Ornamental Separator

An Alternative View of 1774

Not Everyone Was Ready for Revolution

Americans today tend to think in heroic terms of the 16 months between Dec. 16, 1773, when a group of Bostonians crudely disguised as Indians destroyed 342 chests of East India Company tea, and April 19, 1775, the battles at Lexington and Concord — a period that can be called the long 1774.

The usual narrative of the coming of the Revolution stresses the colonies’ united support for Boston, which Parliament penalized by closing the port after June 1, 1774, until the East India Company was reimbursed for the tea. The cause of Boston, George Washington famously asserted, was “the cause of America.”

Therefore, when delegates from the colonies, including Washington and other prominent Virginians, met in Philadelphia at the First Continental Congress in September and October 1774, they formally claimed rights within the empire, adopted a boycott of British manufactures and called for the election of local committees to enforce that boycott. Over the following months, the standard narrative continues, the committees encountered only slight resistance, and when war began in mid-April, the colonies again rallied in support of Massachusetts.

This account, while familiar to modern Americans, omits crucial parts of the story. Washington indeed declared that the blockaded Boston’s cause was America’s, but, he added, “(not that we approve their cond[uc]t in destroy[in]g the Tea).”

Benjamin Franklin, among many others, joined him in that opinion. Writing from London, Franklin urged his friends in Massachusetts to arrange payment for the tea. Conservative and moderate colonists were the chief promoters of the plan to convene a congress — over the objections of Samuel Adams and other Boston radicals, who argued instead for an immediate boycott of British imports. Adams and his associates endorsed the congress reluctantly, only after they realized that their proposal had little support. Further, many Americans later rejected the authority of the committees established under congressional auspices.

But even this narrative of the events of 1774 and early 1775 — customarily found in historical works — commonly ignores profound disagreements within the colonies. The full range of opinions during the months before the outbreak of war can be more fully explored in such underused sources as the letters written by James Parker, a Scots merchant in Norfolk, to his friend Charles Steuart, a fellow Scot who had lived in Norfolk but returned to London. Parker’s letters survive today in Steuart’s large collection of papers at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Parker arrived in Virginia in 1747 at the age of 18 as an employee of a Glasgow mercantile firm. Eleven years later, partnering with another Scot, he formed his own firm and married into a prominent gentry family. He prospered in Norfolk, where he owned a well-furnished house, warehouse and retail store, as well as land in Virginia and North Carolina and several enslaved people. He was active in local politics for a decade before 1773 and helped to draft Norfolk’s resolves against the Stamp Act in 1765. But although he adopted political positions advanced by more radical colonists — such as believing that Americans should not be subject to parliamentary taxation — Parker doubted the wisdom of the colonists’ trajectory of escalating confrontations with British authority, especially in the wake of the Boston Tea Party (which was not called that until 1826) and Parliament’s subsequent adoption of the Boston Port Act.

American colonists first learned of that act in mid-May 1774 when copies arrived from London at numerous ports, including Norfolk. Parker’s response was immediate: “Let the Yankie fight their own Battles,” he told Steuart on May 17, reporting that a friend had likewise declared, “The Bostonians are highly blameable,” and Virginians “should take no part in the Quarrel.” So, Parker wrote, “I hope & wish our Assembly may avoid any Stupid resolves on the Occassion.”

A month later, though, he informed Steuart that the House of Burgesses had adopted just such a “Stupid resolve” by calling for a colonywide fast day on June 1, the effective date of the port closure.

Angered, the royal governor, Lord Dunmore, dissolved the assembly, calling for new elections. Parker found Norfolk’s meeting on the Port Act full of “incoherent Stupid stuff.” He praised the residents of South Carolina — where East India Company tea had been seized and stored by customs officers instead of destroyed — as “out of the Scrape.”

Bostonians, on the other hand, “must get out of that Labyrinth as well as they can.” Virginia courts were closed before the completion of regular business because of the dissolution of the burgesses, and Parker noted that now no merchants could sue to collect debts. Cynically, he observed that “the more a man is in debit, the greater patriot he is.”

