Friday, August 16, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 115: John Adams, Destruction of the Tea in Boston (#62)

John Adams, "Destruction of the Tea in Boston" (1773) from John Adams: Revolutionary Writings 1755–1775:

Note: Although the webpage for today's entry promises three documents--John Adams's diary entry and a letter to a friend about the Boston Tea Party; and Adams's letter to his wife about the Boston Port Act--only the first two are included. But, bonus, this means I scanned the page looking for the third document and found the comment section; naturally, there's a comment that says the Tea Partiers were right then and they're right now and that ends with"God bless them, this country and Sarah Palin."

So it's nice for me to get back to John Adams's original documents, before Sarah Palin, before this event was even known as the Boston Tea Party. What we find in John Adams, especially in his diary, is some odd spelling and punctuation, of course; but also a real sense that this is a great moment, a moment that deserves some oratory.

In fact, Adams's remarks on the Boston Tea Party in his diary sound like a first draft of a speech, where he notes that the event was great (and I'll explain the bolded parts at the end):
This is the most magnificent Movement of all. There is a Dignity, a Majesty, a Sublimity, in this last Effort of the Patriots, that I greatly admire.
And then moves on to making a little threat:
This however is but an Attack upon Property. Another similar Exertion of popular Power, may produce the destruction of Lives.
He scoffs at the consequences of taking the action:
What Measures will the Ministry take, in Consequence of this?—Will they resent it? will they dare to resent it? will they punish Us? How?
And he notes the deleterious effects NOT taking the action would have had:
it was loosing all our labour for 10 years and subjecting ourselves and our Posterity forever to Egyptian Taskmasters—to Burthens, Indignities, to Ignominy, Reproach and Contempt, to Desolation and Oppression, to Poverty and Servitude.
(Note the shout-out to the slavery of the Hebrews in Egypt, one of the repeated motifs of the American Revolution, which raided just about all of history for metaphors and comparisons.)

He even finds room in the diary to address the naysayers--
But it will be said it might have been left in the Care of a Committee of the Town, or in Castle William. To this many Objections may be made.
Sometimes, in reading first person accounts, we find that some people don't understand the great historical events going on about them. (Like Franz Kafka reacting to the outbreak of World War I: "Germany has declared war on Russia — swimming in the afternoon.") But John Adams knows for a fact that great history is happening right here and now, all around him.

Lastly, I have to comment on Adams's love of lists and catalogues. All those parts I bolded are parts where Adams spontaneously makes a list, which would have great oratorical effect, but what effect did it have in writing his diary? There are many more here, like the attempt by the authorities to find the guilty--
to discover the Persons, their Aiders, Abettors, Counsellors and Consorters [...]
--or his list of the fears that might spring up, the
Threats, Phantoms, Bugbears, [...]
There's really very little logical reason to go about making those lists. They don't help explain things. ("Oh, the governor is searching for aiders AND abettors AND counsellors. Well, I'm safe, since I only consorted. Oh wait!") The lists seem to come from his oratorical desire to get the point--and the feeling--across.

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