Advocates for the Cause
In the gathering dusk of December 16, 1773, a mass meeting of “the Body of the People” of Boston waited restlessly for Francis Rotch to return to Old South Church. Only twenty-three years of age, Rotch was a Quaker merchant from Nantucket and a co-owner of the Dartmouth, the first-arrived of the three ships now in harbor bearing East India Company tea. Rotch was more worried about his ship than its cargo, which he did not own. If Boston's protesting citizens forced the ships to sail with the tea unloaded and its duty unpaid, the Dartmouth might be subject to seizure, either by the Royal Navy patrolling just beyond the harbor or by customs officials in England; Rotch might also be liable for the value of his ship's cargo. At the town's order, Rotch had ridden the seven miles from Boston to Governor Thomas Hutchinson's country house at Milton in a final bid to persuade the empire's loyal servant to grant the necessary clearances. On another occasion the two men might have ambled to the shore to admire the peaceful view north to Boston Bay. But Rotch had time only to make one last plea and then return to the capital. As expected, Hutchinson refused to permit the Dartmouth, Eleanor, and Beaver to sail. Once they legally entered the harbor and customs officials registered their cargo, the law required the goods to be offloaded and duties paid within three weeks, or else confiscated.
When Rotch returned to Old South, he told the waiting crowd of the governor's refusal. Within minutes, Samuel Adams, the driving force on the town's Committee of Correspondence, arose to declare that “they had now done all they could for the Salvation of their Country.” Soon shouts erupted from the gallery and door, and many of the five or six thousand attending headed outside. To the sound of mock war whoops and cries of “Boston harbor a tea-pot tonight,” the crowd, some fancifully dressed as Mohawk warriors, descended to Griffin's Wharf, where the tea ships lay docked. A merchant drawn outdoors by the clamor recalled thinking “that the inhabitants of the infernal regions had been let loose,” before returning to his house to finish his own pot of tea. But once the “Mohawks,” numbering fifteen or twenty a vessel, boarded the ships, the crowd watched silently as 340 massive chests of East India Company tea were hauled on deck and whacked open with axes; then the contents were dumped overboard. By 9 p.m. a cargo valued at a hefty nine thousand pounds sterling was weakly brewing in the low-tide waters.
Had the value of the tea not been so dear, the Boston Tea Party might be remembered, if at all, as a minor piece of political theater, with critics hailing the players' costumes as its most noteworthy feature. Americans were heirs to a rich tradition of extralegal political protest_-_effigy burnings and the like_-_which communities mounted when acts of government threatened their basic rights and interests. Some of these popular actions combined symbolic protest with dollops of violence, like the rare tarring and feathering, which left victims painfully burnt. With its gross assault on private property, however, the Tea Party crossed the line between extralegal and illegal, defying the authority of the British government in ways that smearing “Hillsborough paint” on merchants' houses and shops did not.
The ministry of Lord North answered this challenge with a punitive program of parliamentary legislation that made Boston a garrisoned city and Massachusetts a tinderbox of rebellion. But had Boston's protests taken a milder form, or had Hutchinson let the tea ships go, the crisis might have been averted and the Revolution itself delayed, or perhaps even avoided. Just as we speculate whether the guns of August 1914 might never have fired had Archduke Franz Ferdinand's driver not made the wrong turn in Sarajevo on June 28, the Boston Tea Party is one of those events that leaves us to wonder whether history_-_even History_-_might easily have turned out differently.
Sixteen months after Rotch's futile trip, another rider, far better remembered, also set out on horseback from Boston, headed not south to Milton but west toward Lexington and Concord. The purpose of Paul Revere's mission on the fateful night of April 18-19, 1775, was to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock that British troops were sortieing from Boston, intent on capturing the two men and seizing provincial munitions. Revere reached Lexington but was snatched by a British patrol before he could continue to Concord. But the alarm was already spreading by word of mouth, and warning shots fired in the night air. “You know the rest,” wrote the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow four score and five years later. First at Lexington, then at Concord, British regulars and colonial militiamen exchanged fire.
For “the fate of a nation” to have been “riding that night” required something more than the bravery and ingenuity Revere and William Dawes showed in slipping out of occupied Boston. In the sixteen months between the Rotch and Revere missions, two developments had altered the underlying structure of American politics, laying a foundation for revolutionary upheaval. First, the British program to punish Boston had produced exactly the opposite of its intended result. Instead of making Massachusetts an object lesson in the costs of defying imperial policy, the British response unified colonial opinion in support of that defiance. Just as important, that unity was no longer a matter of mere opinion or sentiment. On their own, Americans had created a new central political authority in the Continental Congress, which first met at Philadelphia in September 1774 and was set to reconvene in May 1775. Already observers were marveling that its decisions would be like the laws “of the Medes and the Persians, which must not be altered.” As yet that Congress was something less than a national government. But it was already becoming something more than the grand diplomatic assembly that the delegations to the First Continental Congress imagined they were attending.
Beleaguered Massachusetts sent four delegates to that First Continental Congress, and the two best remembered were the distant cousins Samuel and John Adams. The challenge they faced on their diplomatic mission to Philadelphia illustrated a deep uncertainty in the character of the colonial resistance movement. British strategy in Massachusetts presumed that Americans did not constitute a nation and that a decisive show of force in this single irksome province would prevent their becoming one. The Adamses and their colleagues faced a different challenge. Creating an American nation was not their avowed goal. But once the British government responded to the Boston Tea Party as it did, it became essential to ensure that the other colonies would support Massachusetts, “now suffering in the common cause,” and that they do so fully recognizing that war might indeed be the outcome. Their cause and America's, they thought, were one. But in critical respects, Massachusetts was different, and the fact that the British government had selected it for retribution only reinforced its people's notion that history and providence had singled them out for a special role. Was the purpose of the “common cause” to support Massachusetts in its time of peril, or to transcend the explosive situation in that single province in the name of forging a new, larger, and avowedly American community? Massachusetts was where the Revolution began, and to explain why that was so, we have to begin our story there.
For months before the Tea Party, colonists elsewhere had indeed watched events in Massachusetts with a mixture of admiration