The Shoemaker and the Tea Party by Alfred F. Young

The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution.  Beacon Press, 1999.

In the last few years this book has become startlingly relevant, given the appropriation of the Tea Party by a vocal subset of right-wing activists.   Young locates the actual event in both its original historical context, and in its reappearance in the 1830s as an important event – after having been roundly ignored for decades.

It all has to do, not surprisingly, with class.  The well-to-do leaders of the anti-British activists in Boston were very nervous about the necessary inclusion of the “lower sort” in their movement.   Without them, they didn’t have the numbers or influence to have much effect; but with them, they ran the risk of emboldening people who might be difficult to put back in their place after the fuss was over. The “better sort” were made uneasy by the mob’s enthusiasm for large protest marches, tarring and feathering of Tories, and occasional destruction of property (the trashing of the colony governor’s house, for example).

In that context, the Tea Party was, in a way, an anomalous event: an action against property (private property, in fact) that was endorsed by all levels of society – and participated in by them, too.  Its actual importance at the time has probably been exaggerated by its later prominence, but what Young points out is that the Boston elites avoided giving it any prominence, precisely because they were very conflicted about it.

It also wasn’t called the “Tea Party” right away – for decades, it was known as “the destruction of the tea.”  It wasn’t until the 1830s that the semi-humorous nickname for it started appearing in print and becoming part of the national lexicon.

The current claimants are also far from the only ones to have claimed the Tea Party – that’s been done by complainants against unjust governments and policies from across the political spectrum at various times over the years (and sometimes at the same time).

Young’s writing style is clear and accessible, and his analysis of how the Tea Party was first ignored and then became a major symbol is enlightening and insightful.  His book de-simplifies the Tea Party as an event and explores the role of individual and social memory in the construction of history.  It’s worth reading for all these reasons.

Also, given today’s political climate, if it doesn’t repeatedly set off your irony meter, you should have that thing recalibrated.

ETA: And for all of you college students looking for something to say about this book, here’s how you cite this blog entry in a footnote (Chicago notes and bibliography style):

Kristen Noble  Keegan, “The Shoemaker and the Tea Party by Alfred F. Young,” History Live! (blog), January 7, 2012,

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