Last Sunday I attended the annual reenactment of the Boston Tea Party at Old South Meeting House celebrating the 236th Anniversary of the event. I decided to cover it using some of the latest technology available to any 21st century correspondent these days – with mobile device in hand (in my case an iPhone) I would be sending tweets on Twitter using TweetDeck as the events unfolded. My Twitter handle @bostonhistory seemed appropriate for the assignment. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to step back in time and discuss these modern communication tools with patriot printers like Benjamin Edes and Isaiah Thomas. I’m sure they would both think I had taken leave of my senses and ask me to follow them back to their respective print shops – the Boston Gazette and the Massachusetts Spy – so I might help set type by hand so everyone could learn the news “as quickly as possible” about the events that took place in Boston on December 16, 1773. Well, I digress…back to the present day. It was a rainy night in Boston on Sunday but that didn’t prevent a large crowd from gathering at Old South. This “meeting of the people of Boston and the neighboring towns” was completely Sold Out with over 600 in attendance including some 70 reenactors. (At the original meeting over 5,000 people, 1/3 of Boston’s population, gathered both inside Old South and in the area surrounding the building.) The performance by Old South’s Tea Party Players was outstanding. The reenactors, dressed in correct period attire, were mixed in with audience members throughout the meeting house and each and every one had a particular role to play.
The reenactment of the meeting was called to order by Mr. Samuel Savage, a gentleman of the Town of Weston, who was chosen as moderator. The first of the three tea ships, the Dartmouth, had been in Boston since late November and its cargo still remained on board. A tax had to be paid the moment the tea was landed and if the duty was not paid within 20 days of the ship’s arrival, it would be seized by British customs officials. For weeks, the colonists held mass meetings and tried to prevent the tea from being unloaded, even stationing guards around the ships. They sought a peaceful resolution – have the tea ships return to England with their cargo. Up to this point, all their requests had been denied. The meeting’s moderator asked Mr. Francis Rotch, owner of the Dartmouth, to seek a pass from Governor Hutchinson so his ship might return to England with its cargo. Mr. Rotch left for Governor Hutchinson’s country home in Milton and as the crowd awaited his return and the governor’s reply, a debate ensued and I began my work as a Twitter correspondent.
Audience members were given the opportunity to participate in the debate. In the program for the evening, everyone received a slip of paper, color-coded for either a patriot or a loyalist, and containing words that people attending the original meeting and supporting that particular side of the debate might have spoken. People of all ages stepped up to microphones placed throughout the hall as Mr. Samuel Savage moderated the debate. Here are a few of the 24 tweets I sent during the event: “Doctor Joseph Warren speaks out against the tea tax.”; “Loyalists speak out – 3 pence a pound is a paltry sum to pay.”; “William Health says patriots are traitors to the crown.”; “Patriot – the tea tax is an insult to the citizens of Boston.”; “Loyalist – we must pay for the French and Indian War debt.”; “Patriot – I will continue to wear only homespun clothes and drink Liberty tea, huzzah!”; “Loyalist – we might be speaking French if not for the King. Fi!”; “Patriot – we should have the right to tax ourselves and keep it in the colonies.” A motion was made from the chair that the tea not be landed and a short time later, Mr. Francis Rotch returned with Governor Hutchinson’s answer. The Governor would not grant a pass for the Dartmouth, the tea must be landed and the tax paid. At that very moment, patriot leader Samuel Adams stood up and said “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country.” It was a secret signal for the Sons of Liberty to act.
The lights dimmed in Old South Meeting House and the “destruction of the tea” was played out in fine theatrical fashion. Men thinly disguised as “Mohawks” or “Indians” resembled their period counterparts who at the actual event were covered with blankets or ragged clothing with their faces smeared with lampblack or soot. The reenactors depicted how the tea was dumped into the sea, while a narrator filled the audience in on all the details including an interesting tale of an individual who tried to pocket some of the loose tea and how he was dealt with by the patriots. On the evening of December 16, 1773, in less than four hours, a party of patriots dumped 342 chest of East India Company tea into Boston Harbor in a protest against British taxation that John Adams called “so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important Consequences, and so lasting, that I can’t but consider it an Epocha in History.” As the lights came back up in the Old South Meeting House and the audience expressed its appreciation for a wonderful production, I thought of one individual likely in attendance at the original meeting 236 years ago – my ancestor Alexander Edwards a member of the Sons of Liberty. Old South’s Tea Party Players truly helped me picture what his experience might have been like.
