Tar and Feathers in Revolutionary America

Benjamin H. Irvin
Brandeis University

In the spring of 1766, John Gilchrist, a Norfolk merchant and ship-owner, came to believe that Captain William Smith had reported his smuggling activities to British authorities. In retribution, Gilchrist and several accomplices captured Smith and, as he reported, "dawbed my body and face all over with tar and afterwards threw feathers on me." Smith's assailants, which included the mayor of Norfolk, then carted him "through every street in town," and threw him into the sea. Fortunately, Smith was rescued by a passing boat just as he was "sinking, being able to swim no longer."(1)

Tar and feathers was a very old form of punishment, but it does not appear to have ever been widely applied in England or in Europe.(2) Why Gilchrist and his allies chose to resurrect tar and feathers on this particular occasion historians can only surmise. Whatever their reasons, these Virginians inaugurated a new trend in colonial resistance, a trend that their New England neighbors would eagerly follow. Throughout New England, tar and feathers soon became the "popular Punishment for modern delinquents." By March, 1770, at least thirteen individuals had been feathered in the American colonies: eight in Massachusetts, two in New York, one in Virginia, one in Pennsylvania, and one in Connecticut. In all of these instances, the tar brush was reserved exclusively for customs inspectors and informers, those persons responsible for enforcing the Townshend duties on certain imported goods. Indeed, American patriots used tar and feathers to wage a war of intimidation against British tax collectors.

During this period of economic resistance, the practice of tarring and feathering began to take shape as a kind of folk ritual. The participants in this ritual usually consisted of sailors, apprentices, and young boys---those members of society who could be readily mobilized by protesting merchants. In these early days the victim was sometimes fortunate enough to be "genteely" tarred and feathered, that is, over the outer garments. Within Whig ideology, these personal assaults were warranted only because the colonists had been denied all legal avenues of redress, and they were justified only to the extent necessary to deter enforcement of customs duties.

This first tar and feathers campaign proved very successful. In conjunction with the nonimportation movement, tar and feather terrorism reduced Townshend duties' revenues below the costs of enforcement. In 1770, the British government recognized that the program was an abysmal failure, and it repealed the taxes on all imports but tea. As a result, the tarring and feathering of these loathed individuals came to a virtual halt. This is not to suggest, however, that the practice of tarring and feathering ceased entirely. To the contrary, tar and feathers had proven an effective deterrent, and patriot leaders quickly devised a new use for it. Before the repeal of the Townshend duties, when the colonists began to galvanize in their opposition to British taxes, Whig merchants coordinated a series of nonimportation agreements. To enforce these agreements, they then invoked the threat of tar and feathers. During this second phase of tarring and feathering, the practice changed significantly. Most notably, Boston mobs began to tar and feather an individual's property and effects rather than his body. Several persons' homes were tarred and feathered, as was at least one merchant's store. In Marlborough, a crowd went so far as to tar and feather the horse of merchant Henry Barnes.

As the possibility of war grew imminent, however, Boston leaders began to feel that they could no longer control the violent impulses of the mob. In the wake of the incendiary Tea Party, tarring and feathering mobs nearly killed a crotchety old British official named John Malcom, and they also assaulted four men who had stolen hospital blankets. Meanwhile, back in England, King George III watched indignantly as impertinent colonists abused his agents and officials. In Parliament, where debates raged over how best to punish the Bostonians, one member argued that "Americans were a strange sett of people, and that it was in vain to expect any degree of reasoning from them; that instead of making their claim by argument, they always chose to decide the matter by tarring and feathering."(3) Recognizing that unrestrained violence could only bring the American cause into ill repute, Boston leaders called a halt to the practice of tarring and feathering. The town that contemporaries called a "seminar[y] in the art," and the "Focus of tarring & feathering," now laid the practice to rest.(4)

In this resolve, however, Bostonians were alone. After 1773, mobs throughout the colonies continued to treat offenders to the "new-fashioned discipline." And, within this period, the meaning of tar and feathers continued to evolve. The punishment that had once been reserved for trade war culprits was increasingly applied to Tories and their sympathizers. In Georgia, New Jersey, and Connecticut, villagers were quick to feather any perceived "enemy to the rights of America." Tar and feathers were also put to use by the various local committees that formed throughout the colonies. In Charleston, the Secret Committee ordered the first South Carolina tarring and featherings for two men charged with disrespect towards the General Committee. Women also took part in this patriotic ritual. In the fall of 1777, for instance, the participants in a quilting bee seized a youth who dared to speak against the Continental Congress. For want of tar and feathers, these women applied molasses and "the downy tops of the flags that grew in the meadow."(5)

As the focus of tar and feathers shifted from informers to loyalists, the practice became more violent. In 1775, a physician named Abner Beebe was blistered by the hot tar poured upon him. The mob then "carried [him] to an Hog Sty & rubbed [him] over with Hogs [sic] Dung. They threw the Hog's Dung in his Face, & rammed some of it down his Throat."(6) In 1776, a Charleston mob committed a even grizzlier execution. According to the local paper:

John Roberts, a dissenting minister, was seized on suspicion of being an enemy to the rights of America, when he was tarred and feathered; after which, the populace, whose fury could not be appeased, erected a gibbet on which they hanged him, and afterwards made a bonfire, in which Roberts, together with the gibbet, was consumed to ashes.(7)

Over time, the increasing violence of the colonial crowds gave rise to a great deal of ambivalence towards tarring and feathering among patriot organizers. Colonial leaders recognized the injustice of persecuting individuals who had committed no crime against the colonies. For this reason, many leaders began urging the American people to put aside the practice of tarring and feathering. Even Thomas Paine argued that tarring and feathering ought to be abandoned.(8) Yet others resisted Paine's proposal. As late as 1779, a Providence correspondent asked the American people to "[d]etermine whether the application of tar and feathers be not more absolutely necessary at this day, than at any time heretofore!"(9)

Notwithstanding this debate, tarring and feathering continued throughout the war and even after it ended. "In the Jersies," wrote Peter Oliver, "they naturalize [returning loyalists] by tarring and feathering; and it costs them more in scrubbing and cleaning than an admission is worth, so that you know the fate of trading your natale solum."(10) Though the Revolution ended with the Treaty of Paris, Americans still felt the need to confirm themselves in their own patriotism and to subject those who had opposed them to a painful rite of reintegration.


  1. Captain William Smith to J. Morgan, Apr. 3, 1766, in William and Mary Quarterly, 1st Ser., XXI (1913), p. 167.
  2. The practice might even date as far back as antiquity. For more on its history, see Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor (New York, 1982), pp. 441-43; Frederick Mackenzie, The Diary of Frederick Mackenzie, I (Cambridge, 1930), p. 11; Walter Kendall Watkins, "Tarring and Feathering in Boston in 1770," Old-Time New England, XX (1929), p. 32; R.S. Longley, "Mob Activities in Revolutionary Massachusetts," New England Quarterly, VI (1933), pp. 113-15.
  3. Pennsylvania Gazette, June 29, 1774.
  4. Douglass Adair and John A. Shutz, eds., Peter Oliver's Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion: A Tory View (San Marino, 1963), 109; New York Packet, June 26, 1784.
  5. Boston Newsletter, Oct. 26, 1777.
  6. Adair and Shutz, Peter Oliver's Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion, p. 157.
  7. Gaine's Mercury, Dec. 2, 1776.
  8. Pennsylvania Gazette, Feb. 4, 1777.
  9. Pennsylvania Gazette, June 23, 1779.
  10. Thomas Hutchinson, The Diary and Letters of Thomas Hutchinson (Boston, 1886), p. 412.

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