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Mohawks, Axes and Taxes: Images of the American Revolution

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At the Boston Tea Party the Americans not only flouted the unpopular tax laws on tea imposed on the colony, they also retrieved the image of the Mohawk from the hands of British cartoonists and reinstated him as the symbol of American liberty.

Few events of the Revolutionary era have been engraved on popular memory like the Boston Tea Party. Nearly everyone, regardless of sophistication in matters American and revolutionary, knows that the patriots who dumped tea in Boston Harbor dressed as American Indians Mohawks, specifically. On why the tea dumpers chose this particular form of disguise, we are less fortunate. Not even scholars of American history have paid much attention to that. What little writing on the subject exists relays a vague impression that the Mohawk disguise was picked out of sheer convenience – as if a gaggle of patriots had stopped by a costume shop on their way to the wharf and found 'The Mohawk' the only party costume available in quantity at short notice.

Boston's patriots were hardly so indiscriminate. The tea party was a form of symbolic protest – one step beyond random violence, one step before armed rebellion – and the tea dumpers chose their symbols with the utmost care. As the tea symbolised imported British oppression and taxation without representation, the Indian symbolised its antithesis – a 'trademark' of an emerging American identity, and a voice for liberty, against British oppression. The Indian symbol (particularly the Mohawk) appeared not only at Boston's tea party, but also at anti-tea protests the length of the seaboard. Through the pre-revolutionary years, the American Indian, to the colonists becoming Americans, symbolised a sense of liberty and independence, as well as American-ness, which appeared in many forms of propaganda, from songs, to slogans, to political engravings, which served the purpose of modern editorial cartoons.

Paul Revere, whose 'midnight ride' became legend in the hands of Longfellow, played a crucial role in forging this sense of American identity, contributing to the revolutionary cause a series of remarkable political engravings which cast an Indian woman as the symbol of a nation being born, long before Brother Jonathan or Uncle Sam came along. Revere was far from being alone in this regard. The image of the Indian as a symbol of liberation and American identity fits finely the popular conception of the time that America's native people had much to teach Europeans on both sides of the Atlantic. In the pre-revolutionary years, in its most graphic form, the Indian again became a counterpoint to European political tyranny and class stratification.

In 1760, Boston was America's greatest entrepot, the market town for the English colonies. The city lived on trade; its most prominent product was rum. Crooked cobblestone streets ran down hills to the harbour. Congested and crowded, the city was prey to fires, averaging a city-ravaging blaze every decade, and smallpox epidemics, of which six swept Boston in eighty years.

On September 30th, 1768, Revere stood on a Boston street corner and watched British Redcoats occupy the colony to force compliance with unpopular tax laws. The soldiers 'formed and marched with insolent parade, drums beating, fife.' playing, up King Street, each soldier having received sixteen rounds of powder and ball', Revere noted. A thousand Redcoats had disembarked in Boston that day with their usual pomp and regalia, to lay the arms of George III on obstreperous Massachusetts.

The colonists already had rebelled against the levies of the Stamp Act, one of several British measures meant to help pay enormous debts run up during the war with France, which had ended in 1763. During the war years Britain's national debt had doubled to £40 million, a figure every bit as alarming to the Crown's accountants as the United States' contemporary national debt (also inflated by 'global responsibilities') seems today.

The Indian as a symbol of an oppressed America made its debut along with the earliest agitation against British taxation. In a cartoon titled 'The Great Financier, or British Economy for the Years 1763, 1764, 1765', George Grenville, First Lord of the Admiralty, holds a balance, while a subordinate loads it with rubbish. William Pitt, the Prime Minister, leans on a crutch as an Indian (representing America) groans, on one knee, under the burden of Grenville's taxes. In the earliest engravings, America is enduring the pain of taxation. Later, the Indians of revolutionary propaganda would take the offensive, shooting bows and arrows at their oppressors, a prelude to armed rebellion by the colonists themselves.

The royal government rationalised the taxes by telling the colonists that they should pay for their own defence. Many colonists reasoned that it was Britain's, not their interests which were being protected. They resisted paying England's imperialistic due bills, and beginning with the Stamp Act, the new taxes became a focus for resistance which forged the political structure, and ideology, of revolution. English officials reacted to America's distempers by dividing into factions similar to those who, debating another colonial war two centuries later would be called 'hawks' and 'doves'. Lord Grenville and the Earl of Bute (First Lord of the Treasury until 1763) were foremost among the hardliners, and a frequent target of colonial satirists. They and others looked at America's resistance to taxation as a series of pranks, to be dealt with by 'appropriate measures', an ageless euphemism for armed force. More moderate forces within the British government prevailed with George III, however, and he ordered the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766, rather than risk a confrontation which might have set off the American Revolution a decade earlier than it actually began. The hardliners warned George III that one capitulation would invite more resistance. They were right.

