4 The Stamp Act Crises
While the colonists conducted operations against the duties on molasses, the most thoughtful among them worried about the possibility that still another tax would be levied on America. They owed the worry to George Grenville, who on March 9, 1764, the day he introduced the proposals for the new molasses duties, warned that to meet the national expenses “it may be proper to charge certain Stamp Duties in the said Colonies and Plantations.”1
Grenville didn’t say much more about what he had in mind except that he would postpone introducing the necessary legislation until the colonies had an opportunity to offer objections. But the objections should not include challenges to Parliament’s right to tax the colonies; it had the right as far as Grenville was concerned, and he did not mean to be subjected to arguments to the contrary.
Grenville learned before the year was out that a disposition not to listen would not still angry American voices. At first, though, as rumors of a stamp tax reached the colonies, the Americans did not protest but instead asked for information about the duties.
The reports reaching the colonies all suffered from a lack of precision, from second-and sometimes third-hand observations, and from a general vagueness. Grenville had told so little that not much distortion seeped into these accounts. What seems surprising at first sight is that he was not inclined to tell more.
By the spring reports surfaced in England that Grenville had delayed in order to give the colonies time not only to furnish information but also to propose another mode of taxation. Thomas Whately, one of the Treasury secretaries, mentioned the possibility that Grenville was awaiting suggestions from America for less burdensome ways of raising money.
The agents of Massachusetts and Virginia wrote their respective employers that Grenville might be inclined to leave matters to the colonies—so long as the money was eventually forthcoming. But these agents’ reports, like Grenville’s original announcement in March, had about them an air of mystery and even unreality: no sums of money were mentioned and no plans for apportioning tax burdens among the colonies—each with its own legislature after all—were offered.2
To clear up the mysteries of Grenville’s intentions, several agents asked him for a meeting. He obliged them on May 17, 1764, and they came away wiser, perhaps, but with very little information. When asked for a copy of the bill, Grenville replied that he could not supply one since it had not yet been drafted.
When asked what would be taxed and at what rate, he replied vaguely that about the same things would be taxed as in Britain, but that he could say nothing about rates of taxation since they had not been decided. Nor did Grenville lay to rest speculation that his purpose in delaying the bill was to permit the colonies to suggest alternative modes of taxation. He neither confirmed nor denied that he would be receptive to fresh plans.
Yet despite his coyness he did manage to convey knowledge of what he really wanted: approval in advance from the colonies of the general proposal. The objections he had seemed to welcome would be received—or welcomed—only after the colonies gave their assent. To be sure, he would give colonial proposals for different sorts of taxation “all due consideration,” but what he seemed to have in mind was taxation by Parliament.3
Understandably, the agents, and soon the colonial legislatures, found all this rather bewildering. And what made matters worse, and induced a certain skepticism about Grenville’s sincerity in professing to give consideration to American views, was his failure to notify the colonial governors that he had decided to ask Parliament for a stamp duty.
Ordinarily when decisions were made about the colonies, the usual procedure was for the Secretary of State for the Southern Department, acting on the orders of the ministry (or officially of the Privy Council), to pass the news to the colonial governors. Information customarily was dispensed this way, though of course other means were employed as well.
In this case, Grenville abandoned the normal procedures, though Thomas Whately asked several colonial officials about the nature of legal documents used in the colonies: these documents were to be subject to a tax.4
Whately had good reason to ask such questions, for he was charged by his chief to draw up the bill to be presented to Parliament. Whately, who had been admitted to the bar after attendance at Cambridge and study in the Middle Temple, possessed the technical qualifications to draft legislation.
Moreover, he was intensely loyal to Grenville, and he believed in hard work for himself and not just for others. The ministry’s ignorance of the details of colonial life was so great that considerable work proved necessary. Whately went about it with a dedication that must have gratified Grenville.
Before he finished a rough draft suitable for the ministry’s consideration early in December 1764, he had canvassed a variety of departments and officials, including the Board of Trade and its knowledgeable secretary John Pownall, the Customs commissioners, and the English Stamp Board.
Whately also approached Americans and English officials in the colonies, though here his efforts may have been less systematic. John Temple, the surveyor general of Customs in the northern colonies, was consulted, as were lesser officials in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. Whately also wrote at least one prominent private citizen in America, Jared Ingersoll in Connecticut.
