Bridgeman Art Library
Tax Collector Tarred and Feathered
Influence of Popular Direct Action in Revolutionary America
By Gary Crethers
In 1774 James Madison congratulates his college friend William Bradford on his success in intimidating a British tea merchant with tar and feathering if the merchant tried to land and sell his wares in the port of Philadelphia. Unlike the Boston radicals who had boarded a merchant ship and dumped the tea overboard, an action that Madison considered to be bold but not discrete (Brant 17-18). By this Madison is indicating an approval of imposing the tea boycott as agreed upon by the 1st Continental Congress that year, but not necessarily acts of vandalism or property destruction. Madison, an ardent nationalist, at that early stage was soon to become a major participant in creating the Constitution, but he did not trust the popular masses. Madison’s ambivalence led him and his allied Federalists into something of a political reaction in creating a very restricted version of constitutional democracy when it came to the participation of the polis at the constitutional convention. The popular masses, in direct action helped propel the nation into independence, but were subject to an elite consolidation of power due to the ideological and experiential influence of founders such as Benjamin Franklin and James Madison.
James Madison, by Charles Willson Peale, 1783
Benjamin Franklin a believer in virtuous order (Conner 16) found himself defending the mob in Boston to the British, “[I]n a country so frequent in mischievous Mobs and murderous Riots as this is [speaking of England], ‘tis surprising to find such Resentment of a trifling Riot in Boston…” (138). Franklin was a believer in the harmonious order promoted by four great qualities benevolence, happy mediocrity, productive labor and simplicity (15). In this he was opposed to mob action which he saw as disruptive of his harmonious order, yet at the same time he was an advocate of universal free male suffrage (134-135) and a unicameral legislature with Congress voted for by population not by state (113-114). As an early advocate of unity between the states with his Albany plan, Franklin was a nationalist just as much as Madison, but with a populist streak that perhaps was rooted in his experience as a poor migrant to Philadelphia who had only “a Dutch dollar, and a change of stockings in his pocket” (10). Franklin steeped in the classics reading from his friend James Logan’s library, at the time the “largest and finest collection of classical writings in Colonial America” (180), believed in translating the classics into English to make them available to all, and it was a major reason for his sponsorship of a lending library in Philadelphia (179-181).
Franklin was an advocate of the middling classes that was part of his meaning of happy mediocrity, as it meant not only that it was better not to aspire to extreme wealth or poverty (188). He opposed the emergence of American gentry, and was suspicious of the creation of an upper chamber in the legislature even though he agreed to it, largely because of “a Disposition among some of our people to commence an Aristocracy, by giving to the Rich a predominance in the government” (114). Franklin was considered to be the driving force behind the radical Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 which included no property requirement, all male taxpayers of at least one year residence who took an oath on the constitution and the bible could vote. This was seen as a victory of the “leather aprons” over the wealthy classes (Brunhouse 13-16, 235).
“Portrait of John Wilkes” by William Hogarth
The ambivalence towards the masses for Franklin was partially based in his experience trying to keep frontiersmen from unruly depredations of the Indians where “horrid riotings on our Frontiers” in which Indians were victims of “horrid Murthers” by whites in the course of “three atrocious Riots” (137). Also his observations in England of supporters of John Wilkes (a populist candidate for parliament) “knocking down all those who will not roar for Wilkes and liberty” (137). Franklin had a mistrust of parties, although David Hume in a letter to Adam Smith said of Franklin “I always knew him to be a very factious man” (151). Franklin had a fear of mobs and fractious parties while still being a pragmatic player in the political field.
19th century lithograph of the Paxton Boys’ massacre of the Indians at Lancaster.
Madison much younger than Franklin, a son of a wealthy landholder in Virginia, participated starting in 1774 in the affairs of the revolutionary movement. As a member of the “Orange County Revolutionary Committee” he participated in the destruction of pro-loyalist pamphlets from New York found in the hands of the tory rector of his church (Brant 15, 21). This was after the first Continental Congress determined to cut off all trade with Great Britain, publicizing and boycotting any violators. Georgia which rejected the trade ban was duly boycotted until they had a change of leadership joining the ban in 1775 (19-20). Mob violence soon was endemic across the colonies with a surge after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, where loyalists were forced to sign recantation statements, wanted posters were issued by the Patriot Committees of Safety (National Humanities Center, Loyalists II: Traitor! n. p.).