Within three months of the Stamp Acts' repeal, moderate influence on King George III ebbed. A new government was formed by William Pitt, now Earl of Chatham, who suffered a mental collapse in 1767. From him, the role of leader was taken by Charles Townsend, Chancellor of the Exchequer, a blustering and obstinate man who immediately set about trying to find ways to make the colonists pay what he regarded as their fair share of the national debt. Rather quickly, Townsend proposed and secured approval for the Revenue Act of 1767, to which the colonists affixed his name as they readied, again, the kind of resistance which had greeted the Stamp Act.

The Boston Tea Party was no spur-of-the-moment act, but a culmination of events which convulsed nearly all the colonies for most of the late summer and autumn of 1773.

For several years before the tea party, colonial propagandists had admonished Americans to substitute 'Indian' tea for the British variety imported by the East India Company. 'Indian' tea also was called Labradore or Hyperion Tea. It was made from the red-root bush which grew profusely in swamps along most New England rivers. Boosters of 'Indian' tea invented stories to spur its consumption. One such story indicated (falsely) that 'Indian' tea had become so popular in France that the East India Company was lobbying to have its importation banned. Verse in colonial newspapers employed the twentieth-century advertising technique of sex appeal to promote the patriotic brew:

Throw aside your Bohea and Green Hyson Tea, and all things with a new-fashioned duty;
Procure a good store of the choice Labradore For there'll soon be enough to suit ye; These do without fear, and to all you'll soon appear Fair, charming, true, lovely and clever; Though the times remain darkish, Young men may be sparkish, And love you much stronger than ever.

On Monday, December 13th, the people of Boston learned that the tea agents of Philadelphia had resigned their commissions. And so, by the following Thursday, when the largest meeting of the autumn gathered at Old South Church, the patriots were ready for action. Speeches grew more inflammatory, culminating with speakers wondering aloud how English tea would taste mingled with salt water. Other speakers expressed outrage at the fact that to undermine the patriots' cause, the East India Company was selling tea in the colonies for less than it charged in England. Who, it was asked, was the first to dump tea?

Suddenly, a war whoop went up from the gallery – and then another. Outside the meeting house, the 'Mohawks' appeared, ambling toward Griffin's wharf at the foot of Pearl Street. They were carrying axes, and shouting slogans: 'Boston Harbor a tea-pot tonight!'; 'The Mohawks are come!' As the first party of 'Mohawks' boarded the tea ship Dartmouth and began to rip open the first of 342 chests of tea containing 35,000 pounds of symbolic oppression, others boarded two other tea ships (the Beaver and the Eleanor) and joined in. Several thousand people crowded the shore in the cold, dank, drizzly air – a few cheering as each tea chest hit the water, spraying its contents into the brine, but most standing silently.

The 'braves' called their axes 'tomahawks', and on board the tea ships greeted each other by a sign combining English and Indian languages into an ersatz 'me know you' in pidgin English. During the three hours they took to lighten the three ships by £10,000 worth of tea, the 'Mohawks' also sang songs:

Rally, Mohawks, bring out your axes,
And tell King George we'll pay no taxes
On his foreign tea; His threats are vain, and vain to think
To force our girls and wives to drink his Vile Bohea!
Then rally, boys, and hasten on
To meet our chiefs at the Green Dragon! Our Warren's here, and bold Revere, with hands to do and words to cheer,
For liberty and laws;
Our country's 'braves' and firm defenders
Shall ne'er be left by true North Enders
Fighting Freedom's cause!
Then rally, boys, and hasten on
To meet our chiefs at the Green Dragon!

After the last tea chest had been dumped, the 'Mohawks' marched off the Dartmouth in single file, Indian fashion, toward the State House, to the tune of a fife. Neither the British army, nor the navy, interfered. Admiral Montague was spending the evening with a Tory friend at the head of Griffin's wharf as the procession marched past.

'Well, boys', he shouted from a window, 'You have had a fine, pleasant evening for your Indian caper, haven't you? But mind, you have got to ay the fiddler yet!' ever mind', growled Lendall Pitts, one of the 'Mohawks', waving his 'tomahawk'.

'Never mind, Squire, just come down here, if you please, and well settle the bill in two minutes!' Montague snapped down the window shade, biting his tongue.

