who lately performed the Feats of Horsemanship here) and Doctor John Sprague, jun.
The Boston Post-Boy:
Yesterday Morning sailed for London, the Brig Dolphin, Capt. James Scott, with whom went Passengers, Mr. Nathan Frazier, Merchant, Doctor John Sprague, jun. and Mr. Jacob Bates, the famous Horseman.
That second report is the only time that American newspapers mentioned Bates’s first name, as far as I found. That’s how we can link this Bates to the Jacob Bates who performed in Europe, shown above.

Capt. Scott regularly sailed from Boston to London for John Hancock. Back in November he had arrived with news of four tea ships on their way, and he was leaving just before the resulting crisis was resolved.

Bates’s departure was notable enough to be reported in the Connecticut Gazette. And months later another performer invoked his name in the 16 July 1774 Providence Gazette:
By Christopher H. Gardner,
The original American Rider, who will perform, on one or two Horses, on Tuesday the 26th Instant, all the Parts which were exhibited in America by the celebrated Mr. Bates, in several of which Parts it is allowed by good Judges he fully equals, or rather exceeds, any thing of the Kind ever performed on this Continent.

N.B. Notice will be hereafter given of the particular Place and Hour of riding.

Providence, July 16, 1774.
Clearly Bates, having performed in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Newport, had left his mark on the continent.

Monday, December 11, 2023

Hyson’s Story about a Walk to Liberty Tree

Caleb Crain’s 2010 New Yorker article “Tea and Antipathy” quotes an item from the Boston press, and Andrew Roberts’s recent Spectator essay quotes Crain’s article (without credit).

Here I’m sharing the whole text of that item for analysis.

This letter appeared in Richard Draper’s Boston News-Letter on 4 Nov 1773, the day after Boston’s first public meeting about the tea (which devolved into a small riot against the Clarke family):

As I was walking Yesterday Noon towards Liberty-Tree, a Man who seemed to have just left his Work, hurried by me—I asked him why he walked so fast—

he said he was going to Liberty-Tree; for his Wife told him at Breakfast, that the Men who had raised the Price of Tea upon the Poor to a Dollar a Pound were to be carried there and obliged to sell as usual.—

I told him of his Wife’s Mistake,—That the Design was to make those who expect to have it to sell at half that Price, send it back again.—

Aye, replies the Man, if that be the Case, I will go no further,—and returned back to his Work again.

Your’s HYSON.
Did this exchange actually happen? Or did “HYSON” create this tidy story to dramatize a detail of the conflict that he (or she) thought wasn’t getting enough press? I’m inclined to think the latter.

Early on, there probably was confusion about how the Tea Act changed the business of importing tea. One American newspaper seemed to treat the East India Company as a victim of the new law rather than a beneficiary.

Furthermore, the idea of a “moral economy” was strong at the time. Most folks believed that people with goods shouldn’t price them too high, or monopolize supply, or keep them off the market in hopes of a better price. Boston regulated the price of bread. I recall a news story about a man pursued for buying up too many turkeys. During the war, a riot by women forced Thomas Boylston to sell the coffee he was hoarding, and eventually he left town entirely.

So it’s possible some Bostonians thought the problem with tea was that price was too damn high. Even more likely is that some didn’t realize the tea consignees could drop the price for their latest supply (which of course didn’t mean that they had to).

But by that point the Whig leaders had been complaining about the tea tax for years. People understood non-importation as a political tactic. And that Liberty Tree gathering on 3 November was explicitly about forcing the tea consignees to return those cargos to London, not to sell them on the spot. So this putative Bostonian must have exceptionally out of touch with the issues. (To be sure, the story puts more blame on his wife.)

In addition, I can’t help recalling that the Hutchinsons and Clarkes had already been among Boston’s biggest importers of tea. That’s one reason they were at the front of the line to handle the East India Company’s own supply. So it’s possible that “the Men who had raised the Price of Tea upon the Poor to a Dollar a Pound” and “those who expect to have it to sell” now were the same men.

