Today’s story is not about 342 chests of tea dumped into a harbor.
It is not about Sons of Liberty, Samuel Adams or John Hancock.
It is not about Committees of Correspondence, Mohawks or tarring and feathering.
And it sure as hell isn’t about any American Revolution.
Instead, this is about how a seemingly insignificant everyday citizen helped resurrect a central moment in American history.
On December 16, 1773, after a pre-approved signal from a protest meeting in Faneuil Hall in Boston, a group of colonists dressed as “Mohawks” (or what they thought were Mohawks) dumped 342 chests of tea from three ships anchored in Boston harbor.
The act was triggered by the Tea Act of 1773, a new British law giving the British East India Company a monopoly on the tea trade in the colonies, providing cheaper tea and undercutting local smugglers. The colonial governor, Thomas Hutchinson, ordered that tea from incoming ships be unloaded, against the wishes of Boston citizens who wanted none of it.
Unlike other governors who negotiated with colonists and ship owners to reach a compromise on the tea, Hutchinson was playing hardball with the colonists, many of whom had various motives. Some were genuinely concerned about taxation without representation. Others were pissed that their smuggling operations were being sabotaged by legitimate enterprise.
Whatever their reasons, the dumping of the tea galvanized and hardened both sides. Britain closed the port of Boston, suspended the colonial charter and placed Massachusetts under martial law. The colonists stockpiled weapons. British soldiers attempt to seize colonial munitions at Concord…
…you know the rest of the story.
This is all common knowledge today. Yet a half-century afterwards, the events of Boston were dying along with the remaining descendants of the Revolution. The Boston Tea Party, the act of vandalism that helped trigger the American Revolution, would have been lost—if not for a poor centenarian shoemaker and widower from upstate New York.
George Robert Twelves Hewes was the son of a poor tanner in Boston’s South End. As a poor shoemaker and active Son of Liberty, Hewes was present at the Boston Massacre (where he was injured by the butt of a British rifle), at a tarring and feathering (where he was bashed by a cane on his head) and the “Tea Party” itself (he was a boatswain on one of the boarding crews, due to his “whistling” ability.).
During the war, he served on privateer ships and did two stints in the Massachusetts militia. Then, during the next 50 years, Hewes lived the unremarkable life of a poor shoemaker, first in Wrentham, Massachusetts and finally in Otsego County, New York.
Yet a chance encounter in 1833 would change Hewe’s life—and the memory of the Boston Tea Party.
James Hawkes was an author who encountered the now widowed Hewes in Richfield Springs, New York. The moment was all too important: Hewes was among the last survivors of the Revolution. Hawkes would publish a biography, A Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party. It was soon followed by Benjamin Bussey Thatcher’s Traits of the Tea Party.
Both books revived the age-old events in Boston, and made the humble shoemaker a celebrity in his nineties.
Hewes took a publicity tour of New England, and was guest of honor at speeches and banquets throughout the region. He charmed throngs with his polite demeanor, plainspokenness and an uncanny memory that never failed him.
Even though he wasn’t a big player, Hewes was celebrated as being a witness—and an accurate one—of the pivotal events in the Revolution. It was the culmination of a renewed interest in the period in the 1820s and 1830s, as Americans saw the last of the Revolutionary generation pass away—as Hewes would in 1840.
Yet most importantly, Hewes himself set out the details of that night in Boston when the tea was dumped.
It was a night that neither Hewes nor anyone else at the time called a “tea party,” but rather the “destruction of the tea.”
It took later authors to make the vandalism a bit more…festive.
Movies for the Classroom: A Christmas Carol (1971)
The holidays are never complete without Charles Dickens‘ immortal Victorian morality tale–and now you can show among the best versions of the story.
In 1843, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was not only a wildly popular bestseller. In so many words, Dickens defined the modern definition of Christmas in Britain and especially in America. Practically overnight, A Christmas Carol re-introduced the English-speaking world to a holiday that had been largely forgotten for almost two centuries.
Ever since the ban on Christmas during the Cromwellian era, the holiday was looked down upon as an idolatrous Catholic vice. Even in America, only Anglican Virginia and outlying German Lutheran and Catholic settlements on the frontier really celebrated it.
Dickens’ work practically re-oriented the holiday from its more religious underpinnings to a secular, family-based celebration of comraderie and goodwill. Even the most dour Calvinist couldn’t argue with those sentiments. As the novel became popular, the markings of the celebration as noted on the pages–gift-giving, trees, pine wreaths, holly, carols, food, etc.–started to sprout in Britain and the United States (Puritan New England was slower in adopting it: many parts of the region wouldn’t allow Christmas celebrations until the 1870s.)
Thus, the holiday we see today comes almost directly from this 1843 novel.
Like any popular story, A Christmas Carol has been adapted for stage and screen numerous times. The version attached today is among the best. This 1971 animated film won the Academy Award for best animated short film: the only version of the story to be honored with an Oscar. Directed by Richard Williams and produced by legendary animator Chuck Jones, the film’s style is lifted almost directly from 19th century illustrations, as well as 1930s illustrations of a popular reprint. The tone is sufficiently dark to suit the somber Dickensian world of mid-19th century London: you can smell the smog and misery.
I think its among the best adaptations of the story around. The mood of the story is sufficiently dark and upbeat to satisfy all audiences–but particularly older students. This definitely lends itself to discussions of Victorian society, values, social welfare and government policies to the less fortunate.
Or it just could be a great Christmas yarn (which it is). You can decide. Enjoy.
Leave a comment
Filed under Uncategorized
Tagged as American History, Charles Dickens, Children's books, Christmas, Christmas Carol, Chuck Jones, Commentary, Communications, Cultural Literacy, Curriculum, Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge, Education, Educational leadership, European history, Great Britain, History, Holidays, Media, motion pictures, movies, Opinion, Publishing, religion, Richard Williams, Social studies, Teachers, Teaching, television, U.S. History, United States, World History