Have you ever tried to imagine what it would have been like to witness an important historical event? If so, the Boston Tea Party Annual Reenactment is a must-attend event.
On Monday December 16, 2013, I attended the 240th Anniversary Boston Tea Party Annual Reenactment presented by the Old South Meeting House and the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum. This immersive interpretive experience put me in the thick of the Tea Act debate. It also allowed me to watch a reenactment of the destruction of the tea, which gave me a newfound appreciation for the deliberateness of the act.
The Annual Tea Party Reenactment consists of a prologue and three acts: “Act I: “A Meeting of the Body of the People,” “Act II: Huzzah to Griffin’s Wharf!,” and “Act III: “Boston Harbor, a Teapot Tonight!.”
Prologue: George Robert Twelves Hewes
As the sold-out crowd stamped their feet on the wooden floorboards, a re-enactor playing George Robert Twelves Hewes (the last survivor of the Boston Tea Party) stepped to the podium. Hewes asked the audience to travel back in time with him where “You and I will take part in one of the most important events in American History…We will debate the issues of the tea tax and the ships of tea floating in Boston Harbor and then, perhaps my friends, we will take a stroll down to the Harbor.”
Hewes provided the context the audience needed to immerse themselves in the Tea Party debate. The Old South Meeting House stood as one of the largest buildings in Boston. Its size allowed over 5,000 men to meet over a two-week period to decide what course they should take with regards to the Tea Act and the three tea-laden ships floating in Boston Harbor. Prior to the December 16th meeting, the Body of the People had resolved not to land the tea because “We will not pay that Tax.” Hewes concluded by reminding everyone “tonight [December 16, 1773,] we will make one final attempt to find a legal way to refuse this tea. Tonight, we meet as a ‘Body of the People,’ which means that even the lower ranks—journeymen and tradesmen like me—may participate in the debate. Even you. All of you may venture a voice.”
To keep the debate interesting and as accurate to 1773 as possible, the Old South Meeting House education staff assisted audience members by assigning them a political position. Each attendee’s program included a blue or yellow piece of paper with the name or occupation of a Bostonian and their position on the tea issue. Blue papers denoted conservative positions in favor of landing the tea and paying the tea duty, yellow papers contained the positions of persons who did not want to pay the duty.
Act 1: A Meeting of the Body of the People
George Robert Twelves Hewes helped the audience fade into the first act. He pointed to his “younger self” in the distance and noted the arrival of the meeting moderator, Samuel Savage of Weston, Massachusetts.
Savage entered the Meeting House, ascended the podium, and quickly set to work. Savage reminded his “fellow citizens” that their last meeting had been on November 29, 1773. That meeting had concluded with the people’s passage of four resolutions: 1. The duty imposed by Parliament called the Tea Act is a tax imposed on the citizens of America without consent. 2. Virtuous and steady opposition to the government plan for governing America is absolutely necessary to preserve even the “shadow of liberty,” which every freeman in America owes to himself, posterity, and country. 3. The resolution of the East India Company to send their tea to America subject to the payment of the duties upon it being landed there is an attack on the liberties of America. 4. It is the duty of every free American to oppose this attempt. Savage reminded the Body of the People that they had thus far made every effort to peaceably prevent the landing of the tea and the payment of the duties on it.
After these reminders, Savage spoke to Mr. Francis Rotch, owner of the tea-laden Dartmouth. The November 29th meeting had asked Rotch to inquire whether the Customs Collector, Mr. Richard Harrison, would allow the Dartmouth to leave Boston Harbor if Rotch did not unload its tea. Rotch reported that Harrison would not grant his ship permission to leave, nor would the naval officer in charge of safely navigating vessels out of the Harbor help him pilot his ship until he unloaded the tea and paid the duty. The audience marked their disapproval by crying “Fie!”
Paul Revere stood up and made a motion: “I move that Mr. Rotch protest against the Customs House by getting a pass from the Governor that grants him permission to leave the Harbor with the tea.” The crowd responded with Huzzahs!, but the motion upset Rotch.
