The last thing I expected when the lockdown began was that I would spend some of it in the 18th century and that this excursion into the past would illuminate the present.
I discovered through genealogical research, undertaken to pass the time, that I am a direct descendant of John Hicks, a carpenter who participated in the Boston Tea Party. The house that he built and lived in still exists in Harvard Square. Identified by a plaque on the sidewalk, it is now part of the Kirkland House library at Harvard College.
I was delighted to learn that my roots in Boston, where I have lived most of my life, are both deep and revolutionary. I’ve been marching in protests since the Vietnam War, and I like to think that the activism that inspired my career for half a century is in my DNA. I see a bright line between the Boston Tea Party and the demonstrations in the streets of Boston and so many other cities and towns across the country and around the world today.
As in the mid-1700s, people are fighting for justice and liberty. I would gladly join them if I were not at high risk for the coronavirus.
John Hicks used a sheet to drop out of his bedroom to the ground on December 16, 1773, the night that he met his compatriots at the waterfront. The next morning his wife, Elizabeth, asked him where he had been the night before. He denied that he had been anywhere but she presented him with the irrefutable evidence of tea in the boots that he had left downstairs. Family lore has it that, rather than being angry, she kissed him.
A plaque on Massachusetts Avenue memorializes the place where John and three of his comrades were killed on April 19, 1775, by British troops retreating from Concord. Fifty years old and the father of several children, he was shot through the heart. In the evening, Elizabeth sent one of her sons to find her husband’s body. He is buried in the Old Burying Ground in Cambridge beneath a monument dedicated to him and his comrades.
Most Americans learn in elementary school that the men who participated in the Boston Tea Party were patriots and heroes who were fighting the tyranny of the British. This is true but there is, of course, more to the story. The men disguised themselves as Native Americans, the very people whose land their ancestors had stolen. Many Cambridge families of all political persuasions owned slaves. Liberty was clearly not for everyone.
The men destroyed forty-six tons of tea, worth about a million dollars in today’s money. But no one was hurt and no property was damaged (aside from the tea and a broken lock). They reportedly swept the decks clean before leaving.
Nonetheless, their protest was considered a riot and a crime by many—indeed as treason by the British and therefore punishable by death. Even George Washington disapproved and Benjamin Franklin offered to reimburse the British East India Company. Like many elites, they were opposed to the destruction of private property.
The Boston Tea Party was a protest against “taxation without representation” and British domination of the colonists. The protesters had also been enraged by the brutality of events such as the Boston Massacre in which the British opened fire on a group of unarmed colonists, killing five and wounding six. The flames were fanned further when the British soldiers were acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.
The people on the streets today are protesting police brutality, of course. But they are also protesting systemic racism and the lack of adequate representation of people of color in our halls of power.
They want liberty and justice for all. Nothing could be more in the spirit of the American Revolution. It is the inevitable continuation of the same fight. Indeed the true heirs of the Boston Tea Party are the people supporting Black Lives Matter, not the far-right Republicans who appropriated the name in 2009.
John Hicks gave his life for a country that did not yet exist, a dream of a country. At that time in history, white men could only envision freedom for people like themselves. A dream so limited is a nightmare for all those who are excluded.
Two and a half centuries later, I wonder if I am witnessing the fulfillment of this dream or its death. Hundreds of years from now, will these protesters be forgotten or will they be remembered and lauded as revolutionaries who ushered in a more perfect union?