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The Shoemaker and the Tea Party

Alfred Young’s The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution first tells the story of a cobbler, George Robert Twelves Hewes, a man so ordinary that despite the extraordinary circumstances he found himself involved in around Boston during the late 1700’s, time almost forgot him. The more recent, part two of the story unpacks the immediate, intermediate, and long-term “memory” of the Revolution. Young asks and answers, “when did they start calling it the Boston Tea Party?”. He beautifully uses Hewes’s obscurity immediately following the conflict, his battle for his soldiers pensions through the years to his eventual, late in life rise to quasi-public celebrity, the guest of honor at Boston 1820’s Fourth of July celebrations, as analogies for the public memory of the conflict in Boston.


Young’s writing is slow and methodical. A version of myself that exists in the past, that doesn’t necessarily know how to study history, would be entirely bored by part two of this book. But this me understands the connections this book has to today’s society. Post-independence, the conservative elites of the country decided that while independence was good, the actions that gained us our independence were not. The “destruction of the tea” as it was formally known for decades after the dumping, was not something to reminisce about. The Liberty Tree, where so many effigies burned in Boston? In it’s place went a four story building, with the engraved words “LAW AND ORDER”. It was the labor movement of the “mechanics” and other blue collar laborers, of which Hewes was, of the 1820’s and 1830’s that harkened back and properly recognized the actions of what the conservatives called “mobs”. In 1834, municipal Judge Peter Thatcher noted, “when one class of citizens is taught to consider another as enemies, it will inevitable tend to disturb the peace of society.” There was no irony in Judge Thatcher’s tone that it was only his class that enjoyed the “peace” of society he held so dearly. It was conservatives like Judge Thatcher and the many others in early 1800's New England, who laid the groundwork for the authoritarians of today, those like Ron DeSantis, who has made it legal to kill someone in the state of Florida who committing minor property damage because, hey, that window has monetary value. Samuel Adams’s 180º spin towards conservatism, yes the same Samuel Adams who led the Sons of Liberty around the streets of Boston drumming up support for open insurrection, was so drastic that he favored the death penalty for any man who spoke of revolution and insurrection.


It’s the second part of the book that leaves the indelible mark on its field. There are many books and collective works about the attempts to build a society immediately after surrender at Yorktown. The Perils of Peace: America’s Struggle for Survival After Yorktown by Thomas Fleming is a personal favorite. But this the only thing I’ve read that constructs and dissects the memory of the revolution. Today, there’s a porn shop standing where Boston’s famed liberty tree and liberty pole once wer. You can thank the conservative elite for that; they never intend to remind you what you’re capable of if you unite.