The 236th Anniversary Boston Tea Party Annual Reenactment was sponsored by Salada Tea – offering some exciting new flavors of green tea – and The Liberty Hotel located in the Beacon Hill section of Boston. Teachers: Visit the Old South Meeting House website to learn more about the Boston Tea Party and their great school programs including the very popular Tea is Brewing.
With the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party coming up on December 16 and the annual reenactment at Old South Meeting House scheduled for this Sunday, today I’ll be reviewing the events leading up to “the destruction of the tea” (as it was called back then), with a special focus on the first town meeting that Bostonians held to protest the tea tax. This initial meeting took place at Faneuil Hall on Friday, November 5, 1773. The image of Faneuil Hall in this post shows the building as it appeared at that time – half the size it is today. Some background: On March 5, 1770 Parliament repealed all elements of the hated Townshend Acts, except for the three pence per pound tax on tea imported into the colonies. When Parliament passed the Tea Act on May 10, 1773, it gave the East India Company the right to bypass any middlemen and sell their tea directly to the colonies. The company was in financial trouble and had a large inventory of tea, so this strategy enabled them to sell it at a reduced price (which they felt would be very agreeable to the colonists) and still make a profit. However, the lower priced tea included the three pence per pound tax and the colonists felt that purchasing the tea would signify their willingness to be taxed without their consent. As a result, everyone was up in arms when shipments of East India Company tea made their way to Boston; New York; Philadelphia; and Charlestown, South Carolina in the fall of 1773. Tea agents were given authority to sell the tea but colonists knew they must make every effort to get these men to resign their commissions and also take steps to ensure that the tea not be landed. Under pressure, agents in New York and Philadelphia gave up their commissions quickly but Boston was a different story as some of the agents there were relatives of Governor Hutchinson and more difficult to sway.
Press coverage of the first tea meeting at Faneuil Hall appeared in the November 11, 1773 issue of the Massachusetts Spy. Links to that coverage appear at the end of this post. In addition to the coverage of the meeting, the paper contained an interesting extract of a letter from a gentleman in Philadelphia to his friend in Boston. Here is a portion of that letter:
The adventure of the East India Company is the most obnoxious measure that could have been proposed. I have not met one individual who does not resent the very idea. You may expect that the next account will give you abundant evidence of a universally determined resolution to oppose the scheme. We hope the commissioners appointed for the sales will gratify the public by giving up the commission. But should they not do so, it will only be the means of a little trouble, for the present temper is to compel them not to receive the tea, and to prevent its being landed. We hear this is the spirit of Maryland and New York. There are many fears respecting Boston. Some give out, and assert that you have imported tea without any reserve and paid the duties: You may depend not an ounce has paid duties in this port. – But whatever may have been done, it is to be hoped the town of Boston will appear on the present occasion with their usual spirit.
John Hancock moderated the meeting on November 5 and the town developed several resolutions including: “that the duty imposed by Parliament upon tea landed in America, is a tax on the Americans, or levying contributions on them without their consent”; “that the resolution lately come into by the East India Company to send out their tea to America, subject to the payment of duties on its being landed here, is an open attempt to enforce the ministerial plan, and a violent attack upon the liberties of America”; “that it is the duty of every American to oppose this attempt”; and “that whoever shall, directly or indirectly, countenance this attempt, or in any wise aid or abet in unloading, receiving or vending the tea sent, or to be sent out by the East India Company, while it remain subject to the payment of a duty here, is an enemy to America.” Finally, they agreed that a committee be chosen to wait on those gentlemen appointed by the East India Company to receive and sell the tea and request that they immediately resign their appointment. The remainder of the meeting, as well as the one on the following day, was focused on the actions of this committee and a second and the responses from the tea agents – which in short order was unanimously voted to be “not satisfactory” to the town.
Original press coverage of the Faneuil Hall tea meetings on November 5 and 6 from the November 11, 1773 issue of the Massachusetts Spy appears below.