Hewes, George Robert Twelves
HEWES, GEORGE ROBERT TWELVES
(b. 1742; d. November 5, 1840) Source for two workingman's accounts of events during the American Revolution.
George Hewes was a poor shoemaker in Boston before the American Revolution, a sailor and militiaman during the war, and a poor farmer afterward. He was not a political leader, though he once set off a small riot. Instead, Hewes was a face in the crowd at the Boston Massacre and Boston Tea Party. In two books he left a man-on-the-street's view of America's break with Britain. Hewes's participation in the protest leading to the Revolutionary War and in the war itself changed his self-image from a subject restricted by class and custom to a citizen judged on his merits. In many ways, Hewes's personal transformation from subject to citizen reflected the larger change in American culture, society, and identity that were part of the American War for Independence.
Hewes was born into a family of tanners striving for gentility; his father held minor town offices, and he remembered his mother buying a slave. But the family fortunes declined after Hewes's father died in 1749. His own prospects were limited: he was a mediocre scholar and, at five feet one inch, too small for heavy labor. The young man was sent to a relative's farm in Wrentham, twenty miles away, then returned to Boston as apprentice to a shoemaker—a profession that promised work but no wealth.
Hewes's apprenticeship coincided with the French and Indian War. When his first master's business failed, he tried to enlist in the British army. But he was rejected as too short, even after he built up his shoes.
At age twenty-one Hewes opened a small shop on Griffin's Wharf, and in 1768 he wed Sally Sumner, a teenage laundress. Their marriage lasted sixty years, but they never escaped poverty. A lone shoemaker could not compete with early manufacturing centers like Lynn, Massachusetts, whose artisans in 1767 produced 40,000 pairs of shoes. Hewes therefore occasionally worked on fishing boats off Newfoundland, and in 1770 was jailed for a £7 debt.
Hewes started to turn against the royal government after it sent troops into Boston in 1768. He learned to carry rum to placate sentries. Once, he complained to a captain about a sergeant's not paying for shoes, then was horrified by how harshly the army punished the man: 300 lashes. Later, he saw a grenadier steal a bundle of clothing; he chose to confront this man privately.
On March 5, 1770, Hewes saw the captain and the grenadier again, part of a squad facing a violent crowd on King Street. The soldiers shot into the townspeople. A mariner fell, mortally wounded, into Hewes's arms. The angry shoemaker testified twice to magistrates about what Bostonians considered a massacre.
Three years later, the town was caught up in a fervor over three shiploads of taxable tea. On the night of December 16, Hewes spotted a crowd of men in disguise heading toward Griffin's Wharf, near his shop. He grabbed a blanket, rubbed his face with soot, and joined them in dumping the tea into the harbor.
Pre-Revolutionary newspapers mentioned Hewes only once, after a violent incident on January 25, 1774. He told a customs official, John Malcolm, to stop threatening a boy. Malcolm replied that Hewes "should not speak to a gentleman." Hewes noted how Malcolm had recently been tarred and feathered over his clothing in New Hampshire. Irked, Malcolm clubbed Hewes with his cane. While some people carried the unconscious shoemaker to a doctor, others pursued his attacker, telling gentlemen who tried to intervene that they no longer trusted royal justice. That evening, a mob stripped Malcolm, covered him with tar and feathers, and carted him around town, whipping him viciously. When the two injured men met again on the street weeks later, Hewes was pleased to hear the customs man speak more politely.
After the Revolutionary War began in April 1775, Hewes sent his wife and children to his Wrentham relatives, then smuggled himself out of the besieged town on a fishing boat. That winter, his deserted shop was torn down for firewood.
Hewes never again lived in Boston. During the war, he served in the militia and on two privateering ships, working for a share of whatever British cargoes his vessels might capture. But he refused to sail with a ship's officer who insisted "he take off his hat to him," a sign of new republican pride. For decades after independence Hewes farmed in Wrentham. Although in his seventies during the War of 1812, he nonetheless tried to enlist in the U.S. Navy before moving in with sons in upstate New York.
Hewes would have remained obscure had he not been discovered in the 1830s by young writers eager for Revolutionary lore. His memories, once common but by then rare, became the core of two books that preserved both his name and a workingman's perspective on the American transition from monarchy to republic.
Hewes, George R. T. [as told to James Hawkes]. A Retrospect of the Boston Tea-Party. New York: S. S. Bliss, 1834.
Hewes, George R. T., as told to "A Bostonian" [Benjamin Bussey Thatcher]. Traits of the Tea Party. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1835.
Young, Alfred F. The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.
J. L. Bell