Ingersoll and Temple knew the colonists well and tried unsuccessfully to persuade Whately that the idea of an American stamp tax was a mistake. Ingersoll, a blunt-speaking Yankee and as far from radicalism as almost anyone in America, responded with particular directness to Whately’s questions about American attitudes.
The minds of the Americans, he wrote in July 1764, “are filled with the most dreadful apprehensions from such a Step’s taking place, from whence I leave you to guess how easily a tax of that kind would be Collected; it is difficult to say how many ways could be invented to avoid the payment of a tax laid upon a country without the Consent of the Legislature of that Country and in the opinion of most of the people
Contrary to the foundation principles of their natural and Constitutional rights and Liberties.” And, as other colonists had, Ingersoll added that if the colonists were asked to provide a portion of a revenue, they would do so willingly, but if even a moderate tax were laid by Parliament, he would not predict “what Consequences may, or rather may not follow.”5
Whately had not expected to receive warnings that a stamp tax might invite unhappy reactions in America, and he brushed them aside. Grenville could not have been disturbed by these responses, even though he had indicated that the one argument he would not listen to was a challenge of Parliament’s right to tax, an argument Ingersoll and others, in letters and petitions, were making.
Such arguments actually played into Grenville’s hands. If there was anything intolerable to a good Parliament man, it was to be told that the Parliament lacked the right to do what it wanted to do. The colonial agents in England realized that what they were instructed to say in defense of colonial rights would only produce the result it was calculated to avoid—the passage of the stamp bill.
But what could they do? English merchants trading to America were made uneasy by the conflict that was taking shape before their eyes, but they too hesitated to make the colonial constitutional case.6
Just before Parliament convened in February 1765, the agents, now desperate, sent four of their number to meet one final time with Grenville. They were an impressive group—Benjamin Franklin, already famous for his electrical experiments, worldly-wise and a little cynical; Jared Ingersoll, fresh from America, tough-minded and fundamentally very conservative;
Richard Jackson, a member of Parliament and agent for Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania; and Charles Garth, another member of Parliament, agent for South Carolina, shrewd and quick-witted. Grenville received them with kindness and early in the meeting said that he regretted giving the Americans so much uneasiness, but he thought it only fair that they help pay for their own defense and that he knew no better way than by a tax levied by Parliament.
The agents repeated what by now must have been familiar to everyone—that the Americans preferred to tax themselves. Richard Jackson made the reasons for this preference absolutely clear by arguing that a tax by Parliament would subvert representative government in America.
Fed by a Parliamentary tax on the colonies, the royal governors there would have no reason ever to convene the local assemblies. Grenville of course denied that he had any such intention in mind, and he denied furthermore that any such thing would take place.7
At about this point in the meeting Grenville asked the agents if they “could agree upon the several proportions Each Colony should raise,” if the colonies were permitted to raise the money through the assemblies.8 The question has been called “fatuous,” and in a sense it was.9 The Grenville ministry itself had the responsibility of establishing such proportions, and it had had a year to do so, assuming, of course, that it had any interest in the answer.
If there was any doubt that it had no such interest and no intention of allowing the colonies to tax themselves to support the troops in America, the question served to dispel it. Grenville knew that and doubtless asked the question, silly as it seemed, in order to disabuse the agents of any hope that they could deflect him from his course.
To persuade Grenville to give up the idea of a stamp tax was beyond the agents and everyone else. On February 6, 1765, he brought the resolution of 1764 before the Commons; the debates and the votes that followed demonstrated the imprudence of principled opposition.
Although only William Beckford denied on the floor of Commons Parliament’s right to tax, that right was clearly uppermost in the minds of most members. Anger against the colonials for presuming to challenge Parliament’s absolute sovereignty was so widespread that opponents to the proposed tax phrased their arguments very carefully—but not carefully enough.10
Nothing that was said changed many votes. And the most eloquent defense of the American case, made in a speech by Colonel Isaac Barre, may actually have stiffened Parliament’s resolve to tax. Barre’s outburst came in response to a sardonic complaint by Charles Townshend: “And now will these Americans,
Children planted by our Care, nourished up by our Indulgence until they are grown to a Degree of Strength and Opulence, and protected by our Arms, will they grudge to contribute their mite to relieve us from the heavy weight of that burden which we lie under?”11 Barre’s reply was explosive:
They planted by your Care? No! your Oppressions planted em in America. They fled from your Tyranny to a then uncultivated and unhospitable Country—where they exposed themselves to almost all the hardships to which human Nature is liable, and among others to the Cruelties of a Savage foe, the most subtle and I take upon me to say the most formidable of any People upon the face of Gods Earth. And yet, actuated by principles of true english Lyberty, they met all these hardships with pleasure, compared with those they suffered in their own Country, from the hands of those who should have been their Friends.
