The practice of applying hot tar and a coating of feathers to one's opponents was largely an American practice. The intent was clearly to intimidate. Dabbing hot tar on bare skin could cause painful blistering and efforts to remove it usually resulted in pulling out hairs. The use of solvents to loosen the tar was also unpleasant in the extreme, especially when a substance like turpentine came in contact with burned skin. Application of the tar over the rival's clothing was rightly deemed a lesser punishment than placing it on bare skin.
Just a few instances of this practice were recorded in the 1760s, but the passage of the Townshend Acts provoked a sharp increase in its usage. It usually required the abuse of only one tax collector in an area for word to spread quickly. Another spate of incidents occurred around the Tea Act in 1773. During the War for Independence, the tarring of Tories happened with greater regularity and ferocity, resulting in the deaths of several victims.
Tarring and feathering was a barbaric practice and, sadly, an effective one.