Welcome to a new feature on WeaponsMan.com. We’re replacing, at least temporarily, the Tuesday 1400 hr. When Guns are Outlawed with a book review, because WGAO is our most unpopular feature (although easy to write, and much less work than a review), and because people did ask for book reviews. We might also do this with the Thursday WGAO. We’ll continue to tinker as 2016 rolls on. -Ed.
Some Tea Parties (here, Annapolis, the burning of the Peggy Stewart) were fiery.
The men gathered, disguised as Indians, and looked at the growing pile of tea. Some were willing participants in what later centuries would call the Tea Party; the fomenters of the act of rebellion were among the leaders of the community. But many of the men carrying it out came from what Colonial establishment figures, be they rebellious against or loyal unto King George, considered the coarse, lower orders. As a result some of the participation might have been less than voluntary; merchants destroying their own tea, because the alternative was to be tarred and feathered.
When the tea was gathered, the men knew what to do: they set the casks, bales, boxes and personal supplies of the beloved leaf afire, and danced around the resulting bonfire. They may have performed an American suttee on King George, or his Royal Governor, or at least his notorious local tax collector — in effigy, of course. Over a decade of unrest going back to 1760s attempts to levy duties on sugar and require a tax stamp upon documents, had just taken a turn for the destructive. Not the violent, not quite yet, but the violence was in the air just as much as the aroma of overdone Bohea.
Wait! They’re not supposed to burn the tea. They’re supposed to throw it in the harbor, right?
That’s a common misunderstanding, and one that Joseph Cummins’s entertaining Ten Tea Parties: Patriotic Protests that History Forgot aims to correct, by placing the Tea Party we all know, or think we know, into its place at the head of a squadron of similar protests. As the Colonies were quite disparate at the time, so were the protests.
Of course, the famous Tea Party — which was not called by that name until some 60 years later, according to Cummins — was the “action against the tea” on 16 December 1773, in which some 92,000 pounds of tea, in bundles and in chests, was thrown into Boston Harbor by the ancestors of future Patriots fans, thinly disguised as Mohawk indians. The indignant East India Company complained the “tea destroyers” cost them almost £10,000, a staggering sum in 1773; and the company felt particularly ill-used because the protesters were angry not so much at the EIC’s trade monopoly, but at George III’s government application of taxes thereto.
But there were many other tea protests, most of them after the famous Boston event (as its news spread across the several Colonies), but at least one, a tea-burning in Lexington, Massachusetts (the very place the British Army on one of the Powder Raids would meet the colonial militia in open rebellion in less than a year and a half), took place a couple of days prior, while the Boston event was still planning.
Significant tea destruction took place from Maine (then still a fief of Massachusetts) to South Carolina.
The tax had been, appropriately enough for a trigger of tea parties, something of a bailout for the East India Company. Probably the weakest part of the book is Cummins’s explanation of the economic roots of the conflict; an economist, he is not.
[T]he East India Company had shareholders who expected hefty returns on their dividends.1
Er… dividends are returns.
A few errors of this type are quite forgiveable, though, because Cummins brings the fervor of the era, and some of the people who personified it, to life. And he takes the trouble to explain this period, once taught in every school, and now buried under a strange history that views all events from the standpoint of marquee minority members, without ever providing much in the way of a framework of understanding or an explanation of what actually happened.
The tea was destroyed as a protest against, first, a 3d. per pound tax on the tea from 1770 on; and then, after April, 1774, as a highly visible form of protest against a variety of laws cracking down on the colonies, laws called the Coercive Acts by Parliament, but the Intolerable Acts by the colonists. The tea tax replaced the more broad tax powers of the Townshend Acts, which had in turn replaced the Stamp Act and the Sugar Act. Parliament had initially intended for these various revenue-raising Acts to help the mother country recover the indebtedness caused by the Seven Years’ War (fought largely in the New World as the French and Indian War) and to defray the cost of maintaining a standing army in the New World. Far from appreciating the benevolence of King and Parliament, the Americans, preferring to be governed by their own assemblies, began a colonial boycott of English goods. Not all colonists may have been willing to participate, but social pressure kept them in line. The boycott was ruinous, or perceived that way, by the merchants and shipowners of London and Liverpool, which is why Parliament kept changing and moderating the tax vehicle.
