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The Boston Tea Party, Top to Bottom

It’s December 16, 2023, the 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. Sunny and clear, the streets are filled with costumed colonial-era interpreters jostling with Victorian carolers (’tis the season!), tourists, and locals. It feels like half of Boston has turned into an immersive experience for the day. In the late evening, fifers and drummers will lead a massive crowd of thousands to watch the commemoration’s climax: a grand reenactment at Fort Point Channel.

I’d been invited to give two talks in honor of the anniversary. Audiences ask about the Sons of Liberty, secrecy, boy soldiers, Indian disguises, and the Coercive Acts. I tag along on a Freedom Trail tour, pop into an exhibit called “Impassioned Destruction” at the Old State House, and meet much of the staff at that site’s parent organization, Revolutionary Spaces. I grab pizza and cannoli in the North End while chatting with a sharp group of visiting Carleton College students (with their professor, Serena Zabin). They also ask great questions: what are the myths I wish I could kill? What’s the best way to tell stories with a plurality of perspectives? At the reenactment of the meeting at the Old South Meeting House that preceded the famous act of destruction, the “Huzzah” cheers for the Whigs and boos for the friends of government sound like a professional wrestling match. The day concludes at the waterfront with a big show put on by the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, reenacting the destruction of the tea in front of a cheering crowd. There are fireworks at the end. 

The day offers a range of historical interpretation: most of it informed by good scholarship and thoughtful interpretation, other bits saddled with hammy jokes, compressed time scales, exaggerated trivia, artificial confrontations, and factual errors. Does that make it bad? Not necessarily, says museum planner Sara Patton Zarrelli, who attended the event and emailed with me in the days after. “Are we really doing public history,” she wrote to me, “if it is not engaging a broad spectrum of the public? I believe public history isn't just for people who majored in history, have professional degrees, and are comfortable paddling in more academic waters.” In other words, is the best public history top-down or bottom-up? Academic or popular? Can it be both?

Then again, the Boston Tea Party itself may have been both top-down and bottom-up. In a book I wrote a little over a decade ago, Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution, I explored the question of whether wealthy and influential merchants and politicians planned the original Boston Tea Party, or a humbler group of artisans, apprentices, and laborers acted largely of their own accord. On the one hand, leading Sons of Liberty appear to have pulled some strings: the merchant and deacon Caleb Davis employed seven or eight of the artisans who later joined the Tea Party. These were “trust worthy persons,” who “prepared in conformity to the secret resolves of the political leaders, to act as circumstances should require.” On the other hand, the men may have acted on their own. A veteran of the Tea Party remembered a band of young men at a cabinet maker’s shop who “hesitated to proceed” after putting on their disguises, “and finally resolved to consult two or three influential men of the city.” Yet none of these influential men were willing to take responsibility for encouraging their scheme, reportedly telling the men that “if you go you will find friends.”  So the young men appointed a leader of their own, voted themselves to proceed, and headed down to Griffin’s Wharf.

The participants in the Tea Party have interested me since I was first inspired as an undergraduate by Alfred F. Young’s work on George Robert Twelves Hewes. The National Archives in Washington, D.C. is commemorating the anniversary by featuring pension applications from three tea destroyers: Samuel Nowell, George Pillsbury, and Joshua Wyeth. In my public talks I always say we owe it to those men to get the history right.

Although we want the Tea Party to be a comforting story of American origins, it followed weeks of menace and violence. Bostonians harassed the merchants who were to receive the tea at their homes and places of business until they were forced to leave town. John Adams reported that many Bostonians were willing to throw their enemies’ corpses in the harbor alongside the tea. 

