Wrentham shoemaker made history

  • BY JIM HAND / SUN CHRONICLE STAFF

(The old Statehouse in Boston was home to the debates of Samuel Adams, John Hancock and John Adams as they sought to define the future of the British colonies. It was from this building’s balconies that the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed in 1776. After ashort-lived chapter as a state house for the new Commonwealth of Massachusetts, as well as a post office, shopping arcade and city hall, the building has been a museum since 1881. Two floors of exhibits that include tea from the Boston Tea Party and John Hancock’s coat work to tell the history of this building that played a vital role in the American Revolution.)

 

A forgotten portrait hanging at the old Statehouse in Boston features a weather-worn old man with a slight smirk.

The man is George Robert Twelves Hewes, a former Wrentham shoemaker and member of the Attleboro militia who participated in the Boston Tea Party and the Boston Massacre and fought in the American Revolution.

The portrait by Joseph Cole is titled “ The Centenarian.”

A new book on Hewes by historian Alfred Young attempts to explain at least two things: who was this shoemaker and why would the title of his portrait honor his age rather than his revolutionary activities?

The answer to the first question, according to Young, is that Hewes was a simple and poor man who became a shoemaker in Boston, moved in with family in Wrentham and who had a Zelig-like knack for being at the right place at the historical time.

The first half of Young’s book, “ The Shoemaker and the Tea Party” from Beacon Press, is a mini-biography of Hewes.

The answer to the other question comes in the second half of the book.

Young contends that after the Revolution, Massachusetts underwent a process of “ erasing” much of its memory of its anti-British and radical, populist past.

According to Young, conservative Federalists took power in Boston shortly after the Revolution.

They were uncomfortable with the ideas of equality and the right to revolt against the government. They were Anglophiles who preferred stability and a ruling elite.

Therefore, the importance of radicals in the Revolution such as Samuel Adams and John Hancock were downplayed in officials histories and commemorative ceremonies.

The role of commoners and artisans, or mechanics as they were known then, were intentionally forgotten.

The Fourth of July and George Washington became the icons. The Massacre and the Tea Party were forgotten.

Even the Declaration of Independence was ignored at July 4th ceremonies because the officialdom was skittish with the idea of all men being created equal, according to Young.

In fact, Young said his research shows almost all reference to the Tea Party disappeared for decades until veterans like Hewes were uncovered for 50th anniversary ceremonies.

Even the name of the event was changed to downplay its radical overtones.

In 1773, the event was known as “ the destruction of the tea.” Tea Party was easier to accommodate.

In this atmosphere, it was more acceptable then to label the portrait The Centenary rather than The Radical or The Rebel.

Shoemaker’s apprentice

As for Hewes, Young said he was born to commoner parents. He became a Boston apprentice in shoemaking, a trade with little opportunity for upward mobility.

Hewes was a small man, but apparently well respected among Boston mechanics.

He once came to the rescue of a child who was being beaten by a “ gentleman” with a cane. When the gentleman hit and injured Hewes, a mob took its vengeance out on the offender.

Boston was a volatile town in pre-Revolution days, with mob action against tax collectors and other officials a common event. Tarring and feathering was the preferred way of dealing with the oppressors.

Hewes was there when British troops opened fire on one mob, killing five, in the event that became known as the Boston Massacre.

The shoemaker said one of the victims, James Caldwell, died in his arms.

He was also there when Bostonians dressed up like Mohawk Indians and smashed chests of tea and dumped them into Boston Harbor to protest a tax on tea.

Hewes fought in the Revolution as both an Attleboro militia member and as a privateer raiding British ships.

He was interviewed by George Washington for his knowledge of Boston.

When war broke out, Boston became a garrison town teeming with British soldiers.

Family sent to Wrentham

Hewes sent his wife and children to live in safety with relatives in Wrentham, his father’s native town, according to Young. Hewes settled down in Wrentham after the war.

He left little record of his life in Wrentham, and Young said he would love to hear from residents or relatives in the area who known anything about Hewes.

“ All we may say with certainty is that he came out of the war poor and stayed poor,” Young wrote in his book. “ By 1783, he had turned 40 and had very little to show for it.”

Young also wrote of Hewes’ time in the area: “ There is no evidence that he acquired land in Wrentham. The census names him; the records of real estate bought and sold do not.”

Hewes did manage to father 15 children.

After the War of 1812, he moved Otsego County, N.Y., where he continued to labor in obscurity until he was rediscovered when 50th anniversaries of various patriotic events were celebrated and organizers went looking for veterans of the Revolutionary War.

Two “ as-told-to” biographies were written about him.

Young said one of his reasons for writing his book is that he has long been interested in the role of common people in history, an area he said many historians overlook.

“ I’ve always been dissatisfied with the traditional approach that deals with the great men of history,” he said in a telephone interview from his office in Illinois.

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