The following is a guest post by Sara W. Duke, Curator of Popular and Applied Graphic Arts, Prints and Photographs Division.
As a curator of historical prints, one of the first questions I ask myself is, “Why does this print exist?” It is an essential question to ask when trying to use pictures to explain the past.
Take, for example, the Boston Tea Party, which occurred when angry colonists, dressed as American Indians, destroyed 342 chests of tea on December 16, 1773 to protest recent tax hikes imposed by the British Parliament. For nearly a century, the only contemporary depictions of the reaction to the Boston Tea Party that the Library of Congress had to offer researchers were those created in England for a British audience. An example is the mezzotint print attributed to Philip Dawe, The Bostonians in Distress, which was published in London in the wake of the Intolerable Acts, which the British Parliament passed to punish Boston.
One of the Intolerable Acts was the Boston Port Act, enacted by the British Parliament on March 31, 1774 which closed the port to everything except food and fuel. However, the print was published several months later in London, on December 16, 1774.
When The Bostonians in Distress appeared on the British market, it reflected wishful thinking and may have served as pro-government propaganda to encourage the British populace to see the expense of military intervention in the colonies as effective and worthwhile. The British image shows a starving city surrounded on all sides by the British Army and Navy and depicts a few rough British sailors offering fish and kindling in exchange for “Promises” from the colonists. The cartoonist quotes Psalm 107, further giving the British god-like power over the transgressions of Massachusetts.
In reality, the Boston Port Act united colonial support for the suspension of trade with Great Britain and led to the founding of the First Continental Congress, which met on September 1, 1774. By the time it disbanded on October 26, 1774, the leaders had organized resistance to the Intolerable Acts and issued the Declaration of Rights. Another notable event which occurred just before the publication of The Bostonians in Distress was the 1774 British election, a victory which gave the previous Prime Minister, Frederick, Lord North, another term.
As a counterpoint, in 2016 the Library acquired a print produced in either Philadelphia or New York and attributed to Henry Dawkins, Liberty triumphant; or the downfall of oppression, also printed in 1774.
This complicated cartoon shows the major players in the American conflict: the Sons of Liberty, the Loyalists, and the British, as if one were looking down from the far north, so that England is on the left and the American colonies on the right. Although there is no date of publication on the print, it refers to events that occurred between the Boston Tea Party and April 1774, and reflects the British and the American response to the Intolerable Acts.
Dawkins offers some clues as to why he created his cartoon. Fame and Liberty, two allegorical figures in the upper right, celebrate the actions of the Sons of Liberty. On the left, the cartoonist places noted Philadelphia Loyalist, Dr. John Kearsley, in the clutches of Belzebub, a devil. Nearby boxes of tea that have been rejected by colonists, have returned to England. Across the ocean, America, represented as an American Indian woman, aims her arrow demanding that the Sons of Liberty help her maintain her freedom. The Sons of Liberty are feather-clad, a visual reference to the Boston Tea Party. The Loyalists, standing below the Sons of Liberty, are determined to behave as if they, too, did not want trade or tea from England. Most British prints fail to reflect the real division in the colonies; some people wanted to remain loyal to the crown but were under intense pressure to declare independence. Dawkins, on the other hand, understood the nuances between rebellion and conciliation in the British colonies in the continuum of reaction to the Intolerable Acts.
Together, these two images tell part of the story of the reaction to the Boston Tea Party and the Intolerable Acts.
- Explore the British satirical print collection. While only a selection have been digitized for online access, most of the images that relate to the American Revolution have been scanned and may be downloaded free of charge.
- View images included in The American Revolution in drawings and prints; a checklist of 1765-1790 graphics in the Library of Congress / Compiled by Donald H. Cresswell, with a foreword by Sinclair H. Hitchings. Washington : [For sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. Govt. Print. Off.], 1975.
- Check out the Prints & Photographs Division’s collection of American cartoon prints.
- See this guide to the American Revolution on the Library of Congress website. You may also want to consult resources on the American Revolution designed for teachers.
I know this is not the article’s main argument, and correct me if I am wrong, but in the beginning, you write that the Boston Tea Party was a reaction to a British tax hike.
According to my sources, the Boston Tea Party was indeed a reaction to the Tea Act, but the Act did not raise taxes but lowered them, not for the colonists but for the East India Company.
The British tea would have undersold smuggled Dutch tea and led to colonists again paying the tax on tea, which caused the rebellion.