Oliver Wendell Holmes

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Aug 29, 1809 - Oct 7, 1894


A Ballad Of The Boston Tea-Party

by Oliver Wendell Holmes

The Boston Tea-Party

No! never such a draught was poured
Since Hebe served with nectar
The bright Olympians and their Lord,
Her over-kind protector, --
Since Father Noah squeezed the grape
And took to such behaving
As would have shamed our grandsire ape
Before the days of shaving, --
No! ne'er was mingled such a draught
In palace, hall, or arbor,
As freemen brewed and tyrants quaffed
That night in Boston Harbor!
It kept King George so long awake
His brain at last got addled,
It made the nerves of Britain shake,
With sevenscore millions saddled;
Before that bitter cup was drained,
Amid the roar of cannon,
The Western war-cloud's crimson stained
The Thames, the Clyde, the Shannon;
Full many a six-foot grenadier
The flattened grass had measured,
And many a mother many a year
Her tearful memories treasured;
Fast spread the tempest's darkening pall
The mighty realms were troubled,
The storm broke loose, but first of all
The Boston teapot bubbled!

An evening party, -- only that,
No formal invitation,
No gold-laced coat, no stiff cravat,
No feast in contemplation,
No silk-robed dames, no fiddling band,
No flowers, no songs, no dancing, --
A tribe of Red men, axe in hand, --
Behold the guests advancing!
How fast the stragglers join the throng,
From stall and workshop gathered!
The lively barber skips along
And leaves a chin half-lathered;
The smith has flung his hammer down, --
The horseshoe still is glowing;

The truant tapster at the Crown
Has left a beer-cask flowing;
The cooper's boys have dropped the adze,
And trot behind their master;
Up run the tarry ship-yard lads, --
The crowd is hurrying faster, --
Out from the Millpond's purlieus gush
The streams of white-faced millers,
And down their slippery alleys rush
The lusty young Fort-Hillers;
The ropewalk lends its 'prentice crew, --
The tories seize the omen:
Ay, boys, you'll soon have work to do
For England's rebel foemen,
'King Hancock,' Adams, and their gang,
That fire the mob with treason, --
When these we shoot and those we hang
The town will come to reason.

On -- on to where the tea-ships ride!
And now their ranks are forming, --
A rush, and up the Dartmouth's side
The Mohawk band is swarming!
See the fierce natives! What a glimpse
Of paint and fur and feather,
As all at once the full-grown imps
Light on the deck together!
A scarf the pigtail's secret keeps,2
A blanket hides the breeches, --
And out the cursed cargo leaps,
And overboard it pitches!
O woman, at the evening board
So gracious, sweet, and purring,
So happy while the tea is poured,
So blest while spoons are stirring,
What martyr can compare with thee,
The mother, wife, or daughter,
That night, instead of West Bohea,
Condemned to milk and water!

Ah, little dreams the quiet dame
Who plies with rock and spindle
The patient flax, how great a flame
You little spark shall kindle!
The lurid morning shall reveal
A fire no king can smother
Where British flint and Boston steel
Have clashed against each other!
Old charters shrivel in its track,
His Worship's bench has crumbled,
It climbs and clasps the union-jack,
Its blazoned pomp is humbled,
The flags go down on land and sea
Like corn before the reapers;
So burned the fire that brewed the tea
That Boston served her keepers!

The waves that wrought a century's wreck
Have rolled o'er whig and tory;
The Mohawks on the Dartmouth's deck
Still live in song and story;
The waters in the rebel bay
Have kept the tea-leaf savor;
Our old North-Enders in their spray
Still taste a Hyson flavor;
And Freedom's teacup still o'erflows
With ever fresh libations,
To cheat of slumber all her foes
And cheer the wakening nations!


Notes to the poem:

1 1773, December 14. The attempt of the British government to tax the American Colonies when they had no representation in Parliament had been strenuously resisted. A bill repealing all duties excepting a duty of three pence a pound on tea had been passed by Parliament. But the colonists, believing that a tax was an infringement of their rights, resolved that England should not succeed in collecting any duties whatever.

Three tea-ships came to Boston. The master of the first which arrived was persuaded to consent to take his freight back to England. But the collector held that he could give no clearance until the imported cargo was landed and the legal duties paid. The master then applied to the governor for a pass to prevent his being stopped at the Castle. But the governor said no such pass could be legally given till a clearance had been obtained at the Custom-house. While the master was on this errand to the governor's country house at Milton the inhabitants of Boston were assembled in town-meeting at the Old South Church. When the answer was brought back, which was not till after dark, a shout was heard without, and a body of some fifty men, roughly dressed as (Mohawk) Indians, passed down Milk Street to the wharf where the tea ships lay. The meeting at the church was immediately dissolved, and a portion of the assembly following, stood by as a guard against interruption, while the disguised party did their work. They passed up from the holds of the vessels some three hundred and fifty chests of tea, broke them open with hatchets, and poured their contents into the dock. The next morning all was quiet. The doers of the bold act remained unknown. The governor went to the Castle for a night. He thought of issuing a proclamation, but concluded that it would only be ridiculed. He could get no encouragement from his Council to take any measure. -- Palfrey's History of New England.

2At this time, 1773, and until near the end of the century, it was the fashion to wear wigs tied in a queue (pigtail) behind.


Grandmother's Story And Other Poems
Copyright 1888
Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company