Trashing the Tea Party Movement by Trashing the American Revolution


Thomas Fleming has written over a dozen books on the American Revolution. He is a past president of the Society of American Historians.

In the December 20 issue of the New Yorker, Caleb Crain offers a new angle in the political wars ignited by the advocates who claim a heritage of protest begun by the Boston Tea Party.  To convince his readers that the current tea party folk are lowbrow rabble-rousing dimwits, Crain sets out to demonstrate that the protesters who helped launch the American Revolution were cut from the same degraded cloth—and then some.  He asserts he is daring to ask “new questions about the American Revolution that conventions of political sentimentality usually render unspeakable:  Was the Tea Party even such a good idea the first time around?”

Drawing on a half-dozen recent books, Mr. Crain’s account features names that are new to most Americans.  There is “Joyce Jr.,” a pseudonym for a rabble rouser who specialized in tarring and feathering loyalists who refused to join the growing revolt, as well as merchants who were probably neutral but insisted on getting hard money for their goods rather than the paper dollars that the Continental Congress was printing by the millions.  Also highlighted is Ebenezer McIntosh, who never paid his taxes, thanks to the blind eye cast by tax collector Samuel Adams, and apparently could summon a mob at the wave of a hand.  In 1765, McIntosh threatened all sorts of bodily harm to the man who had ventured to distribute the stamps Parliament suddenly required on newspapers and dozens of legal documents.  McIntosh climaxed his activities by demolishing the house of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson, who insisted on enforcing the Stamp Act.  Crain includes a virtual inventory of the valuable possessions Hutchinson lost, including an archive of New England’s history.  Not a word is said about Hutchinson’s later letters to an influential politician in England, in which he opined it was time to abridge “what are called British liberties” and urged the crown to send troops to silence Boston’s protestors.

Crain seems shocked by the avidity with which the Bostonians smuggled molasses from the French West Indies and wine from Madeira and the Azores.  He seems unaware that in Britain smuggling was a way of life for many people.  Nor does he set much store on Samuel Adams’s assertion that Parliament had no right to tax Americans because they were not represented in it.  He simply notes that Adams’s use of the word “unconstitutional” was new to the political discourse of his time, as if this made it easily dismissed.

The British, arrogantly refusing to learn anything from the Stamp Act upheaval, imposed new taxes in 1767.  Crain says the merchants who persuaded the masses to protest once more and called for “non-importation” agreements to retaliate against the British were motivated by a glut of goods.  Cutting off imports enabled them to sell off their surplus without reducing their profits.  They called on another agitator, William Molineux, to smash windows and smear feces and urine on the homes of customs agents and merchants who did not cooperate.

Crain casually reports that these antics prompted the British to send troops to Boston who occupied the city for a year and a half.  He has nothing to say about what happened when agitators attacked a group of British soldiers, who gunned down a half dozen of them.  Though the soldiers acted in self-defense, as their attorney, John Adams, demonstrated at their trial, the “Boston Massacre” created a justifiable grievance against the Mother Country for resorting to an armed occupation, with its almost predictable results.

In 1770, The British repealed all the taxes save the one on tea, which George III insisted on keeping, “to retain the right.”  Again, Crain ignores His Majesty’s intransigent indifference to American constitutional complaints.  When smugglers of the disputed leaf left tons of British tea unsold in warehouses, adding to the imminent bankruptcy of its importer, the East India Company, Parliament cooked up a law to rescue this totally corrupt enterprise.  The politicians empowered the company to sell the tea in America at prices consumers would find hard to resist.  Americans were well aware of the East India Company’s ugly reputation as despoilers of subcontinent for the previous half century.  It made them doubly reluctant to submit to the scheme.  Thus we get to the first Boston Tea Party, which Crain documents in detail.

