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The Other Side of the Boston Tea Party

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Every story has two sides, and the other side of the Boston Tea Party is rarely told. But the merchants responsible for the tea viewed the beverage protest as misguided and, ultimately, a triumph of mob rule.

Parliament actually thought the colonists would favor the Act that inspired the Tea Party. After all, it lowered the duties on tea—well, some tea, the tea sold by the East India Company.


The Boston Tea Party

The company was then a foundering monopoly. It faced bankruptcy, and it had a huge surplus of tea.

So Parliament exempted the company from duties on tea to England, where it was shipped before export to the colonies. England still collected a tax on that tea when imported to the colonies. However, the East India’s tea would still cost less than it had, making it more competitive with tea smuggled into the colonies.

The Other Side of the Boston Tea Party

The merchants who agreed to sell the tea in the colonies viewed the arrangement as eminently reasonable.  The Sons of Liberty and their ilk did not. Bostonians just trying to make a living were caught in the middle of the controversies over Parliament’s trade regulations.

John Singleton Copley, the preeminent American artist of the 18th century, could see the other side of the Boston Tea Party controversy—until a couple of pre-Tea Party riots terrorized his family.

John Singleton Copley could sort of see the other side of the Boston Tea Party debate.

Copley had married the daughter of Richard Clarke, a wealthy merchant who agreed to sell the East India Company tea. When Benjamin Edes and John Gill began agitating against the tea tax in their Boston Gazette, Clarke penned a response.

“Have not large quantities of tea for some years past been continually imported into this Province from England … all of which have paid the American Duty?” he wrote. “What consistency is there in making a Clamor about this small Branch of the Revenue, whilst we silently pass over the articles of Sugar, Molasses and Wine, from which more than three-quarter parts of the American Revenue has and always will arise.”

The Merchants’ Quandary

Richard Clarke

Clarke’s ability to get credit depended on his reputation for integrity and reliability. So he couldn’t afford to go back on his word that he’d accept the tea from the East India Company.

He and the other consignees faced a series of provocations from a group they viewed as the rabble. Their haughty demeanor in facing the mob didn’t help them.

Riot No. 1

On Nov. 17, 1773, Richard Clarke entertained his extended family in his Boston mansion. John Singleton Copley no doubt attended the gathering to welcome home is brother-in-law from England.

A letter to the editor of the Boston Post-Boy (probably written by Clarke) described what happened next. Suddenly they heard “a violent Knocking at the Door, and at the same Instant a tremendous Sound of Horns, Whistles and other Noises of a Multitude.”  The noise caused distress among the “tender Sex,” which included Copley’s wife, Sukey.

Hundreds of drunken, brick-wielding men surrounded the house, throwing the women into a violent panic, according to the letter.

The women ran upstairs while the men barred the doors and closed the shutters. But the crowd surged into the house and began breaking up the furniture. For two hours they argued and fought with the men of the Clarke family, slightly injuring one or two. One of the Clarkes shot a gun from a second-floor window. Finally the mob quieted and suggested a meeting between the tea consignees and the tea opponents the next day. The Clarkes refused.

The Boston Gazette put a different spin on the affair. A “small number of invincible heroes had spread terror among a mere host of poltroons,” reported the Gazette. The Clarkes had “treated the people with an air of contempt,” provoking them with threats and guns. The crowd had acted peacably, demonstrating its “uneasiness” with a few “Huzzahs.”

The John Singleton Copley family

Another Side

However, the peacable crowd had destroyed Richard Clarke’s house. His family had to move from the now-uninhabitable dwelling. Clarke went to his sister’s house in Salem, and his sons and their families moved to Castle William, the fort on Boston Harbor.

John Singleton Copley and his wife Sukey went back to their home on Beacon Hill, next to John Hancock’s mansion. They called their 20-acre estate Mount Pleasant. It had several houses on it, gardens and a piazza.

During the tea controversy, Copley had acted as a go-between for the two sides. He had failed to reconcile them, and the tea went into Boston Harbor.

His sympathy for the other side of the Boston Tea Party battle ended in April 1774.

He and Sukey, asleep in bed around midnight, awoke to a loud knocking on the door.

Copley went to the window and saw “a number of persons below.”

They said they were looking for George Watson, married to Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s daughter. Copley undoubtedly remembered a mob had destroyed Hutchinson’s house nine years earlier.

Copley said Watson had visited them, but he’d gone home. Asked how he could entertain such a rogue and a villain, Copley said Watson had visited John Hancock and stopped by his house afterward. The name Hancock assuaged the crowd and it left.

The Hancock House from across Boston Common

The Mob Returns

But then the mob turned around and came back, shouting the Indian yell. Copley opened the window again and said Watson wasn’t in the house. They refused to take his word for it. They said they didn’t believe him. His blood would be on his head if he lied to them, they said.

Finally, they went home.

The late-night visit unnerved Copley, a stammerer and a cautious man. Had Watson stayed over, he said afterward, he would have had his house pulled down. And “perhaps my family murdered” if he didn’t give up his friend.

Flight to England

Soon after Copley faced down the mob, he fled to England.

He’d never been to England, despite the fame and fortune he believed awaited him there. England’s leading American painter, Benjamin West, had invited him to join him. Copley had meant to take up the offer, but hadn’t. America, after all, was the provinces; for someone as ambitious as Copley, England was the place to be.

His wife and children eventually joined him, and so did his father-in-law. He didn’t forget his native land, but he tried to forget the controversies that had started a war.

“When I reflect what a happy people the Americans have been & how unhappy they are at this time I am much greaved,” he wrote.

“but I have dwell’d longer on this subject than I intended so shall leave it for this time, for I will avoid engaging in politicks as I would wish to preserve an undisturbed mind and tranquility that is inconsistent with political disputes.”

With thanks to A Revolution in Color, The World of John Singleton Copley by Jane Kamensky.


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