History versus Legend: The Boston Tea Party and Texas Schoolbooks

Fiction versus Fact Teeter Totter

Does Legend triumph over History? Is Fiction More Powerful than Fact?

It is far from the truth, but it seems like every other email or forward has contained some reference to Texas schoolbooks and a lesson where students read an account which begins “A local militia, believed to be a terrorist organization, attacked the property of private citizens today at our nation’s busiest port.”  Later, the students are informed that this account really happened; an event that is referred to today as the Boston Tea Party.



Disclaimers:  1) I do not know if these lessons are actually conducted; 2) I have not read any of the proposals or lessons in their entirety; 3) Even though I have taught this period in US history for many years, it is far from any area of my “professional expertise” with my only scholarship within the remote time-period being a small entry of about 2000 words in a reference work edited by a former colleague.

Even though I have not heard back from a couple of friends in Texas to learn of more details, the media coverage and more sadly reader comments illustrate a problem with the teaching of history.  What is more powerful?  Is it the actual events, or is it what we have been told or perceive to be the actual events?  Obviously interpretations of events will differ because not everyone will see things from the same perspective.  Much history is written by the victors and not by the losers and thus will be slanted in a particular direction.  Slants do not automatically make an account incorrect, but I like to picture them as an old homemade teeter-totter.  What you experience on one side of the board is rarely, if ever, in balance with the experience on the other side.  Even if a state of balance is reached, what you see is different depending upon where you are seated.  That’s why the study of history is a never ending task.  As you fit various pieces of the puzzle together, more pieces seem to emerge and the jigsaw puzzle takes on a new shape and picture.

Since childhood most of us have heard the positive spin, patriotic, legend of the Boston Tea Party.  If you were like me, you may have read the 1943 novel Johnny Tremain by Esther Hoskins Forbes or have seen the 1957 Walt Disney film.  Most scholarship, however, does not present the same pleasant accounts of the Boston Tea Party as that novel and film portray and many “want to accept” as accurate.

Was it an act of terrorism?  You need to clarify your definition of “terrorism” for me to respond.  Was it an act of vandalism?  Here I can say that George Washington called the participants vandals and Benjamin Franklin wanted to pay for the lost merchandise from his own personal funds.  Did it unite the colonies?  I can say with confidence No.  It was the aftermath with the Coercive Acts imposed upon Boston and Massachusetts which led to the calling of the Continental Congress.  It was not until the generation of the American Revolution passed away that the term “Boston Tea Party” even came into existence for this event.

Two fairly recent works help shed some light on the events of the day.

Benjamin Carp’s Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party and the Making of America 

Harlow Giles Unger’s American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution

You can see a video of Unger discussing his book here:

One of the actors of the period, Samuel Adams, had for the most part been portrayed in a positive way by most historians until the 1920s when the tone became more critical with Ralph V. Harlow’s 1923 Samuel Adams — Promoter of the American Revolution, which portrayed Adams as a propagandist and zealot.

John Chester Miller furthered this view of Adams in his 1936 work,  Samuel Adams: A Pioneer in Propaganda.

While far from scholarship or even the catchy tune in Johnny Tremain movie, we did create a little video with a decent video description of the Boston Tea Party here:   

History is not pretty.  There is a lot of good in the past, but there is also a lot of bad.  We can’t accept one without the other.  Unfortunately, at times it appears today that in the minds of many, we can only have the good or the bad.  To have both is incomprehensible, because you must be for or against.  I find that thought disgusting.  I think there are enough events in history to illustrate that when you accept that one should have more or less rights than you have, there is nothing to prevent someone else from coming along to take those same rights from you.