- Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America
The events at the heart of Benjamin L. Carp's engaging new history of the Boston Tea Party are nothing if not familiar. On December 16, 1773, a crowd of Boston townsfolk disguised themselves as Indians and set off toward the docks. They were incensed by Parliament's passage of the Tea Act, an anti-smuggling statute that lowered the duty on tea legally imported to the colonies on vessels designated by the East India Company. As night fell, these soot-faced 'Mohawks' boarded three ships tied up at Griffin's Wharf and tossed 92,600 pounds of tea leaves into the low-tide mud of Boston harbor. By destroying such precious cargo this strikingly disciplined crowd of trespassers not only prevented Boston's beleaguered customs officials from collecting some of the first duties mandated by the new act. They also staged a symbolic protest against Parliament's authority to impose commercial monopolies upon them without consultation.
Defiance of the Patriots stops short of making any boldly revisionist claims as to the causes, course or consequences of events that night; rather, its achievement lies in its compelling story-telling and sure-handed triangulation of the existing historiography. Most significant among the titles on that short shelf are Benjamin Woods Labaree's The Boston Tea Party (1964), Alfred F. Young's The Shoemaker and the Tea Party (1999) and T.H. Breen's The Marketplace of Revolution (2004). Each represents a markedly different perspective. Labaree's mid-century account—a masterpiece of careful archival work in British ministerial and mercantile records—favored the grand imperial narrative, the view from London. Young, a career-long proponent of the tools of social and labor history, preferred the perspective of the man on the spot, a down-on-his-luck shoemaker named George Robert Twelves Hewes. Most recently, T.H. Breen recast these same events in the context of spreading consumerist ideology, revealing the extent to which ordinary consumers were beginning to use their growing market power to express political choices, identities, and aspirations.
Defiance of the Patriots offers a graceful reconciliation of these three perspectives. Indeed, the monograph is remarkable for both its breadth and depth. In early chapters, we travel the globe, examining the struggles of the East India [End Page 1158] Company (EIC) in Bengal and China, the rise of tea as an international consumer good, the democratization of consumption across Europe and its Atlantic colonies, and the labors of a succession of administrations in both Whitehall and Leadenhall street to maintain British supremacy in the face of political, military and commercial encroachments by France, Holland and Spain.
Interwoven chapters in the first third of the book also examine the development of Boston's political culture in the decades prior to the break with Britain. The urban hub Carp describes was a city in ruins. In the aftermath of the French and Indian War, Boston's economy was stagnant. While its ever-ambitious merchants were fighting tooth and nail to rebuff the EIC's attempts to squeeze them out of the legal tea trade, its crooked streets teamed with bankrupts and indigents, widows and orphans, aching reminders of the sacrifices Massachusetts families had made on behalf of the British Empire during the long and bitter years of war with France.
In the central chapters, events in this battered, second tier outpost city assume center stage. Yet here too Carp's account is distinguished by its attempts to tell a broad story deserving of the book's ambitious subtitle. Drawing on his prior work on mobilization efforts in five port cities on the eve of Revolution, Carp argues that members of Boston's Corresponding Committee and North End Caucus were keenly aware of the ways in which their counterparts in urban hotspots in other colonies had set about confronting the Tea Act. After all, it was a Philadelphia paper that had first boasted that colonists would protest the...