Revere added to Rotch’s discomfort by publicly asking him if he would order his ship to set sail with the tea. Nervously, Rotch replied, “I will not. I cannot.” Along with the context of the Bostonians’ protest against the Tea Act provided by both Hewes and Savage, the exchange between Rotch and Revere gave onlookers a sense of the emotions involved in the Tea Act protests.
Rotch stood in a difficult situation. If he appeased the mob and ordered the Dartmouth to leave Boston Harbor with its tea then he would subject his ship and its crew to the dangers of sailing the Harbor without a pilot and without leave of the Royal Navy. Rotch would face punishment from the royal government. However, Rotch risked the wrath of many Bostonians if he unloaded the tea. The exchange between Rotch and Revere, and the hisses and “Fies!” it caused, made clear that the mob would likely harm Rotch, his family, and his property if he refused to concede to their demands.
Savage stopped the hisses and “Fies!” directed at Rotch by calling the meeting back to order. Savage informed Rotch “it is the desire of this body that you carry your protest to Governor [Thomas] Hutchinson and ask for a pass to move your vessel safely past the guns of the Castle [the Garrison of Castle William in Boston Harbor].” Rotch said that he would make this “one final attempt” to see about safe passage for his ship and left the Meeting House for Thomas Hutchinson’s residence in Milton, Massachusetts.
The debate continued after Rotch’s departure. The re-enactors portrayed radical, conservative, and moderate viewpoints. On the radical side, John Hancock reminded his fellow Bostonians that they did not stand alone against the tea; Philadelphians had passed several resolutions that mirrored the Bostonians’ sentiments. Moreover, Hancock wanted each Massachusetts town to appoint a committee of inspection to make sure that no ship owners or captains landed tea.
Isaac Winslow Clark, a merchant, declared that all merchants should stand “firm and pursue their right to sell the tea.” In Clark’s view the tax was “paltry” and although a tax, he felt it encouraged commerce.
John Singleton Copley offered a more moderate viewpoint. Copley informed the meeting that one month earlier his father-in-law, Richard Clarke (a tea consignee) and his fellow consignees had met and “were desirous of seeing peace restored to Boston.” Although they could not send the tea back to England, the consignees offered to store it in their warehouses until they received further instruction. The consignees would also allow the protestors to inspect their warehouses so they could confirm that the consignees stood by their promise not to sell the tea.
The interactions between the re-enactors reinforced the feelings and tensions of the meeting. Isaac Winslow Clark decried John Hancock as the “Smuggler of Beacon Hill.” Liberty Boy William Molineux and conservative Wilfree Fisher almost came to fisticuffs as their shouting match brought forth a discussion of “honorable” actions and the participation of the “lower ranks” in this debate.
It took the re-enactors twenty-five minutes to set the debate in motion. After conservative Archibald Wilson accused Samuel Adams of orchestrating the tea debate because he “would have us drink his rum for our fine English tea,” Samuel Savage opened the floor for audience participation. Sixty-six people participated in the debate. And it was a debate.
Out of the sixty-six participants, twenty-four proffered conservative viewpoints, eleven moderate, and thirty-one offered the radical viewpoints of protestors. Most audience participants stuck to their scripted cards, but some added modern touches. One “citizen” urged, “this tea must be returned to England ‘Boston Strong!’”
After twenty minutes of debate, Francis Rotch returned with news. Governor Hutchinson had denied his request for a pass. Savage inquired whether Rotch would land his cargo. Rotch replied that “I would have no business with it, but if properly asked to do so I would do what the Customs ministers ask for my own security.” Samuel Adams stood up and shouted “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country!”
Act II: Huzzah To Griffin’s Wharf!
Adams’ words caused the Liberty Boys to storm out of Old South Meeting House. Samuel Savage protested a bit and then adjourned the meeting. As Savage left the podium, a voice came over the loud speaker and interrupted the audience’s imaginative experience. The voice advised the audience to turn on and don the red-light flashing buttons they had received when they entered the Meeting House and to make their way to the Milk Street exit of the building.