Throughout the colonies, patriots openly agitated to shut down the tea trade. In a letter to James Warren of December 22nd, 1773, John Adams asked whether any 'Vineyard, Mashpee, [or] Metapoiset Indians' would intercept a tea ship reportedly bound for Providence. A peddler passing through Shrewsbury was forced to toss his tea into a. hastily built bonfire. In Lyme, Connecticut, another itinerant trader lost 100 pounds of tea the same way. In Weston, Massachusetts, an innkeeper named Isaac Jones stood accused of selling 'the detested tea'. He watched as thirty patriots dressed as Indians reduced his inn to a shambles. Several towns and cities hosted public campaigns against imported tea. Bonfires were built of tea, as people forswore the beverage en masse. Newspapers carried reports ascribing a galaxy of physical ailments to the vile Bohea.

The effect of the many tea parties was dramatically to reduce English exports to America. In l773, England had exported 738,083 pounds of tea to America. In 1774, the figure fell to 69,830. Imports of tea fell all along the American coast, from 206,312 to 30,161 pounds in New England; 208,385 to 1,304 pounds in New York; 208,191 to none in Pennsylvania.

Between the Boston Tea Party and Paul Revere's most famous ride on April 18th, 1775, which opened the shooting war for independence, he created a remarkable series of political engravings which were meant to galvanise public opinion against the British. In these engravings, the figure of the American Indian (usually a woman) is used prominently as a symbol of American liberty, much as the Mohawk disguise had been used during the series of 'tea parties'. The engravings were part of Revere's work for a publication which called itself the Royal American Magazine, with no irony apparently intended.

In addition to occasional pieces, Revere also contributed the engraving which became the magazine's logotype. The illustration shows an American Indian figure, representing America, offering a calumet (or pipe) to the genius of knowledge, a European figure – a graphic illustration of the colonists' awareness that America, and its native peoples, had something to teach them, and the Old World from which they, or their ancestors, had come.

Revere's other engravings using the Indian figure as a symbol of America were more sharply political. One of them, titled 'The Able Doctor, or America Swallowing the Bitter Draught', portrays an Indian woman being held down by British officials and forced to drink English tea. Lord Mansfield, in a wig and judicial robe, holds America down, as Lord North, with the Port Act in his pocket, pours tea down her throat. Lord Sandwich peers under America's skirt, as Lord Bute stands to the right, carrying a sword inscribed 'Military Law'. The bystanders are Spain and France considering offers of aid for the colonies. In the background, Boston's skyline is labelled 'cannonaded'; a shredded petition of grievances lies in the foreground, symbolic of the failure of the British government to provide justice for America. This engraving, published in the June 1774 edition of the Royal American Magazine, was copied by Revere from a similar engraving in the London Magazine two months earlier.

In a similar vein, Revere used another English engraving as a model for 'America in Distress' in the March 1775 edition of the Royal American Magazine, one month before his 'midnight ride'. Revere made one enormously significant change in the British version which had been published in the Oxford Magazine (February, 1770): for a figure of Britannia, with a shield at her side, he substituted America, flanked by a quiver of arrows, a bow, and a feather head dress. In this engraving, Lord North stands at the left, in front, proclaiming: 'She is mad and must be chained!' Behind Lord North stands Lord Bute, saying: 'Secure her now, or it is all over with Us!' Lord Mansfield, in a judicial costume, joins in: 'She must lose more blood. Petitions are rebellicus'. Governor Thomas Hutchinson is pictured beside Mansfield, concurring: 'Right, my Lord. Penalties of that land seem best adapted'.

In 1780, three years before the revolution was concluded by treaty, Massachusetts' provisional government felt confident enough of its sovereignty to commission creation of a state seal. Revere engraved the seal, according to instructions given to him:

An Indian dressed in his shirt, moggosins, belted proper – in his right hand a bow – in his left, an arrow, its point toward the base... on the Dexter (right) side of the Indian's head, a .'tar for one of the United States of America – on a wreath a dexter arm clothed and ruffled proper, grasping a broad word, the pommel and hilt with this motto: 'Ense petit placidam suh Libertate quietem.' And around the seal: 'Sigillun reipublicae Massachusettensis.'

Few better graphic examples exist of the fusion of Native American and European civilisations that the colonists were making – and knew they were making – in America. Revolution brought together in colonial America the currents of both worlds into what Crevecoeur called 'This new man, the American'. Half Indian, half European, the symbol on the Massachusetts state seal also uses this amalgamated figure as a symbol of liberty and revolution. Paul Revere was not the only artist to use the Indian as a symbol of liberty during the revolutionary period. About the same time Revere was contributing political engravings to the Royal American Magazine, another artist was using the same ideas in Philadelphia. This engraving is believed to have been the work of Henry Dawkins. Again, patriots are represented as Indians. This time, instead of carrying England's loads as they had been represented a decade earlier, the 'Indians' are aiming arrows directly at Lord North's heart.

