Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Rediscovering the Revolution: The Philadelphia Tea Protest

Author's note: This is the first in a series of posts highlighting some of the forgotten stories of the American Revolution.

Everyone knows the story of the Boston Tea Party; how 50 (or as many as 200) men disguised themselves as Mohawk Indians and cracked open the crates of tea on board three ships in Boston Harbor. They dumped the tea into the waters as a sign of protest against taxation without representation, and Parliament responded by sending massive numbers of troops to quell the growing rebellion in the city.

What many people don’t realize is that Boston wasn’t the only town to protest the Tea Act. In fact, every major port city in the colonies had their own unique protests, most of which have long been forgotten. At the time, however, Boston’s Tea Party was just one of the many responses to the hated legislation.

We celebrate Boston’s Tea Party, but what if it was Philadelphia’s response that we remembered instead? In November of 1773, a little less than a month before the Boston Tea Party took place, a broadside appeared all over Philadelphia, warning the captain of the tea-bearing ship “Polly” not to attempt to dock and unload his cargo. While the language of the late 18th century can be verbose and hard to read for some people, this broadside, authored by the “Committee for Tarring and Feathering”, is crystal clear, even to denizens of the 21st century.

To Capt. Ayres, of the ship ‘Polly’, on a voyage from London to Philadelphia,


We are informed that you have, imprudently, taken charge of a quantity of tea, which has been sent out by the India Company under the auspices of the Ministry, as a trial of American virtue and resolution.

Now, as your cargo, on your arrival here, will most assuredly bring you into hot water, and as you are perhaps a stranger to these parts, we have concluded to advise you of the present situation of affairs in Philadelphia--- that, taking Time by the forelock, you may stop short in your dangerous errand--- secure your ship against the rafts of combustible material which may be set on fire and turned loose against her, and more than all this, that you may preserve your own person from the pitch and feathers that are prepared for you.

In the first place, we must tell you that the Pennsylvanians are, to a man, passionately fond of Freedom, the birthright of Americans, and at all events are determined to enjoy it.

That they fiercely believe no power on the face of the Earth has a right to tax them without their consent.

That in their opinion, the tea in your custody is designed by the Ministry to enforce such a tax, which they will undoubtedly oppose, and in so doing, give you every possible obstruction.

We are nominated to a very disagreeable, but necessary service--- To our care are committed all offenders against the rights of America, and hapless is he, whose evil destiny has doomed him to suffer at our hands.

You are sent out on a diabolical service, and if you are so foolish and obstinate as to complete your voyage, by bringing your ship to anchor in this port, you may run such a gauntlet as will induce you, in your last moments, most heartily to curse those who have made you a dupe of their avarice and ambition.

What think you, Captain, of a halter around your neck--- ten gallons of liquid tar decanted on your pate--- with the feathers of a dozen wild geese laid over that to enliven your appearance?

Only think seriously of this--- and fly to the place from whence you came--- fly without hesitation--- without the formality of a protest--- and above all, Captain Ayres, let us advise you to fly without wild geese feathers.

Your friends to serve,

The Committee of Tarring and Feathering

Not surprisingly, Captain Ayres unloaded his tea. He never felt the cold wind on his naked body as his clothes were ripped away by an angry crowd. He never felt the scalding tar pour over his tender skin, nor did he endure the humiliation of then being covered in feathers until he was unrecognizable. He never sat through the hours of scrubbing with harsh soap to remove the sticky tar. He never had to see his flesh peel away with the tar and feathers, never had to fight off the infection that often set in afterwards. He never had to do these things because he had the sense to see the citizens of Philadelphia meant business.

Ayres sailed as far as Chester, Pennsylvania, where he was met by a few of Philadelphia’s city leaders. He agreed to go with them to a meeting at Philadelphia’s State House (now Independence Hall). There, on December 27th, he likely watched in amazement, or perhaps fear, as a crowd estimated at 8,000 (in a city of about 20,000 people) gathered to pass a series of resolves regarding him, his cargo, and his ship.

1- Resolved, that the tea on board the ship Polly, Captain Ayres should not be landed.
2- That Captain Ayres shall neither enter nor report his vessel at the Customs-House.
3- That Captain Ayres shall carry the tea back immediately.
4- That Captain Ayres shall immediately send a pilot on board his vessel, with orders to take charge of her and proceed to Reedy Island next high water.
5- That the captain shall be allowed to stay in town till tomorrow to provide necessaries for his voyage.
6- That he shall then be obliged to leave town and proceed to his vessel, and make the best of his way out of our river and bay.
7- That a committee of four gentlemen be appointed to see these resolves into action.

According to 19th century Philadelphia historian Thompson Wescott, in just two hours the Polly had been re-provisioned, turned around, and was sailing back to England. Not a single ounce of the 697 crates of tea made it on shore in Philadelphia.

Can you imagine 40% of the city of Philadelphia showing up at City Hall this weekend and telling the mayor and governor that if they take a dime of stimulus money there are gallons of hot tar and the feathers of a dozen wild geese waiting for them? Every legislator who voted in favor of that stimulus bill, every governor and mayor who’s lining up to accept that money, and every multi-millionaire accepting bailout money while continuing to pay for high-priced getaways and expensive renovations of corporate buildings on the taxpayer dime should drop to their knees tonight and thank God above that it’s the Boston Tea Party we remember, and not the Philadelphia Tea Protest.

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