[April 26, 2020] In late 1775, on a sunny afternoon in Kinderhook, New York, several young women had gathered for a quilting bee. Suddenly, their peace was interrupted by a man who dropped in and commenced to harangue “against the Continental Congress.”1 The quiltmakers had had enough, they stripped the young man naked to the waist and commenced tar and feathering him.
This action was a new chapter in the development of what the Boston Evening-Post dubbed “the popular punishment for modern delinquents.”2 Tar and feathering is a form of public humiliation used to enforce perceived injustice or revenge.3 It was a common form of punishment in feudal Europe and its American colonies. Today, the term tarred-and-feathered remains a metaphor for severe public criticism.
Many articles refer to tar and feathering as mob vengeance. But is it mob vengeance? Or, more politely, is this form of punishment more designed to shame someone for violating basic norms of civil behavior. I wrote about shaming earlier and asked if there enough shaming (see link here)? Or is tar and feathering a way to dole out punishment without involving civil authorities perceived as lax on the punishment process?
Public humiliation has been a part of human existence since the first human walked this Earth. What better way to show others the limits of the tolerance of society than to shame someone? In our modern, social-media-savvy society, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media outlets are full of folks shaming those who they believe have transgressed the informal laws of the land.
Shaming on social media follows a similar pattern to tar and feathering. First, the shaming lasts long enough for others to notice. Electronic comments last forever, tar and feathering also lasts for a long time. Second, social media outing of perceived moral misbehavior, like tar and feathering, is designed to exact justice.
Tar and feathering – like social media shaming – is a form of both bringing justice quickly and is a form of both revenge and vengeance. Those who carry out the modern equivalent of tar and feathering do not adhere to the basic tenets of a modern, legal system or the norms of civilized behavior. It is, of course, mob justice.
Ancient Greek political thinkers regarded government based upon mob justice as one of the three “bad” forms of government (tyranny, oligarchy, and ochlocracy) as opposed to the three “good” forms of government (monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy). The threat of “mob rule” to democracy is restrained by the rule of law that protects the individual against such behavior.
- Boston Evening-Post, November 6, 1769