This violence had already become epidemic at least in New England according to Peter Oliver who wrote an appendix to his book Origin & Progress of the American Rebellion, where he lists mob attacks on Loyalists from August 1774 to February 1775 as evidence of the treatment he and his ilk had to endure, ending in his own exile to Halifax. Below is one such incident:
November 1774, David Dunbar of Halifax aforesaid, being an Ensign in the Militia, a Mob headed by some of the Select Men of the Town, demand[ed] his Colors [flags] of him. He refused, saying, that if his commanding Officer demanded them he should obey, otherwise he would not part with them: upon which they broke into his House by Force & dragged him out. They had prepared a sharp Rail to set him upon; & in resisting them they seized him (by his private parts) & fixed him upon the Rail, & was held on it by his Legs & Arms, & tossed up with Violence & greatly bruised so that he did not recover for some Time. They beat him, & after abusing him about two Hours he was obliged, in Order to save his Life, to give up his Colors
(Oliver, appendix 3).
Illustration from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn of the King and the Duke being tarred and feathered and ridden on a rail after attempting to perform “The Royal Nonesuch.”
Against a backdrop of a potentially violent populace, Nathaniel Hawthorn describes in his story “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” a young man watches as his uncle is tarred and feathered . The uncle was an aristocratic American working for the British government in 1730 Boston. His description of the setting is humorous and informative describing the mood of the people of Massachusetts:
The American people looked with most jealous scrutiny to the exercise of power, which did not emanate from themselves, and they usually rewarded the rulers with slender gratitude for the compliances by which, in softening their instructions from beyond the sea, they had incurred the reprehension of those who gave them. The annals of Massachusetts Bay will inform us, that of six governors, in the space of about forty years from the surrender of the old charter under James II, two were imprisoned by a popular insurrection; a third, as Hutchinson inclines to believe, was driven from the province by the whizzing of a musket ball; a fourth, in the opinion of the same historian, was hastened to his grave by continual bickerings with the House of Representatives; and the remaining two, as well as their successors till the Revolution, were favored with few and brief intervals of peaceful sway
Contemporary depiction of masked man tarring and feathering a British official.
Interestingly there was a Molienux in the Boston Tea Party who was “active in the actual direction of the riot. He was named as a participant, and unlike other Whig leaders, was not present in the Old South during the afternoon” (Hoeder 262). The lack of authority on the part of the British government is revealing in this case. Governor Hutchinson claims “I am in a helpless state’ because the council as well as the merchants in general ‘profess to disapprove of the tumultuous violent proceedings of the people but they wish to see the professed end of the people…attained in a regular way” (259). The sheriff is sent to disperse the gathering at the Old South Church. He is booed, and as Hutchinson said about ordering the judges sheriff to call out the posse, “no Justice dare to do it and no other Posse except the meeting itself would have appeared” (259). There were no British troops available and the only effective measure the government was able to take was the recalling of guns to the city armory (257). Hutchinson noted that the crowd was made up mostly of the lower orders, journeymen tradesmen and some “Gentlemen of Good Fortune” (258). Sam Adams rebuked the governor and claims “a free people had the right to assemble and consult, especially if they were injured and did so for their own safety” (260). So we see that in the prelude to the tea party, there was widespread involvement the authorities knew that there would be some kind of incident but they had no ability to react. There was debate and discussion. Action taken by the mob was not random or spontaneous for the most part. Guards had been posted to prevent the assembled mob of some 2000 to 3000 from taking advantage by grabbing some of the tossed tea for themselves. Benjamin Franklin like Madison did not approve of the destruction of private property “in as dispute about Public Rights” (263).
W. D. Cooper Wikimedia Commons
“Americans throwing Cargoes of the Tea Ships into the River, at Boston”
A different more spontaneous event is the Boston Massacre which according to Professor Freeman was instigated by a British soldier knocking down a boy who goes to complain to some adults “There is the son of a bitch who knocked me down.” These adults decide to go complain to the British at the barracks and then thing snowballed. Like the dangerous snowballs used by the colonials against the ‘poor’ British soldiers. A mob had formed because someone had rang the town hall fire bell, thinking there was a fire but soon became embroiled in a conflict with British troops. Freeman quotes from British General Gage’s report on how the colonists taunted and threw bricks and snowballs at the soldiers (Freeman, American Revolution part 6).
Paul Revere Engraving of Boston Massacre
According to Gordon Wood in his article “A Note on Mobs in the American Revolution,” states that “Mob rioting at one time or another paralyzed all the major cities; and in the countryside violent uprisings of aggrieved farmers periodically destroyed property, closed courts and brought governments to a halt” (Wood 635). In his article Wood argues that these American mobs were not exceptional, i.e. they were not better than European mobs because of some high political ideology and upper class direction. Instead he argues that they reflected the times and the struggles. Discussing the Gordon Riots of 1780 in England, Wood states, “The crowd’s motives were diverse and complicated, ranging from the seeking of ‘elementary social justice at the expense of the rich, les grands, and those in authority,’ to the devotion to political principles and generalized beliefs about man’s place in society” (Rudé qtd, in Wood 636-637). He uses this as an example of how the mobs were not mindlessly violent in Europe and conversely the American mobs were not of some senatorian gravity. Further information on the Gordon Riots indicate that they were a serious attempt on the part of Lord George Gordon to bring about an end to the war with America, and perhaps to effect a revolution that set London in turmoil (Gilmour 368).