Bostonians, Parker declared, had to be “Convinced that the supreme Authority of the British empire is lodged somewhere else than in the City of Boston.” He underscored that even though “the whole Colony & I believe the Continent are against the Taxes without consent, Yet there are many who do not justifie the Bostonians.”

In that assessment, Parker was correct. During June and July, when Virginia freeholders met to elect new burgesses, they also formally expressed their views on the controversy with Great Britain. Of 29 recorded sets of county resolutions, Essex County commended the
Bostonians’ actions, and Middlesex County condemned them. Twenty-seven others maintained a discreet silence about Boston but explicitly rejected taxation by Parliament.

Like Washington, Virginians in general lamented the blockade and contributed resources to the beleaguered city, but many privately considered the destruction of the tea had been a mistake. Other colonists, too, preferred the strategy pursued by Philadelphia and New York, which had prevented East India Company tea ships from even entering their harbors.

Late in September, Parker wrote to update his friend. He recounted conversations with “Country people,” whom he identified as small planters producing six or fewer hogsheads of tobacco a year. They “know little or nothing of this accursed dispute” but assert that if there is war, they will support “Old King George, he is the man they must depend upon after all.”

Another man’s account of one of the county meetings revealed that elite men had needed to harangue ordinary planters into joining them to condemn Parliament’s action, for the planters originally held “an Opinion, too common among the Vulgar that the Law affecting Tea alone did not concern them.”

No such haranguing was required in Massachusetts, Parker reported. He learned that “Common people” had formed “Large bodys” that were forcing recently appointed members of the colony’s reconstituted Council to resign. “Surely this Bullying Conduct,” he opined, “will if possible knitt people stronger together than ever on yr side of the water for the restoration of Order & Government here.”

As for America, he still believed that “we shall have nothing but talk.”

And “rash madness” continued, for on Nov. 27 Parker described to Steuart “some of the most extravagant proceedings you have heared of.” His letter focused on two incidents: First, some tea was removed from a recently arrived ship and destroyed in Norfolk, and second, in Williamsburg, Col. Archibald Cary erected a pole with “a bag of feathers, under
it a bbl [barrel] of tar” to attempt to intimidate two merchants who had imported some tea. The merchants were defended, however, by another local militia leader who pointed out that the nonimportation agreement in the Continental Association would not go into effect until Dec. 1.

Therefore, “these Gent[leme]n had not done any thing but what was allowed.” In the end, Parker observed, the tar and feathers were removed, and “Cary was generally blamed.” Yet at the same time, “the Association was signed by almost every body,” thereby suggesting that the intimidation had been successful at least in that respect. For his part, Parker told Steuart that he signed nothing and intended “keeping Clear” of situations that might force him to take sides publicly.

Like other moderates who had hoped for reconciliation, he wrote in that same letter about his disappointment with the documents, including the Articles of Association that outlined the colonists’ grievances. “I always expected that the Grand Congress would have fabricated something like a Constitution as a grand work for the different assemblys to go by,” he explained, and “that General petitions would have followed to [his] Majesty so respectfull & reasonable that they would have been attended to.” But “there is now no hopes of that,” he added disconsolately.

When Parker was approached to sign the Association in early December, he successfully deflected the request by noting that “I held a small post under Government” and had taken a formal oath of allegiance to the king. His failure to sign did seem to protect him, for two months later he noted that since he had not acquiesced to the Association, he did not “come under the Congress law,” and the local committee accordingly ignored his importation of “some few things from Glasgow.” Had that committee inspected the “two small parcells” that “highly Pleased” his family in March 1775, though, he might not have escaped unscathed, for his discreet thanks to Steuart hinted that those “parcells” almost certainly contained East India Company tea, then forbidden not only for purchase but also for consumption.

