On this day in 1774, men led by members of the colonial rebel group the Sons of Liberty boarded a ship at anchor, tore apart chests of tea and dumped them overboard. This was not the Boston Tea Party – it was The New York Tea party—one of several that most people have never heard of.
The modern political “tea party” movement has inspired a resurgence of interest in the original tea party protests leading up to the American Revolution—at least in author Joseph Cummins and the publisher he convinced to release Ten Tea Parties: Patriotic Protests that History Forgot. Despite the fact the somewhat ridiculous title, (we wouldn’t have a tea party movement if people didn’t remember at least the Boston Tea Party, which is the first described in the book) it’s a pretty good read, as far as popular histories go.
The tea parties were part of a protest movement against British “taxation without representation” that dated back to the imposition of the Stamp Act of 1765. In hindsight, the British probably should have simply given the colonies a representative in Parliament who would have been out-voted on everything. Then the Americans would not have been able to back their protests with such moral fervor. But the British government took a stubborn stance against their obnoxious teenage colonies, and like teenagers, the Americans reacted with a rebellious display of drama.
Many people do not realize that there was more than one tea party (the violent dump-the- tea kind, not the drinking-tea-with-pinky-upraised kind). The only one with which I was closely familiar, besides the iconic Boston event, was the “Peggy Stewart Affair” in which a crowd forced Annapolis ship owner Anthony Stewart to set fire to his own ship, the Peggy Stewart, in 1774. I researched the affair in great detail several years ago so that I could recreate parts of it in my historical novel, Restitution.
The Ten Tea Parties version of events matches pretty closely with what I found in contemporary or other accounts except with regard to the name of the vessel. Cummins reports that the ship Peggy Stewart was named for Stewart’s wife and that she was awaiting the birth of her first child. But all other accounts state that the ship was named for Stewart’s daughter. So I decided to check online to see if I could find out who Peggy really was. My search immediately revealed a portrait of Stewart’s children John and Isabella by famous painter Charles Wilson Peale dated between 1773-4, before the tea burning, so Cummins was clearly wrong about Stewart’s parental state at the time of the event. And then an archives source shows that Stewart’s wife was named Jean and he had a daughter, Margaret born in 1767, so she must be the one for whom the ship is named.
In The Ten Tea Parties, Cummins seems to enjoy debunking myths, which I one reason I really wish the book included footnotes to the sources. Since he was a little sloppy about the Peggy Stewart, he might have gotten a few other things wrong, too. Right or wrong, it’s essential to be able to trace the source of new information. However, if the book is treated as an introduction to the tea party protests and not the final definitive version of events, it’s very entertaining.
Some of the most interesting tea parties in the book, in my opinion, were the ones involving women. In his chapter on the Edenton and Wilmington Tea Parties, Cummins tells the story of Penelope Barker, the richest woman in North Carolina, who invited all the women of Edenton to join her in signing a public pledge to refrain from taking tea or wearing English cloth until the repeal of the “Acts which tend to enslave our Native Country.” She sent her statements to the London newspapers—a pretty bold (read “treasonous”) act for a woman whose husband was a government agent who spent most of his time in England. She was lampooned by cartoonists (in the cartoon at the top, Cummins describes her depiction as essentially King George in drag).
By contrast, the Wilmington Tea Party was much less known and rather than engaging the highest echelons of society, it involved the common women of a town described by one visitor as a “poor, Hungry, unprovided place.” In fact, if Scottish traveler Janet Schaw had not viewed the incident and written about it in her Journal of a Lady of Quality, the tea party might truly have been one “that history forgot.” Schaw describes seeing a procession of women in the winter of 1775 walking into the Wilmington town square, each carrying a little box. They dumped the contents—tea— into a pile and then set fire to it.
Schaw was not impressed. The streets were muddy, the ladies were not genteel and the amount of tea sacrificed was “not very considerable.” But the point, as Cummins notes, is that even in this secluded, unfashionable corner of the colonies, the protest movement appealed to the common people.
It is this notion that the modern Tea Party movement shares with its colonial forbearers, I think. People feel that the government has overstepped its bounds and they want to protest in a symbolic yet tangible way.
Of course, most of the modern protestors are leaving out key elements – the notions of sacrifice and risk. The original tea party protestors sacrificed one of their most beloved comforts as well as other imported goods with their boycott. And they risked censure and economic ruin, if not more serious harm.
Today’s tea party protestors, guaranteed the right to free speech, risk only ridicule from a liberal press that generally objects to government usurpation of rights only when the government is controlled by the Republican Party.
That’s a sign that the first tea parties succeeded in winning liberties we now take for granted.