During the later portion of high school and my early college years, I was fortunate enough to be a history buff cognizant of the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the Civil War. While my busy school schedule did not allow me to attend many events, I had great fun following a Facebook page where a fictional reporter posted regular updates regarding the conflict.
Believe it or not, we have now come to another anniversary: the semiquincentennial (say that ten times fast - 250th anniversary) of the American Revolution! Today 250 years ago - December 16, 1773 - the Boston Tea Party transpired. Over the next several years, more and more commemorative events are being planned. Living in Georgia is a benefit for visiting Civil War sites, but not so much for visiting Revolutionary War sites. So while it did not work out for me to attend the big re-enactment in Boston today, I've been able to do the next best thing: learn about the Boston Tea Party and the lead-up to this seminal event in American history!
Fortunately, there are many resources to enjoy. The Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum have posted a wealth of articles surrounding the Tea Party as well as regular "On This Day" posts on their social media channels. I love reading books and had full intention of reading a book this fall on the Boston Tea Party...but alas, life. Writing a dissertation takes time ;) What I have thoroughly enjoyed, however, is the second season of Bryan Austin's Let's Be Frank podcast.
As you may recall from my article earlier this summer reviewing season one, Let's Be Frank is a podcast hosted by a truly gifted storyteller and narrated from the first-person perspective of Dr. Ben Franklin. It's equal parts wit, education, and inspiration. The episode topics this season have ranged from Rules for Making Oneself a Disagreeable Companion to the importance of fables to bodies buried in Franklin's basement. After Dr. Franklin tells a story either from his life or times, he always finishes with a lesson that we listeners can take away from the story shared. I think this is my favorite part of the podcast. I love it when history is taught through stories rather than merely dates and names; it's even better when applied to our twenty-first-century lives. Even though I don't celebrate Halloween, hands down my favorite episode would have to be the Halloween witches episode, particularly because of the lesson that Dr. Franklin shared. Give it a listen and see what you think! I think it is remarkable how pertinent the past can be to our present and future, both personally and as a society.
You may recall my sharing that the overarching theme of Let's Be Frank season one was a four-part series entitled Chasing Independence, on the buildup to the Declaration of Independence. This season, Austin wisely chose the Boston Tea Party as his theme and entitled the series Spilling Tea.
In part one of Spilling Tea, Dr. Franklin shared about the Stamp Act of 1765 and why the American colonies of Great Britain were so outraged. It wasn't so much that they were being taxed as much as it was that they were being taxed directly by Parliament - not the provincial governments of the colonies. If left without protest, the precedent set was that Parliament could act unconstitutionally - not necessarily wrong actions (though inclusive of wrong actions) - but actions that have never been taken before. Unsurprisingly, the Stamp Act was not popular in the colonies for these reasons, and harassment of tax collectors was common. Austin then shared several primary sources of contemporary voices on the topic - John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, Richard Bland of Virginia, and one Dr. Benjamin Franklin who at the time was residing in London. Franklin, when queried in 1766 by Parliament on Americans' opposition to the Stamp Act, replied:
"Suppose a military force sent into America; they will find nobody in arms; what are they then to do? They cannot force a man to take stamps who chooses to do without them. They will not find a rebellion; they may indeed make one." (1)
In part two of Spilling Tea, Dr. Franklin discusses the Boston Massacre. While the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766, restrictions were quickly replaced by the Townshend Acts of 1767. Among other things, these acts brought British soldiers to occupy Boston, and Franklin's predictions came true. The townspeople were at best suspicious and at worst openly hostile to the soldiers.
"In February of 1770, Christopher Seider, an 11-year-old boy, was killed while protesting with a group in front of the home of a loyalist. Thousands of Bostonians turned out for the boy’s funeral and the tension and distrust between the civilians and the British grew larger." (2)
Less than two weeks later, a sentry was guarding the entrance to the Customs House. A colonist began to rile the sentry. Soon both sides swelled in numbers and tension. Hurling insults turned into hurling rocks. A soldier was hit and fell to the ground, returning fire for rock. Colonist Crispus Attucks was dead. Other soldiers fired. By the end, five colonists were dead. Paul Revere created an inflammatory sketch which was more a piece of propaganda than an accurate portrayal of events.
Part three of Spilling Tea covers the aftermath of the Boston Massacre, and especially John Adams' defense of the British soldiers. Adams believed the soldiers were innocent of wrongdoing and represented them in court in a representation of English liberties. In a town that hated the British soldiers, Adams was proud that a fair trial was held.
But the views of Adams were not the views of all. On the one-year anniversary of the Massacre, bells tolled during the noon hour. In the evening, silversmith Paul Revere created a vivid exhibition at his home with three illuminations: the first window showing the ghost of Christopher Seider, the second showed British troops firing into the crowd, and the third a portrayal of a woman - representing America - sitting on a stump with her foot on a prostrate British soldier. The Virginia Gazette reported, "The whole was so well executed that the spectators which amounted to some thousands were struck with solemn silence and their countenance covered with a melancholy gloom." (3)
In part four of Spilling Tea, Dr. Franklin covers the circumstances that immediately preceded the Boston Tea Party. The Tea Act had been passed by Parliament in May of 1773 in part to prop up the almost-in-bankruptcy East India Company (which counted many members of Parliament as shareholders) and in part to assert British authority to tax the colonies. Bostonians got the message but didn't like it one bit. You see, the colonists engaged in the regular practice of smuggling tea into the colonies from French or Dutch sources, at rates far below what was charged for British tea. However, the price of tea from the East India Company plus the tax following the Tea Act was less costly to purchase than the smuggled tea! In some ways, the American Revolution began out of concern for pocketbooks rather than patriotism.