They nourished up by your indulgence? they grew by your neglect of Em: as soon as you began to care about Em, that Care was Exercised in sending persons to rule over Em, in one Department and another, who were perhaps the Deputies of Deputies to some Member of this house—sent to Spy out their Lyberty, to misrepresent their Actions and to prey upon Em; men whose behaviour on many Occasions has caused the Blood of those Sons of Liberty to recoil within them; men promoted to the highest Seats of Justice, some, who to my knowledge were glad by going to a foreign Country to Escape being brought to the Bar of a Court of Justice in their own.
They protected by your Arms? they have nobly taken up Arms in your Defence, have Exerted a Valour amidst their constant and Laborious industry for the defence of a Country, whose frontier, while drench’d in blood, its interior Parts have yielded all its little Savings to your Emolument. And believe me, remember I this Day told you so, that same Spirit of freedom which actuated that people at first will accompany them still.—But prudence forbids me to explain myself further. God knows I do not at this time speak from motives of party Heat, what I deliver are the Genuine Sentiment of my heart.12
An American who listened to Colonel Barre thought the speech was “noble” and relished the House’s initial reaction: it sat there “awhile as Amazed,” unable or unwilling to speak even a word.13 But the house soon recovered its voice and, when Barre and his friends moved to adjourn in order to avoid a vote on the proposed tax, voted 245 to 49 against.
Such maneuvers were not going to stop Grenville with the Commons at his back; the stamp bill received its first reading on February 13 and two days later the second was passed without even a division. On this day, February 15, the opposition assisted by the colonial agents did its best and failed pathetically. Charles Garth offered a petition, framed from South Carolinian protests, which carefully skirted the questions of Parliament’s right to tax the colonies.
Sir William Meredith, a London merchant, handed in a petition from Virginia, and Richard Jackson presented several from Connecticut and Massachusetts. The Commons refused even to receive the petitions, holding that the House of Commons simply did not hear petitions against money bills, and in any case it was not going to indulge questioners of its authority.
This ruling prompted General Henry Conway to point out the paradox in the Commons’ decision in 1764 to give the colonies time to prepare objections to a stamp tax and then in 1765 to refuse to receive the objections. Commons was in no mood for paradox, or logic, or anything but the passing of the bill. After the second reading no further opposition seemed possible and the bill sailed through the third, and received the king’s approval on March 22.14
The opposition within Parliament to the Stamp Act had given its best, and it had provided some fine moments, as, for example, in Colonel Barre’s answer to Charles Townshend. The opposition won the contest in rhetoric but lost it in the vote, the part of parliamentary action that counts.
Those who approved of the Act had voted half in exasperation at the burden of taxation, already carried for too long, and half in the conviction that justice required the colonies to contribute to their own defense. Their votes were given rather easily, if the record of debate may be trusted; most of the objections were not considered worthy of discussion. The Commons had made up its mind quickly, and Grenville, knowing that he had the support he needed, was content to let the opposition sing its sad songs. He then pushed the measure through with an ease bordering on contempt.
The king’s approval was the last event connected to the Stamp Act to be accomplished with ease. For the Stamp Act set off in America a crisis that had no precedents. In a sense, the rioting and mobbing that ensued during the summer and autumn of 1765 are the most interesting features of the episode.
But interesting though they were, the organization of protest and the reorganization of local politics that emerged in the crisis were more important. And most important of all was the development of the colonial constitutional position, so evocative and expressive of self-consciousness among the colonists.
News of the stamp tax arrived in the colonies in the first two weeks of April. For the next six weeks almost nothing about the Act made its way into the colonial press, and certainly no public body seemed eager to take the lead in opposition. At the end of May, however, an official body, the House of Burgesses in Virginia, took action.
