Text and Photos by Bruce Richardson
When you think of “tea parties” preceding the American Revolution, everyone recalls that famous incident in Boston Harbor on December 16, 1773. More than 100 colonial men boarded three British ships that night and tossed overboard 250 chests of Chinese Bohea, Hyson, Souchong, and Congou tea. An outraged British Parliament retaliated by enacting the Intolerable Acts and closing the harbor. But farther south, another tea rebellion would soon boil over.
It didn’t take long for the news of the Boston uprising to reach the bustling inland port of Edenton, North Carolina. Citizens there were already up in arms in response to the Tea Act of 1773, which levied a three-pence tax on each pound of tea. In an act of solidarity with their Massachusetts brothers and sisters, Edenton residents sent a shipload of corn, pork, and other provisions to the hungry families of Salem and Boston.
One local resident was determined to make an equally strong statement to King George. On October 25, 1774, Penelope Barker organized 51 women and formed an alliance wholeheartedly supporting the American cause against “taxation without representation.”
The custom of tea drinking was deeply instilled in the lives of the colonists. Every home had a proper tea service, and social occasions were often defined by the amount of tea provided. Swearing off tea was no small matter.
Barker asked the women to sign a letter she had addressed to King George, which stated she would not “drink any more tea, nor wear any more British cloth. Furthermore, many ladies of this province have determined to give memorable proof of their patriotism, and have accordingly entered into the following honorable and spirited association. I send it to you to show 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.” These Edenton wives and mothers realized that by signing this petition, they were committing an act of treason against British rule. Whereas the rebellious men in Boston hid their identities by dressing as Native Americans, these bold women proudly identified themselves with their signatures. This brazen act of civil disobedience was one of the earliest organized women’s political actions in United States history.
The petition shocked the British as well as loyal colonists. London publications labeled the Edenton women “uncontrollable,” and caricatures of the scandalous ladies and their “tea party” filled the magazines.
But Penelope Barker’s pronouncement brought about one major complication—her husband, John, was stationed in London as North Carolina’s appointed agent to Parliament. When word came that his treacherous wife had organized a rebellion at home, he was forced to flee to France and did not return to his North Carolina home until 1778.