A re-enactment of Boston mob action against the crown
Pay close attention to this dramatization of the tarring and feathering of a tax official on the Boston waterfront in the early days of revolutionary ferment, in December 1773. The 3 1/2-minute scene is from Episode 1 of the excellent HBO series, John Adams.
In this scene, Samuel Adams (the tall one at left, played by Danny Huston) is taking his apprehensive second cousin John Adams (at right, played by Paul Giamatti) to the waterfront, where merchant ships laden with British East India Company tea are awaiting to be unloaded. Samuel explains to John that the tea must stay aboard the ships in order to prevent the British authorities from levying the tax.
As a royal tax official moves through the crowd to board one of the vessels, a man in a blue cape, John Hancock, cuts in front of him and runs up the gangplank, announcing that the cargo will not be unloaded.
Watch the orchestrated political warfare tactics unfold: Samuel Adams arrives and stands among the mob of Bostonians on the wharf as the British tax official tries to do his job. Hancock blocks the gangplank to prevent official from boarding, then provokes the official, sparking a shouting match. Samuel Adams, supporting Hancock, shouts at the official, “Shame on you, sir!” at which point certain (apparently) selected people in the mob shout similar taunts from several directions. Note that many of the men in the mob are wielding wooden clubs – these are the rope workers mentioned in class, who use the clubs to tighten the braids in the hemp rope. Very strong, tough, and close-knit guys.
That orchestrated action then empowers Hancock, who turns the British official over to the mob to “teach him a lesson.” The crowd picks up on Hancock’s order and chants, “tar him, tar him,” whereupon the official is trapped, stripped, tarred and feathered. To the casual observer, the altercation looks spontaneous, when in fact it was planned in advance. Wooden tubs of boiling tar and sacks of feathers didn’t just sit around docks on cold December days, but had to be placed there ahead of time.
The incident horrifies John Adams, but Samuel is obviously delighted.
The rest is a very ugly scene, and historically accurate, but a great example of choreographed mob intimidation of authority figures. It’s easy to see why so many consignees of British tea were so quickly persuaded to resign rather than accept shipment of the “foul brew.”