The Burgesses approved a set of resolves on May 31 which declared that the constitution limited the right of taxation to the people or their representatives and that this right belonged to Virginians by virtue of the fact that they were British subjects who lived under the British constitution. The implication was inescapable: Parliament, a body to which they sent no representatives, had no authority to tax them.15
On the face of things, this action hardly seems explosive—yet it was. That an explosion occurred in Virginia was something of a historical accident, or at least an event in which chance—or contingency—played more than a normal role. Chance in this case may have been nothing more than astute timing by several political manipulators whose spokesman was Patrick Henry.
For Henry introduced the Virginia Resolves at the very end of a legislative session after most of the burgesses had already left for home. Thirty-nine members remained of 116 when Henry got to his feet to introduce his resolves.
Patrick Henry was twenty-nine years old in 1765, a gay blade who loved music and dancing and who in turn was loved by young ladies for his dash and charm. He was well known for so young a man, having made his name in a celebrated struggle over the payment of the Anglican clergy in Virginia, a case appropriately called the Parson’s Cause.16
The Parson’s Cause began with the price of a weed—tobacco. In the middle of the eighteenth century, tobacco dominated Virginia’s economy in a way inconceivable today. Tobacco was the most important crop raised on plantations, though some diversification had begun a few years earlier; once harvested and cured, it was shipped to England for sale or for trans-shipment to the Continent.
Most cultivated land in Virginia was put into tobacco production; the thousands of black slaves in the colony spent most of their waking hours with the plant; and planters seem not only to have used their days in its cultivation and sale but also to have dreamed in their nights of its expansion and increase.17
Notes issued on tobacco deposited in the local warehouses circulated as money, and many private contracts provided that payment of obligations was to be in tobacco rather than in money. Public acts also sometimes required that payments of debts be in tobacco—among them a statute of 1748 which required that an Anglican clergyman should be paid 17,280 pounds of tobacco a year.
In 1758, there was a drought that drastically reduced the tobacco crop, and the shortage that resulted drove up the price of tobacco to about four and one-half pence per pound, an amount about three times greater than the normal price.
This inflation of price threatened the interests of debtors who of course had incurred debts when tobacco was cheaper. These debtors, for the most part tobacco planters, demanded some protection from the Virginia legislature, which responded with an act holding that debts payable in tobacco might be paid in currency for one year, at the rate of two pence per pound of tobacco—an amount well above the normal price.
The statute, locally referred to as the Two Penny Act, was not aimed at the clergy, but they were clearly affected since their salaries, set by law, were ordinarily paid in tobacco.
Creditors of all kinds would have benefited had the law not been passed. But though it cut into their pocketbooks, most did not complain. Nor did many clergymen, but several did—and loudly. Not satisfied by these protests, they also sent the Reverend Mr. John Camm to England to have the law disallowed by the Privy Council.
Hearings were held, arguments given, petitions received, and the Privy Council in August 1759 set aside the Act. From Virginia’s point of view this was an unfortunate ruling, particularly because the councillors also declared that in the future laws which were passed in violation of the government’s instruction were void from their inception. In practice, this ruling would have made governing difficult.
The clergy further soured popular feeling when a handful of their number sued to collect the full value of their salaries under the old rate of 17,280 pounds per year. The Two Penny Act had been disallowed, and they wanted full pay; if there was drought and inflation, well, that was too bad.
In the first two cases heard by county courts in the colony, the decisions went against the clergy. The third, brought by the Reverend Mr. James Maury of Louisa County, was heard in Hanover County. The court found for Maury—the reasons are not known.
And the case went to the jury which was to decide on the amount of damages to be awarded. To aid the jury in reaching an equitable decision, the county hired Patrick Henry to make the argument for the defense—in other words, for the local interest.18
Because Henry knew very little law at this time, he ignored legal niceties in favor of a brilliant attack: the clergy, Henry said, were enemies of the community who deserved not damages but punishment for bringing the case.
The clergy, after all, had proved unwilling to obey the law. As for the British government, in disallowing the Two Penny Act, it had encroached upon colonial freedom. The climax to this address was a daring declaration that “a King, by disallowing Acts of this salutary nature, far from being the father of his people, degenerates into a Tyrant, and forfeits all rights to his subjects’ obedience.”19
At this point there were cries of “Treason,” but the presiding justice, Colonel John Henry, father of Patrick, unsympathetic to clergy and kings, let his son go on unreprimanded. The jury, according to the Reverend Mr. Maury, who was in anguish, sat there nodding its agreement all the while. Indeed Henry had been persuasive: the jury awarded Maury the magnificent sum of one penny.
