As a ritual of political protest, tarring and feathering originated in the American colonies in the late 1760s. Initially, the punishment was meted out against customs officers and their informants, the men who helped collect taxes on imported goods. Later, after the colonies implemented a series of boycotts, known as nonimportation and nonconsumption campaigns, tar-and-feathers was used to intimidate persons who violated those boycotts. After the destruction of the tea in December 1773, Boston leaders called an end to tarring and feathering, so as not to bring the resistance movement into disrepute. But elsewhere in the colonies, tarring and feathering continued. In 1775-1776, tar-and-feathers was used to punish persons who opposed the Continental Congress or spoke ill toward the cause of Independence.
The tables below are adapted from Benjamin H. Irvin, "Tar, Feathers, and the Enemies of American Liberties, 1768–1776," New England Quarterly, 76 (June 2003), 197–238.
Questions for students:
How did the ritual of tarring and feathering change over time?
What persons were responsible for the tarring?
Whom, or what, were being tarred?
Why were they being tarred?
Where were they being tarred?
What does this changing ritual have to tell us about the American Revolution?
How did this ritual impact British perceptions of the Revolution, as manifest in political cartoons on the subject?
Known Incidents of Tarring-and-Feathering in British North America, March 1766-November 1769
Printed in England in 1774, this image depicted violent protests in the American colonies. The image offers a medley of distinct historical events. In the background, the citizens of Boston dump tea in the harbor. From the Liberty Tree hang a noose and also a copy of the Stamp Act, upside down as a sign of derision. The Sons of Liberty force a tarred-and-feathered tax man to drink tea. On the ground in the fore is a liberty cap atop a liberty pole. What rank of men is committing the violent act? What does the cartoon suggest about the nature of American resistance?
A New Method of Macarony Making as Practiced at Boston (London, 1774). A “macarony” is a fop or a dandy: an overly stylish man who pays too much attention to his clothing. What new fashion is depicted here? What rank of men is committing the violence? What other symbolism may be found in the image? Note: The “45” on the Patriot’s cap represents issue #45 of the newspaper, The North Briton, published by the outspoken radical John Wilkes. In issue #45, Wilkes criticized King George III and his ministry, and after the King ordered him imprisoned, Wilkes became a hero to opposition leaders in England and America. “Wilkes, Liberty and Number 45” became a popular rallying cry. Image available: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?ils:4:./temp/~pp_CDSY::@@@mdb=fsaall,app,brum,detr,swann,look,gottscho,pan,horyd,genthe,var,cai,cd,hh,yan,bbcards,lomax,ils,prok,brhc,nclc,matpc,iucpub,tgmi,lamb
This simple image, which dates to the 1770s, depicts a Patriot with his tarred-and-feathered victim tied by the legs. Who has given the Patriot the idea to commit such an act of violence? Image available: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?ils:13:./temp/~pp_CDSY::@@@mdb=fsaall,app,brum,detr,swann,look,gottscho,pan,horyd,genthe,var,cai,cd,hh,yan,bbcards,lomax,ils,prok,brhc,nclc,matpc,iucpub,tgmi,lamb
This broadside, or poster, appeared in Philadelphia in late 1773. The broadside was published by the mysterious “Committee for Tarring and Feathering” as a warning to Delaware pilots, who were responsible for guiding trade ships from the Atlantic Ocean up the Delaware River to Philadelphia. The committee admonished these pilots, on penalty of tar and feathers, not to steer ships loaded with British tea up to market.
Advertisements such as these occasionally appeared in the Boston newspapers in the early 1770s to remind townspeople not to cross the Sons of Liberty. Are these advertisements funny? Scary? Both? Would you have been intimidated by this sort of tactic?