Thursday, October 25, 2012

Anniversary: The Edenton Tea Party

October 25, 1774 is the anniversary of the Edenton Tea Party. It was inspired by the more famous Boston Tea Party, and is worthy of remembrance for at least two reasons. First, the “Edenton” in question is a town in North Carolina; hence, this event reminds us that revolutionary fervor was not confined to the Northeastern States, even if Boston and Philadelphia tend to steal the revolutionary limelight. Secondly, the Edenton Tea Party was a project undertaken entirely by women, and historians have noted that this is one of the earliest recorded instances of American women engaging in organized civil disobedience. 

Penelope Barker
“On October 25, 51 women -- members of the Edenton Ladies' Patriotic Guild -- gathered at the home of Penelope Barker and made this promise: ‘We, the Ladys of Edenton, do hereby solemnly engage not to conform to the Pernicious Custom of Drinking Tea ... We Ladys will not promote or wear of any manufacturer from England until such time that all the acts which tend to enslave our Native country be repealed’ (Copeland, 2000; p. 316).” They signed a petition and not only did they promise to boycott goods imported from Great Britain, but they set fire to the British tea they already owned. 

The members of the Edenton Ladies’ Patriotic Guild were courageous not only for speaking out against the British government; they were also courageous for engaging in an activity in which, in the eyes of society, women ought not to be involved. When the London press received word of the Edenton Tea Party, the women were harshly treated. An editorial cartoon depicted a dog urinating on one of the women signing the petition. Then, as now, news articles occasion published letters to the editor, and the author of one of these letters asserted that women do not have the mental capacity to concern themselves with politics. And, the author was quick to add, if these women were taking proper care of the household, they would not have the free time to get involved. 

In some, but not all, historical documents pertaining to the event, the name Hannah Iredell appears among the petitioners (source). This is noteworthy because Hannah was married to James Iredell, who worked tirelessly to convince his fellow North Carolinians to ratify the United State Constitution and became one of the first Associate Justices of the United States Supreme Court. And just as Abigail Adams and John Adams supported one another, it is apparent from their letters that James and Hannah Iredell supported one another as well.  

When the Edenton Ladies’ Patriotic Guild spoke of the American colonists being “enslaved” by Great Britain, it is a reminder of the fact that the tea parties which occurred in Boston, Edenton and elsewhere were not simply tax revolts as depicted in popular historical accounts. This is spelled out in James Iredell’s The Principles of an American Whig, a document which pre-dates and helped to inspire The Declaration of Independence.

Mr. Iredell declared, “ is now a principle ... that government being only the means of securing freedom and happiness to the people, whenever it deviates from this end, and their freedom and happiness are in great danger of being irrevocably lost, the government is no longer entitled to their allegiance, the only consideration for which it could be justly claimed or honorably pledged being basely and tyrannically withheld.” 

Let us be clear about this: a government is legitimate for as long as it promotes the “freedom and happiness” of its people. A government is able to provide for the welfare of the people provided that the interests of those who govern coincide with the interests of those who are governed. If members of government become corrupt and pursue their own separate interests, the energy of government will be spent enriching the corrupt and impoverishing the people. 

So it was never taxation per se which animated the War of Independence. It was the combination of two things: the taking of tax money, and the spending of that revenue on projects that benefited the governors and not the governed. The British spent the public treasury on a bloated military, even while failing to protect the American colonists from real dangers that faced them; they denied Americans opportunities to manufacture, and instead made Americans dependent upon foreign imports; they denied Americans the right to due process; they spied on law-abiding citizens; they blatantly rewarded their political allies with wealthy appointments. The American Whigs and the courageous women of Edenton did not wait until the boot of oppression was at their throats; they saw what the future held, and acted.

Copeland, D. (2000) Debating the Issues in Colonial Newspapers. Greenwood Press, Westport, CT

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this post.
    I was not aware of the Eadenton Tea Party, nor of Mr. and Mrs. Iredell.
    Always great to learn something new!