Although this case made Henry’s name in Virginia, he added to his fame by brilliant performances in hundreds of others. And Louisa County, in a demonstration of its admiration of him, chose him burgess in a special election held in the spring of 1765.
Henry in fact made his first appearance in the House on May 20; ten days later, a new, untried burgess but a well-known man, he introduced the Virginia Resolves.
The main outlines of what happened that day and the next—May 30–31—are known, but several important aspects of the passing of the Virginia Resolves remain elusive.
Two facts are indisputable: only thirty-nine of the 116 burgesses remained, the others having already departed for home; and these thirty-nine passed—by no means unanimously—five resolves on May 30. Henry then left the House, presumably satisfied with his first major effort. The next day, however, the fifth resolve was rescinded by what by this time was a very small rump meeting.20
Resolved, That the first Adventurers and Settlers of this his majesty’s Colony and Dominion of Virginia brought with them, and transmitted to their Posterity, and all other his Majesty’s Subjects since inhabiting in this his Majesty’s said Colony, all the Liberties, privileges, Franchises, and Immunities, that have at any Time been held, enjoyed, and possessed, by the People of Great Britain.
Resolved, That by two royal Charters, granted by King James the First, the Colonists aforesaid are declared entitled to all Liberties, Privileges, and Immunities of Denizens and natural Subjects, to all Intents and Purposes, as if they had been abiding and born within the Realm of England.
Resolved, That the Taxation of the People by themselves, or by Persons chosen by themselves to represent them, who can only know what Taxes the People are able to bear, or the easiest method of raising them, and must themselves be affected by every Tax laid on the People, is the only Security against a burthensome Taxation, and the distinguishing characteristick of British Freedom, without which the ancient Constitution cannot exist.
Resolved, That his Majesty’s liege People of this his most ancient and loyal Colony have without Interruption enjoyed the inestimable Right of being governed by such Laws, respecting their internal Polity and Taxation, as are derived from their own Consent, with the Approbation of their Sovereign, or his Substitute; and that the same hath never been forfeited or yielded up, but hath been constantly recognized by the Kings and People of Great Britain.21
A much better attended House had approved statements of about this same tenor the year before. Hence the question of why there should have been disagreement over these resolutions is puzzling.
Perhaps the answer lies in the composition of supporters of the resolutions. Patrick Henry was a young man and for the most part so were the others who backed him in the Burgesses. His opponents included several of the most distinguished members of the House—Peyton Randolph, John Robinson, Robert Carter Nicholas,
Richard Bland, George Wythe—all older men, and all apparently resentful of the upstart from Louisa County and his youthful cohorts and their inflammatory language.22
That brings us to Henry’s speech delivered in support of his resolutions. No copy survives, but fragments exist, as reported by an anonymous French traveler who witnessed the proceedings on May 30 and 31 from the lobby of the House. According to this French observer,
Henry began in a grand style, declaring that “in former times tarquin and Julus had their Brutus, Charles had his Cromwell, and he Did not Doubt but some good american would stand up, in favour of his Country.”23
At this point John Robinson, the speaker of the House, cut Henry off by accusing him of talking treason. Henry immediately begged the pardon of Robinson and the House and stated that he was prepared to demonstrate his loyalty to George III “at the Expense of the last Drop” of his blood. Passion may have carried him too far, he said, passion and “the Interest of his Countrys Dying Liberty.”
Henry backed down, but certainly not all the way. Apparently the damage was done, for the House divided. The young men there made their point in the four resolves and also succeeded in getting a fifth passed.
