Sunday, February 11, 2018

Episode 031: Wilkes and Liberty & Tar and Feathers

Last week, we discussed the growing crisis in Boston.  But that was not the only issue on London’s agenda.

In 1768 France invaded the island of Corsica, which had been part of Genoa.  The people of Corsica rose up to resist and requested help from Britain.  Prime Minister Grafton, more focused on the American colonies, failed to act decisively, allowing France to take control.  This failure earned Grafton criticism at home for being too weak and encouraging France to become more aggressive.  Though they had no reason to know it at the time, the failure to keep Corsica independent of France would have great consequences a generation later.  The next year, in 1769, a Corsican couple, Carlo and Maria Bonaparte would give birth to their son Napoleon as a French citizen.

John Wilkes Returns

There was also a domestic uproar in England.  You may recall back in Episode 16, I discussed the radical Whig John Wilkes.  He had to flee to France in 1763 after attacking the King’s speech.  Wilkes returned from France in 1768, mostly to escape debts that he had run up in that country.  On his return, he ran for Parliament again.  He also had to face the consequences of being convicted in absentia for seditious libel.

John Wilkes
(from Wikimedia)
Wilkes both won his election and went to prison.  Wilkes remained incredibly popular in his district, among commoners nationwide, and also in the colonies.  One place he was not popular though, was in Parliament itself. During its 1768-69 session, Parliament expelled Wilkes three times, only to see him re-elected each time.  In the third election, in February 1769, Wilkes, still in prison, won with over 80% of the vote.  This time, Parliament decided to seat his opponent.  Members reasoned that the losing candidate had the most votes of any “qualified” candidate.  Opponents asked, what’s the point of holding elections if you can simply seat the loser because you don’t like the winner?

The fact that the King and the government hated Wilkes only seemed to make him more popular with the people.  An estimated 15,000 supporters demonstrated in the fields outside Wilkes’ prison, demanding that authorities free him.  The protesters posted a demand on the prison wall.  The text of the note does not survive, but one reader said it “talked about liberty” and another called it “the raving of some patriotic bedlamite.”  As an interesting aside, the term “patriot” in England at the time referred to someone who disrupted government activities.  It was an epithet, not a compliment.

When authorities tore down the document, the crowd turned violent and began throwing rocks.  Officials read them the riot act and called out a troop of grenadiers.  The soldiers fired on the crowd, killing six and wounding another fifteen. Protesters called it the St. George’s Fields Massacre.

Wilkes served nearly two years on prison, making his case a major political  issue for most of 1768 and 1769.  While still in prison, voters elected him an alderman of London.  Upon his release in March 1770, they elected him sheriff of London.

Whigs in the colonies made out Wilkes to be a hero of almost mythical proportions.  A popular Whig toast at the time was “Wilkes and Liberty.”  He became the personification of the fight for basic liberties for which the colonies were also fighting. While in prison, he corresponded with colonial groups, including several Sons of Liberty organizations.  Several colonies sent him gifts to make his imprisonment more comfortable, or to assist with his legal challenges.

In 1769 the South Carolina Assembly borrowed £1500 from the treasury to donate to a charity supporting Wilkes.  When they later attempted to appropriate money to repay the loan, the crown-appointed council vetoed the appropriation.  This led to a stand-off that prevented the colony from appropriating any taxes after 1769.  The fight broadened in 1771 at which time they could pass no laws at all.  This standoff lasted until the Colony created a new provincial Congress in 1775.

London Refuses to Back Down

While distracted by affairs in Europe and the political firestorm over Wilkes, the ministry still had to focus on the effect the colonial non-importation agreements were having on the British economy. That, and other colonial resistance from rioters and political organizing that bordered on treason definitely required attention.

Grafton’s government could not agree on how to deal with the colonies.  A sizable group, apparently including Grafton himself, favored a full repeal of the Townshend Acts.  They argued a return to the status quo would return trade and end the protests over what was almost nothing in taxes.  The Cabinet held an informal vote in May 1769.  They narrowly rejected a full repeal.  Had this close vote gone the other way, it is likely that the dispute with the colonies might have ended, or at least been delayed for decades.  But it did not, and the rift continued to grow.

Everyone in the ministry agreed, though, that something had to be done.  The more hardline members of the Cabinet rejected full repeal.  They thought, probably correctly, that backing down a second time after the Stamp Act reversal, would only make the colonies demand even more policy changes.

