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Book Review: American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution by Harlow Giles Unger

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Harlow Giles Unger’s American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution may be a history of the events surrounding the American Revolution, but it is not like any history you were likely to have been taught back in high school. For sure, it isn’t like anything I was taught. All the events are there — the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, the seizure of the Liberty, the Boston Massacre, Concord and Lexington — up through the Second Continental Congress. They just aren’t quite explained the way Mrs. Halloran my American History teacher explained them. All the significant players are accounted for — New Englanders Samuel Adams, John Hancock, John Adams, Paul Revere, as well as George Washington, John Dickinson, and Patrick Henry — to name just a few. They just aren’t quite the noble selfless characters that graced the pages of my high school history book.

A few examples: as early as the introduction, Unger makes the point that the “three-penny-per-pound” tax on British tea which the colonists found so provoking was really insignificant, the larger merchants simply absorbed the slight costs and the smaller evaded them altogether by selling smuggled Dutch tea. Besides, Unger continues, other than for the finer ladies emulating London society, there wasn’t really all that much tea drinking in the colonies. Moreover, the British government needed the money to help pay for expenses incurred defending the colonies in the French and Indian War. Not only, it seems was the tax not oppressive, it was justifiable.

The Boston Massacre, rather than an unwarranted criminal provocation by the British soldiery was the result of the actions of a riotous mob. Indeed, mob action spurred on by radicals, like James Otis and Samuel Adams, often with their own agendas, seems to have been the order of the day — houses of loyalists and even moderates were invaded and vandalized, the famed Liberty Tree was the site of beatings, and tar and feathering was the favorite outdoor sport.

For much of the book, John Hancock is pictured as a self interested oligarch more concerned with the protection of his business interests than he is in any notions of democratic government. His early involvement with a group like the Sons of Liberty, which in Unger’s view was little more than a gang of toughs, was in some sense a means of insuring his business interests from the wrath of the mob, as was his financial support for Samuel Adams and the radicals. Not until late in the game, if even then, did he evince any real commitment to the philosophical ideals of the revolution.

Thomas Hutchinson, the reviled loyalist merchant who was to become the Governor of Massachusetts under the king and was eventually forced into exile in England, is pictured as one of the few reasonable men on either side of the quarrel. George Washington’s great wealth is carefully noted as well as the vast amounts of Western lands he was going to lose as a result of the Quebec Act. General Gage, the British governor sending his troops off to Concord, ordered his commander to “take care that the soldiers do not plunder the inhabitants, or hurt private property.”

It is very easy to come away from this book with the idea that the Brits have gotten a raw deal. It is not so much as they are portrayed as heroic character in any sense. Their flaws and failures are not ignored. Even when their politicians were trying to be conciliatory, they still insisted on some token concession to demonstrate their authority. They clearly look down on the colonists and misread their spirit, but the feeling one gets from Unger is that the British were acting fairly reasonably, and the Americans were beyond control.

His history only goes as far as the Second Continental Congress and the Declaration of Independence, and here his treatment of the founding fathers is more in tune with what sweet old Mrs. Halloran taught us, although it is also true that he doesn’t go into this later period in quite the same detail. He also adds short discussions of the lives of the key players after the revolution ended, and even here he is not beyond a dig or two. And I don’t know that the loyalist Hutchinson dying broken hearted in England yearning for his homeland is not a more sympathetic figure than the pomp loving Hancock at home in his Massachusetts mansion.

Unger’s narrative is eminently readable. And if you can read what he has to say without gritting your teeth in patriotic fury, you may find yourself on the way to the library to see what some of the other modern scholars have to say about the period. And if, as is likely, it turns out that our beginnings were messier and not quite as noble as we were led to believe back when Mad Men and their professorial ilk were writing the history, well, messy beginnings often have fine results.

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About Jack Goodstein