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Chapter 3

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Truxtun of the Constellation

Eugene S. Ferguson

published by
The Johns Hopkins Press
Baltimore, Md.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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please let me know!


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Chapter 5
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p13  Chapter 4

The New York Tea Party

The arrival of the ship London in New York usually caused only a ripple of excitement. She was announced in the Exchange, where maritime traders gathered to transact their business, and in the newspapers. Ordinarily, the townspeople were interested in her arrival only if she brought them mail or freight from England.

When she arrived in the early spring of 1774, however, the London received more attention than her commander had bargained for. A special committee was waiting for the ship when she arrived at the entrance to the Bay. A mob greeted her when she tied up at her wharf in the city. Her captain, James Chambers, had the warmest homecoming of his career; he was fortunate to get through the day unharmed. And all of this because somebody had reported that there was a small amount of tea on board his ship.

This trouble over tea was the result of the latest in a series of ill‑considered moves made by the British Ministry to maintain its right to tax the commerce of the colonies. It was attempting, said one New Yorker, "to enslave this country." Some inhabitants of Boston had agreed with this sentiment when, in December of the preceding year, a band of "Mohawks," — citizens faintly disguised as Indians — had thrown 352 chests of tea into Boston harbor. In New York, just before Captain Chambers had set out on his latest voyage, he had received public thanks from "most of the merchants and many other inhabitants" because he had ostentatiously refused henceforward to carry any British tea in his ship. When he returned from England, merchants and many other inhabitants greeted him, but there were no thanks to be heard anywhere.

The third week in April, 1774, passed as follows. On Tuesday, the  p14 Nancy, Captain Lockyer commanding, arrived off Sandy Hook at the entrance to the Bay with a full cargo of tea on board. A Committee of Observation, appointed by the Sons of Liberty (another committee), was waiting in boats to greet the ship when she arrived. Captain Lockyer was told flatly that the people of New York would not permit his tea to be landed; and furthermore, that if he was interested in the safety of his ship and his skin, he would turn the Nancy right around and sail her back to England. When the captain pointed out to the committee that he could not return until he had taken on more provisions and made some repairs to his ship, he alone was permitted to go up to the city. The committee remained where it was and watched the Nancy around the clock, in order to make sure that no attempt was made to run the tea ashore.

From London, by way of Philadelphia, had come word that the London, Captain Chambers, would be arriving any day in New York. This was a routine bit of news; but the rest of the message astonished and angered the Sons of Liberty. According to a Philadelphia shipmaster, who by chance had seen her cargo lists in London, she was carrying in addition to her regular cargo eighteen boxes of fine tea! Here, it appeared, was Captain Chambers, who had so recently refused to carry tea in his ship, coming home with some tea on board. The matter must be carefully looked into. The Sons of Liberty immediately alerted the Committee of Observation.

On Friday, about noon, the London arrived off Sandy Hook. She was boarded by the Committee of Observation, who demanded to see her cargo lists. Captain Chambers immediately produced them, and since no evidence of tea could be found on the lists, the committee gave the ship leave to sail up to her berth in the city. This may have been the first inkling that Tom Truxtun, by this time a veteran member of the London's crew, had that this might be his last voyage with Captain Chambers. He knew about the "Liberty Boys"; he had been hearing of them off and on ever since the Stamp Act troubles of nearly a decade before. He knew that the committee that called itself "Sons of Liberty" was composed of men of the trader and working classes, and that Isaac Sears, a merchant and sometime privateer captain, was the principal leader. "Sons of Licentiousness," some called them; "Sons of Violence," led by "King Sears." They were radicals, and they were extremely vocal. They had managed in the past to influence and coerce more conservative citizens. They had  p15 made themselves heard, and they had sometimes gained their ends by violent means. They were not to be taken lightly.

By late Friday afternoon, the London was tied up to her wharf. Four more committees had been detailed by the Sons of Liberty to watch the ship, night and day, until her cargo was all discharged. Tom found himself in the midst of a nasty situation when some men came on board and demanded to know whether the ship carried any tea. Perhaps this was Tom's first opportunity to see Isaac Sears in action. When Sears' band threatened to break out every piece of cargo until they should find the tea, Captain Chambers finally confessed that he had the eighteen boxes on board and that they belonged to him. Thus ended abruptly his little adventure in tea.

Following Boston's lead, New York had made preparations for "Mohawks" to dump the tea into the harbor at an appointed hour; but the mob that gathered at the wharf became impatient. By eight o'clock in the evening, the mob had found the tea, broken open the boxes, and had dumped the "detested herb" overboard. No other damage was done to the ship or to the cargo, and by ten o'clock the mob had dispersed and the city was quiet.

Early Saturday morning the quiet was broken by the clangorous pealing of bells. The Sons of Liberty had organized the epilogue of the New York tea party. Bells all over the city were ringing. Crowds were converging on the Coffee House; a large flag had been hoisted to the top of the Liberty Pole; a band of musicians was ready to animate the proceedings. A handbill, issued two days before, explained what it was all about. When Captain Lockyer, of the Nancy, was ready to leave the city to return to his ship, said the handbill, "it is the desire of a number of the citizens . . . that he should see, with his own eyes, their detestation of the measures pursued by the Ministry and the India Company, to enslave this country." It was to be a celebration of detestation.

Captain Lockyer was escorted by the mob from the Coffee House to Murray's Wharf at the end of Wall Street. The band struck up "God Save the King," not because it was particularly appropriate but probably because it was the tune they played best. Lockyer was put off in a boat to go down to his ship off Sandy Hook, whence he would sail her back home with her cargo still intact. The mob called for Captain Chambers. "Where is he? Where is he? Captain Lockyer must not go till we find Captain Chambers, to send him with the tea  p16 ship." But Chambers was prudently nowhere to be found. Several days later the newspaper announced that he had boarded the Nancy before she departed, and that he too was on his way to safety in England. Thus ended the week of the New York tea party.

This incident, placed against Tom's Long Island background, gave him much to consider, and in time he was faced with some difficult decisions. After the action of committees — committees of correspondence, committees of observation, the Committee of Fifty‑One, committees to detect conspiracies, and as one result of all these committees, the Continental Congress — began to point toward serious trouble with the royal government, many people in Long Island and elsewhere began actively to oppose government by committee and to call themselves Loyalists. John Troup, Tom's legal guardian, was at the forefront of this movement. He would never submit to these upstart committees, in his opinion composed of the rabble and dedicated to lawlessness.

Finally the issues all simmered down to a single question: would Tom continue to be a loyal British subject, believing in the wisdom of the King and his ministers, or would he cast his lot with the people who called themselves Patriots and who seemed to be gaining the upper hand in the contest for control of government of the colonies? Would he go back with the people among whom he had grown up in Long Island, or would he become one of King Sears' subjects? At length Tom decided to follow Sears; he might still be a British subject, but he concluded that he was first of all an American.1

The Author's Note:

1 Peter Force, ed., American Archives (Washington, D. C., 1837‑53), 4th ser., I, 248‑51; II, 134; E. B. O'Callaghan, ed., Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York (Albany, 1853‑61), VIII, 431; Alexander C. Flick, ed., History of the State of New York (New York, 1933), III, 220‑25; Herbert M. Morris, "Sons of Liberty in New York," Richard B. Morris, ed., Era of the American Revolution (New York, 1939), pp269‑89.

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