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Reflections: Two-party tea party

When this article was first published in April 2016, the author had no idea that Harvard patriot Elijah Houghton had participated in the actual Boston Tea Party. A trip to the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museums will now have deeper meaning.

Recently my friend, whom I will call “G,” unwilling as I am to implicate her in this incident, and I were in Boston on our way to tea at a fancy hotel when we got caught up in a protest movement. More than that, we were actually swept along with a crowd intent on carrying out an act of treason.

As we joined the group entering a building, we were given a disguise and an identity card—mine said Thomas Melville. About 25 of us sat on wooden benches and awaited instructions. Soon a young woman in a long skirt and shawl stood at the front of the room and introduced herself as Priscilla Scolley. She thanked us for our long journeys in getting here. She encouraged us to let our voices be heard in support of the speaker who was soon to address us. In fact, she instructed us in how to emote both our loyalty and our righteous anger. We were to yell “Hear, hear,” “Well said,” and—the highest praise—“Huzzah” with fist raised when we heard something of which we approved. If an idea or a person were mentioned with whom we disagreed, we were to “hiss” or “boo.” For the most despicable, we would raise our thumb to our nose, wiggle our fingers, and cry out, “Fie!”

Priscilla led us in practicing these shouts, each time encouraging us to be louder. It felt liberating to have such clear words of disapproval. No schoolyard bully tactics like attacking someone’s mother, insulting someone’s looks, or making innuendos about someone’s body parts. These felt like clean insults, aimed at the idea, not the person.These boundaries of language united us in our anger and made us more powerful.

Soon Mr. Adams strode into the room, complete with tricorn hat. Taking the podium, he reviewed the reasons we were here, the litany of unfair acts against us. (“Boo.”) How we had been taxed for things we never voted for. (“Hiss.”) And finally, the call for action to protest the latest injustice—further taxation and our hard-earned money going to a handful of already wealthy businessmen. (“Fie!”)

We were now awaiting word from the one man who could resolve this conflict peacefully, who could authorize action to refuse to allow this unfair act and so avoid further conflict. We watched expectantly as a messenger walked to the podium and delivered the all-important decision. Mr. Adams read the brief letter, looked out at us, and solemnly announced that the governor would not take a stand against tyranny by ordering British ships out of the harbor. (“Fie! Fie!” with fingers wiggling madly.) Mr. Adams exhorted us to take matters into our own hands (“Hear, hear!”), stand up for justice (“Well said!”), and storm the oppressor (“Huzzah!” with fists high).

We surged from the building, following Priscilla down a ramp toward the water. Priscilla advised us to don our disguises, and she fueled our outrage by leading us in a chant: “Dump the tea/Into the sea.” I looked ahead at the women with their feather disguise stuck in their hair and cursed my short, limp hair that can’t hold a curl, let alone a feather. I had to keep holding mine in front of my face or on top of my head. It occurred to me briefly that it wasn’t very nice of us to be framing the Native Americans for what we were about to do.

Once we were all on board the Eleanor, we met Edward, who commended our bravery. When he questioned if we knew the punishment should we be caught, most of us nodded grimly. It was a sobering thought to be asked, “Are you ready to die for what you are about to do?” (No “huzzah.”) Several people sprang into action, seizing bales of tea and throwing them overboard. (These were tied to the ship by ropes so they could be hauled up for another toss.)

I later learned it was at this moment that I, Thomas Melville, an actual participant in the 1773 Boston Tea Party, committed an act that was either brave or reckless, depending on how you look at it. Purportedly, I pocketed a small amount of tea as I was throwing it overboard. Had I been caught with this incriminating evidence, either that night or later, there is no doubt I would have been put to death. That legacy was passed down to my grandson, the great novelist Herman Melville. (I think I was very brave.)

Things got a bit calmer after we left the ship and visited the museum, the main attraction of which is one of only two original tea boxes from that historic event, this one preserved through generations of the Robinson family. We got to thumb noses again at a talking portrait of King George III, who haughtily defended his tyrannical actions.

Priscilla led us back to where we had started, and G and I made our way to the fancy hotel three blocks away where we had reservations to actually drink tea. We reflected on the difference between the 18th century righteous anger over a clear and just cause and the character assassination and lack of a principle in much of today’s politics. I couldn’t help thinking that the Boston Tea Party was a case where the crime of dumping tea perfectly fit the punishment of taxation without representation. And then we, I and G, turned to trivial topics and to tea.

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