The engraving, a response to the tea crisis, depicts the Atlantic Ocean, with the British and their sympathisers on both sides of the water dressed in European garb. On the left-hand side, facing the 'Indians' across the Atlantic, the artist began with Lord North, saying 'We must manage this business with a great deal of Art: or I see we shall not succeed'. Lord Bute adds: 'God's curse, Mon ye mun...', and an East India Company Director: 'I wish we may be able to establish our monopoly in America', The fourth British consort is 'The Infamous K – ', Dr John Kearsley of Philadelphia, an outspoken loyalist, who says 'Gov. T – will cram the tea down the throats of the New Yorkers'. Next to him stands Beezelbub, 'The Prince of Devils', who invites Kearsley to take advantage of the situation: 'Speak in favor of ye scheme. Now's the time to push your fortune'. Poplicola, publicist for the tea tax, is shown facing a director of the tea company, telling him: 'I have prostituted my reason and my conscience to serve you, and therefore I am entitled to some reward'. At the upper left, Britannia weeps, as an angel asks her 'Why so much distress?' She replies: 'The conduct of those of my degenerate sons will break my heart'.

On the American side, below the Indian-suited patriots' stand a group of European-clothed British sympathisers in America, whom the artist labels 'A group of disappointed Americans who were for landing the tea; in hopes of sharing the plunder of their country'. They are saying:

The people have discovered our design to divide them; we shall never be able to regain their confidence...
I am ready to die with grief and vexation at our disappointment, as it will blast my hope for preferment...
Damn the Bostonians, they have been a great means for frustrating our design...
We must make a virtue of necessity and join against the landing of the tea...
I approve of your scheme, as it will save appearance with the people who are easily deceived...
Agreed...
Agreed.

Compared to the self-serving British and American Loyalists, the American patriots are represented as lovers of liberty. Their leader, a woman, points an arrow across the Atlantic, saying: 'Aid me my sons, and prevent my being fettered', to which the other 'Indians' answer:

We will secure your freedom, or die in the attempt...
Lead us on, to Liberty or Death...
Lead on, Lead on,

At the upper right, the Goddess of Liberty addresses Fame, while pointing to the patriots: 'Behold the Ardour of my sons, and let not their brave actions be buried in oblivion'. Fame confirms: 'I will trumpet their noble deeds, from Pole to Pole'.

Well into the nineteenth century, many European artists continued to use the Indian to characterise America. Hugh Honour, in The European Vision of America, comments:

Europeans and Americans of the late eighteenth century wove their interpretation of the United States' creation into tapestries and furniture. Two examples are housed today in the collections of New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The 'America' panel comes from a set of four, each depicting a continent. America has been fashioned as an indigenous woman – feathers around her head and waist, carrying a bow, a quiver of arrows at her feet. America clings to the Goddess of Liberty, under the flag of the new United States. Plenty and Peace recline behind them on a carpet of clouds. France, America's ally during the Revolution, surges ahead of this felicitous assemblage, hurling a lightning bolt at Britannia, who barely able to raise her shield, lies amid wrecked cannon, symbolic of the British empire's disarray. Above the cowering Britannia, Fame wraps a medallion of George Washington to a Tuscan column. The mixture of native American imagery with symbols borrowed from the Greek and Roman graphically illustrate the sources to which the United States' founders often looked to fashion a political and social alternative to the monarchical order of Europe in their time. The symbol used to portray America is not Uncle Sam, in his star spangled tuxedo, nor even Brother Jonathan, down-home ancestor. The selfdesignated symbol of the new nation was an American Indian woman, somewhat similar to those used in Revere's political engravings before the revolution.

A sofa back of the same period shows France presenting America to Europe. The Atlantic Ocean is identified by Neptune, in the background. America, again an indigenous figure (on land, left), holds a bundle of rods, symbolising the new confederation of former colonies. The bundle of rods was chosen carefully, for it symbolised a group of states still very concerned with preserving their internal sovereignty, yet bound together by external interests, such as trade, diplomacy, and defence. The metaphor of the rod-bundle also had been used by Canasatego and Hendrick, among Iroquois sachems who advised the colonies to form a union on the Iroquois model.

By utilising the Indian as a national symbol, revolutionary Americans may have been turning a stereotype on its head. During the last years before the revolution, Tory satirists also used the Indian symbol – in a derogatory way. An example came from the pen of Jonathan Odell, master Tory satirist:

From the back woods half savages came down
And awkward troops paraded every town.
Committees and conventions met by scores
Justice was banished
Law turned out of doors.

Historical dictionary: American Revolution


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