The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution, by Alfred F. Young. Beacon Press, 288 pages, $15.00.
Alfred F. Young seeks to illuminate the American Revolution by examining the life of George Robert Twelves Hewes, a rank-and-file tradesman whose name appears with peculiar frequency in early American documents. What led a poor shoemaker to venture into the political arena at such a tumultuous time? Young asks. And how did taking action affect Hewes's life? And more generally, why has Hewes been granted a place in history when the majority of his peers have been forgotten?
Young was drawn to Hewes for practical reasons: An inordinately large amount of print material about him has survived. The author dutifully chronicles the events of the shoemaker's life--his apprenticeship at a young age, his attempt to join the military (which failed because he didn't meet the height requirement), his shoemaking business, and later his presence at the Boston Massacre and participation in the Boston Tea Party. The result is a richly detailed account of an eighteenthcentury tradesman's life. But ultimately Young fails to draw compelling conclusions from the events of that life. The best he can muster is: "Hewes was moved to act by personal experiences that he shared with large numbers of other plebian Bostonians. He seems to have been politicized, not by the Stamp Act, but by the coming of the troops after 1768, and then by things that happened to him that he saw, or that happened to other people he knew."
Perhaps aware how little the meticulous recounting of his subject's life has yielded, Young (professor emeritus of history at Northern Illinois University) devotes the second part of his book to questions about the methods and uses of history. Why did Hewes disappear from written records after the conclusion of the war only to reappear so prominently in the 1830s? Why is Hewes remembered at all? Young asserts that in the 1830s the leaders of the radical labor movement, as well as radical abolitionists, seized upon Hewes as a heroic icon. Believed to be the last surviving participant in the Revolutionary War, Hewes was invited to Boston to take part in the Fourth of July celebrations of 1835. Labor leaders and abolitionists celebrated Hewes as a symbol of the dignity and worth of all oppressed people. Their message: The United States owed its liberty as much to shoemakers as it did to politicians and generals. All men were created equal, all contribute equally, and therefore all ought to be treated equitably.
There is some conjecture in Young's linking of Hewes with the radical groups. The bulk of his information on that point comes from two biographies written about Hewes in the mid-1830s; there is perhaps not enough inquiry into the context of those biographies. History is indeed constructed and sometimes speculative. Young's re-telling of the Hewes story does make for interesting reading, but the larger meaning of it, in the end, remains elusive. ¤