Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, by Benjamin L. Carp, is hot off the presses and available for sale today at your local book store or from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Powell’s and Yale University Press. Some online book stores still show a publish date as October 25, but the publisher shipped early so the book should be ready any moment.
I’ve only read the first four chapters (of 10) so far, but I already place Defiance of the Patriots safely among my favorite history books. In fact, it may be top 10 material. J.L. Bell of Boston 1775 puts it best: “For folks interested in the real story of the Tea Party, Defiance of the Patriots is the most thorough and wide-ranging account out there.”
I first heard about Defiance of the Patriots back in April. I had just shared, via Rag Linen, a 1774 newspaper report on the unexpected consequences of the Boston Tea Party. Not long after sharing the historic report, I learned, via Twitter, from J.L. Bell, that the 1774 news item confirms the thesis of Benjamin Carp’s upcoming book. Specifically, that pressure to look good to other ports made Bostonians act radical.
Excited for the new book and its in-depth analysis of the Boston Tea Party, especially after reading this Tufts Journal piece, I contacted Benjamin and invited him to contribute a short piece for the readers of Rag Linen. Benjamin was very kind to accept my offer and has even shared some excerpts from his book, which are appropriately themed. Without further ado…
In 1773, newspapers were the colonists’ primary means of communicating and influencing public opinion. Parliament had passed the Tea Act, and Bostonians were mobilizing against what they regarded as an unjust law. This political movement had two crucial ingredients: communication between Boston and its neighboring towns (who helped comprise the “Body of the People” meetings at the Old South Meeting House), and communication between Boston and the other cities that were receiving tea shipments from the East India Company: New York City, Philadelphia, and Charleston. Neighboring towns and sister cities helped to spread the reasons for resistance and build an atmosphere of mutual reassurance. Newspapers also helped to draw boundaries within the community by publishing threats to the consignees—the merchants who were designated to receive the tea shipments from the East India Company. The consignees and their supporters tried to give as good as they got in the newspapers, but they failed to sway public opinion.
Here are two excerpts from the book that help to illustrate the significance of newspapers. The first, from page 84, describes Bostonians’ reaction to news of the Tea Act, and the newspaper squabbles that followed.
The consignees . . . had no desire to turn down the lucrative Company contract. Richard Clarke took to the newspapers, as “Z.,” to argue that the Tea Act wasn’t such a bad thing. By eliminating the middleman, the new law would make tea cheaper. He was confused about why the Tea Act suddenly caused Bostonians to yelp about the Townshend duty, since the people of Massachusetts had been importing plenty of dutied tea over the last few years. For that matter, Americans silently paid much more to Parliament in duties on wine, sugar, and molasses—why complain about tea? . . . Finally, Clarke argued, the East India Company could prove to be an ally in the fight for charter rights, and might help Americans get the tea duty removed—so long as the colonists didn’t try to ruin the Company’s sales with “unsuitable Behaviour.”
But these arguments failed to sway public opinion in Boston, where the public was forming ranks alongside the Sons of Liberty.
Instead, the consignees began to hear warnings about what would happen to them if they defied their neighbors. On November 1, the Boston Gazette reprinted a letter from “PHILELEUTHEROS” (Greek for “freedom lover”). “Secure yourselves,” this New York writer warned, “from the gathering storm, before it . . . overwhelms you with a sudden, dreadful, and sure destruction.” If the consignees persisted in injuring their country by importing tea, they would not be safe no matter how many troops and fortified walls might surround them. “You cannot readily become your own cooks, butchers, butlers, nor bakers: You will therefore be liable, to be suddenly, and unexpectedly taken off, in the midst of your confidence and supposed security, by those whom you may chance to confide in, and employ. ”The author called upon a local Brutus or Cassius “to sheath their daggers in the hearts of such base, such abandoned and infamous Parricides.” If the consignees hoped to profit from their treason, the author warned, the triumph would be short-lived. Guilt, hatred, and infamy would be their lot for generations to come. The choice was now the consignees’ to make. Threats to their safety lurked around every corner. The consignees would have to watch their backs.
This second passage, from page 139, describes the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party.
The tide swelled into Boston harbor overnight. There was no moonlight to mark the tea’s passage as it slipped away on the churning waves. Eventually the broken chests and clumps of tea formed a floating line, like a winrow of hay, along the surface of the water. The line ran from the South End of Boston along the Dorchester shore to Castle Island, almost as a taunt to the consignees and commissioners. “Those persons who were from the country returned with a merry heart; and the next day joy appeared in almost every countenance, some on occasion of the destruction of the tea, others on account of the quietness with which it was effected.”
Of course, not every countenance was joyful. Admiral John Montagu had been forced to watch the destruction of the tea without being able to lift a finger in response. On the morning after the Tea Party, he took a stroll on the wharf and looked with astonishment at the scene of devastation. He asked some of the Bostonians, “who was to pay the fidler” now? Perhaps they answered with a sudden fear and foreboding, perhaps with a jeering smugness. “The Devil is in this people,” Montagu concluded, “for they pay no more respect to an act of the British Parliament, which can make England tremble, than to an old newspaper.” He then stalked off the wharf.