Chapter 21

Containing Reflections

It is time now to make some reflections, were it not only for the sake of form; just as the clergyman who divides his text into several heads, and then adds, "we shall conclude with an improvement of the whole; or with a few practical observations or reflections." In early life, when long sermons tired me, the young mind not capable of long attention, I used to look out for this peroratory part of the discourse, with much anxiety; not that I valued it more than any other, for the intrinsic worth of it, but merely because it was the last. It appeared to me an unconscionable thin in a man to speak too long, when it was left with himself how long he should speak. Ah! if it was known how many curses I have given tedious speakers even in the pulpit itself, in my time, I should be thought a very wicked man. Perhaps some may think that I am a tedious writer. Well; but have not readers it in their power to lay down the book when they think proper, and begin again?

But as I was saying, it has become time to make some reflections, of which it must be acknowledged, I have been sparing in this the latter part of my performance. But upon what shall I reflect? The vanity of things, doubtless. But in what mode shall I present this vanity? In moralizing on the disappointment of the Captain and the revenue officer, with the waiting man Duncan Ferguson, coming forward to establish offices, and all at once made prisoners, and treated as the meanest culprits? or shall it be on the mistaken patriotism of even good though uninformed men, opposing an obnoxious, and unequal law, not by remonstrance, but by actual force, and thereby sapping all principle, or rather overthrowing all structure of a republican government? No: these are exhausted topics. I shall rather content myself at present, with a dissertation, on that mode of disgrace, or punishment, which was chosen in the case of the revenue officer; tarring and feathering.

I find no trace of this mode of punishment amongst the ancients, I mean the Greeks, Hebrews, and Romans. Having had occasion lately to look over the whole book of Deuteronomy, I have paid attention to this particular, and have discovered no vestige of it. Amongst the Greeks, so far as my memory serves me, there is nothing like it. I recollect well the sanctions of criminal law amongst the Romans. And what appears to me to come nearest to this of tarring and feathering, is the punishment of the sewing up the culprit in a sack, with an ape, a serpent, and a fox; and throwing him into a river, or a bason of the sea, to drown, if he had escaped death by his companions in the mean time.

As to the origin of tarring and feathering, I am at a loss to say.* It would seem to me, that it took its rise in the town of Boston, just before the commencement of the American revolution. Unless, indeed, it should be contended that Nebuchadnezzar was tarred and feathered; of which I am not persuaded; because though it is said that "his nails had grown to eagles claws," and in that case presenting the talons of a bird, which a tarred and feathered man resembles, yet at the same time it is added, he eat grass like an ox. Now a turkey buzzard, or a bald eagle, does not eat grass like an ox; nor do I know that these fowls eat grass at all or at least so obviously as to make the eating grass a distinguishing characteristic of their nature. I shall therefore give up the hypothesis of Nebuchadnezzar being tarred and feathered.

It would appear to me to be what may be called a revolutionary punishment, beyond what in a settled state of the government may be inflicted by the opprobrium of opinion; and yet short of the coercion of the laws. It was in this middle state, that it took its rise with us; answering the same end, but with a more mild operation, than that of the lanthern, at the commencement of the revolution in France. It took rise in the sea coast towns in America; and I would suppose it to be owing to some accidental conjunction of the seamen and the citizens, devising a mode of punishment for a person obnoxious. The sailors naturally thought of tar, and the women, who used to be assisting on these occasions, thought of bolsters and pillowcases.

Let it suffice that I have suggested the question, and leave it to be settled by some other person, at some future period.

*This mode of punishment is said to be alluded to in the laws of Oleron.