Dec. 16 marks the 250th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party. On that famous evening in 1773, a group of patriots, some of them dressed as Native Americans, dumped three shiploads of tea into Boston Harbor.
The dumping was a protest against the Tea Act, which the British Parliament had passed in May. The specific aim of the legislation was to improve the finances of the British East India Company. It was the latest in a series of parliamentary measures to raise revenues from the colonies, which had no say in their passage. Hence the patriot orator James Otis declaring “Taxation without representation is tyranny.” And hence the Tea Party.
Does any event in US history have a more memorable and vivid name? Certainly, no event so distant in time has retained such political resonance. In 2009, the Tea Party movement knew exactly what it was doing in assuming that name. Cutting the federal deficit and fetishizing federal fiscal prudence aren’t exactly sexy issues. Tie them to patriots pretending to be “Mohawks” tossing overboard chests of tea, now that gets the public’s attention.
“The Dye is cast: Interests & Ideals That Motivated the Boston Tea Party,” which runs at the Massachusetts Historical Society through Feb. 29, doesn’t concern itself with recent politics. It doesn’t even focus on the tea dumping, though the niftiest item in the exhibition is a bottle containing tea leaves that washed up from the harbor the morning after. Instead, what “The Dye is cast” does is provide a larger political and, especially, social context.
The title comes from a letter that John Adams wrote to a friend the day after the Tea Party. “The Dye is cast: The People have passed the River and cutt away the Bridge: last Night Three Cargoes of Tea, were emptied into the Harbour.” The event wasn’t the start of the American Revolution, but it brought revolution that much closer.
Curated by MHS chief historian Peter Drummey, the show comprises some 50 items. They include paintings, letters, prints, the aforementioned bottle, a punch bowl, and a card table. There are also several items relating to the Tea Party’s centennial and bicentennial. An invitation to a 1973 Grand Tea Party Ball announces a ticket price of $5. That would be $33 today — not too pricey.
The punch bowl provided beverage service at a meeting of patriots several hours before the tea got tossed. The table was used by the poet Phillis Wheatley as a writing desk. Wheatley is one of six contemporaries whose lives are used to illuminate the interests and ideals the show’s subtitle speaks of.
There’s a further Wheatley connection. One of the three ships carrying the tea, the Dartmouth, had among its cargo copies of her “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral.” The book had been published in London and was now being brought back to the home of its author.
The other figures around whom the show is organized are Paul Revere; Prince Hall, a former enslaved person and early abolitionist; Thomas Hutchinson, the royal governor of Massachusetts; Joseph Warren, a leading patriot (less than two years later, he’d die a hero’s death at the Battle of Bunker Hill); and John Rowe, a merchant with mixed political loyalties, who gave his name to Rowes Wharf.
There’s also, in effect, a seventh figure: Adams. Additional quotations from him hang on banners throughout the exhibition. The most amusing comes from later in the “Dye is cast” letter.
“I think it is a matter of indifference whether [the tea] is drank or drowned. The Province must pay for it, in Either Case. But there is this Difference. I believe, it will take them 10 Years to get the Province to pay for it. If so, we shall Save 10 Years Interest of the Money. Whereas if it is drank it must be paid for immediately.”
Adams would be George Washington’s vice president, and Alexander Hamilton Washington’s secretary of the treasury. That observation would suggest Adams had the cannier fiscal sense.
“THE DYE IS CAST”: Interests & Ideals That Motivated the Boston Tea Party
At Massachusetts Historical Society, 1154 Boylston St., through Feb. 29. 617-536-1608, www.masshist.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.