The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolutionby Alfred F. Young
Award-winning historian Alfred F. Young unearths a rich story of the American Revolution with this account of George Robert Twelves Hewes, a Boston shoemaker who took part in such key events as the Boston Massacre and the Tea Party, and then served in the militia and as a seaman. Young pieces together this extraordinary tale and adds to it poignant reflections on the… See more details below
Award-winning historian Alfred F. Young unearths a rich story of the American Revolution with this account of George Robert Twelves Hewes, a Boston shoemaker who took part in such key events as the Boston Massacre and the Tea Party, and then served in the militia and as a seaman. Young pieces together this extraordinary tale and adds to it poignant reflections on the historical value of oral testimony and memory, and explores key questions about a time crucial in the shaping of national identity: What did it mean for the Tea Party to be claimed as an American symbol by both Boston Brahmins and the first trade unions? How do the memories of ordinary people pass into history? How should their stories be recognized by keepers of the past? Young's search leads us on an exciting journey and offers a provocative reading of American history.
"Every schoolchild knows (or used to know) about the Boston Tea Party and its place in American Revolutionary history. But what was it really like at Griffin's Wharf on that famous night of December 16, 1773, when a band of patriots dumped the cargo of three British ships into the harbor? In The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, the historian Alfred F. Young tells the story by recounting the hitherto-obscure life of George Hewes, a struggling cobbler....The author makes the turmoil of the Colonial era in New England seem real and vivid....[A] thoughtful and revealing book." -Herbert Kupferberg, Parade Magazine
"Significant and engaging....The reader not only receives a splendid case study in the workings of personal memory more than 160 years ago, but fresh insights into the process whereby survivors become heroes and patriotic myths are made." -Michael Kammen, The New England Quarterly
"A wonderful model for anyone trying to reconstruct the life of an ordinary person involved in extraordinary historical events. Young's meditation on the construction of memory is extremely thoughtful and provocative." -Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States
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George Robert Twelves Hewes
A Boston Shoemaker and the Memory
of the American Revolution
Late in 1762 or early in 1763, George Robert Twelves Hewes, a Boston shoemaker in the last year or so of his apprenticeship, repaired a shoe for John Hancock and delivered it to him at his uncle Thomas Hancock's store in Dock Square. Hancock was pleased and invited the young man to "come and see him on New Year's day, and bid him a happy New-Year," according to the custom of the day, a ritual of noblesse oblige on the part of the gentry. We know of the episode through Benjamin Bussey Thatcher, who interviewed Hewes and wrote it up for his Memoir of Hewes in 1835. On New Year's Day, as Thatcher tells the story, after some urging by his master,
George washed his face, and put his best jacket on, and proceeded straightaway to the Hancock House (as it is still called). His heart was in his mouth, but assuming a cheerful courage, he knocked at the front door, and took his hat off. The servant came:
"Is 'Squire Hancock at home, Sir?" enquired Hewes, making a bow.
He was introduced directly to the kitchen, and requested to seat himself, while report should be made above stairs. The man came down directly, with a new varnish of civility suddenly spread over his face. He ushered him into the 'Squire's sitting-room, and left him to make his obeisance. Hancock remembered him, and addressed him kindly. George was anxious to get through,and he commenced a desperate speech"as pretty a one," he says, "as he any way knew how,"intended to announce the purpose of his visit, and to accomplish it, in the same breath.
"Very well, my lad," said the 'Squire"now take a chair, my lad."
He sat down, scared all the while (as he now confesses) "almost to death," while Hancock put his hand into his breeches-pocket and pulled out a crown-piece, which he placed softly in his hand, thanking him at the same time for his punctual attendance, and his compliments. He then invited his young friend to drink his healthcalled for winepoured it out for himand ticked glasses with him,a feat in which Hewes, though he had never seen it performed before, having acquitted himself with a creditable dexterity, hastened to make his bow again, and secure his retreat, though not till the 'Squire had extorted a sort of half promise from him to come the next New-Year'swhich, for a rarity, he never discharged.
The episode is a demonstration of what the eighteenth century called deference.
