Annapolis Tea Party - The burning of the Peggy Stewart and the ruin of Anthony Stewart

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Tensions caused by English demands for taxes through the Stamp Act flared into outright mob violence when the brigantine Peggy Stewart brought a cargo of boycotted tea into Annapolis.

Tensions between American colonists and their English government were reaching a fevered level. The parliament had levied a tax on English manufactured goods in order to raise money. Called the Stamp Act, it placed a high tariff on certain goods brought into the colonies, specifically tea. The British government also required that these goods could only be purchased from England. Resistance to this tax had led to civil disobedience and mob action in the "Boston Tea Party" where a mob of revolutionaries boarded a merchant ship in native war paint and dress, removed the cases of tea in the cargo hold and dumped the expensive cargo into the harbor.

The Boston tea party is famous in the historical lore of America. But few know that a very similar incident occurred in Annapolis less than a year after its more famous Boston counterpart.

Anthony Stewart, a Scottish gentleman born in Aberdeen in 1738, made his way as a teenager in 1753 to Annapolis Maryland where he soon establish a powerful merchant shipping business on the Severn River. Eleven years later he married the daughter of the city's most wealthy and influential merchants, James Dick. Made partner in his father-in-law's business, he soon became very rich himself with several estates and homes around Maryland.

The Stamp Act imposed many duties on the import of goods. Boycotts sprang up all across the colonies, organized and enforced by civic associations. Even after the Stamp Act was repealed because of the American boycott, several items such as tea, glass, paint and paper were subject to the very substantial tax. The Association of Anne Arundel County agreed to a ban on tea and other goods that carried the import duty. All merchants were asked to sign an agreement allowing the association to monitor all incoming goods and enforce the boycott. James Dick signed the agreement, but Anthony Stewart did not.

In 1770, the Association declared the cargo of the merchant Good Intent to be mostly contraband, forcing the ship to return its cargo to England. This caused a great financial loss for Dick and Stewart. They were sternly warned not to protest the decision of the "Association", otherwise it would be construed as subversion of the boycott and would be dealt with accordingly, a thinly veiled threat.

In February 1774, the successful business of Stewart and Dick was contracted by a main rival of their firm, Wallace, Davidson and Johnson, to take a cargo of tobacco to London. Captain Russell was ordered to sell the Peggy Stewart in London and return with the proceeds. If he could not sell the vessel for 550 pounds then he should contract a profitable cargo and return. Unable to sell the ship, the Peggy Stewart was contracted to bring over a ton of tea back for Annapolis merchant Thomas Charles Williams, another occasional rival of both Stewart and the Wallace group. The Wallace group in London got wind of the transport and sent a letter back to Annapolis, hoping to stir up trouble for Captain Russell and Stewart, actually suggesting that "I should not be surprised to hear that you have made a Bon Fire of the Peggy Stewart...".

Burning of the Peggy Stewart
Burning of the Peggy Stewart

Sentiment against Thomas Williams, consignee for the cargo, rose quickly against the man who declared that he would ship what ever he pleased and the Annapolis Association could go to the devil. Much of the stirrings were unknown to the vessels owner, Stewart, who awaited the birth of his child. The Peggy Stewart arrived in port on October 14 th, just slightly before his daughter. Walking down to the harbor to greet his returning captain he was dismayed to find a ship beaten up by a difficult crossing, leaking badly, with 56 sea sick indentured servants and over a ton of tea in the hold. Returning the ship to London without delivering the cargo would ruin him financially, but sending the poor sick indentured servants across the late season Atlantic in a damaged ship would be unthinkable. In order to release the "cargo" of indentured servants, Stewart, by law, had to pay the duty on the entire cargo, including the contraband tea. He paid the import duty and landed the wretched people from the leaking ship but left the tea on board.

The Williams brothers whose tea it was had refused to pay the duty on the tea, their fear of the revolutionaries on the Annapolis Committee for Safety was so great. They wrote a letter of apology to the committee, but this only served to let everyone in Annapolis know that tea had been brought in and that the duty had been paid. They stressed that it was Stewart alone who had decided to pay the duty and that they intended to hand the cargo over to the Committee.

Mathias Hammond, a political rival of Stewarts and spirited leaded of the Annapolis Committee, printed up handbills and distributed them around the city making the case against Stewart and the Williams brothers. This incited the Maryland citizenry and activist started to fill the inns and tavern of Annapolis. Everyone began to talk of the Annapolis Tea Party.

Stewart attempted to get well respected Charles Carroll to intercede on his behalf, but Carroll, also a member of the Annapolis Committee, suggested the only way Stewart might save himself from the tar and feathering or lynching that was being discussed in town was to burn the ship. Stewart was in no mood to destroy such a valuable piece of property. He penned his own apology and distributed it by handbill all around town.

At a scheduled meeting on the matter on October 19th, Stewart defended himself against a heated assembly of revolutionary zealots. Carroll presented a prewritten letter of apology for Stewart and Williams brothers to sign, allowing for the tea to be burned. It was clear that if they did not sign the letter, the boisterous mob had something much more ominous in mind. They signed.

Peggy Stewart House, Annapolis
Peggy Stewart House, Annapolis

Voices from the crowd called for the ship to be burned, The old and timid James Dick, the father-in-law of Stewart, nodded in agreement. But a member of the crowd called for a vote on whether the ship should be burned. The crowd voted that the ship would not be put to the torch, just the tea.

A Doctor Warfield, a passionate orator, whipped up the crowd once more to demand that the ship be burned and that Stewart be forced to build another named after a revolutionary member of Parliament James Wilkes. The crowds passions swelled by Warfield's oratory demanded the destruction of the ship. James Dick fearing for the safety of his family, acquiesced. The mob marched down to the waterfront with the hapless Stewart and the Williams brothers in the center of the procession. They were forced onto the ship which was sailed over to Windmill Point where she was set on fire with all her sails still up.

Annapolis, (Maryland) Oct. 20. The brig Peggy Stewart, Captain from London having on board seventeen packages containing 2320 lb of that detestable weed tea arrived here on Friday last ...[After making public acknowledgement] owners of the tea went on board said vessel with her sails and colours flying, and voluntarily set fire to the tea …[Annapolis: Printed by Anne Catharine Green, 1774]

Ruined financially, James Dick became a recluse in his home, disparagingly referred to as "the Old Tory". Stewart attempted to reconstruct his business, but he was so universally hated he was driven out of the country by death threats. He returned to England were he petitioned the Crown for compensation for his losses. He was granted a substantial yearly pension. He eventually returned to New York where he joined a Loyalist organization, the Board of Associated Loyalists. At the end of the war, the state of Maryland declared him a traitor, sentenced him to death and confiscated all his property. He had fled from the country at the end of the war and moved to Halifax where he once again became a successful merchant.

So in Maryland, the revolution for equality and justice started with mob rule and injustice for Anthony Stewart, owner of the ill-fated Peggy Stewart.




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