It is a well-known story, taught to children in grade school and reinforced as a defining moment in American history. The Boston Tea Party has garnered enough attention to transcend historical happening and enter into the realm of American legend. With such a transition, though, often comes an exaggeration of fact, if not outright flouting of the truth. In American Tempest, Harlow Giles Unger has complied a definitive account of this renowned incident of American history.
Writings must contain a cast of characters, and all the usual ones are present here: Patrick Henry, John Hancock, Adams, Washington, Franklin; the list continues. What Unger does while relating events is provide insight into their personalities and how they influenced patriotic happenings. The descriptions are not always flattering, especially in the case of Sam Adams, who is portrayed as a rather nefarious individual. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to read about the interactions between founding American figures and also the interactions between the different colonies. For example, Unger points out that the outrage over tea in New England was viewed by the Southern colonies as somewhat of an overreaction, saying “Not many American leaders in the South rallied to the defense of Boston’s Tea Party Patriots” (173). Unger than gives explanations for this that show the fascinating relationship between the colonies.
Unger also emphasizes the importance of economic conditions, and the reader will find it somewhat discouraging that many so-called high ideals were prompted by greed and other monetary issues. Since taxation is what prompted the Boston Tea Party, emphasis on the mercantile and the intricacies of capitalism in the American colonies is to be expected. While this is an interesting element to consider, it detracts from the narrative. Readers may wonder what happened to the excitement and adventure associated with the Boston Tea Party, finding that they prefer the misconceptions resulting from fictionalized versions of the event. It is the mark of a good historian to consider a happening from all angles, and so Unger succeeds in this capacity. However, his details slow the pace of the book and thus diminishing interest.
Unger shows that tea was not really that popular, despite there being outrage over the tax on the beverage. Instead, he evidences that it was mostly taxation in general that offended the colonists. This is not to say that the book is entirely dull or unrelated to the issue of tea. There are several interesting facts about the beverage, including humorous descriptions of attempted tea substitutions and the popularity of tea among women’s social circles. Unger discusses other historical incidents that led up to the event, like the French and Indian War and the Townshend Acts. Unger says that “Just who participated in the Tea Party and who witnessed it from shore remains one of the tantalizing mysteries in American history …” (169). This certainly seems to be the case with this book as well, since details about the actual event seem subservient to descriptions of the events that both precipitated and followed the Tea Party.
Overall, this focus is understandable, if not entirely forgivable, since Unger is thorough in setting the scene. The research, mixed with the excitement that comes from chaos—which is what Boston, and eventually the whole of America are presented as—makes for an interesting read. Unger shows that opinions varied, tempers were short, and reactions ranged from thoughtful to impulsive. Such a climate creates a series of events that can truly be described only as Unger terms it in the title: a tempest.