Another episode catches the point at which Hewes had arrived a decade and a half later. In 1778 or 1779, after one stint in the war on board a privateer and another in the militia, he was ready to ship out again, from Boston. As Thatcher tells the story: "Here he enlisted, or engaged to enlist, on board the Hancock, a twenty-gun ship, but not liking the manners of the Lieutenant very well, who ordered him one day in the streets to take his hat off to himwhich he refused to do for any man,he went aboard the `Defence,' Captain Smedley, of Fairfield Connecticut." This, with a vengeance, is the casting off of deference.
What had happened in the intervening years? What had turned the young shoemaker tongue-tied in the face of his betters into the defiant person who would not take his hat off for any man? And why should stories like this have stayed in his memory sixty and seventy years later?
George Robert Twelves Hewes was born in Boston in 1742 and died in Richfield Springs, New York, in 1840. He participated in several of the principal political events of the American Revolution in Boston, among them the Massacre and the Tea Party, and during the war he served as a privateersman and militiaman. A shoemaker all his life, and intermittently or concurrently a fisherman, sailor, and farmer, he remained a poor man. He never made it, not before the war in Boston, not at sea, not after the war in Wrentham and Attleborough, Massachusetts, not in Otsego County, New York. He was a nobody who briefly became a somebody in the Revolution and, for a moment near the end of his life, a hero.
Hewes might have been unknown to posterity save for his longevity and a shift in the historical mood that rekindled the "spirit of '76." To Americans of the 1830s the Boston Tea Party had become a leading symbol of the Revolution, and Hewes lived long enough to be thought of as one of the last surviving participants, perhaps the very last. In 1833, when James Hawkes "discovered" him in the "obscurity" of upstate New York, Hewes was ninety-one but thought he was ninety-eight, a claim Hawkes accepted when he published the first memoir of Hewes in 1834. Thus in 1835 when Hewes was invited to Boston, people thought that this survivor of one of the greatest moments of the Revolution was approaching his one hundredth birthday and on "the verge of eternity," as a Fourth of July orator put it. He became a celebrity, the guest of honor on Independence Day, the subject of a second biography by Thatcher and of an oil portrait by Joseph Cole, which hangs today in Boston's Old State House.
To Thatcher, Hewes was one of the "humble classes" that made the success of the Revolution possible. How typical he was we can only suggest at this point in our limited knowledge of the "humble classes." Probably he was as representative a member of the "lower trades" of the cities and as much a rank-and-file participant in the political events and the war as historians have found. The two biographies, which come close to being oral histories (and give us clues to track down Hewes in other ways), provide an unusually rich cumulative record, over a very long period of time, of his thoughts, attitudes, and values;. Consequently, we can answer, with varying degrees of satisfaction, a number of questions about one man of the "humble classes." About the "lower trades": why did a boy enter a craft with such bleak prospects as shoemaking? what was the life of an apprentice? what did it mean to be a shoemaker and a poor man in Boston? About the Revolution: what moved such a rank-and-file person to action? what action did he take? may we speak of his "ideology"? does the evidence of his loss of deference permit us to speak of change in his consciousness? About the war: how did a poor man, an older man, a man with a family, exercise his patriotism? what choices did he make? About the results of the Revolution: how did the war affect him? to what extent did he achieve his life goals? why did he go west? what did it mean to be an aged veteran of the Revolution? What, in sum, after more than half a century had passed, was the meaning of the Revolution to someone still in the "humble classes"?
A Man in His Nineties
A wide variety of sources can be used to check Hewes's recollections, fill in what is missing in the biographies, and supply context. But to get at Hewes, the historian has essentially a major double task: separating him from his two biographers, James Hawkes and Benjamin Bussey Thatcher, and sifting the memories of a man in his nineties to recover actions and feelings from sixty to eighty years before. The problem is familiar to scholars who have used the rich body of WPA narratives of former slaves taken down by interviewers in the 1930s and who have had to ask: who recorded these recollections, under what circumstances, and with what degree of skill? how does memory function in the aged? what is remembered best and least? how do subsequent emotions and values color or overlie the memory of events in the distant past?
