Today we have another throw back post from our departed friend Kevin AKA Hognose.
Insurgencies seldom break out overnight, but when they come, they lay their burdens first on the civilians associated with the hated government or occupying power. No less was that true in the early stages of the American Revolution, when life for Loyalists (or Tories, in the vernacular of the day) and the families of officials became first unpleasant, then difficult, and finally positively hazardous.
“The tories lead a devil of a life,” one [English] soldier wrote during the summer of 1774; many of them had lost hope entirely and… had decided to return to England at the first opportunity. Anne Hulton, the sister of the town’s Customs Commissioner1, had seen the handwriting on the wall as early as 1770, when she began writing to friends in England about her dangerous situation, “the want of protection, the perversion of the Laws, & the spirit of the People inflamed by designing men.” She had been troubled deeply by the sight of bands of men roaming around the Hulton country Place in Brookline, “disguised, their faces blacked, with white Night caps and white Stockens on, one of ’em with Ruffles on & all with great clubs in their hands.” In Boston her brother had been attacked in his house on at least one occasion….
From Miss Hulton’s point of view (as elucidated by Ketchum), what she was observing wasn’t simple crime and lawlessness, but a major divide in society, not just political but also one of class. She saw the two sides very much as “us” and “them.” The “us” were the well-to-do gentry, established here as they had been in England: wealthy, refined, educated. And “them”? Low, base louts, led by men with evil ends and no scruples as to means; she could no more accept that there were men of “property and sense and character” on the independence side, than, perhaps, most of the would-be rebels could see anything but the worst in the British governors and generals. Hulton bucked up when Gage and more Redcoats landed, but before long this occurred (emphasis ours):
“Bostonians Paying the Excise Man.” This Philip Dawe print purports to show the tarring and feathering of Malcolm that so distressed Anne Hulton. She did not mention that he was a tax man, and lets the implication hang that he was attacked solely for loyalty.
On a bitter winter’s night an old man named Malcolm, a Tory, was attacked by a mob, stripped naked, coated with tar and feathers, and then, “his arm dislocated in tearing off his clothes, he was dragged in a Cart with thousands attending, some beating him with clubs and Knocking him out of the Cart, then in again. They gave him several severe whipings, at different parts of the Town. The spectacle of horror and sportive cruelty was exhibited for about five hours.” According to Miss Hulton, the poor wretch was tortured further in an attempt to make him curse the King and the governor, but he continue to defy them, crying “curse all Traitors!” It was, she said, the second time old Malcolm had been tarred and feathered.3
That was it for Anne Hulton. She took passage back to England. But it took time to arrange, and she was still in Boston when Gage’s troops limped in from Lexington and Concord on 19 April 1775. She reported, in a letter then, a silent, shocked town coming to grips with the realization that it was cut off from the mainland — besieged, and threatened with starvation. She was glad to return to Britain from this nightmarish place.
“Overview history” often plunges right from the Intolerable Acts to Lexington and Concord — an act of open, armed rebellion — with nought in between but the Boston Tea Party. In fact, the Colonies (notably the major cities of Philadelphia and Boston) were hotbeds of escalation, that pointed the way towards armed conflict in the future. The King’s officers could not countenance violent attacks on His subjects, especially attacks that occurred because of the subject’s loyalty. But the tarring and feathering of Mr Malcolm sounds as if that the mob doing it had small fear of consequences. It was during this brief window of increasing assaults and disorders that British action, either political concessions or military action, had their last and best chance to prevent open war. But both sides thought they would win the war4, so their interest in preventing it was not stronger than their outrage over their opponents’ actions.
- As one of the “faces” of English taxation, a Customs Commissioner would have been a lightning rod for rebel hostility.
- Ketchum, Richard M. Decisive Day: The Battle for Bunker Hill. New York, Anchor Books, 1974. p. 39.
- Ibid. Tarring and feathering was a humiliation almost unique to Colonial history, and almost uniquely applied to tax collectors, according to Benjamin Irving of Brandeis U. Other humiliations if not tortures included making the feathered Tory drink boiling tea (which was done to Malcolm, according to the print), and in Charleston, South Carolina, they were not satisfied with tarring and feathering one fellow, so they hung him from a gibbet and then burned him, gibbet and all.
- When both sides are confident they are bound to win an incipient war, de-escalation is impossible; bystanders will learn in due course which one’s confidence was misplaced.