The majority was willing to remove duties on the manufactured goods.  After all, they wanted to encourage export of British manufactured goods to the colonies.  At the same time, they wanted to retain the tea tax.  This would make clear that Parliament had the authority to impose such duties, and that the colonies would have to respect that.  Even so, they would not implement any of these changes until the following year.

Drawing and Quartering of
Thomas Armstrong for
Treason, 1683.  Use of this
punishment was rare, but did
happen as late as the 1780s.
 (from Wikimedia)
The Administration then tried a little carrot and stick diplomacy.  Officials leaked the discussions of repeal to London merchants, knowing that word would quickly reach the colonies via informal lines of communication. They also let it be known that they planned to apply the Treason Act to colonists who persisted in opposing the authority of Parliament.

The Treason Act dated from the reign of Henry VIII and was definitely old school.  An accused traitor could be brought to London and thrown in the Tower.  If found guilty at trial, all of his family’s properties would be forfeited to the King.  The traitor would be hanged by the neck, then cut down while still alive.  Next, he would be disemboweled using metal hooks, again while still alive.  Finally, he would be beheaded, then his body chopped into quarters and made available to the King for use as he saw fit.

This only seemed to increase colonial protests.  Virginia and others drafted petitions condemning the removal of accused traitors to England for trial.  That was a violation of their liberties. Indications that the government might back down on the Townshend Acts the following year, only encouraged the colonies to hang in there with non-importation agreements.

Lord North becomes Prime Minister

Grafton’s ministry could not reach a consensus on how to resolve the colonial problems.  If his own ministry was divided, Parliament generally showed even less interest in doing anything to mollify the colonists.  In January 1770 Parliament rejected Grafton’s requests for an inquiry to consider the ongoing complaints of the colonies.  Seeing that his conciliatory approach was going nowhere, Prime Minister Grafton resigned his office on January 28, 1770.  Lord North, leader of the hardliners, succeeded him as Prime Minister.

Lord North
(from Wikimedia)
North became only the second Tory to serve as Prime Minister, the first being the Earl of Bute.  Although politics was not strictly partisan at this time, North clearly brought a more autocratic and heavy handed colonial policy than did his predecessors.  Prior to his appointment, North had not been particularly outspoken on the colonies.  He had voted against the repeal of the Stamp Act and in Grafton’s ministry had opposed a repeal of the Townshend Acts.  With North in charge of the government and Hillsborough in charge of colonial affairs, Britain moved toward a much more confrontational policy toward the recalcitrant colonies.

I introduced Lord North a couple of episodes back, and will certainly have more to say about him and future episodes.  But this would prove to end any chance of a compromise acceptable to the colonists. 

Tar and Feathers

I want to turn my attention back to America.  I’ve been discussing mob activity for the last few episodes, but have not had a chance to discuss the practice of tarring and feathering.  The practice, long associated with the Revolution, needs some explanation.  Between 1768 and 1770, it became common tactic against customs informers.

The practice of tarring and feathering goes back to the middle ages.  Typically, this was not a government punishment.  It was something that a group of commoners did to one of their own in order to punish and humiliate them, not kill them.  Many instances therefore, may not be documented.  However, the colonists did not seem to be familiar with the practice until the 1760s.

Typically, the tar used was sap from pine trees.  When heated over about 140 degrees F, the sap becomes liquid.  Ship makers and sailors used hot pine tar to waterproof ships, sails, and ropes, so it was a common commodity in seaports.

Feathers were also readily available.  Birds slaughtered for food had their feathers removed.  These normally would be used for pillows and cushions.

Sometimes attackers would strip the victim, applying the tar directly to his skin.  This would cause painful blistering and would be extremely difficult and painful to remove, but not deadly.  Sometimes they would apply the tar over the clothing, making it less painful and easier to remove, but still humiliating.

With the tar still hot, the mob would roll the victim in a pile of feathers or simply dump a bag of feathers over him.  The drying tar would hold the feathers all over his body.  Frequently, they would then carry the victim around town and subject him to public ridicule. People would often jeer, spit, throw rotten eggs, or otherwise express their derision as the tormentors put the tarred and feathered victim on public display.

The first known victim of tarring and feathering in the colonies was a ship captain named William Smith in Norfolk, Virginia.   In 1766, a Norfolk merchant and ship-owner named John Gilchrist came to believe that Smith had reported contraband aboard one of his ships, the Vigilant.

