Out of all the people responsible for the American Revolution, George Robert Twelves Hewes is probably the least well-known. This is odd, since he’s arguably the individual most responsible for the early stages of the rebellion. He was present at the most important incidents that led to the start of the war and an outright instigator in several of them.
Hewes was born to a poor family and spent his early years running away from indentured servitude and the law. He served time in debtor’s prison when he couldn’t repay the loan he took out for his one decent set of clothes. Poverty and hard labor took a physical toll on Hewes, who was barely 5’1″ tall and scrawny. It also instilled deep dislike for authority figures who, at the time were officials in the British government and their colonial lackeys who, when they weren’t bullying and extorting the locals, were using press gangs to abduct them.
Hewes experienced first hand what British trade and commerce restrictions (to say nothing of the taxes) made a difficult job of earning a living as a shoemaker almost impossible. Hewes was one of the artisans protesting the Redcoats’ habit of taking from locals and refusing to pay, something that happened to the little shoemaker numerous times. He was present on February 22 1770, when a paid snitch-turned customs official shot and killed a 10-year-old boy (Christopher Seider) in a crowd of protesters and received a royal pardon. Eleven days after Seider was gunned down, an apprentice wigmaker was clubbed with the stock of a musket by a British soldier for jeering and throwing rocks and snowballs at an officer who had refused to pay his bill. Having just seen one child killed, Hewes and numerous others gathered and started throwing rocks and snowballs at the Redcoats, daring them to fire as Ebenezer Richardson had done when he killed Seider. The British, panicked by a mob enraged at the killing of one child and the clubbing of another, opened fire -killing five in what became known as The Boston Massacre. Four of the men killed were friends of Hewes’, including James Caldwell, whom Hewes caught as he collapsed -dead from a British gunshot wound to the chest.
Knowing that the Redcoats now more or less had a license to shoot those who took to the streets, Hewes and other radicals laid low until the Tea Act was passed three years later. At first, colonists refused to buy East India Company tea -they even refused to unload it as angry mobs turned EIC ships away from the docks. When the Royal Navy appeared and threatened to use force to bring the tea to Boston if it wasn’t unloaded the next day, George Robert Twelves Hughes and others dressed as Indians crept aboard the ships at night and threw the tea in the harbor.
Like the other Patriots, Hewes despised British customs officials almost as much as the “lobster backs” themselves. Customs officials and their hired snitches stood to gain one-third of all goods and property of smugglers they helped catch. One was John Malcolm, who had already been tarred and feathered in New Hampshire for being a bullying, obnoxious mini-tyrant. He was even worse in Boston,and when he was about to club a boy over the head with his cane for insolence, Hewes intervened. Malcolm fancied himself as a gentleman, and he berated Hewes for being such an impertinent lower-class nobody. Hewes responded that he may not be a “gentleman” but he had never been tarred and feathered either. Malcolm clubbed him so hard that his scalp was split open and he was knocked cold. Hewes was dragged by spectators to a doctor and then to a magistrate to swear out a warrant for his attacker’s arrest. When the constable and Hewes arrived, an angry mob (thinking that Hewes had been killed) had tarred and feathered Malcolm a second time and surprisingly, Hewes pleaded with the crowd not to hang him, causing them to relent.
Between the Boston Tea Party and the tar-and-feather treatment given to a British official, Parliament responded by closing Boston to all shipping and imposing martial law. When word of this reached the other colonies (especially Virginia), not only were they not intimidated by the example being made of Massachusetts, they joined in the fight against the Redcoats. The roles of most of the others who took part, from John Hancock to George Washington -even Aaron Burr- have been covered at length by historians for 200 years.
Although he spent most of the rest of his life in obscurity and poverty, George Robert Twelves Hewes has something of a second act in life due to his status as the last known survivor of the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre and the tarring and feathering of John Malcolm. By the early 1830s he was also one of the few remaining veterans of the American Revolution and his interviews with an attorney, Benjamin Thatcher, offer one of the few first-hand accounts of these events. It helped that Hewes had a photographic memory, and subsequent historians have found out time and again that Hewes’ version checks out when compared with statements made at the time.
Hewes wasn’t just a rabble-rouser. The actions he and other “troublemakers” took (and the British reactions that followed) kicked off the Revolution and had a great effect on American culture and attitudes. Everything from the preference for coffee over tea, scorn for the highfalutin, hatred of taxes, fondness for vigilante justice and gun ownership can be traced back at least in part to this incorrigible little shoemaker and others like him who decided that enough was enough.