The Tea Parties never seemed to include violence against persons, beyond the painful and humiliating (and potentially scarring) ritual known as tarring and feathering.
Tarring and Feathering was painful, not just humiliating.
Often, the mere suggestion of tar and feathers was enough to get the thing done. In Falmouth, Maine, merchants were “encouraged” to keep a boycott by a threat deployed behind the merest tea leaf of humor:
A handbill soon appeared, produced by the local Committee for Tarring and Feathering, declaring that no one in town should doubt what would happen to those who bought or consumed tea. The notice was signed: “Thomas Tarbucket, Peter Pitch, Abraham Wildfowl, David Plaister, Benjamin Brush, Oliver Scarecrow, and Henry Hand-Cart.” Falmouth merchants got the idea and stopped selling tea.2
Sometimes the humor was not evident at all. In Annapolis, merchant Anthony Stewart was forced by a mob to put his own ship, named after his wife, to the torch. She was expecting; her bedroom window looked out upon the scene of her husband’s humiliation. (He would later join the Loyalist exodus to Nova Scotia, although he doesn’t seem to have been a Loyalist before these events). In Charles Town (later Charleston), South Carolina, leading merchant Christopher Gadsden was so committed to the patriot cause that he all but ruined his own import-export business.
There’s a bit of digression on Gadsden, the guy who produced the Gadsden flag and for whom Gadsden, Alabama is named. It’s a worthwhile digression; Cummins seems a bit bemused that such a noble and influential figure has such a small footprint in today’s understanding of the Revolution. And you will meet a Tory of equal nobility and courage in Jonathan Sayward of York, Maine. To meet these two gentlemen is, alone, worth the price of the book.
In discussing the historiography of the Tea Party in an epilogue, a field where Cummins seems much more at home than in trade or corporation economics, he even finds a story of a Tea Party phony, a wannabe who surfaced in Chicago in the 19th Century, the…
…obligatory tea party imposter—David Kinnison (or Kennison), who died in Chicago in 1852, at the supposed age of 115, after convincing the people of that good city that he had actively participated in the Boston Tea Party, despite being only eight years old in 1773.3
There’s even a Tea Party that itself may be phony: the Chestertown, Maryland event of May 13, 1774, is unique among the ones he cites in that there are no contemporary references to it at all; it first surfaces in writing in 1899 (but it still occasions a festival every spring, so there is that). Cummins concludes, like the editors of the New York Sun did once when a young girl wrote to them, that it does no harm to believe, for the spirit is in all of us.
Nowadays, the Chestertown Tea Party is all in good fun. And period costume!
Cummins writes well and tells an entertaining story; as long as he sticks to history and keeps a good distance from anything business or economic related, he does fine. It’s just his bad luck to be trying to explain mercantile economics from a standpoint that’s apparently unaware of such basics as what a dividend is, how shareholders get paid (today or in Georgian days), and how India-Indian poverty came about. Apart from that single, solitary quibble, and quibble it is, we greatly enjoyed Ten Tea Parties. There is much there for the student of the American Revoution, and some interesting materials for anyone who would promote another.
- Cummins, p. 18.
- Cummins, p. 165.
- Cummins, p. 231
Page citations from the iBooks epub edition.
Cummins, Joseph: Ten Tea Parties: Patriotic Protests that History Forgot. Philadelphia: Quick Books, 2012.
Amazon hardover: http://www.amazon.com/Ten-Tea-Parties-Patriotic-Protests/dp/1594745609/
Amazon Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/Ten-Tea-Parties-Patriotic-Protests-ebook/dp/B004ZZP5WY/
(Sadly, Quirk is a Random House imprint, and so the ebooks are extremely overpriced. Best bet is look for a used hardcover on Amazon).