According to Smith, a group of men assaulted him, covered his body with tar, threw feathers all over him.  They then carted him through the city streets of Norfolk to face the jeering crowds who threw stones at him.  Finally they threw him into the ocean where he claims he would have drowned if not rescued by a passing ship.  Smith also specifically named the Mayor of Norfolk as participating in the actions against him.

Use of Tar and Feathers in Boston 
(from Journal of the American Revolution)
In 1768, the New England Sons of Liberty decided to use the technique to punish informants who cooperated with the Customs Board.  Some of the details seem to be a little hazy.  In the summer of 1768, an unidentified group tarred and feathered an unnamed informant in Salem, Massachusetts.  In September, in two separate incidences, John Row and Robert Wood received a tar and feathering. An account of Robert Wood’s punishment says he was stripped naked, tarred and feathered, then forced to sit on a hogshead under the Tree of Liberty in the town commons.  Again, both took place in Salem, allegedly for reporting customs violations to the authorities.

On September 10, Patriots in Newburyport, Massachusetts tarred and feathered Joshua Vickery and Francis Magno.  Again, the accused allegedly informed authorities about customs violations.  According to one account, men placed Vickery in the village stocks for two hours.  Next they carried him through town in a cart so that people could pelt him with rocks and eggs.  His captors held him overnight.  In the morning they tore out his hair.  They then forced him to pull a horse cart through town, again subjecting him to public attacks.  He and Magno, who was also stripped naked and tarred and feathered, were then taken to jail where they were prosecuted for breach of the peace.

The arrival of soldiers in Boston in October 1768 seemed to eliminate more overt mob activities.  The only other incident I could find for nearly a year, happened in Providence, Rhode Island on May 29, 1769.  Jesse Saville was accused of providing information to the customs house.  Rather than an open attack, it seems a group grabbed Saville in secret at night, covered him with turpentine and feathers, then beat him severely.  I’ve also read accounts of a “Jesse Savil” being tarred and feathered in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1770.  It’s not clear if this is the same event with confused facts, or a second attack, possibly on the same person.  Some records indicate that Saville was a customs officer, and therefore might have been a target of multiple attacks.

In September 1769. Nathan Smith of New Haven, Connecticut informed customs officials that a prominent merchant had been smuggling rum.  A few weeks later, Smith found himself in the hands of a mob.  They put him in a cart, carried him through town and forced him to announce to the public that he was “a liar, an informer, and a pest to society.”  After this, they covered him in tar and feathers, after which they allowed him to return home.

In October in New York City, several men, one name Mitchner, another named Kelly, and possibly one or two more, informed authorities about some illegally imported wine.  A few days later, a mob caught up with them, applied tar and feathers and carted them through town.  Eventually authorities were able to break up the mob and release the men.

That same month Philadelphia mobs tarred and feathered another alleged informer, whose identity is not known.  Local accounts say the accused was ducked, placed in a pillory, then tarred, feathered, and paraded through the streets for about two hours.

On October 28, 1769, Boston held its first tar and feather event.  George Gailer had been a sailor aboard the HMS Liberty, now working to catch smugglers.  After radicals sank the Liberty, Gailer got a job on another merchant vessel, which authorities raided for smuggling.  Patriots believed Gailer had informed on his own ship

A mob grabbed Gailer, stripped him, applied the tar and feathers, then carried him around town for around three hours.  The mob, estimated at between 1000 and 1500 forced Gailer to hold a lantern as they paraded him around town at night.  The mob also demanded that all residents put a candle in their window to show support.  Just in case you thought this was voluntary, any darkened windows received a barrage of rocks.

As they carted him around town, beating Gailer with sticks and stones, they also attacked the homes of several other Tories.  They even paraded Gailer past the customs house, where an armed sentry stood guard. The threw stones through the windows of the customs house and threatened to hoist the guard onto the cart alongside Gailer.  In the end though, they left the frightened guard at his post.  Eventually, the mob led Gailer to the Liberty Tree where they forced him to take an oath promising never to inform again and thanking the mob for its leniency in not killing him.  Eventually, they released him, returned his clothes and allowed him to return home.

Gailer tried to bring charges against several of the assailants whom he recognized.  According to some accounts, there was a criminal trial at which they were found not guilty, though it probably did not get to trial because a Boston Grand Jury would never indict. Gailer also brought a civil suit against seven of his attackers.  He sued for damages of £2000, but the case never appears to have made it to trial.

Some historians report another event in Boston in November, where a mob tarred and feathered a man for “causing a woman to be harassed by soldiers.”  I have not been able to find any more details on this event.  If anyone knows any more about this, please let me know.