A March to the Bank by James Gillray, 1787
“This image is commonly said to be Gillray’s protest against the considerable nuisance caused to pedestrians by a detachment of guards, known as the Bank Piquet, as it marched daily to the Bank of England.
The Piquet was formed in response to an attack on the Bank by a mob during the Gordon Riots of 1780. Soldiers’ shot on the rioters and a number were killed outside the Bank. Read in this context, Gillray’s satire can be thought to show the defenders of privilege and wealth, trampling the poor” Posted by: johngoto in AR Gilt City
Wood in his book Empire of Liberty describes factional fighting between Republicans and Federalists, sparked by the declaration of war in 1812, broke out in Baltimore. The mob of thirty to forty attacked and dismantled the Federalist newspaper which had been aggressively opposed to the war. They told the mayor to stand aside as they had no quarrel with him. “This mob had been acting in a traditionally eighteenth century manner, enforcing what it took to be natural standards of the community” (Wood 337). Subsequently the city erupted in violence. A mob was about to use a canon on the Federalists headquarters where “two dozen of Maryland’s elite” were holed up, after several of the mob had been shot. The authorities intervened and the Federalists were escorted on foot to jail where the angry Republicans burst in that night and stabbed and beat the Federalists, “tearing off their genteel clothes, the most conspicuous symbol of their aristocratic status.” One of them Light Horse Harry Lee subsequently was crippled and another general from the revolution James Lingan died from his wounds. These mobs were “to act against elites precisely because they were elites.” President Madison, when informed of this unrest by Secretary of State Monroe, declined to act (Wood 337-338). This violence taking an increasingly partisan party character with clear class distinctions was something that Franklin had seen in England that he abhorred. “Shun Party – Wrangling, mix not in Debate With Bigots in Religion or the State” (Conner 151).
Gracchus, tribune of the people, wood engraving from 1873, from a play by Adolf von Wiibrandt
The founders raised reading the classics were imbued with a fear of the mob that came with the reading of Appian, Cicero, Plutarch and Sallust among others. These tales of the Roman Civil Wars, starting with the Gracchus, who in their appeal to the masses, brought violence to the Senate (Appian 1-20). The Catiline Conspiracy in Sallust, John Adam’s favorite author (Richard 21, 25). The sectarian battles in the period of the first Triumverate especially the murder of Publius Clodius Pulcher a populist, by Cicero’s friend Milo; in his Pro Milone, defense of his friend Cicero typically indicates his bravery in defending Milo when the mob was against him:
For those guards which you behold in front of all the temples, although they are placed there as a protection against violence, yet they bring no aid to the orator, so that even in the forum and in the court of justice itself, although we are protected with all military and necessary defences, yet we cannot be entirely without fear. But if I thought this adverse to Milo, I should yield to the times, O judges, and among such a crowd of armed men, I should think there was no room for an orator. But the wisdom of Cnaeus Pompeius, a most wise and just man, strengthens and encourages me, who would certainly neither think it suitable to his justice to deliver that man up to the weapons of the soldiery whom he had given over as an accused person to the decision of the judges, nor suitable to his wisdom to arm the rashness of an excited multitude with public authority
The death of Tiberius Gracchus, 132 B.C.E. Steel engraving, 19th century
Cicero was an important source for any reader of the classics in colonial America. Sam Adams even signed one protest against “the British maintenance of a standing army ‘Cedant Arma Togae’ (let weapons yield to the toga), a slogan popular with Roman republicans like Cicero who had insisted upon tight civilian control of the military” (Richard 39). This fear of a standing army is reflected in the Articles of Confederation and informs the attitude of Washington to civil authority. Washington set the precedent stating “I am not fond of stretching my powers and if Congress will say thus far and no farther you shall go, I will promise not to offend…” (Ellis 36). The Roman civil wars ending with the story of the attempt on the part of Cesar to seize the Republic, Brutus and the Ides of March conspiracy, Antony having Cicero murdered. Octavian’s revenge and the subsequent loss of the Republic and rise of empire. The narrative is of a loss of a noble republic due to popular sentiments getting out of hand, the demos being thus a potential threat to republican values, being swayed by demagoguery and military dictatorship sealing the fate of the Roman republic.
