Anti-British Activism and the Role of Women

While the issues at stake in the years leading up to the American War of Independence largely affected political and economic elites, the broader communities participated in actions designed to bend the British will. One method of protest was to boycott British goods, such as tea. These documents, from 1774 and 1775, illustrate the role of women in carrying out these boycotts.

The first is a resolution from the “Ladies of Edenton, North Carolina” indicating their support for the boycott.

Association Signed by Ladies of Edenton, North Carolina, October 25, 1774.

The Provincial Deputies of North Carolina having resolvd 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.

RESOLVED

As we cannot be indifferent on any occasion that appears to affect the peace and happiness of our country; and it has been thought necessary for the publick good to enter into several particular resolves, by meeting of Members of Deputies from the whole province, it is a duty that we owe not only to our near and dear relations and connections, but to ourselves, who are essentially interested in their welfare, to do everything 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.

This resolution produced a response in the mother country. The following is a January 31, 1775 letter from Arthur Iredell in London to his brother James (in Edenton).  James Iredell was married to Hannah Johnson Iredell, whose sister was one of the signers of the pledge.

Dear Brother: I see by the newspaper the Edenton ladies have signalized themselves by their protest against tea drinking. The name of Johnston I see among others; are any of my sister’s relations patriotic heroines? Is there a female congress at Edenton too? I hope not, for we Englishmen are afraid of the male congress, but if the ladies, who have ever since the Amazonian era been esteemed the most formidable enemies ; if they, I say. should attack us, the most fatal consequence is to be dreaded. So dexterous in the handling of a dart, each wound they give is mortal; whilst we, so unhappily formed by nature, the more we strive to conquer them, the more we are conquered. The Edenton ladies, conscious, I suppose, of this superiority on their side, by a former experience, are willing I imagine, to crush us into atoms by their omnipotency; the only security on our side to prevent the impending ruin, that I can preceive [sic], is the probability that there are but few places in America which possess so much female artillery as Edenton.

Pray let me know all the particulars when you favor me with a letter. Your most affectionate friend and brother.

ARTHUR IREDELL.

Sources: Richard Dillard. The Historic Tea-Party of Edenton, October 25th, 1774. An Incident in North Carolina Connected with British Taxation.  Edenton, NC: N.P, 1898; Additional Background.

Questions for consideration:

  1. What is the ladies’ motivation for participating in the boycott?
  2. The ladies’ resolution uses terms like “patriotism” and “American.” Given that this was written half a year before the war started, and over a year before the Declaration of Independence, what might we learn from their use of these terms?
  3. Arthur Iredell’s letter indicates that at least some people in England had taken notice of this boycott. How would you characterize his reaction? How do you think his reaction is influenced by the fact that women are involved in the boycotts?