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This Day in History: An unsung hero at the Boston Tea Party

On this day in 1777, one of the organizers of the Boston Tea Party passes away. You’ve probably never heard of Dr. Thomas Young. He was one of those little-known heroes who operated behind the scenes during our Revolution. In fact, one historian calls him “unquestionably the most unwritten about man of distinction of the American Revolution.”


What would we have done without so many of these “little-known heroes”? They made our Revolution possible.

Indeed, one of Young’s contemporaries, Royal Tyler, once told a story that described Young’s importance to the cause. Tyler was looking at a watch that appeared to be in perfect working condition, but it wouldn’t work. Then the watchmaker took “a little dirty Pin, scarcely visible to my naked sight, blew off the Dust and screwed it into a particular Part of the Wheelwork. The watch then clicked in an instant, and went very well.”


“This little dirty Screw,” Tyler concluded, was like “Dr. Young in the Town of Boston.” He was “necessary.”


Young was an early and consistent supporter of the Patriot cause. As early as 1766, he was in Boston, working with the likes of Samuel Adams. He was a vocal leader and maybe a bit of a rabble rouser. Indeed, the Royal Governor often said that Young was one of the most dangerous men in town.

The episode you will recognize came in 1773.


An unwanted load of tea was sitting in Boston harbor. Americans wanted to return the tea to England, without paying the controversial Tea Tax, but the Royal Governor wouldn’t allow that. A town hall meeting was held on November 29, 1773. At the meeting, Young suggested an unusual idea: Why not dump the tea in the harbor?


The idea took hold.


Young didn’t participate in the Boston Tea Party personally, but it appears that he was helping in another way. On the evening of the Tea Party, Young was talking to a large crowd at a local meeting house. He was delivering a satirical speech on the health risks associated with drinking tea! It appears to have been a distraction, intended to keep people away from the harbor.


So why don’t we know more about Young? There are a few theories, but some historians blame the fact that Young was a vocal Deist at a time when that was less accepted.


Interesting. We’ve all heard some historians claim that our Founders were merely Deists—not really that religious. But, in this case, some historians claim that Young was forgotten because he took the then-unpopular step of being a Deist. Hmmm. Those two claims seem at odds with each other, don’t they?

In any event, at least one religious Patriot was ready to defend Young’s freedom of conscience. Samuel Adams published a letter defending Young late in 1772.


Adams began by noting the “political integrity” of Young. “[He] has ever been an unwearied assertor of the rights of his countrymen: has taken the post of hazard, and acted vigorously in the cause of American freedom: Such endeavours and exertions, have justly entitled him to the notice, to the confidence of the people.”


Young unfortunately passed away long before America had won her freedom. At the time of his death, he was serving as a surgeon in a military hospital. He died of a “virulent fever,” a man who gave much but whose deeds mostly never made their way into history books.

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