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.