1774 Two Hundred And Twenty-five Years Ago

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In October, as the Continental Congress was meeting in Philadelphia, local patriots up and down the Atlantic Coast did what they could to keep the heat on the British government. In Maryland and North Carolina, tea parties were the chosen method. Maryland’s party began on October 14, when the brig Peggy Stewart arrived in Annapolis. Anthony Stewart, a co-owner of the ship, unwisely paid the hated tax on a consignment of tea it contained. A few hours later the outraged citizens of Annapolis convened a town meeting to decide how to deal with him.

Some favored burning the tea immediately, but instead it was decided to wait five days before taking action, or, as Stewart later complained, “’til the sense of the County could be taken at large, or in other Words ‘til the Mob might be gathered from all quarters.” Indeed, when the meeting reconvened, on the nineteenth, radicals from neighboring counties took over. Stewart offered to destroy the tea, and the meeting accepted his proposal by a large majority. The radicals, however, threatened direct action against Stewart and James Dick, his father-in-law and co-owner, unless the ship was burned as well. Fearing for the safety of their houses and families (including Stewart’s wife, who was about to give birth), they reluctantly agreed. Later that day the Peggy Stewart , along with her despised contents, was set afire before a large crowd.

On October 25 the women of Edenton, North Carolina, held a tea party of their own. Led by the spirited Penelope Barker, who would later horse-whip a British officer who tried to steal her horses, the fifty-one women in attendance resolved “not to conform to that pernicious practice of drinking tea, or ... wear of any manufacture from England, until such time that all acts which tend to enslave this our native country shall be repealed.” The women’s foray into politics inspired great mockery in England, but it remains a source of pride in Edenton, where a bronze teapot mounted on a Revolutionary cannon still stands as a memorial to the Ladies’ Tea Party.

In Massachusetts, meanwhile, a new provincial congress met in Concord (later moving to Cambridge) on October 11 to fill the void left by the breakdown of royal authority after the Boston Tea Party. Its main order of business was to provide for the colony’s defense. To that end, after arranging for the collection of taxes, the congress appropriated ninety thousand dollars, which bought 4 mortars, 20 fieldpieces, 20 tons of ammunition, 5,000 muskets and bayonets, 75,000 flints, 350 spades and pickaxes, 1,000 wooden mess bowls, and some peas and flour. Four generals and a committee of public safety were also appointed.

The congress’s most memorable act came on October 26, when it directed each county to establish a new militia, distinct from the old, royally appointed one. A third of each militia’s members would be organized in groups capable of assembling rapidly under arms—on a minute’s notice, as the popular exaggeration had it. These were the famous minutemen, companies of which had already been established in several Massachusetts counties. The system was later copied in New Hampshire, Connecticut, Maryland, and North Carolina. Minutemen were indispensable in the Revolution’s early days, providing much of the resistance to the redcoats at Lexington and Concord. Connecticut minutemen opposed Col. William Tryon’s Danbury raid in April 1777. As the war spread, however, the Continental Army replaced local militias as the patriots’ main fighting force.