Death of Caesar, by Vincenzo Camuccini
Michael Parenti, takes the case even further, in his The Assassination of Julius Caesar, “As with Polybus and Cicero, so with Aristotle, and so with the framers of the United States Constitution in 1787 (who were heavily influenced by their reading of the classics and their own propertied class concerns) – all have been mindful of the leveling threats of democratic forces and the need for a constitutional “mix” that allows only limited participation of the demos, with the dominant role allotted to an elite executive power” (Parenti 56-57). While it may not have been precisely the leveling effect the founders feared, after all Franklin, although well to do, was a great believer in economic opportunity and general equality. “Government was to provide a setting for the orderly evolution of social virtue and the peaceful resolution of social friction” (Conner 111). But certainly there was among the founders, especially “The Federalists, increasingly obsessed with the need to stem disorder in America and continuing to cling to a notion of political representation that depended heavily on deference, were most obviously working within a traditional and elitist conception of republicanism” (Beeman 9).
Thus when Franklin’s wife is threatened by a mob who though that Franklin was benefiting from the Stamp Act while he was in London, the fear of the mob becomes something of direct concern (Conner 11). Madison desiring an American response to British banning American trade with the British West Indies, was instrumental in gaining support for a convention on trade to be held in Annapolis in 1786. The delegates using an opening provided by the New Jersey delegation proposed a conference of all the states to consider adjustments to the Articles of Confederation. Madison would have had difficulty gaining passage for Virginia had a strong ant-federalist faction, among whom Governor Patrick Henry was a leader. Were it not for the Shays Rebellion in which alarming reports from War Secretary Knox led Washington to described the Shayites leading unprovoked “disaffected and desperate characters to involve this rising empire in wretchedness and contempt” (Brant 69). With Madison finding such rebellion intolerable and Washington stating “thirteen independent sovereignties pulling against each other…will soon bring ruin upon the whole” (69), the Virginia Congress passed the resolution for a convention in 1787, setting the stage for the Constitutional Convention. Madison according to Freeman in her lectures on the American Revolution decided to study all types of government across all time to determine what would be best and then he went about creating his Virginia plan (Freeman, American Revolution lecture 1).
The Shays Rebellion, indebted farmers, led by Daniel Shays, a war veteran and an officer, was due to Massachusetts farmers being forced to pay 25-40% interest on farm loans and defaulters being sent en masse to prison (68). The rebels first tried petitioning the State for redress, failing that they organized and occupied courthouses freeing debtors for prison. The militia called out by Congress to fight them refused to fight. Ultimately merchants had to raise a private militia and then suppress the rebellion with canon fire. Wood makes the point that in the 1780’s there were serious riots in Charleston, Boston, Philadelphia, and New Haven, and that these were people seeking extra legal means of redress of their grievances. The odd thing about the Shay’s rebellion was that it failed to get the grievances of the rioters or rebels addressed (Wood 639). It is the most well-known rebellion and also the one that failed.
For the Federalists or Nationalists, this was crucial in pushing the wavering into supporting the creation of a more powerful central government. Joseph Ellis in his American Creation notes that Madison thought that the failure of the Confederation Congress to send federal troops to put down the rebellion “represented a failure of national will that endangered the very survival of the American republic. However misguided, these were sincere convictions on Madison’s part, rooted as they were in the genuine belief that ‘the spirit of 76,’ with its reflexive resistance to any coercive expression of governmental authority, was incompatible with any viable national union” (Ellis 96-97). Franklin writing to foreign friends described Shays rebellion as “part of America’s ‘little disorders’ as the result of a few errors which crept into the state and national constitutions during the confusion of war” (Conner 133). One of the final letters of Franklin indicate something of the nature of the American situation at the end of his life, “We have been guarding against an evil that old States are most liable to, excess of power, in the rulers; but our present danger seems to be defect of obedience in the subjects” (146).
The influence of mass popular action upon the founders in reality and in imagination was a palpable influence on the Virginia Plan of Madison presented by James Randolph at the Constitutional Convention on May 29th 1787. He proposed a bicameral legislature, with only the lower house being elected. “[R]ights of suffrage in the National Legislature ought to be proportioned to the Quotas of contribution, or to the number of free inhabitants, as the one or the other rule may seem best in different cases” (Avalon Project Variant Texts). The upper house was to be selected by the lower house, the executive selected by combined houses and a judiciary to be selected by the same. This recommended limited franchise can be seen as being in part a direct result of the fear of mob violence.
Franklin at the Constitutional Convention 1787 by Joseph Boggs Beale
Franklin who would have preferred a unicameral legislature and advocated for a more expansive electorate was sidelined. He had seen his experiment in a more expanded franchise in the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, become reined in by the time of the Constitutional Convention as more conservative nationalist voices predominated. Nationally the loose Confederation was transformed into a centralized national Republic. The mob or popular masses restricted from participation, never have been completely shut out and since the time of the revolution there has been tension between the popular will and the elite desire to restrict and control the polity of the US.
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—. Empire of Liberty A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. Oxford: Oxford U. Press. 2009. Print.
Mob From French Revolution in Dickens Tale of Two Cities