The two biographies of Hewes were part of "a spate" of narratives of the Revolution by ordinary soldiers and sailors that appeared in print, especially from the 1820s on. Together with the autobiographies, diaries, and journals, unpunished at the time, we know of at least 500 such first-person accounts of men who saw military service. Much of this remembering was stimulated by the pension laws of 1818 and especially of l832, which required veterans to submit, in lieu of written records, "a very full account" of their military service. These laws produced no less than eighty thousand personal narrativesHewes's among themwhich are finally coming under the scrutiny of historians.
Hawkes and Thatcher had different strengths and weaknesses. We know hardly anything about James Hawkes; he took the pseudonym "A Citizen of New York" and published in New York City. He may have been a journalist. He discovered Hewes by an "accidental concurrence of events" and interviewed him in his familiar surroundings in Richfield Springs over several days in 1833 around the Fourth of July. Hawkes's virtue was that he tried to take down Hewes in the first person, although more often than not he lapsed into the third person or interrupted Hewes's narrative with long digressions, padding the story. He did not know enough about either the Revolution or Boston to question Hewes or follow up his leads, and he had a tendency to use Hewes as an exemplar of the virtues of Benjamin Franklin and selfless patriotism. But in his ignorance he allowed Hewes to structure his own story and convey his own feelings. Thus the book at times has an "as told to" flavor, and when Hawkes allows Hewes to speak, we can agree that "his language is remarkable for its grammatical simplicity and correctness."
Benjamin Bussey Thatcher, on the other hand, intruded, as the language of his account of the visit to John Hancock suggests. He could not resist embellishing Hewes's stories or inventing dialogue. He brought to Hewes the same compassion for the lowly and sense of the uses of history that he brought to other historical subjects. A Boston gentleman, reformer, abolitionist, Bowdoin graduate, and lawyer, at the age of twenty-six he had written a short biography of Phillis Wheatley, Boston's black poet of the eighteenth century, a memoir of a Liberian missionary, and four volumes on American Indians, two of them collections of biographies. Thatcher talked to Hewes on the latter's "triumphal" return to Boston in 1835, walked him around town, primed his memory. He lifted almost everything in Hawkes (without attribution) but also extracted a good many new anecdotes, especially about Hewes's youth, and expanded others about the Revolution. Occasionally he was skeptical; he read old newspapers and talked to other survivors to check the background. Thatcher thus added to the record, although in a form and tone that often seem more his own than Hewes's. And while his interests as a reformer led him to inquire, for example, about schools and slavery in Hewes's Boston, they also led him to dissociate Hewes from the "mob," probably with some distortion. Thus Thatcher's portrayal, while fuller than Hawkes's, is also more flawed.
Hewes's remembering, once distinguished from the overlay of these biographies, also had strengths and weaknesses. He was, to begin with, in remarkable physical condition. In 1833 Hawkes found his "physical and intellectual" powers "of no ordinary character." "I have generally enjoyed sound health," Hewes said. He showed few signs of his advanced age. His hair was light brown, salted with gray, and he had most of it. He was not bent down by his years but was "so perfectly erect" and moved "with so much agility and firmness ... that he might be taken for a man in all the vigour of youth." He regularly walked two or three miles each day, and for his sessions with Hawkes he walked five miles back and forth to Hawkes's lodgings. He was of such an "active disposition" that Hawkes found he would hardly stay put long enough to be interviewed. When Hewes became excited, his "dark blue eyes," which Hawkes called "an index to an intelligent and vigorous mind," would "sparkle with a glow of lustre." Thatcher was impressed with "a strength and clearness in his faculties" often not present in men twenty years younger. "Both his mental and bodily faculties are wonderfully hale. He converses with almost the promptness of middle life." His mind did not wander. He answered questions directly, and "he can seldom be detected in any redundancy or deficiency of expression." He was not garrulous.
Both men were amazed at Hewes's memory. Thatcher found it "so extraordinary" that at times it "absolutely astonished" him. Hewes recounted details from many stages of his life: from his childhood, youth, and young adulthood, from the years leading up to the Revolution, from seven years of war. While he told next to nothing about the next half-century of his life, his memory of recent events was clear. He graphically recalled a trip to Boston in 1821. He remembered names, a remarkable array of them that Thatcher checked. He remembered how things looked; he even seemed to recall how things tasted. Most important, he remembered his own emotions, evoking them once again. He seems to have kept no diary or journal, and by his own claim, which Hawkes accepted, he had not read any accounts of the Tea Party or by implication any other events of the Revolution.
