Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Consignment of Tea December 16th, 1773

By 1770 British troops stationed in Boston were uniformly resented by the public, and the 29th and 64th Regiments were in for special scorn. Street fights were common, and the city was in an ugly mood. Yet, the records of the Freemsason-owned Green Dragon Tavern, ground-zero for the most notorious of Boston’s rabble-rousers, show that they rented their meeting room to military lodges from both the hated 29th and 64th regiments of the British Army, and even cooperated with the Masonic troops when they applied to the Grand Lodge of Scotland for a charter. (The lodge purchased the tavern in 1764).

For years, the saying was that if you were in Boston's Green Dragon Tavern and ordered tea, you were a Tory. If you ordered coffee, you were a Patriot. This was a tough sacrifice, tougher than it sounds. The Colonists loved their tea, as syrupy sweet as they could make it, and it was hard to give it up for a mere political principle.

Boston’s Green Dragon Tavern was a popular public house with the largest private meeting room in town, and many organizations connected with the early days of the revolution made use of its facilities. The North End Caucus, the Selectmen, the Long Room Club, the Loyal Nine, the Committees of Correspondence, and the Sons of Liberty were all groups engaged in various subversive activities in and around Boston. It was in this tavern that the Boston Tea Party was undoubtedly planned, and with plenty of men who shared membership in St. Andrew’s Lodge.

In 1770, the Crown finally responded to the shrieking from British merchants who were losing their shirts from the trade boycott in the Colonies, and repealed all but the Tea Tax. Tea ranked fourth among all of Britain’s exports to the Colonies, in spite of the fact that three fourths of the 1.2 million pounds per year of it Americans drank were illegally smuggled in from the Dutch. The tax on tea was a piddling one, but when Parliament had reluctantly repealed the rest of the taxes on the Colonies, King George III had insisted the tea tax remain, as proof that the Crown still had the right to tax its colonial citizens. Americans didn’t happen to agree. Benjamin Franklin, in London to plead the case for the Colonies, made no headway.

On November 29th, 1773, the tea ship Dartmouth arrived in Boston. Attendees at a Town Meeting declared that they would never allow the tea to come ashore, but the Admiral of the British Navy announced he’d sink any ship loaded with tea that tried to leave the harbor without unloading it first. The Sons of Liberty sent guards to stand on the wharf to make sure the tea stayed on the ships. In response, the governor called out his Cadet Corps, and gave their colonel orders to keep peace at the wharf. Unfortunately for the governor and the Customs Office, the colonel of the Cadet Corps was St. Andrew’s member John Hancock, so there probably wasn’t a lot of peacekeeping to be in the offing. But the Sons of Liberty were in a bind, and the clock was ticking. The rules were that cargo had to be cleared by customs within twenty days, or it could be confiscated by the Crown revenue officers and distributed.

On the 15th of December, Grand Master of North America for the Moderns, John Rowe, and Grand Master of North America for the Ancients, Dr. Joseph Warren, met to discuss something other than a disagreement over Masonic rituals. Rowe owned one of the tea ships in the harbor, and Warren was a powerful ringleader in several Revolutionary organizations. Both men agreed that the Governor needed to act fast to avoid the potential danger to ships, cargo or people. Warren knew what was coming, even if Rowe did not.

On the last day of the Customs deadline, Brother John Hancock and Grand Master Rowe, along with the owner of the tea ship Dartmouth, met to convince the governor to step in and find some kind of compromise, but to no avail. The ships were not going to leave Boston Harbor without unloading the tea and paying the tax.

Brother Rowe’s nephew John attended the Boston Town Meeting that night and wondered, to the amusement of the crowd, whether tea would mix properly in salt water. The Dartmouth’s owner arrived at the meeting and reported the results of the day’s meeting with the governor. Seven thousand Bostonians surrounded the Old South Meeting House to hear the news. At the same time, almost one hundred badly disguised Mohawk Indian imposters gathered at Benjamin Edes’ print shop, waiting for Samuel Adams’ signal to come from the Town Meeting.

At last, Adams stood and said, “This meeting can do nothing further to save the country.” The word was passed to the street, and the “Indians” made for the harbor. Thousands of spectators made their way to the wharf and watched quietly as the raiders boarded three ships and sent 342 boxes of tea into the sea. The crews of the ships stayed below decks and did not put up a fight, and Governor Hutchinson’s Cadet Corps moved away from the wharf. The British ships did nothing to stop the raid – a sixty-gun warship was within easy range – but its commanding officer, Admiral John Montague, watched the whole operation from his nearby home.

When the task was completed, the men shook their shoes out over the side of the ships to dump out any possible incriminating tea leaves. They then swept off the decks, and made each ship’s first mate attest that only tea had been destroyed. As the weary “Indians” marched up the street, they passed the open window of Admiral Montague, who yelled down at them, "Well boys, you have had a fine, pleasant evening for your Indian caper, haven't you? But mind, you have got to pay the fiddler yet!"

Three months later, Parliament passed the Boston Port Bill, closing the harbor until somebody paid back the value of the destroyed tea, £9,659 and 6 shillings, just to be annoyingly precise about it, plus the lost duty on it. Not everyone was so pleased with the actions of the Sons of Liberty. In London, Ben Franklin recommended Boston pay for the cargo, but got little support. It is said he even offered to pay for it himself.

The original Green Dragon Tavern, known for many years as the Freemason Arms, was demolished in 1854. Boston's current current Green Dragon Tavern is at 11 Marshall Street in Boston's North End, despite its lofty historical claims, it is not the original.

(excerpted from Solomon's Builders: Freemasons, Founding Fathers and the Secrets of Washington DC)

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