Book review: Memory and Revolution


The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution, by Alfred Young. Beacon Press

How did a revolution take hold among ordinary colonists who didn’t give a pinch of snuff about a tax on tea?

On Dec. 16, 1773, 150 colony men dressed as Native Americans boarded ships docked at Boston’s Griffin Wharf. They broke apart the containers of tea and threw everything into the Boston Harbor as a protest against unfair taxes. A legend was born: The Boston Tea Party.

The memories of a poor shoemaker during the American Revolution shed light on how the political revolt took hold with the “middling” class, as seen through the eyes of the common man.

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The shoemaker, George Robert Twelves Hewes, delivered a pair of shoes to John Hancock and he did so with great deference. But a few years later, on a ship in the Boston Harbor, Hewes refuses to take his hat off in deference to the captain.

Much had changed pre-Revolution to post-Revolution, and obsequious deference to upper classes and officers fell out of favor quickly.

The book is delivered in two parts: One recalling apprentice shoemaker’s unlikely witnessing of so many important turning points in the American Revolution, and one dissecting the historical memory of events as later created by historians who embroidered a collective history we pass along even today.

These two parts weave an important lesson for us as we read history with a critical eye. As Hewes aged, he became somewhat of a celebrity for his role in the Revolution and was feted as a national hero.

Screen Shot 2017-01-12 at 12.27.19 PMAuthor Afred Young, who died in 2012, wrote extensively about artisans and working class people who lived during colonial times. He authored 16 books, including one about a young woman who fought as a man during the Revolutionary War: Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier.

In Shoemaker, He uses the memories and the legend of one ordinary man as a way to explore how history is told, passed down, and how it changes in the popular lore of a nation.