His mind worked in ways that are familiar to students of the processes of memory. Thus he remembered more for Thatcher in Boston in 1835 than for Hawkes in Richfield Springs in 1833. This is not surprising; he was warmed up and was responding to cues as he returned to familiar scenes and Thatcher asked him pointed questions. Having told many episodes of his life beforeto his children and grandchildren, and to children and adults in Richfield Springshe thus had rehearsed them and they came out as adventure stories.
His memory also displayed common weaknesses. He had trouble with his age, which may not have been unusual at a time when birthdays were not much celebrated and birth certificates not issued. He had trouble with sequences of events and with the intervals of time between events. He was somewhat confused, for example, about his military tours of duty, something common in other veterans' narratives. He also got political events in Boston somewhat out of order, telescoping what for him had become one emotionally. Or he told his good stories first, following up with the less interesting ones. All this is harmless enough. He remembered, understandably, experiences that were pleasant, and while he did well with painful experiences that had been seared into himlike childhood punishments and the Boston Massacrehe "forgot" other experiences that were humiliating. There are also many silences in his life story, and where these cannot be attributed to his biographers' lack of interest (as in his humdrum life from 1783 to 1833), because his memory is so good we are tempted to see significance in these silences.
All in all, we are the beneficiaries in Hewes of a phenomenon psychologists recognize in "the final stage of memory" as "life review," characterized by a "sudden emergence of memories and a desire to remember, and a special candour which goes with a feeling that active life is over, achievement is completed." A British historian who has taken oral history from the aged notes that "in this final stage there is a major compensation for the longer interval and the selectivity of the memory process, in an increased willingness to remember, and commonly too a diminished concern for fitting the story to the social norms of the audience. Thus bias from both repression and distortion becomes a less inhibiting difficulty, for both teller and historian."
On balance, Hewes's memory was strong, yet what he remembered, as well as the meaning he attached to it, inevitably was shaped by his values, attitudes, and temperament. There was an overlay from Hewes as well as his biographers. First, he had a stake, both monetary and psychic, in his contribution to the Revolution. He had applied for a pension in October 1832; by the summer of 1833, When he talked to Hawkes, it had been granted. He had also become a personage of sorts in his own locale, at least on the Fourth of July. And when he talked with Thatcher he was bathed in Boston's recognition. Thus though he did not have to prove himself (as did thousands of other veterans waiting for action on their applications), he had spent many years trying to do just that. Moreover, he had to live up to his reputation and had the possibility of enhancing it.
Second, he may have imposed an overlay of his current religious values on the younger man. He had generally been "of a cheerful mind," he told Hawkes, and Thatcher spoke of the "cheerfulness and evenness of his temper." There is evidence for such traits earlier in his life. In his old age, however, he became a practicing Methodistcomposed in the assurance of his own salvation, confident of his record of good deeds, and forgiving to his enemies. As a consequence he may well have blotted out some contrary feelings he had once held. One suspects he had been a much more angry and aggressive younger man than he or his biographers convey.
Finally, in the 1830s he lived in a society that no longer bestowed the deference once reserved for old age and had never granted much respect to poor old shoemakers. In the Revolution for a time it had been different; the shoemaker won recognition as a citizen; his betters sought his support and seemingly deferred to him. This contributed to a tendency, as he remembered the Revolution, not so much to exaggerate what he had donehe was consistently modest in his claims for himselfas to place himself closer to some of the great men of the time than is susceptible to proof. For a moment he was on a level with his betters. So he thought at the time, and so it grew in his memory as it disappeared in his life. And in this memory of an awakening to citizenship and recognition from his betters we shall arguea memory with both substance and shadowlay the meaning of the Revolution to George Hewes.
Meet the Author
Alfred F. Young is senior research fellow at the Newberry Library in Chicago and professor emeritus of history at Northern Illinois University. He lives in Oak Park, Illinois.
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