Volunteers separated the 650-person audience into sizable groups, which along with a police escort marched to Griffin’s Wharf and the Tea Party Ships & Museum. The march was very cold and exciting. A Monday night, many workers watched as we marched in an orderly, but nonetheless mob-like formation. Pedestrians also looked on, but most did not have to ask why we were marching thanks to regular chants of “Dump! The! Tea!” (The chant may have been ahistorical, but it was a lot of fun to shout.)
Act III: Boston Harbor, a Teapot Tonight!
Volunteers greeted our sizable group as we arrived at the waterfront. They directed us on to take a seat on metal risers. Our seats faced one of the Tea Party Museum tea ships. After a brief greeting and speech from outgoing Mayor Thomas M. Menino, the Annual Tea Party Reenactment recommenced.
The Liberty Boys approached the ship and tried to board her. Both a customs officer and Captain Hezekiah Coffin warned the protestors of the illegality of destroying the tea without paying the duty. The Liberty Boys boarded the ship anyway.
Although cold metal benches and temperatures and our distance from the Tea Party ship prevented this part of the re-enactment from being the immersive experience of the Tea Debate in Act I, it still proved worthwhile. Act III gave both live action and direction to the audience’s imaginations of what the destruction of the tea must have looked like.
The re-enactors portrayed the Liberty Boys’ actions as deliberate. The protestors destroyed only the tea and they swept the decks clean when they had finished. The Liberty Boys used tomahawks to cut through the wooden chests and although the chests appeared to be made of a lighter-than-wood material, they held authentic contents. The re-enactors dumped real, expired tea into Boston Harbor.
The reenactment also demonstrated that the protest did not occur without a few problems. A tea chest fell on Mr. John Crane. The Liberty Boys lamented his injury, but had little time to deal with him. Two men carried Crane to the nearest carpenter’s shop where they planned to help him later.
At another point, a thief halted the protest. One Liberty Boy caught a man stuffing his pockets full with tea. The Liberty Boys admonished the man and relieved him of his tea.
Evolution of the Reenactment
If you have ever imagined what it would have been like to participate in, or witness, an important historical event, then you need to attend the Boston Tea Party Annual Reenactment.
Executive Director of the Old South Meeting House, Emily Curran noted the special nature of the experience. “We want it [the reenactment] to be a program that people really feel they can be part of so it’s not just a passive sort of listening to somebody talk about the history of the tea party, but you really feel immersed in it.”
The Old South Meeting House education staff has worked hard to create the in-depth immersive experience visitors receive today. When the Meeting House began holding its reenactment in the 1970s, the re-enactors reenacted the Tea Debate without audience participation. Also, the program took place entirely within the Old South Meeting House.
Since the 1970s, the education staff has transformed the program. Using contemporary letters, diaries, and newspapers, they have put together a script that contains arguments and language authentic to 1773. Additionally, the education staff has created a script that uses real people. According to Curran, “we don’t create artificial people, we try to make them real people who would have been there [at the Tea Party] and lived in Boston at the time.”
The script and program works. If you attend the annual Boston Tea Party Reenactment, most of the event will give you the sense that “you are there” and that the date really is December 16, 1773.
 Meetings of the “Body of the People” differed from town meetings. Any man could attend, speak, and vote at a “Body of the People” meeting. Town meetings restricted participation to voters. The Body of the People meetings drew 5,000-7,000 men to discuss the Tea Act, an unprecedented number for meeting participation. See: Alfred F. Young, “Revolution 1773: The ‘Body of the People’ at Old South Meeting House,” The Dial, Summer 2012, http://www.oldsouthmeetinghouse.org/history/boston-tea-party/revolution-1773-body-people-old-south-meeting-house.
 For contemporary arguments about the Tea Act see: “Citizen Resolutions on the Tea Act, 1773,” in “That worst of plagues, the detested TEA”: Colonists Respond to the Tea Act & the ‘Boston Tea Party,’ 1773-74, by National Humanities Center, “Making the Revolution: America, 1763-1791,” p.4. http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/makingrev/crisis/text6/teaactresponse.pdf
 The Liberty Boys dressed as Indians to hide their identity. Historian Benjamin Carp discussed why they chose Indian costumes in a lecture called “Resolute Men (Dressed as Mohawks),” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RdUJBz-eANg