As a result, many of the tea destroyers were troubled by what they had done. Their deeds went unsung during their lifetimes, or were only recognized at the very end, when the secrets of the Tea Party finally began to spill. In a biography of Samuel Adams’s mentor, James Otis, published 50 years after the Tea Party, author William Tudor hints at why most of the Tea Party participants stayed mum. “[T]heir irregular action was salutary and indispensable at the time, but the habit of interfering in this manner with public affairs was a dangerous one, and it proves the virtue of the people that it did not produce permanent evils.” A member of the Massachusetts Historical Society and founder of the Boston Athenaeum, Tudor preferred to think of his hometown as the “Athens of America”; he didn’t want Boston to become a touchstone for “permanent evils” in like mob rule and destructive violence.

Yet America did not quite work out in the virtuous way that Tudor had hoped. History offers a diverse array of examples of Americans invoking the legacy of the Boston Tea Party, and most of them are more confrontational than cozy. When Charleston secessionists heard about Abraham Lincoln’s election, they wrote that “[t]he tea has been thrown overboard, the revolution of 1860 has been initiated.” Many others who wouldn’t have thought twice about “interfering” with public affairs cited the Tea Party as precedent, including Mashpee tree defenders, women’s suffrage advocates, and anti-monopoly advocates. So did anti-abolitionists in the 1830s, abolitionists in the 1850s, drys in 1850s, and wets in 1920s. Leaders of the Ku Klux Klan claimed the disguised tea destroyers as their spiritual ancestors, while Martin Luther King, Jr., in his letter from a Birmingham jail, called it a “massive act of civil disobedience.” Three libertarians strapped a tea bag to a bomb that injured a Michigan postal worker in 1990, while David Barbarash compared economic sabotage by the Animal Liberation Front to the Tea Party in 2002. A woman who attended one of my talks proudly informed me that she had organized her local “Tea Party” chapter in Kentucky during the anti-Obama protests of 2009.

In 2021, state legislatures throughout the country responded to nationwide Black Lives Matter protests by passing harsh anti-protest bills. Media coverage had repeatedly emphasized property damage at these protests. Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, then the House Majority Whip, spoke out against these bills by pointing to America’s legacy as “a democracy that started off as a protest that was called the Boston Tea Party.”

About a year later, Reed Christensen ran for governor of Oregon while facing federal charges for his participation in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. (He was later convicted of eight counts of assault and unauthorized entry for crashing through a barrier and punching a police officer.) The Willamette Weekly asked Christensen about his views on the event. “I did a protest,” he told the paper.“ When I came back from the Jan. 6 rally, I felt like I had participated in the Boston Tea Party 2.0.”

More recently, a conservative activist threw slices of pizza at New York City Hall to protest proposed regulations for curbing emissions from coal and wood fired ovens. “You heard of the Boston tea party? Well, this is the New York pizza party. Give us pizza, or give us death!" A few weeks later, a medical marijuana company protested a section of the federal tax code by staging the “Boston 280E THC Party” and throwing chests labeled “WEED” off a replica ship.

Among a range of Americans, the right to protest is sacralized by our collective memory of the Boston Tea Party. But that right always thrums in tension with the forces of law and order that want to keep protests from becoming too disruptive or destructive.

It didn’t seem as if anyone was thinking too hard about all of that at the anniversary reenactment. People formed an orderly crowd to watch the men aboard the Beaver and Eleanor ship replicas, cheered the mischievous bravery and righteousness of the tea destroyers, and then went somewhere to get warm. Peeking out from the crowd, I couldn’t stop grinning as John Crane sustained his injury and the tea destroyers beat up Charles Conner for stuffing tea in his pockets. I decided to embrace the 250th anniversary for what it was: a birthday party for a crabby, sometimes retrograde older relative, no longer quite so full of hope but still loved by most of us. As younger relatives, we can roll our eyes and shake our fists, but perhaps also respect the best parts of the family legacy, welcome new in-laws, and resolve to build something new.

For one evening, Bostonians and their visitors could feel good about the Tea Party and the nation it helped to usher in. History felt popular, even as it remains under attack nationwide. With luck, we’ll have many more happy birthday celebrations in the coming years, inspiring a new generation to grapple with the nation’s confrontational past. With luck, we’ll be thoughtful about American democracy and the growing pains it always entails.