In May 1770, after the army pulled out of Boston, Owen Richards, who worked for the Customs Board, refused a bribe and tried to seize the schooner Martin.  While a group of men tarred and feathered Richards, another group unloaded the Martin and spirited away the contraband. Richards was held for more than six hours, probably the time it took to unload the Martin, during which time the men carted him around town.  Eventually, the mob set his feathers on fire, causing more serious harm.  Richards survived and filed a civil suit for £1000, again I have not been able to determine the outcome of that suit.

The Sons of Liberty took up another tactic: tarring and feathering buildings.  Merchants and others who violated the non-importation agreements in 1770 often found the outside of their shops covered in tar and feathers.  This was a lesser form of attack, more vandalism than assault.  But it also served as a warning to the victim that worse punishments could come if they did not change their ways.  Sometimes, instead of tar and feathers, they would decorate the houses with excrement.

As tensions began to subside in late 1770, we see a drop in the use of tar and feathering.  However, it will make comeback in 1773 and 1774 after the Boston Tea Party ratchets up tensions again.  The practice continued throughout the war, usually against Tories, or others who somehow objected to the Patriot movement.  There are also cases well into the 1800's and even the 1900's of its use against people who drew public condemnation for various behaviors.

During this time period though, it was never used against high ranking officials, only informants or very low level customs officials who were seen as snitches.  While painful and humiliating, it was not fatal.

I will mention future tar and feathering events as they arise in our timeline.  But I thought it a good idea to give this background now, as we enter the 1770’s.

Next Week, New Yorkers fight with British regulars at the battle of Golden Hill.

Next Episode 32: The Battle of Golden Hill

Previous Episode 30: The Occupation of Boston

Visit the American Revolution Podcast ( for free downloads of all podcast episodes.

Further Reading:

Web Sites

French Conquest of Corsica,

John Wilkes:

St. George's Fields Massacre:

South Carolina Colony standoff over Wilkes donation:

Lord North biography:

Bell, J.L. "5 Myths of Tarring and Feathering" Journal of the American Revolution, 2013:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Babson, John History of the town of Gloucester, Gloucester, MA: Proctor Bros. 1860.

Bleackley, Horace Life of John Wilkes, Edinburgh: Ballantyne Press, 1917.

Cushing, Harry (ed) The Writings of Samuel Adams, Vol. 1, New York GP Putnam's Sons 1904).

Hosmer, James Samuel Adams, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co. 1913.

Hutchinson, Thomas & Hutchinson, John (ed) The History of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, from 1749 to 1774,  London: John Murray 1828 (This book was edited and published using Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s personal papers.  The editor was his grandson).

Hutchinson, Thomas & Hutchinson, Peter Orlando (ed) The Diary and Letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co. 1884 (Editor is Thomas Hutchinson’s great-grandson).

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Stanford, Stanford University Press 1943 (Based on date, I am not sure about the copyright status of this book.  Since it may get pulled, I have also included a link to Amazon below).

Ridpath, John Clark James Otis, the Pre-revolutionist, Chicago: The University Assn. 1898.

Treloar, Sir William Wilkes and the City, London: John Murray, 1917.

Watson, J.S. Biographies of John Wilkes and William Cobbett, Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons, 1870.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Archer, Richard As If an Enemy's Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution, Oxford: Oxford  University Press 2010.

Carp, Benjamin L. Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Knollenberg, Bernhard Growth of the American Revolution 1766-1775,  Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1975.

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Stanford, Stanford University Press (1943) (also available as a free eBook, see above).

Smith, Page A New Age Now Begins, Vol. 1, New York: McGraw-Hill 1976.

Zobel, Hiller The Boston Massacre, New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1970.



  1. In the painting, why does his hat say the number 45? Kind of ironic with Trump being the 45th president and many of his followers thinking they are like the people of Am Rev.

    1. Issue number 45 of the "North Briton" was the issue where John Wilkes criticized the King. It got his newspaper shut down. He was expelled from Parliament and brought up on criminal charges (see Episode 16). After that, "45" became a code for Whigs who were fighting to protect basic rights and prevent the crown from taking more governing authority.

  2. You're really doing great work with this podcast. I'm on episode 32 and I've thoroughly enjoyed every episode. I just finished Rick Ackinson's, "The British are Coming," and I'm reading John Ferling's, "Almost a Miracle." Great books but pale in comparison with what you're doing. Granted, they're limited to just the one book but I love your meticulous style.