Crain then makes another bypass of the most crucial result of the colonial Tea Party.  “Britain overreacted,” he offhandedly writes, “closing the port of Boston, restricting town meetings in Massachusetts and giving the king the power to appoint the upper house of the Massachusetts legislature.”  The stupidity of this decision to strip Massachusetts of basic political rights is breathtaking.  But Crain prefers to focus on acts of violence against loyalists that broke out in various places. In a quotation that reveals his purpose, he tells us how “wealthy Gouveneur Morris” of New York described the mounting anger of the average man and woman.  “These sheep, simple as they are, cannot be gulled as heretofore.  The mob begin to think and reason.”  

It is almost laughable to cite Morris, one of the great snobs of the era, as the man to pass judgment on the growing revolutionary fervor.  Not a word about how reasonable, cautious men such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin concluded around this time that Britain’s arrogance was conspiring to force them to act and speak as revolutionaries.

Instead Crain cites a historian who intones:  “No evidence survives showing the king or his ministers contemplated a complex plan to destroy American rights.”  One is forced to ask:  who needed a complex plan?  After the British troops, with no provocation, gunned down American militia on Lexington Green, and the Americans retaliated in a daylong running battle that killed over a hundred men on each side, what did the British do?  Send diplomats or veteran politicians to negotiate a compromise peace?  No, they sent three major generals, with orders to crush the Revolution in its cradle.

Crain is apparently unaware of the importance of Dr. Joseph Warren in the two months between Lexington and the battle of Bunker Hill.  He was president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress and a sincere advocate for peace rather than war.  But when spies in Boston informed him of a British plan to launch an all-out attack on the  militia army that had gathered around the city during those months, Warren approved of his military advisors’ decision to seize Bunker Hill and force the British to fight on American terms.  To prove his sincerity, this charismatic man joined the soldiers in the fort, and died there when the Americans ran out of ammunition.  It was Bunker Hill, not Lexington, that made the Revolutionary War inevitable.

By interesting coincidence, I read Mr. Crain’s article the day I returned from Boston, where I attended a reading of my play, Fall of a Hero, about Joseph Warren’s anguished struggle to find an honorable alternative to war.  Besides Warren, the principal character is Dr. Benjamin Church, who enters downstage before a scrim and addresses the audience when the curtain rises.

Church warns them not to think of him as the voice of the common man.  Sardonically, he repeats the phrase. “The voice of the common man.”  His voice grows in intensity as he continues:  “What crap.  I couldn’t care less about the common man.  He doesn’t think, he feels.  He lives by what churns in his belly and tingles in his hypothalamus.  That, for your information, is where emotions like hate, fear, lust and rage are generated.  In this stupid little gland at the base of the brain.  I’ve often wondered why God, if he really exists, didn’t leave things divided between the thinkers and the common clods.  Instead, somebody or something mucked it up by creating all sorts of gradations between us.  People like that man.”

He points to Joseph Warren, who is at work at his desk, behind the scrim.  “He has the hypothalamus of a common man and the brain of an intellectual.  It’s a very dangerous combination.  It makes him a natural leader and at the same time susceptible to what passes for thought in the head of the common man.”

By the end of the play, Dr. Warren has become America’s first national hero and Dr. Church has become our first traitor.

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Jonathan Dresner - 1/6/2011

There's nothing here but the sour grapes of someone whose preferred narrative is being supplemented by newer, more nuanced research.

That's not entirely fair. There are also bizarre assertions like "Americans were well aware of the East India Company’s ugly reputation as despoilers of subcontinent for the previous half century. It made them doubly reluctant to submit to the scheme." Really? I'm not an Americanist, but I've never heard a hint of this before.

Tim Matthewson - 1/3/2011

The irony of American resistance at this time was that the Americans hated the British but they also hated the French even more. It was doubly ironic because it was the Catholic French who pulled the Americans irons from the fire; the resistance to England would have ended in mass hanging of Americans had it not been for the French sending soldiers to help the colonies. Americans then paid the French back by signing the Jay Treaty, a true act of treachery.