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  • Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party & the Making of America
  • Serena R. Zabin
Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party & the Making of America. By Benjamin L. Carp (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2010) 328 pp. $30.00

In this timely and elegant new book, Carp views the Boston Tea Party as a rich opportunity to explore Boston's political culture and as "an expression of political ideology about taxes, rights, and authority," both past and present (3). The narrative focus of Defiance of the Patriots is both its strength and its weakness. It is a great read, full of telling detail and informed speculation, but it also shares the limitations of its genre. Like other crossover scholars of the American Revolution, Carp struggles to include people who were not white men in his story, sprinkling tea-drinking women into occasional chapters and offering a melancholy last chapter about sugar and slavery.

The book is strongest when Carp looks up from the streets of Boston and convincingly explains the wider contexts that pushed Boston radicals to toss tea into Boston Harbor. Carp begins with a fascinating discussion of the East India Company (EIC) as Britain's imperial agent, carefully delineating the sovereign power of the eic in India.

Rather than treating the company's politics as mere background to a local colonial protest, Carp weaves this story into a larger account of British imperial power as both eic agents and Bostonians experienced it.

This global perspective, far more than previous work on luxury and consumption, helps to explain why Bostonians clogged up Boston Harbor with tea rather than bales of dry goods.

Other glimpses of a wider perspective are equally effective. Because Bostonians had consistently violated non-importation agreements, radicals in other cities had begun to distrust Boston. Thus, far from being the "ringleader of all violence" that Lord Frederick North branded it (191), [End Page 306] Carp convincingly demonstrates that Boston protested in order to prove their mettle to New York and Philadelphia.

The research is excellent. Carp has meticulously and intelligently combed through official papers, memoirs, and newspaper accounts to create, by far, the most comprehensive list of the men who tossed the tea. Given the secrecy that surrounded their names for generations, this detection is no small feat. Carp defines the radicalism of the Tea Party as "the ability of ordinary men to engage in defiant, democratic protests" (233). Yet Carp's drive to figure out the participants in the action results in a misleadingly tidy definition of their rebellion. Attacks on private property cannot be understood without consideration of slavery and family relationships, including coverture. Carp's narrow prosopographical emphasis, though useful, misses the connections between property and power.

The epilogue beautifully sets out the ambiguities of the original Tea Party and its later namesakes. Yet those ambiguities are less apparent in the body of the book. Weaving sugar and slavery along with tea and imperialism throughout the book would have made Carp's history more truly global. These shortcomings notwithstanding, this fine achievement is without doubt the definitive book about the Boston Tea Party.

Serena R. Zabin
Carleton College


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pp. 306-307
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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