That Other Tea Party: The First Organized Women’s Political Protest in America
Most everybody knows about the Boston Tea Party, but there was a lesser-known tea party in North Carolina that was every bit as significant. In fact, it was the first organized women’s political protest in America.
On Oct. 25. 1774, 51 women organized by Penelope Barker signed a statement of protest resolving to boycott British tea and other products. This became known as the Edenton Tea Party.
This is another example of the spirit of resistance that swept through the colonies as the British tried to assert more and more control.
Colonists began resisting British overreach long before 1776 when Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765.
As historian Dave Benner explained in his article on the Stamp Act, the standard American position held that the act violated the bounds of the British constitutional system. Objecting to the notion that Parliament was supreme, and could pass and impose whatever binding legislation it wished upon the colonies, the colonies instead adopted the rigid stance that colonists could only be taxed by their local assemblies. They claimed this principle stretched all the way back to 1215 and the Magna Carta.
Resistance ramped up in early 1774 after the British Parliament passed a series of acts together known as the “Coercive Acts” to punish the colonies — particularly Massachusetts — after the Boston Tea Party. These included the Boston Port Act closing the Boston Port, the Massachusetts Government Act stripping virtually all authority from the colonial government, the Administration of Justice Act stripping authority from local courts and authorizing trials to be held in Great Britain instead of Massachusetts, and the Quartering Act allowing British troops to take over private buildings.
In the wake of the coercive acts, local bodies throughout the colonies passed resolutions condemning British actions and calling for direct action to resist. For instance, on June 5, 1774, the Boston committee of correspondence approved and published the “Solemn League and Covenant,” an agreement to boycott British goods. This ultimately led to the First Continental Congress adopting the Continental Association, putting boycott resolutions into effect by establishing a formal agreement between the 12 colonies represented in the Congress. (Georgia did not send delegates.)
Leading up to the meeting of the Continental Congress, North Carolina convened its First Provincial Congres in August 1774. The body passed resolutions condemning the British acts and calling for a boycott of British goods. The North Carolina Provincial Congress also elected delegates to attend the First Continental Congress.
Penelope Barker was a wealthy widow who was managing her second husband’s plantation while he was in England. After the First Provincial Congress, Barker formed a group of women known as the Edenton Ladies Patriotic Guild. Legend has it that the group met in the home of Elizabeth King, the wife of an Edenton merchant and that they drafted the resolution during this gathering. But historians doubt this story. King’s house was too small to hold such a large gathering, and the wording of the resolution doesn’t indicate was ever a formal meeting. It’s more likely the resolution circulated throughout town like a petition.
Regardless, on October 25, 1774, they signed the following resolution.
“As we cannot be indifferent on any occasion that appears nearly to affect the peace and happiness of our country, and as it has been thought necessary, for the public good, to enter intoby a meeting of Members deputed from the whole Province, it is , to do every thing as far as lies in our power to testify our sincere adherence to the same; and we do therefore accordingly subscribe this paper, as a witness of our fixed intention and solemn determination to do so.”
The resolution clearly refers to the boycott of British goods, including tea, called for by the North Carolina Provincial Congres.
On Nov. 3, the Virginia Gazette published the resolution, and it was reprinted in other papers throughout the colony.
The women also fired off a letter to London with a copy of the resolution.
“The Provincial Deputies of North Carolina having resolved not to drink any more tea, nor wear any more British cloth, &c. many ladies of this Province have determined to give a 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 Ministers may expect to receive from a people thus firmly united against them.”
The letter closed by warning the British of “what opposition you Ministers may expect to receive from a people thus firmly united against them.”
This caught the attention of the Morning Chronicle, and London Advertiser. On Jan. 16, 1775, the paper ran an unflattering caricature of the women. This only served to draw even more attention to their cause.
The paper summarized the petition and letter as a radical stance against the British acts.
“We the Ladyes of Edenton, do hereby solemnly engage not to conform to ye pernicious Custom of Drinking Tea, or that we, the aforesaid Ladyes, will not promote ye wear of any manufacture from England, until such time that all Acts which tend to enslave this our Native Country shall be repealed.”
The resolutions motivated other women throughout the colonies to take action. Many joined in the tea boycott, increasing its reach and effectiveness. Southern women also began to dance in ballgowns made from homespun fabric. This spurred what became known as the “homespun movement.”
The Edenton Tea Party is another example of how resolutions led to action and resistance in the years leading up to the American Revolution.