In the final months before April 19, Parker showed no hint of prescience. Even though he described to Steuart the coercive tactics of Virginia committeemen and congressional delegates, an “infamously insolent” speech by Patrick Henry terming Britons “a Set of wretches sunk in Luxury” who had “lost their native courage,” and the fact that the colony’s newspapers were “now all on one Side” (not his), Parker commented that “I am still of opinion, notwithstanding all the noise of Arming & Mustering, the Colonials never will attempt fighting.”

He continued to stress to Steuart any information that he regarded as positive: that in January several hundred men in Massachusetts had pledged to resist the authority of the congress and committees, that “the Grand Congress proceedings [are] redeculed in many Papers” in the north, and that in New York “the friends of Government are gaining every day.” Parker’s skepticism about the possibility that the colonists might resist Britain by force, or succeed in that resistance, extended to early May when he heard the first account of “a Brush between our troops & the Rebels” near Boston the previous month. Parker thought that account “so vague” that it was “only a Yankee trick to Alarm the other colonies & to get all they possibly can involved in guilt with themselves.”

Shortly after he wrote those words, though, Parker learned from “three different Accounts” that the story was true. And that truth eventually brought his world crashing down around him. Later in 1775 he fled Virginia, as had Lord Dunmore amid colonial outrage over his seizure of their gunpowder. Still later, he fought with the British army in Pennsylvania and South Carolina. Captured by American forces, he was freed after the war’s end and sought refuge in London, where he led exiled Virginia Loyalists as they lobbied Parliament for compensation for their losses.

Political disagreements existed, even among Virginians, who are commonly characterized as strong supporters of the Revolution. Those who opposed it could nevertheless voice criticisms of British policy. And those Americans’ divergent reactions to the events of the year 1774 were crucial in dividing the populace into new and lasting political alignments — Loyalists and Revolutionaries.

‘The Alternative of Williams-Burg’

Was James Parker’s letter the inspiration for the British cartoon?

(Colonial Williamsburg Collections)

Few contemporary images are available to illustrate scenes in North America during the Revolutionary era. Most of the published pictures that purport to show events in the colonies were produced in the 19th century. With the exception of the ones drawn in Boston by Paul Revere and Henry Pelham — most notably of the King Street riot, otherwise known as the Boston Massacre — appropriate 18th-century illustrations of the period come from British artists, often in the form of cartoons.

But what inspired the British cartoonists? How did they learn about the incidents they depicted?

One of James Parker’s 1774 letters to Charles Steuart, dated Nov. 27, may have been the source for the only such image set in Virginia, The Alternative of Williams-Burg. It depicts a mob of ordinary men and women forcing an elite, bewigged Virginian to sign the Continental Association. In the background, a gallows labeled “a cure for the refractory” supplies the implicit “alternative,” for from it are suspended a barrel of tar and a bag of feathers. The inscription on the barrel in the foreground links the colonists to the London radical John Wilkes, who had been prosecuted for his criticisms of the government (which had nothing to do with policy toward the colonies).

The letter mentions the attempted coercion of tea importers in Williamsburg and the erection of a pole outside the Raleigh Tavern with tar and feathers and notes that “almost every body” signed the Association, thus suggesting the scene the artist visualized, even though he substituted a gallows for a pole, did not reference tea and did not show anyone defending the bewigged man.

The evidence lies not only in the content of the letter but also in the condition of the document itself.

The letter is in Parker’s handwriting, but his signature and the location from which he wrote (Norfolk) are so deeply crossed out they cannot be read. None of Parker’s other letters to Steuart has the same emendations. They signal that Steuart may have passed the letter on to another person in London, perhaps to the artist Philip Dawe himself, with all identifiers obscured so that the author could not be blamed if the information made its way back to the colonies. Other Americans had suffered serious consequences when contacts in London published critical excerpts from their letters and their opinions became known in America. Steuart was ensuring that the same would not happen to his friend Parker.

— Mary Beth Norton


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