More significant to how the overall tea conflict played out, however, I can’t find this letter reprinted in any American newspaper. Neither in Boston nor in other towns, neither in Whig papers nor in those leaning toward the Crown. Printers just didn’t think the point that “Hyson” made, however accurate, was that newsworthy.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

The Resources of the Royal Governor

Andrew Roberts’s Spectator essay about the Boston Tea Party, discussed yesterday, ends with the line:
One wonders what would have happened if only Governor [Thomas] Hutchinson had put an adequate armed guard on the ships.
This facile suggestion reflects popular depictions of Boston in 1773 showing redcoats pushing around civilians (e.g., Assassin’s Creed III, Deryn Lake’s Death at the Boston Tea Party, &c.). So it’s worth explaining the reality Hutchinson faced.

The only British soldiers in greater Boston in late 1773 were the 64th Regiment out on Castle Island. They were too far away to quell a disturbance and too few to patrol the whole port.

Hutchinson did order that regiment’s commander, Lt. Col. Alexander Leslie, to be ready to fire Castle William’s guns on any ship that tried to leave the harbor without unloading and being authorized to sail.

Hutchinson could also call on, though not command, the resources of the Royal Navy. Adm. John Montagu stationed warships in secondary channels of Boston harbor, also preventing the tea ships from leaving with their cargo. Thus, the governor did act rather strongly with military power.

What civilian authorities did Gov. Hutchinson have at his disposal? Not many. Inside Boston, the royal government had one arm of law enforcement: the Customs service. That department’s administrators took the same hard line Hutchinson did, refusing to bend the rule that required ships to be unloaded within three weeks.

But then top Customs officials lay low, staying at Castle William or their country homes. Lower-level officers carried out their job of watching the ships at the wharf but put up no resistance when scores of men showed up on 16 December and started destroying the tea. There were too few of them to stand up to the united populace.

Boston had no police force yet. It had about a dozen watchmen who walked around town at night, looking for trouble and fires. Those men were employed by the town, not the colonial government, and therefore answered to the selectmen rather than the governor.

Hutchinson could give orders to Stephen Greenleaf, the appointed royal sheriff of Suffolk County. However, in Massachusetts the sheriff wasn’t an active law enforcer with armed deputies, like in western movies. His job consisted mainly of delivering writs and warrants.

On 30 November the governor actually sent Sheriff Greenleaf to the Old South Meeting-House with a declaration that the gathering there was illegal and the people must disperse. Instead, the people there voted unanimously to go on with their meeting. And then they had that vote published. Clearly the populace wasn’t cowed by that expression of royal authority.

Then there were the magistrates—justices of the peace and of the quorum. Royal governors appointed these men, too, and theoretically commanded their loyalty. But many had commissions for life from past governors, and they tended to act, or not act, independent of Hutchinson.

One magistrate, Nathaniel Hatch, was in the Clarke family warehouse when a crowd attacked it on 3 November. Hatch tried to invoke the Riot Act. Hutchinson’s described what happened:
Mr. Hatch a gentleman of Dorchester & a Justice of peace commanded the peace & required them to disperse but they hooted at him & after a blow from one of them he was glad to retreat. It had no effect.
How did British law expect magistrates to enforce such orders? By calling on a larger group of people to help enforce the law against the lawbreakers, either in a “hue and cry” emergency or in the form of a mobilized militia. Obviously, this system didn’t work when most people supported the behavior in question.

In fact, there was a “guard on the ships” in the weeks leading up to the Tea Party. It was set up at the 28 November meeting of the people in Old South. Those patrols were composed of fervent volunteers; eventually Boston’s militia companies took turns supplying the men. That guard carried out the orders of the people, not the royal government. Its job was to ensure the tea wasn’t officially landed, and it succeeded.

Thus, the counterfactual that Roberts proposed is unrealistic. Under British and Massachusetts law the governor had no way to put armed guards on the tea ships strong enough to hold off an assault.

