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The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution

de Alfred F. Young

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George Robert Twelves Hewes, a Boston shoemaker who participated in such key events of the American Revolution as the Boston Massacre and the Tea Party, might have been lost to history if not for his longevity and the historical mood of the 1830's. When the Tea Party became a leading symbol of the Revolutionary ear fifty years after the actual event, this 'common man' in his nineties was 'discovered' and celebrated in Boston as a national hero. Young pieces together this extraordinary tale, adding new insights about the role that individual and collective memory play in shaping our understanding of history.… (mais)
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Alfred F. Young, "George Robert Twelves Hewes (1742-1840): A Boston Shoemaker and the Memory of the American Revolution," WMQ 3d ser., 38 (1981): 561-623.

Young begins with a portrait of 18th Century Emphasis on Deference. The shoemaker George Robert Twelves Hughes delivers a pair of shoes to John Hancock with great trepidation. In contrast, 15 years later, upon the ship 'Defence' he refused to take off his hat to the captain. Hewes pre-Revolutionary deference contrasts with the post-Revolutionary lack of deference. In a myriad of ways, Hewes' sense of deference declines as Revolution proceeds.

Hewes' story is the transformation of a common man into a hero. Hewes' attained in the early 19th C what we would call celebrity status. Looking at this man of the lower trades is like you have found a caveman frozen in ice, a relic of times gone by. The challenge of interpreting Hewes is one of understanding Memory. In the accounts of Hawkes and Thatcher, Hughes appears remarkably well preserved in 1830s. Yet, in his own autobiography we see in the final stages of life, or "life review," in Hewes. How did Hewes react to celebrity status? Well, it was conditioned by many factors, some confusion of memories and even religiosity later in life obscures the anger of his youth. The meaning of the Revolution for Hewes was his "awakening to citizenship" and gaining recognition from his social "betters".

Young delves into the nature of the shoemaker's trade and the reasons why Hewes was apprenticed in it. he relates that the shoemaker's trade is one of the lowliest. Hewes had no choice, he became a shoemaker of necessity. With no money to set him up in other trades that required a greater initial capital outlay, Hewes was stuck. Yong discovers a certain rebellion of youthful Hewes resists coercive education and evidence of the harshness of Hewes' youth. Hewes fails to get into the British Army because he was too short. Hewes' generosity and kindness in later life grew from his youthful experience of pain and suffering.

Both Hewes and Ebenezer Macintosh, another famous shoemaker from the revolution, landed in debtor's prison. Hewes not a self-made man. Myth of the self-made man belied by the facts. Most people who were born poor, also will die poor. Even amongst the menial jobs that provincials were appointed to, Hewes was not appointed to anything. Nor did he belong to any associations either. Before the Revolution, Hewes was not a participant in civil society. He was what we could safely call marginalized.

How did Hewes go from being an angry aggressive man, with no civic involvement to being a patriot and ultimately a citizen? Hewes is a unique example of the man in the street at the time of the Boston Massacre. At the time of the Boston Massacre, there were 4,000 British troops in Boston and only 16,000 citizens! Recounting the events leading up to the Revolution, Hewes remembers the murder of Christopher Seider, an 11 year old who was picketing along with others the shop of a merchant (Theophilus Lilly) violating non-importation resolutions. Then he remembered that competition for side work by the British soldiers prompted a group of them to be attacked by angry young workers, and they sought revenge. Finally, the proximate cause of the massacre in Hewes' account began when a barber's apprentice tried to collect an overdue bill from a British officer, a crowd gathered and British soldiers rushed to the officer's aid. Five workingmen were killed. Hewes testified at the trials after the Massacre, giving a deposition. He saw himself swept up in the events to become a citizen. Four years later as a member of the group that boarded the ship in Boston Harbor to throw tea overboard, "Captain" Hewes stood shoulder to shoulder with John Hancock throwing tea overboard.

A month after the Tea Party, Hewes precipitated the most famous tarring and feathering of the Revolution. Coming down Fore-Street he saw John Malcolm threatening a boy with a cane. When he interceded, Malcolm cracked him on the head with his cane. A group of angry patriots later went to Malcolm's house, dragged him into the street, tarred and feathered him and rode him out of town on a cart. In later years, Hewes not bitter or spiteful. The issue at stake in the Malcolm affair was respect and he got it.

Hewes politicized, not by the ideas but rather by the events of the Revolution. Commoners like Hewes didn't have a different ideology from their social betters. They shared the same commitment to Liberty and Independence, but the difference lay in what the Revolution did for them. I transformed them into citizens and led them to cast off habits of deference. Was Hewes affirmation of self-worth is an act of class consciousness? Actually not, as Young finds that class conflict was, generally, muted in the Revolution. Pointing to the leveling effect of the Revolution, the important thing was that Hewes was now every bit as much a citizen as Hancock.

Young also uses Hewes' life story as a way to inquire into the social history of military service during the Revolution. Like other common soldiers, Hewes was constrained by the need to support a growing family. Hewes went in and out of the Army to support his family, coming home to pull things together one more time before heading off on another hitch. Hewes even tried privateering as a way to get capital and thereby achieve financial independence. This route failed for him. Though Hewes was ultimately cheated of the rewards of privateering, he fondly recounted how the Privateer captain defers to crew. During one of his stints in the colonial army, he recalls sitting for dinner with George Washington. Despite the unfair treatment he suffered, Hewes was a patriot. War meant rights asserted and respect proffered by one's social betters.

For about forty years, Hewes seems to have drifted back and forth between residences in places like Otsego County, NY and Wrentham and Andover, MA. His 15 children were dispersed throughout the Northeast, and he never seemed able to do much to help them. In fact he ended up relying upon his children for support in old age. Then he reappears in the 1820s. Hewes becomes a 4th of July oddity in the 1820s. Old Father Hewes as a figure of fun. Fame had its price, being dressed up in an old uniform and trotted out as a curiosity -- but Hewes the Methodist and Hewes the patriot bore it all quite well. By the 1930s, however, the dying off of the last of the Revolutionary generation provoked nostalgic recollections and glorification of that "Great Generation." He traveled to Boston in 1835 and was welcomed as a celebrity, the oldest survivor of the Boston Tea Party. In closing the article, young reflects on the Cole painting of Hewes that now hangs in the Old State House in Boston. Young notes the pride in the man's face. He lived to see great men pay him deference, and he had outlived everyone of his generation and many of the next. Hewes was, above all, a survivor, a patriot and a survivor ...

Other Readings:

Gordon S. Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (New York, 1991).

Barbara Clark Smith, "Food Rioters and the American Revolution," WMQ 3d ser., 51 (1994): 3-38.
  mdobe | Jul 24, 2011 |
An incisive social-history examines the Boston Tea Party through the life of one its participants and examines how history is both preserved and changed in the popular memory. An excellent work of historical research. ( )
  Othemts | Nov 26, 2008 |
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George Robert Twelves Hewes, a Boston shoemaker who participated in such key events of the American Revolution as the Boston Massacre and the Tea Party, might have been lost to history if not for his longevity and the historical mood of the 1830's. When the Tea Party became a leading symbol of the Revolutionary ear fifty years after the actual event, this 'common man' in his nineties was 'discovered' and celebrated in Boston as a national hero. Young pieces together this extraordinary tale, adding new insights about the role that individual and collective memory play in shaping our understanding of history.

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