One of the most interesting jobs of the historian is figuring out when and why an occurrence becomes an EVENT. Lots of things that happen never rise to the level of “history”, but those things that do often get embellished over time. A great example is the Boston Tea Party. As the anniversary of this big event occurs this week (December 16), I thought I’d take a break from the holidays and get back to history.
As I’m not an American historian I asked my question when did the Boston Tea Party become the Boston Tea Party to a number of experts, both in person and on the web. There seems to be a general consensus that the event was almost immediately recognized as extraordinarily significant but that the actual term doesn’t appear until decades after the Revolution, when its last participants (particularly George Hewes ) began recording their memoirs. Apparently the first historians of the American Revolution did not want to herald an event involving the destruction of property, but in 1826 newspaper reminiscences started to use the term “Tea Party” or “Tea-Party”, and it was consequently adopted by historians. (Apparently the first use of the term referred to the participants rather than the event). There are comprehensive discussions and comments about every aspect of the Tea Party, and all the other pre-Revolutionary agitation in Boston, at the great blog Boston 1775.
Across the Atlantic, the historical significance of the Tea Party was realized relatively early. Just several years into the Revolution, the German engraver Carl Gottlieb Guttenberg published The Tea-Tax Tempest, or the Anglo-American Revolution (1778), an adaptation of an earlier political print by John Dixon which was itself adapted by the British caricaturist William Humphreys as The Tea-Tax-Tempest, or Old Time with his Magick-Lantern (1783). In both we have allegorical figures representing the world and Europe looking on at an exploding teapot and agitated Americans.
Tea Tax Tempest caricatures at the online exhibition “America in Caricature, 1765-1865”, Lilly Library at Indiana University.
With the close connections between France and America during the American Revolution, it was only natural that Europeans emphasized the American rebellion of the 1770s when the French Revolution broke out in 1789. The Tea Party becomes a precedent, or a first act, in what may be a universal revolution.
The History of North America, E. Newberry, London, 1789. Library of Congress.
So the occurrence of 1773 is clearly recognized as an important event well before the turn of the nineteenth century, a realization that is reinforced by the success of the American Revolution and the beginning (and drama) of the French. But the tempest doesn’t become the “party” until James Hawkes’ Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party with a Memoir by George R.T. Hewes (1834), and it takes off from there, in both print and image. The rest is history.
Covers of James Hawkes’ Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party (1834) and H.W. McVickar’s children’s book The Boston Tea Party (1884), both Library of Congress.