Thursday, August 25, 2011

A hurricane of protest in North Carolina

This week, as Hurricane Irene turns north and heads toward North Carolina and the rest of the East Coast, I read an interesting piece by Bruce Richardson about a revolutionary tea protest that occurred in 1774 — not in Boston but in North Carolina.

I'd heard this mentioned before, but Richardson's piece in Tea Time magazine neatly sums up the Edenton Tea Party, an organized political action by several women in this Carolina seaside town. As angered in the South as they were in the North by the Tea Act of 1773, residents of Edenton sent shipments of food to Boston to show solidarity after their harbor-brewing experiment in December of that year.

Those protesters, however, wore costumes to disguise their identities. In Edenton, 51 wives and mothers signed their names on a letter sent to King George announcing a boycott of British tea and cloth. "This brazen act of civil disobedience," Richardson notes, "was one of the earliest organized women's political actions in United States history."

The document of Oct. 25, 1774, was published in a London newspaper by January, stating that the women had "resolved not to drink any more tea, nor wear any more British cloth, many ladies of this province have determined to give memorable proof of their patriotism, and have accordingly entered into the following honourable and spirited association. I send it to you to shew your fair countrywomen, how zealously and faithfully, American ladies follow the laudable example of their husbands, and what opposition your matchless Ministers may expect to receive from a people thus firmly united against them." The London papers also mocked the event with caricatures (like the one shown).

Signing their names had consequences, at least for one of those laudable husbands. Penelope Barker coordinated the protest, but her husband John was stationed in London as North Carolina's liaison to Parliament. "When word came that his treacherous wife had organized a rebellion at home," Richardson writes, "he was forced to flee to France."

The Barkers' home is now a tourist attraction in Edenton, and we'll be thinking of them this weekend and hope home and teacups survive the storm.

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