When Wilmington Threw A Tea Party: Women and Political Awareness in Revolution-Era North Carolina

Commentary By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

Most readers are familiar with the details of the Boston Tea Party of 1773, and properly identify it as a key event in the radical movement that triggered the American Revolution. A few North Carolinians are beginning to hear of the Edenton Tea Party of October 1774, when the leading women of that Eastern North Carolina did not actually dump tea in a nearby sound but did stage one of the nation’s earliest acts of political theater by women. But how many are familiar with the far more incendiary Wilmington Tea Party of 1775, also led by women?

Tea parties offered an effective political arena to protest taxation. After a period of benign neglect by British authorities, American colonists grew increasingly frustrated after the French and Indian War with Britain’s revived interest in regulating American trade. This was exemplified by the passage of the Stamp Act of 1765 and the Tea Act of 1773. Although the tea tax was minimal, it enraged many because tea was the popular nonalcoholic drink of the era. Aware of a potential backlash, British leaders had limited the tax amount in hopes of assuaging disgruntled colonists. British enforcement of trade policies, however, had angered Americans for some time.  In short, the timing of the tea tax was foolhardy, and it took on a symbolic value far in excess of its revenue implications.

Many colonial North Carolinians approved of the radical Boston Tea Party in 1773.  After that “notable and striking” event, as John Adams called it, revolutionary tea parties occurred across the colonies. Months after the more-famous Edenton event, sometime between March 25 and April 5, 1775, the women of Wilmington actually burned their tea to protest imposing trade legislation and increased taxation. Unfortunately, there are few details known to historians about this event – a major reason for its relative obscurity in the popular understanding of the times.

What we do know is that many were stoking the fires of political agitation in the region. After the Edenton protest in late 1774, the South Carolina Gazette—a Charleston paper that covered news across the eastern Carolinas—encouraged such political protests to take place in the Cape Fear region. Such displays of “public virtue,” the reporter claimed on March 22, 1775, thwarted corrupt officials’ designs to eradicate the indisputable rights of British citizens.  As historian Vernon O. Stumpf points out, this plea must have been written before the Wilmington Tea Party took place and influenced the women’s decision.

A well-born Scot, loyal to her country and king, Janet Schaw visited relatives in the Cape Fear region during early 1775.  She arrived in the town of Brunswick on February 14, and subsequent events soon shocked her. Wilmington was buzzing with political dissent, and Schaw unsurprisingly disapproved.  She contemptuously criticized North Carolinians for closing their port to British shipping, and for doing so, when they had an opportunity to corner the North American tea market.  Apparently, the “rusticks,” as Schaw called Tar Heels, loved liberty more.

The activities of Wilmington’s women undoubtedly bothered Schaw.  In Journal of a Lady of Quality, she records the following: “The Ladies have burnt their tea in a solemn procession.”  An appalled Schaw, however, questioned the extent of their patriotism: “They had delayed however till the sacrifice was not very considerable, as I do not think any one offered above a quarter of a pound.”  

Schaw, never passing up a chance to criticize what she considered an unsophisticated spirit of liberty, did not realize that an eventful and unprecedented event occurred in Wilmington that day.  Wilmington women had publicly opposed British trade policies and swore to never buy tea again until such policies were remanded.  Their actions showed that, in the spring of 1775, many Wilmington residents, like the counterparts in the other American colonies, opposed increased British taxation and trade restrictions.

When we see contemporary examples of North Carolinians, of all sexes and persuasions, demonstrating in favor of their cherished political causes, we can rest assured that, at least in some ways, their behavior is extremely traditional. Protest is in our blood.