Another counterfactual that could actually have happened is:
One wonders what would have happened if only Governor Hutchinson had let the ships sail back to England with the tea.
Obviously the imperial government wouldn’t have been pleased with that outcome. Lord North might have responded with actions similar to what he and Parliament enacted in 1774: replacing Hutchinson with a stricter governor like Gen. Thomas Gage, rewriting the Massachusetts constitution, even sending in troops to patrol the port—but to protect free trade (i.e., the unloading of tea ships) rather than to stop all trade.

The next question would be how that situation would have played out differently in Boston and in the other North American colonies.

Saturday, December 09, 2023

“A well-organised assault by smuggler-barons and their henchmen”?

The Spectator just published an article about the Boston Tea Party by Andrew Roberts, a British historian and journalist who was made a life peer a year ago.

In “The Myth of the Boston Tea Party,” Roberts resurrects a hypothesis about the event that most eighteenth-century Americanists discarded decades ago: the idea that the protest was directed by “the smuggler-barons of Boston, New York and Pennsylvania who employed the ‘Patriots’ who attacked the vessels.”

This article owes a lot, including one unacknowledged direct quotation, to Caleb Crain’s 2010 New Yorker article “Tea and Antipathy,” which I discussed back here.

According to Roberts’s take, for “a quarter of a millennium,” “A central part of the American founding story” has been that the destruction of the tea was “a spontaneous uprising of ordinary Americans angry at high taxes and prices.” In fact, all serious authors have described the Tea Party as planned and disciplined, organized by Boston’s top political activists.

Those leaders wanted to keep men focused on destroying only the taxable tea and not let resentments boil over onto people or other things, harming the reputation of the movement and the town as earlier riots had done. In other words, they exercised control to keep people’s anger focused, not to rile it up.

How many of those politicians or the powers behind them were actually in the tea-smuggling business, their wealth threatened by the new Tea Act? Roberts provides no evidence any of them were. In fact, he doesn’t name any of those men, even while referring to “one radical Boston merchant-smuggler” who reportedly employed eight of the scores of people involved in the destruction.

This approach seems to rest on the assumptions that all the Boston merchants were smugglers, all the smugglers imported tea, and their economic motivations dictated their politics. Yet Roberts doesn’t mention two elements of the tea crisis in Boston that bear on this thesis:
  • The Tea Act wasn’t simply “a government attempt to halve the price of one of New England’s major commodities,” as the article has it. That law was designed to help the politically connected, too-big-to-fail East India Company and make it easier for the London government to collect the tea tax and thus to manage North America through appointees. American Whigs had objected to that tax for over five years.
  • Gov. Thomas Hutchinson, mentioned twice in the article, was the father of two tea merchants granted the contract to sell East India Company tea. The governor himself was investing about £1,000 a year in the tea trade, according to biographer Bernard Bailyn. He was receiving a salary from the royal government’s tea tax revenue. If we want to look for economic motives behind how the tea crisis played out, surely that’s not an example to overlook.
Instead, Roberts paints all the Tea Party participants with a broad brush as puppets employed by a coterie of tea smugglers.

Let’s set aside the need for evidence and assume that the tea-smuggling merchants of Boston—and Charleston, Philadelphia, and New York—directed their maritime and waterfront employees to riot against the local tea consignees and then to destroy the tea, as Roberts describes.

How did those smugglers also motivate silversmith Paul Revere, carpenter John Crane, painter Samuel Gore, blacksmith’s apprentice Joshua Wyeth, and other land-based craftsmen to risk arrest by destroying the tea? How did they prompt a tea-burning in rural Lexington? How did the movement reach Williamsburg, Virginia, inland capital of a colony without a major trading port?

In “Tea and Antipathy,” Crain came round to acknowledging that the “no taxation without representation” argument had taken hold in colonial minds, producing a political opposition to the Tea Act not driven by direct economic motives. Yes, the new law promised lower tea prices. But many people, rightly or wrongly, saw problems ahead. Especially when they perceived that law being used to benefit political insiders like the Hutchinson clan.

Roberts, on the other hand, offers only recooked iconoclasm.

TOMORROW: Government resources.