The Journal of the House says nothing of it, however, and there seems to be no way of establishing its content. It may have been worded as follows—the text is from a paper Henry left behind:
Resolved, Therefore that the General Assembly of this Colony have the only and sole exclusive Right and Power to lay taxes and Impositions upon the Inhabitants of this Colony and that every Attempt to vest such Power in any Person or Persons whatsoever other than the General Assembly aforesaid has a manifest Tendency to destroy British as well as American Freedom.24
Several colonial newspapers printed this resolution and informed their readers that it had been passed. The Newport Mercury not only printed it but also a sixth and/or seventh:
Resolved, That his Majesty’s liege People, the Inhabitants of this Colony, are not bound to yield Obedience to any Law or Ordinance whatever, designed to impose any Taxation whatsoever upon them, other than the Laws or Ordinances of the General Assembly aforesaid.25
The Mercury, however, omitted the third resolve printed in the Journal of the House. The Maryland Gazette printed all seven, and most other newspapers offered either six or seven.26
The last resolve—the sixth in the Mercury, which was the seventh in the Maryland Gazette—carried the greatest thunder and was at least debated by the House. The French traveler, a fascinated observer, followed the proceedings and copied down the gist of this last resolve:
That any Person who shall, by Speaking, or Writing, assert or maintain, That any Person or Persons, other than the General Assembly of this Colony, with such Consent as aforesaid, have any Right or Authority to lay or impose any Tax whatever on the Inhabitants thereof, shall be deemed, AN ENEMY TO THIS HIS MAJESTY’S COLONY.27
Not even the remnant of the faithful who remained in Williamsburg at the end of May had a stomach for stuff as strong as this. The first four resolves doubtless represented the prevailing opinion of the burgesses even though they were encumbered by the sponsorship of young men such as Patrick Henry.
These last days of May exposed a generational split in the House, but it did not cut deeply—and there were no other important divisions within the body. There were, of course, differences in politics and society, but they had not made their way into established institutions.
Certainly these potentially divisive interests had not appeared in the Burgesses. One interest dominated the House, indeed dominated Virginia’s government and politics: tobacco planters, landed, slave-owning, hard-driving producers of a staple sold in England and on the European continent. If the House of Burgesses was united, so was the colony as a whole because this group ran its life.
Other interests existed in the colony—religious dissenters in the West, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists—but these radicals of the spirit had not yet forced their way into the government of the colony.
Every newspaper report of Virginia’s action made events in Virginia sound more extravagant than they were. The Burgesses had passed four resolves; Maryland printed six and Rhode Island seven; undoubtedly stories relayed in private letters, by word of mouth, the gossip of taverns, parishes, towns, and court meetings introduced further distortions. Henry’s bravado was reported in these stories; his backing down was not.
Because official action had been taken in Virginia, the pressure built up elsewhere to respond in a similar vein. Before the end of 1765, the lower houses of eight other colonies had approved resolutions denouncing the Stamp Act and denying Parliament’s right to tax the American colonies for revenue. And in October a Stamp Act Congress, composed of representatives of nine colonies, passed similar declarations of colonial rights.28
The statements of these bodies possess a transparent clarity and force that imply that agreement on them was complete and easily achieved. In fact, in almost every case the response was the purchase of effort and conflict, because the Stamp Act offered an opportunity for gaining political advantage in long-standing struggles.
Where local divisions were deep—and felt intensely—the Stamp Act encouraged bitter conflict and usually drove divisions even deeper.
None of these legislatures passed resolutions before the fall of 1765. Most had finished their spring sessions by the time the news of the Virginia Resolves arrived, and none had been able to pull itself together sufficiently to act with a similar force. Virginia’s example clearly helped them act in the fall, and so did popular action undertaken in the summer. By early 1766 politics in most of the colonies had assumed a shape rather different from that of March 1765 when the Stamp Act was passed.
Massachusetts—where violence began and where politics was transformed—offers an instructive example of a political stand-off which at first inhibited protest, and then—when it was broken—intensified conflict and violence. Indeed, long-standing political feuds contributed to at least one instance of unrestrained violence—the mobbing of Thomas Hutchinson’s house.
And to the general hostility to Parliament’s attempt to tax the colonies. For these provincial political divisions gave the opponents of taxation the opportunity to taint their enemies with something approaching treason to America. But at first—in the spring of 1765—political division, and the peculiar cast of alignments in Massachusetts, produced only paralysis.29
The most important political division in Massachusetts in 1765 went back to another division between James Otis, Sr., and Thomas Hutchinson which had its origin in 1757.
Division is probably too mild a word to apply to the Otis-Hutchinson conflict; their struggle took on the proportions of a feud. As is still often the case in politics, the feud was over political office—first a seat on the governor’s Council which James Otis, Sr., of Barnstable wanted, and then the chief justiceship which they both wanted. Otis, Sr., hoped in 1757 that the House of Representatives would elect him to the Council, and when it did not, he blamed Thomas Hutchinson.
