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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Provincial Honors to an Exciseman

By Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1748–1816)

[Modern Chivalry; or, The Adventures of Captain Farrago. 1796–1806.]

JUST at this instant a noise was heard, and looking up, a crowd of people were discovered at a considerable distance, advancing toward them, but with acclamations that began to be heard. They were dragging a piece of timber of considerable length, which appeared to be just hewn from the woods; and was the natural stem of a small tree, cut down from the stump, and the bark stripped off. At the same time a couple of pack-horses were driven along, which appeared to be loaded with beds and pillow-cases.

The captain was led to believe that these were a number of the country people, who having heard of the revenue officer coming to his district, had come forward to pay their respects to him, and to receive him with that gratulation which is common to honest but illiterate people, in the first paroxysms of their transport. Having understood that country to be chiefly peopled with the descendants of the Irish, or with Irish emigrants themselves, he had supposed that hearing the new officer was a countryman, they had been carried forward, with such zeal to receive him, with huzzaing and tumult. On this occasion, he thought it not amiss to turn the conversation, and to prepare the mind and the manners of the deputy for this scene, which being unusual, might disconcert and embarrass him.

“Teague,” said he, “it is not less difficult to preserve equanimity in a prosperous situation, than to sustain with fortitude a depression of fortune. These people, I perceive, in a flow of mind, are coming forward to express, with warmth, the honest but irregular sallies of their joy, on your arrival amongst them. It was usual in the provinces under the Roman republic, when a Quæstor, of whom a favorable impression had preceded, was about to come amongst them. It is a pleasing, but a transient felicity, and a wise man will not count too much upon it. For popular favor is unstable, to a proverb. These very people, in the course of a twelvemonth, if you displease them, may shout as loud at your degradation and removal from dignity. At the same time this ought not to lead you to be indifferent, or at least to seem so, to their well-meant expressions of favor at present; much less to affect a contempt, or even a neglect of them. A medium of ease and gracefulness in receiving their advances, and answering their addresses, whether it is a rustic orator in an extempore harangue, or some scholar of the academy, or school-master, they may have prevailed upon to draw up a speech, and read it to you. There is no manner of doubt but the President of the United States may have been a thousand times embarrassed with the multitude of addresses delivered or presented to him; and it required no small patience and fortitude to sustain them. Yet it has been remarked, that he has received them all with complacency; showing himself neither elevated with the praise, nor irritated with the intrusion. And it is but reasonable, and what a benevolent man would indulge; for it is a happiness to these creatures, to give themselves the opportunity of being distinguished in this manner.”

Duncan, who had heard a rumor in the village of what was going forward, had in the mean time come up, and understanding from the last words of the captain, what had been the drift of the conversation with Teague, and discovering his mistake, interrupted him at this place.—“Captain,” said he, “ye need na be cautioning him against applause, and popularity, and the turning o’ the head wi’ praise and guid usage: for I doubt muckle if it comes to that wi’ him yet. I wad rather suspect that these folks have na guid-will toward him. I dinna ken what they mean to do wi’ him, but if a body might guess frae the bed ye see there on the pony’s back, they mean to toss him in a blanket. But if it were to be judged frae the tree they hae trailing after them, I wad suppose they mean to mak a hanging matter o’ it, and tak his life a’ thegether. There is na doubt but they are coming in a mob, to make a seizure o’ the gauger, and the talk o’ the town is o’ a punishment I dinna understand, o’ tarring and feathering. I have heard o’ the stocks, and the gallows, and drowning like a witch, but I never heard o’ the like o’ that in Scotland. I have heard o’ tarring the sheep, to keep them frae the rot, but I never heard o’ tarring a human creature. Maybe they mean to put it on his nose, to hinder him frae smelling their whiskey. I see they’ve got a keg o’t there in their rear, drawn upon a sled; at least, I suppose it to be whiskey they hae in that keg, to take a dram, as they gae on wi’ the frolic; unless it be the tar that they talk of to put upon the officer.”

This last conjecture was the true one. For it was tar; and the stem of a tree which they drew, was what is called a liberty-pole, which they were about to erect, in order to dance round it, with hallooing and the whoop of exultation.

The calvacade now approaching, they began to cast their eyes toward the group of three, as they stood together.

“By de holy faders,” said Teague, “I see dey have deir looks upon me. Dey look as wild as de ‘White Boys,’ or de ‘Hearts of Oak’ in Ireland. By de holy apostles, dere is no fighting wid pitch-forks; we shall be kilt, and murdered into de bargain.”

“Teague,” said the captain, “recollect that you are an officer of government, and it becomes you to support its dignity, not betraying unmanly fear, but sustaining the violence even of a mob itself with fortitude.”

