This week marks the 245th anniversary of the Edenton Tea Party, an event often described as the first political action against British rule organized by female colonists in the Americas. To understand why 51 women gathered in Edenton on Oct. 25, 1774, we must discuss preceding events.
Spurred by the infamous Boston Tea Party on Dec. 16, 1773, British Parliament attempted to assert greater authority against defiant colonials. A series of four different measures, collectively known as the Intolerable Acts, further rankled dissatisfied Americans. Patriots across the colonies bucked such regulation by independently forming insurgent governments.
The First Provincial Congress of North Carolina met in New Bern during August 1774. Besides electing representatives to the First Continental Congress, 71 men formalized a non-importation policy against goods and merchandise from all parts of the British Empire. Specific resolves state, “We will not import any slave or slaves … we will not use nor suffer East India Tea to be used in our Families.” North Carolinians vowed to boycott commodities, like enslaved labor and popular pantry items, which they relied upon in their New World.
Edenton women penned their own statement supporting the resolves of the Provincial Congress, declaring “…to testify our sincere adherence to the same.” First published in a Williamsburg newspaper on Nov. 3, 1774, the statement would go on to be reprinted in several different London bulletins. The story, however, was met with ridicule from British audiences. In 1775 London engraver Philip Dawes created a cartoon titled “A Society of Patriotic Ladys [sic]” mocking the Edenton event as a group of ill-advised women shirking their domestic duties.
An oil painting based on the Dawes cartoon is currently on view in the Museum of the Albemarle’s “Our Story” exhibition. The painting on display dates to 1893 and has many of the key elements seen in the 1775 Dawes print. In the center of the image, a man appears to be coercing a young, attractive female into signing the statement. A lone child sits on the floor. He plays in a puddle of spilt tea, seemingly ignored by the matronly figures surrounding him.
There is, however, an important distinction between the two images. The 1893 version includes more enslaved women in the scene than the original composition did. Is it possible that the 19th century artist was more critical of the Edenton’s ladies’ concepts of liberty and equality? The 1893 rendering teases the question of who had the privilege to publicly dissent in colonial-era America.
You may commemorate the Edenton Tea Party anniversary by visiting the museum to view “A Society of Patriotic Ladys.” See if you can spot all the differences between the 1775 drawing and the 1893 painting. You may also visit the Camden Public Library to view our travelling exhibition, “Steeped in Time: Tea and Traditions.” This photographic and interpretive panel display discusses the impact tea has had on local history and national culture.