Parliament had recruited British tea consignees to work in the colonies and coordinate the arrival and sale of East India Company tea. Unsurprisingly, due to threats of violence and demonstrations of intimidation, many of the consignees chose to resign their positions. Captains of tea ships bound for the harbors of Philadelphia and New York, hearing of the public outcry, decided the safer option would be to take their cargo right back to London!
The season two finale of Let's Be Frank covers the actual event of the Boston Tea Party as recorded in two newspaper articles of the time. What stood out to me was how orderly and thoughtful the process was. Sure, 342 chests of tea were dumped in the harbor, but no one was injured and no other cargo was destroyed (though the flavor of fish caught in the Boston harbor was supposedly altered for a few weeks...). Dr. Franklin concluded the episode with an encouragement to reflect not just on the past, but also on the history we are making in our own lives everyday and the role we play. To remember how when we are good to others, we are best to ourseveles.
Over Thanksgiving break this year, I had the opportunity to hear a presentation at Colonial Williamsburg from Daniel Cross, who portrays a younger George Washington. Previous presentations I've heard from Cross center on Washington's experiences during the French and Indian War in the 1750's. However, this time I was treated to a presentation set in the year 1774, just following the Boston Tea Party. Cross - as Washington - began by asking everyone where they were from: New York, Pennsylvania, Georgia. The North Carolinians were sitting separate from the South Carolinians. With humor, Washington pointed out the differences in the audience and underscored the importance of the colonies staying united. He shared how Parliament had responded to the Boston Tea Party by closing the city's port due to the actions of just one hundred or so people - nowhere near the city's total population. If Parliament could do that to Boston, they could do the same to the Chesapeake.
Sometimes I get a bit confused trying to keep straight what led to what and why who was outraged about whatever with regards to the American Revolution. I thought Cross did a commendable job explaining why the colonists were so upset regarding the Stamp Act. There were three fundamental English rights that Parliament violated: 1) that citizens vote in or out their representatives, 2) that citizens have access to their representatives, and 3) that representatives are subject to laws that they pass. The American colonies had no representatives in Parliament - strike the first right. Even if they did, those in Parliament were not inclined to listen to and act on behalf of the colonists - strike the second right. Parliament's Stamp Act was region-specific - inclusive of the American colonies but not the lawmakers - so strike the third right. Washington shared that at the time the thirteen colonies treated each other as foreign nations, and typically Virginia would not care what happened in Boston. However, common British liberties were at stake. This risk, this common enemy, was one of the rare threats that could unite both Virginia and Massachusetts. The Boston Tea Party, Washington stressed, was the spark that unified the colonies. Washington concluded his narrative with an appeal to stay united and protect each others' civil rights - because if we don't, we're next. A relevant message for his day - and ours.
One of the aspects that I really appreciate about both the programming at Colonial Williamsburg and Bryan Austin's Let's Be Frank podcast is how both provide entry points into learning American history for a variety of audiences. At Colonial Williamsburg, people who have maybe only heard of George Washington before visiting can actually meet and talk with the man himself, maybe even hear his farewell address. People like my wife who are history nerds and love sewing can also visit Colonial Williamsburg and connect through extended discussions with the milliners or tailors about the those professions in both the 18th and 21st centuries. I can read book upon book and still not stump the interpreters; I am always learning something new from them! In other words, people from a broad range of demographics can enjoy visiting the museum, connect, and learn. Of course, the catch is that Colonial Williamsburg is located in one physical location. Let's Be Frank has the advantage of being enjoyed anywhere there is an Internet connection. To be honest, I had not known hardly anything about either Franklin or the Boston Tea Party before listening to this podcast. But I would expect that someone who is much more knowlegeable about this time period in American history would also enjoy the podcast; it's not just the stories but how they are told. I really like how much Bryan Austin relies on primary sources of the day. He portrays a Franklin who shares wisdom and wit as if he were a weary traveler stopping over at your home for the night sharing gossip - er, spilling tea - about the latest from the newspapers . An delightful companion for the evening and one when the episode is over always leaves you yearning for more.
Tonight there is a reenactment of the Boston Tea Party going on, and it's being livestreamed at 7pm through the link below. Feel free to watch! There is so much I still want to learn about the Boston Tea Party, but I hope you have enjoyed this article and maybe I have convinced you to check out Let's Be Frank :)
"Tell your family, tell your friends, tell your horse...let's make our intellectual Junto grow!"
Colonial Williamsburg has a fascinating article about why Tea Party participants dressed as Mohawk Indians - colonialwilliamsburg.org
The American Battlefield Trust has a great virtual field trip of Boston, including the Tea Party Ships.
So too does JD Huitt of the History Undergound YouTube channel - Taxes, Tea, and Tyranny in Boston