“Fait, and I had rather be no officer at all,” said Teague, “if dis is de way de paple get out o’ deir senses in dis country. Take de office yourself; de divil burn me, but I shall be after laying it down, as fast as a hot piraty, if dis is to come of it; to be hooted at like a wild baste, and shot, and hanged upon a tree, like a squirrel, or a Paddy from Cork, on St. Patrick’s day, to make fun o’ de Irish. I scorn to be choked before I am dead; divil burn de office for me, I’ll have none of it. I can take my oat upon de holy cross, dat I am no officer. By Saint Patrick, and if dere are any Irish boys amongst dem I would rather join wid ’em. What is de government wid offices to one dat is choked, and can’t spake to his acquaintance in dis world? By de holy apostles, I am no officer; I just took it for a frolic as I was coming up de road, and you may be officer yourself, and good-luck wid de commission; captain, I shall have noting to do wid it.”

At this instant the advancing crowd raised a loud shout, crying Liberty and no excise! liberty and no excise! down with all excise officers!

Teague began to tremble, and to skulk behind the captain. “By de holy water o’ de confession,” said he, “dey are like de savages, dey have deir eyes upon me, I shall be scalped; I shall be kilt and have de skin of me head off, like a wolf or a shape. God love you, captain, spake a good word to dem, and tell dem a good story, or I shall be ate up like a toad, or a wild baste in de forests.”

The bog-trotter was right; for this moment they had got their eyes upon the group, and began to distinguish him as the officer of the revenue. An exact description had been given them of his person and appearance, for these people had their correspondents, even at the seat of government; and travellers, moreover, had recognized him, and given an account of his physiognomy and apparel.

“There he is, there he is,” was the language; “the rascally excise officer; we shall soon take care of him. He is of the name of O’Regan, is he? We shall O’Regan him in a short time.”

“Divil burn me, if I am de excise officer,” said Teague. “It’s all a mistake, gentlemen. It is true I was offered de commission; but de captain here knows dat I would not take it. It is dis Scotchman dat is de officer. By my soul, you may tar and feader him, and welcome.”

“No,” said the captain, stepping forward, “no, gentlemen: for so I yet call you; though the menaces which you express, and the appearance of force which your preparations exhibit, depart from the desert of that appellation. Nevertheless, as there is still a probability of arresting violence, and reclaiming you from the error of your meditated acts, I address you with the epithet of gentlemen. You are not mistaken in your designation of the officer of the revenue, though he had not the candor to avow himself; but would meanly subject a fellow bog-trotter to the odium and risk: an act of which, after all the pains that have been taken of his education, to impress him with sentiments of truth and honor, I am greatly ashamed. No, gentlemen, I am unwilling to deceive you, or that the meditated injury should fall on him, who, if he has not the honor of the office, ought not to bear the occasional disadvantage: I am ready to acknowledge and avow, nor shall these wry faces, and contortions of body, which you observe in the red-headed man, prevent me; that he is the bona fide, actual excise officer. Nevertheless, gentlemen, let me expostulate with you on his behalf. Let me endeavor to save him from your odium, not by falsehood, but by reason. Is it not a principle of that republican government which you have established, that the will of the majority shall govern; and has not the will of the majority of the United States enacted this law? Will——”

By this time they had sunk the butt-end of the sapling in the hole dug for it, and it stood erect with a flag displayed in the air, and was called a liberty-pole. The beds and pillow-cases had been cut open, and were brought forward. A committee had been appointed to conduct the operation. It was while they were occupied in doing this, that the captain had without interruption gone on in making his harangue. But these things being now adjusted, a principal person of the committee came forward, just at the last words of the captain.

“The will of the majority,” said he; “yes, faith, the will of the majority shall govern. It is right that it should be the case. We know the excise officer very well. Come lay hands upon him.”

“Guid folk,” said Duncan, “I am no the gauger, it is true; nor am I a friend to the excise law, though I come in company wi’ the officer; nevertheless I dinna approve o’ this o’ your dinging down the government. For what is it but dinging down the government to act against the laws? Did ye never read i’ the Bible, that rebellion is worse than witchcraft? Did ye never read o’ how mony lairds and dukes were hanged in Scotland lang ago for rebellion? When the government comes to tak this up, ye sal all be made out rebels, and hanged. Ye had better think what ye are about. Ye dinna gie fair play. If ye want to fight, and ony o’ ye will turn out wi’ me I sal tak a turn wi’ him; and no just jump upon a man a’ in ae lump, like a parcel o’ tinklers at a fair.”

The committee had paid no attention to this harangue; but had in the mean time seized Teague, and conveyed him to a cart, in which the keg of tar had been placed. The operation had commenced amid the vociferation of the bog-trotter, crossing himself, and preparing for purgatory. They had stripped him to the waist, and pouring the tar upon his naked body, emptied at the same time a bed of feathers on his head, which, adhering to the viscous fluid, gave him the appearance of a wild fowl of the forest. The cart being driven off with the prisoner in this state, a great part of the mob accompanied, with the usual exclamation of “Liberty, and no excise law. Down with all excise officers.”