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Tuesday, December 12, 2023

December 12, 2023: Boston Tea Party Studying: The Adams Boys

[This coming weekend marks the 250th anniversary of one of the most significant events in Colonial America, the Boston Tea Party. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of layers to that important moment, leading up to a special weekend tribute to some of the many BostonStudiers from whom I’ve learned a great deal!]

On how the two famous cousins contrasted yet complemented each other, and one more layer to those comparisons.

More than 5000 Bostonians—roughly a third of the city’s entire population—didn’t just randomly gather outside the Old South Meeting House on the evening of December 16th, 1773. A couple weeks earlier, on November 29th, local political leader and radical activist Samuel Adams had held a mass meeting at Faneuil Hall to protest the new taxes England was imposing on the tea trade. That meeting grew so large it had to move to the Old South Meeting House, and it led to both a resolution demanding that the Dartmouth (about which I wrote yesterday) depart without paying the tax and a posse of men who stood guard at the ship to ensure the tea would not be unloaded. The Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson refused to let the ship leave without paying the tax, and when the December 16th deadline for its departure arrived, an even larger group of angry Bostonians gathered at another meeting led by Samuel Adams. While the ensuing Tea Party itself may have developed organically, rather than as a plan of Adams’ (although as that article notes this remains a point of historical contention), there’s no doubt that he was instrumental in creating the circumstances for this radical act of collective protest.

Not present at the meeting or the Tea Party was Samuel’s second cousin, the young lawyer and activist John Adams. But his absence doesn’t mean that he was in any way opposed to the event (which some might assume given his earlier role defending the British soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre, for example). John was simply not in town on December 16th, and when he learned of the Tea Party the next day, he wrote about it very enthusiastically in his diary: “This is the most magnificent Movement of all. There is a Dignity, a Majesty, a Sublimity, in this last Effort of the Patriots, that I greatly admire. The People should never rise, without doing something to be remembered—something notable and striking. This Destruction of the Tea is so bold, so daring, so firm, intrepid and inflexible, and it must have so important Consequences, and so lasting, that I can’t but consider it as an Epocha in History.” John was always more about words than actions, and these are bold words indeed.

The complementary roles of words and actions is a somewhat reductive but, it seems to me, fundamentally accurate way to think about what John and Samuel Adams contributed respectively to the Revolutionary cause. But I would say that there’s another way to frame this complementary contrast, and perhaps an even more meaningful one when it comes to thinking about pre-Revolutionary events like the Tea Party. Samuel was largely focused on immediate and practical concerns—an onerous new tax, ships full of tea, the question of whether and how a city’s residents could respond to and help alter these realities. John, as we see in that diary entry, was thinking much more philosophically, considering questions of patriotic duty and history-changing epochs. Events like the Boston Tea Party can’t transpire at all without the focus and direction that Samuel provided—but they can’t necessarily become part of an incipient world-changing event like the American Revolution without the frame that John did.

Next Tea Party post tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Tea Party takes you’d share?

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