Friday, November 5, 2010

Benjamin L. Carp's "Defiance of the Patriots"

Benjamin L. Carp is Associate Professor of History at Tufts University, where he teaches the history of early America. His first book is Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America, and reported the following:
The BCC [Boston Committee of Correspondence] invited the committees from the neighboring towns to meet with them at Faneuil Hall at 9 a.m. on Monday, the 29th [of November 1773], and “send as many Friends to our assistance at this important crisis as you can possibly spare.” Only with widespread supportfrom the people in Boston and its surrounding towns could the Boston Committee be certain that no one would land the tea.
Bostonians awoke that Monday to find notices pasted up throughout the town. “Friends! Brethren! Countrymen!” they began. “The Hour of Destruction or manly Opposition to the Machinations of Tyranny stares you in the Face.” The notice called upon “every Friend to his Country, to himself and Posterity” to meet at Faneuil Hall at 9 a.m.
These lines come from page 99 of Defiance of the Patriots, and I think this passage very much distills the excitement of the tea crisis of 1773. The merchant ship Dartmouth had just arrived in Boston the day before. It was carrying the first shipment of the East India Company's tea under the Tea Act of 1773. Now Bostonians faced a choice--would they let the tea land, and accept the sovereignty of the British Parliament? Or would they gather together, and resist?

Page 99 comes from chapter 5, "The Detestable Tea Arrives," and by this point in the book, the narrative is moving ahead at full sail. This page contributes to the suspense as we anticipate the famous destruction of the tea on December 16. I spend some time describing the meetings of various groups who were reacting to the ship's arrival. I write about the consignees--these were a group of Boston merchants that the East India Company had hand-picked to receive the tea when it arrived. The Bostonians were trying to persuade these consignees to give up on their lucrative contracts and refuse to receive the tea. So far, despite threats and violence, the consignees weren't playing along.
The selectmen, as formal leaders of the Town of Boston, had failed to persuade the consignees to act. Instead, Bostonians convened in a larger mass meeting as “the Body,” which accomplished several goals. First, a “Body”meeting broadened the base of interested, mobilized participants to include poorer Bostonians and residents of the outlying towns (only qualified property-owners were eligible to vote at a regular town meeting). Second, a “Body”meeting granted a broad, popular legitimacy to the political movement against the Company’s tea—and perhaps this would further intimidate the consignees. Finally, as the selectmen learned from a “Lawyer and high son of Liberty”—possibly Josiah Quincy or John Adams—the Town of Boston could not be held liable for the tea if anything untoward happened to it. In theory, the authorities could not hold a spontaneous gathering of a “Body” of people accountable for anything.
The meeting of November 29 was important, but the nature of the meeting was even more important: it was big, inclusive, intimidating, and unsanctioned--just the ingredients you'd need if you were preparing for the possibility of taking a bold stance. In New York City, Philadelphia, and Charleston, the townspeople were able to persuade their local consignees to resign their commissions and decline the tea shipment. In Boston, the townspeople failed, which is why bold action became the only option.
Learn more about Defiance of the Patriots at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue