As a historian, I am interested in how people understand and interact with the past. I find the question of how present-day Americans relate to the American Revolution and War for Independence particularly fascinating. This curiosity led me to explore the 32nd Annual Boston Harborfest, the largest Fourth of July celebration in the United States.
While thumbing through the festival brochure, I discovered that out of more than 200 activities, only four advertised a discussion of the Revolution with a Loyalist, or Tory, perspective. I found this surprising as the broad scholarly view posits that during the Revolution and War for Independence one third of Americans supported the Patriot cause, one third remained loyal to the Crown, and one third sought to survive as neutrals or disaffected.
Therefore, I decided to visit these scarce Loyalist-related events to better understand their paucity. Did historic organizations in Boston find it difficult to interpret Loyalist viewpoints? Did Loyalist stories prove unpopular among Harborfest attendees? Both? I attended three of these four events in search of answers.
“Whispers of Revolution: Plotting the Boston Tea Party”
On Tuesday July 2, I attended “Whispers of Revolution: Plotting the Boston Tea Party” at the Old South Meeting House. Faneuil Hall hosted most public meetings in colonial Boston, but when the crowd outgrew its hall they repaired to the Meeting House.
On December 16, 1773, over 5,000 people gathered in and around the Meeting House to discuss whether or not to send the three “tea ships” back to England with their cargoes. The education staff at Old South Meeting House sought to express the sentiments that led to that meeting in their “Whispers of Revolution” program.
The event began with a brief introduction of the Tea Act. Parliament passed the act on May 10, 1773. The law provided the English East India Company with a monopoly on tea imports to the colonies. To prevent merchants from undercutting the price of East India Company tea with cheaper, smuggled tea, the act restricted the retail of tea to government-appointed merchants known as “tea consignees.” Furthermore, the Tea Act stipulated that ship captains must unload their cargos within twenty days of arrival in a colonial port and that merchants must pay the tax upon receipt of the tea.
Two re-enactors, one a Patriot shopkeeper and the other a Loyalist soldier in the British Army, took turns expressing why the tea tax should either be protested and the ships sent back to England or paid and the cargoes unloaded. The re-enactors did not engage in a heated debate. Instead, they offered their points on an alternating basis and spoke only after their colleague had finished.
The shopkeeper began with a description of how the Tea Act hurt his business. Between 1767 and 1770, British-American colonists had protested the Townsend Duties with a non-importation agreement. By late 1773, the shopkeeper’s business had not fully recovered from that boycott. The parliamentary restriction on who could retail tea injured merchants who did not receive a position as a tea consignee. The shopkeeper mentioned that colonists “ha[d] a taste for tea and fine items,” but goods had become scarce and hard to acquire due to the lingering effects of non-importation. Tea had been one of the items that brought people into the shopkeeper’s store, but the Tea Act promised to take this business away.
The shopkeeper turned to the Sons of Liberty for help. In secret gatherings Patriot merchants, artisans, and sympathizers discussed the tax and how to protest it. The organization initially sought peaceful resolutions. They asked the tea consignees not to unload or sell the tea. When these merchants proved either unwilling or unable to help, the Patriots requested that Governor Thomas Hutchinson send the tea ships back with their cargoes. Hutchinson’s insistence that the consignees unload the tea and pay the tax drove the Sons of Liberty to destroy the tea on the night of December 16, 1773. According to the shopkeeper, the Sons of Liberty destroyed the tea after they had exhausted all other options.
The soldier’s viewpoint contrasted with the one held by the shopkeeper. The soldier did not live in Boston; he resided in the garrison at Castle William located on Castle Island in Boston Harbor. A garrison lifestyle and gossip from the mainland informed his views on what to do about the tea. According to mainland scuttlebutt, Francis Roach, owner of the tea ship Dartmouth, worried that he would be ruined. The Patriots demanded that he depart Boston with his full cargo, but the customs officials refused to grant him the proper paperwork. Roach did not want to anger the Patriot mob, but if he disobeyed the law he could lose his shipping license forever.
The soldier decried how the Patriots treated law-abiding merchants like criminals and hero-worshipped law-breaking smugglers like John Hancock. Throughout the tea crisis, “many” Loyalists had sought protection from the “American Torture” (tar and feathering) by fleeing to Castle Island. The Patriots’ unlawful and despotic behavior reaffirmed the soldiers’ desire to fight for “King and Country” whenever the order came. However, the soldier did not get his chance. Although the Royal Navy had a strong presence in Boston Harbor they did not stop the Tea Party. Law required a “civil authority,” or government official, to ask the military to intervene. No one requested Admiral John Montagu’s assistance. As a result, the Sons of Liberty destroyed the tea cargoes by throwing them into the harbor.
What struck me about this twenty-minute program was how the re-enactors tried to convey the violence of the Revolution. Both re-enactors described an escalation of radical viewpoints (on both sides) and violence as the tea crisis wore on. Their depictions portrayed the destruction of tea as a dangerous and unlawful event instead of the romanticized “party” of popular myth.
The chance to contradict popular myth attracted historical re-enactor Michael Lepage to the role of the ordinary soldier. Under the supposition that Harborfest lacked Loyalist-related programs because few re-enactors wanted to play Loyalists, I asked Lepage why he opted to portray a British soldier. He responded, “History books haven’t been kind to the Tories. [They were] no less patriotic in their beliefs” than the Patriots. Lepage’s fascination with Loyalists led him to play a redcoat when he began re-enacting.
Lepage likes to assume Patriot roles too. Later that evening, Lepage planned to portray Robert Treat Paine at the Old State House in “The Trial of the Century,” a program about John Adams’ defense of the British soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre. On July 4, the Adams National Historical Park had scheduled Lepage to play John Hancock. Throughout the year, Lepage finds time to portray Dr. Joseph Warren, Peter Oliver, Paul Revere, and General Thomas Gage.
Lepage indicated that other re-enactors also like to play both Patriots and Loyalists. In addition to playing the Patriot shopkeeper in “Whispers of Revolution,” Lepage’s colleague Paul O’Shaughnessy portrays both Lt. Col. Francis Smith and Major John Pitcairn of his Majesty’s 10th Regiment. O’Shaughnessy also occasionally dons the role of Tea Party participant George Robert Twelves Hewes.
Lepage, O’Shaughnessy, and the Old South Meeting House proved my supposition incorrect. Organizations can incorporate Loyalist viewpoints in their interpretations of the American Revolution with relative ease. Re-enactors like to perform as Loyalists. Doing so helps them improve their portrayal of Patriot characters and provides them with a more meaningful connection with the history of the period. So perhaps the reason why Harborfest offers so few programs with Loyalist viewpoints lay in present-day hostility to Loyalists. I attended two more programs to find out.
 The merchant ships Elenore (Captain Coffin), Beaver (Captain Bruce), and Dartmouth (Captain Hall) sat in Boston Harbor with a combined 340 chests of tea on board. Boston Tea Party Historical Society, http://www.boston-tea-party.org/darthmouth.html