George R. T. Hewes and the Meaning of the Revolution
from Poor Shoemaker To Hero….In The New Republic
James A. Henretta
George Robert Twelves Hewes was born in Boston in 1742. He was named George after his father, Robert after a paternal uncle, and Twelves after his maternal grandmother, whose maiden name was Twelves. Apart from his long name, Hewes received little from his parents–not size, for he was unusually short, at five feet, one inch; not wealth, for his father, a failed tanner, died a poor soap boiler when Hewes was seven; not even love, for Hewes spoke of his mother only as someone who whipped him for disobedience. When he was fourteen she apprenticed him to a shoemaker, one of the lower trades.
This harsh upbringing shaped Hewes’s personality. As an adult he spoke out against all brutality, even the tar and feathering of a Loyalist who had almost killed him. And throughout his life he was extremely sensitive about his class status. He was neither a rascal nor a vagabond, Hewes retorted to a Boston gentleman who pulled rank on him, and though a poor man was in as good credit in town as he was.
The occupation of Boston by 4,000 British soldiers in 1768 drew the twenty-six-year-old Hewes into the resistance movement. At first his concerns were personal: he took offense when British sentries challenged him and when a soldier refused to pay for a pair of shoes. Then they became political: Hewes grew angry when some of the poorly paid British soldiers moonlighted, taking jobs away from Bostonians, and even angrier when a Loyalist merchant fired into a crowd of apprentices who were picketing his shop, killing one of them. And so on March 5, 1770, when British soldiers came out in force to clear the streets of rowdy civilians, Hewes joined his fellow townspeople: They were in the king’s highway, and had as good a right to be there as the British troops, he said.
Fate, and his growing political consciousness, had placed Hewes in the middle of the Boston Massacre. Not only did he know four of the five workingmen shotdown that night by British troops, but one of them, James Caldwell, was standing by his side, and Hewes caught him as he fell. Outraged, Hewes armed himself with a cane, only to be confronted by Sergeant Chambers of the 29th British Regiment and eight or nine soldiers, all with very large clubs or cutlasses. Chambers seized his cane, but as Hewes stated in a legal deposition, “I told him I had as good a right to carry a cane as they had to carry clubs.” This deposition, which went on to tell of the soldiers threats to kill more civilians, was included in “A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston” published by a group of Boston Patriots.
Hewes had chosen sides, and his political radicalism did not go unpunished. His outspokenness roused the ire of one of his creditors, a Loyalist merchant tailor. Hewes had never really made a go of it as a shoemaker and constantly struggled on the brink of poverty. Unable to make good on a two-year-old debt of 6. 8s. 3p. (about $300 today) for a sappled coat & breeches of fine cloth, he landed in debtor’s prison in September 1770. Such extravagance of dress on Hewes’s part was rare; his purchase of the suit had been the desperate ploy of a propertyless artisan to win the hand of Sally Summer, the daughter of the sexton of the First Baptist Church, whom Hewes had married in 1768. Prison did not blunt Hewes’s enthusiasm for the Patriot cause. On the night of December 16, 1773, he turned up as a volunteer at the Tea Party organized by the radical Patriot leaders of Boston. He daubed his face and hands with coal dust in the shop of a blacksmithþ and then found, somewhat to his surprise, that “the commander of the division to which I belonged, as soon as we were on board the ship, appointed me boatswain, and ordered me to go to the captain and demand of him the keys to the hatches.”
Hewes had been singled out and made a minor leader, and he must have played the part well. Thompson Maxwell, a volunteer sent to the Tea Party by John Hancock, recalled that “I went accordingly, joined the band under one Captain Hewes; we mounted the ships and made tea in a trice. In the heat of conflict the small man with the large name had been elevated from a poor shoemaker to Captain Hewes.”
A man of greater ability or ambition might have seized the moment, using his reputation as a Patriot to win fame or fortune, but that was not Hewes’s destiny. During the War of Independence he fought as an ordinary sailor and soldier, shipping out twice on privateering voyages and enlisting at least four times in the militia, about twenty months of military service in all. He did not win riches as a privateer (although, with four children to support, that was his hope) or find glory or even adequate pay in battle: we received nothing of the government but paper money, of very little value, and continually depreciating. Indeed, the war cost Hewes the small stake he had in society: “The shop which I had built in Boston, I lost ; it was pulled down and burned by British troops.”
In material terms, the American Revolution did about as much for Hewes as his parents had. When a journalist found the shoemaker in New York State in the 1830s, he was still pressed down by the iron hand of poverty. The spiritual reward was greater. As his biographer, Alfred Young, put it: “He was a nobody who briefly became a somebody in the Revolution and, for a moment near the end of his life, a hero.” Because Americans had begun to celebrate the memory of the Revolution, Hewes was brought back to Boston in 1835 in triumph as one of the last surviving participants in the Tea Party, the guest of honor on Independence Day.
But a more fundamental spiritual reward had come to Hewes when he became a revolutionary, casting off the deferential status of subject in a monarchy and becoming a proud and equal citizen in a republic. What this meant to Hewes, and to thousands of other poor and obscure Patriots, appeared in his relationship, both real and fictitious, with John Hancock. As a young man Hewes had sat tongue-tied and deferential in the rich merchant’s presence. But in his story of the Tea Party Hewes made Hancock his equal, placing him at the scene (which was almost certainly not the case) and claiming that he was himself at one time engaged with him in the demolition of the same chest of tea. In this lessening of social distance, this declaration of equality, lay one of the profound meanings of the American Revolution.
REPRINTED FROM James A. Henretta, Elliot Brownlee, David Brody, Susan Ware, and Marilynn Johnson, America’s History, Third Edition, Worth Publishers Inc., 1997 Copyright: Worth Publishers Inc.