973: Ten Tea Parties by Joseph Cummins

by Gerard

973.3115: Cummins, Joseph. Ten Tea Parties: Patriotic Protests that History Forgot. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2012. 214 pp. ISBN 978-1-59474-560-7. 

You could fill whole libraries with book in DDC section 973, because that’s where you class books on the “general history of the United States.” The first subsections of 973 are devoted to initial discovery, colonization, and revolution (973.1, 973.2, and 973.3, respectively), but the remainder of the section gets divided into distinct historical periods using presidential administrations as milestones. 973.4 covers Washington through Jefferson, 973.5 is Madison through Tyler, 973.6 is Polk through Buchanan, and so on (Lincoln’s tenure gets his subsection at 973.7).

The book I chose for 973 has a uniquely specific call number: 973.3115. 973.3 is the place for books on the revolution, 973.311 deals with individual political causes of the revolution, 973.3115 is the specific British tax on tea imports.

THE REPORT

To understand the American Tea Parties in their proper context, you have to go back thirteen years prior to the French and Indian War. France and Britain were each trying to stake out their respective claims on the New World colonies early 1700s. England had the traditional colonial land we know today, but France was annexing more and more of the inland territory. Soon, tempers and imperial egos flared and they had it out. The British enlisted help of colonial citizen as well as a few Indian tribes, while the French conscripted their own Indian backers. The war ended in 1763, with the British victorious and essentially taking over the French land (gaining everything from the Mississippi River eastward).

Wars cost money, and the British Empire needed it to replenish its coffers, now empty due to the enormous outlay required by the transatlantic affair. The best way to get more money is to raise taxes. The British Parliament figured that since they fought the war on behalf of the American colonists, that New Englanders show now foot the bill for the expenses. So Parliament, without input from American representatives, voted to place taxes, tariffs, and import fees on various products common to America, including stamps, playing cards, and tea.

Tea was a common drink throughout the colonies that was quickly outpacing rum in its ubiquity. Once the colonists heard of the Tea Act, they went ballistic, with outcries of tyranny and taxation without representation. Each of the separate tea parties in the book detail the outraged citizens of a particular city learning of the tea on its way, plotting to prevent its landing, then convincing the captain not to offload his cargo, and finally destroying the tea in some fashion, usually throwing it overboard to permanently sully the goods.

Only one of the events in Joseph Cummins’ Ten Tea Parties, the Chestertown Tea Party of May 1774, does not have historical records. While the residents of this Maryland town celebrate and re-enact the event every year on Memorial Day, there are no proven historical documents describing the event (and Cummins owns up to that fact). The rest of the event are arranged chronologically, each intertwining with the other to create an intriguing tapestry of pre-Revolutionary America. The “parties” range in severity from a few ladies daintily burning their weekly supply of tea leaves (the Wilmington Tea Party) to the full-scale destruction of a sailing vessel and its contents (the Annapolis Tea Party).

THE REVIEW

I very rarely get to review a new book. This is one of the few (and, in fact, may be the only one) in my library published this year. My goal isn’t just to get the freshest pages off the press, but to also hear what writers of the past have to say. That being said, I could right away get a sense that this book’s publication stemmed from two main impulses—first, to put a spotlight on events that may have fallen out of the collective historical conscious, and second, to tenuously connect the events of the past with the incarnations of political Tea Parties of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The book itself was a quick jaunt through incendiary politics and actions of the past, and reads as such. There aren’t a lot of historical footnotes cluttering up the pages. While there seems to be a fair amount of research behind the text, the bibliography seems a little anemic. Without knowing otherwise, one would think that this is all there is on the various tea parties. It reads quickly, and imparts a lot of fun new anecdotes about the U.S. All in all, it was a good book.

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