The practice of tarring and feathering dates as far back as 1189, and was commonly used in the 1700s as a punishment for any wrongdoing. If this happened in the present people would regard it as bizarre and very cruel, but back then it was very common to see as a punishment. The colonists were so eager to tar and feather someone because they wanted to make an example of them, and to publically humiliate the wrongdoer.
In the 1700s there was little to no patience for causing a disruption in public and they wanted everyone to know that. The tarring and feathering of the wrongdoer showed that disobedience would be dealt with. A person who saw this would try and obey all the laws, so this punishment would not happen to them. An example would be Captain William Smith in 1766. He came under suspicion of an informer of American smuggling activities and experienced tar and feathering first hand. In retribution, John Gilchrist, a Norfolk merchant and shipbuilder along with several accomplices captured Smith and, as he reported, “dawbed my body and face all over with tar and afterwards threw feathers on me,” Smith proclaimed. They made a public example of him so that the society knew not to follow.
Another reason why the colonists were so eager to do this was for humiliation of the person at fault, and the amusement of the society. In 1768 the people of Salem became so enraged by a person who gave information of a vessel that arrived with molasses. The crowd stripped him, wrapped him in a tarred sheet, and rolled him in feathers. After, they carried him through the streets and banished him from the society for six months. This example was made to show the humiliation a person could get by disobeying. When the crowd paraded him through the street there were many spectators that were laughing at him because of how ridiculous he looked.
Today this punishment is viewed as cruel, because the tar used was boiling hot and would blister the skin; however back in the 18th century it was a very common sight. “The tar and feather stage was the first time in history that the colonists relinquished their British identities and pledged allegiance to one another and to the new United States.”
Courtney from Study Moose
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