The two men had been on opposite sides of the fence before—in a sense they were when the election to the Council was held, for Otis had been supporting the current governor, Thomas Pownall, who feared that Hutchinson coveted his place.30
Otis did not make much out of his disappointment until shortly after Francis Bernard replaced Thomas Pownall as governor in 1760. Colonists in Massachusetts knew Francis Bernard before they ever laid eyes on him.
For Bernard was a familiar sort of figure in the colonies, a placeman who owed his appointment to his connection at “home.” In this case the influential English backer was Lord Barrington, Bernard’s brother-in-law and Secretary at War. Bernard had been governor of New Jersey, a place he thought beneath his ability, or at least beneath his hopes for financial reward.
Bernard needed money to keep his growing family happy; all he had of his own was a rich ambition. Unfortunately, he lacked brains as well as money.31
Bernard arrived with instructions to enforce the Molasses Act—to stop smugglers, in other words. There is reason to suppose that he regarded these orders approvingly, for the governor received one-third of the proceeds of all forfeitures of smugglers.
Bernard immediately made his weight felt, light as it was, by remaining aloof from the Otis and Hutchinson factions and dealing with the Tyng interest in the House of Representatives. Tyng was a power in the House, but no governor could survive without coming to terms with either the Otis or the Hutchinson group.
Bernard had hardly been in Massachusetts a month when one of those opportunities presented itself that give politicians nightmares. The opportunity was to fill an office sought after by two powerful rivals (Otis and Hutchinson)—the office of chief justice left vacant by Samuel Sewall’s death.
By this time, Otis, fifty-eight years old, was speaker of the House, a formidable power there and among the inland farmers. He insisted that William Shirley, governor from 1741 to 1756, had promised to appoint him to a place on the superior court when a vacancy occurred. The vacancy was obviously there in September, but Francis Bernard quite understandably did not feel bound by Shirley’s promise.
To disappoint James Otis, Sr., and his tribe of family and followers was to court danger, and so Bernard, who only craved a peaceful and rewarding tenure as governor, delayed while he looked over the field.32
The only other seeker after the office was of course Thomas Hutchinson. Forty-nine years old in 1760, Hutchinson, like Otis, came from an old Massachusetts family. The establishment in Massachusetts had not always considered the family to be entirely honorable, for Anne Hutchinson, great-great-grandmother of Thomas, was one of its founders.
Mistress Anne, a notorious antinomian, had been banished in 1638; Thomas Hutchinson had no spiritual leanings and seemed as unlikely a candidate for exile as could be found: a solid Harvard man, a prudent and successful merchant, and a pluralist second to none.
A pluralist in eighteenth-century Massachusetts was not one who held several clerical livings; he was an amasser of public offices. Hutchinson in 1760 was a councillor, lieutenant governor of the colony, commander of Castle Island, and judge of probate in Suffolk County. These offices brought him around £400 sterling a year.33
Hutchinson’s large appetite inspired his family to emulate his example (the only inspiration respected in the eighteenth-century clan). Andrew Oliver, his brother-in-law, was secretary of the Province, judge of the inferior court of common pleas in Essex County, and a councillor. Two other relatives by marriage,
Peter Oliver and Benjamin Lynde, were justices of the superior court and councillors. This list could be extended without difficulty.
Governor Bernard may have thought it unkind not to feed this voracious tribe; more likely, he learned that as Chief Justice Hutchinson would be more disposed to enlist in the fight against smugglers than Otis. In any event, Bernard appointed Hutchinson in November and the fight was on—with the Otis family, their adherents, including many merchants, and a majority of the House opposed to the Bernard-Hutchinson administration.34
Otis had little trouble lining up enemies to the administration, for Bernard and the local vice admiralty court had been playing dirty in the rough game of suppressing smugglers. According to the law, forfeitures were to be divided into three equal parts, with the governor taking one, the officials making the seizure another, and the province the third.
In practice, however, the province collected its third in a rather depleted state, for informers were paid out of it. Fairness seemed to require that such expenses be equally distributed. Fairness may not have moved Otis and his merchant supporters who, after the battle with the administration was joined, persuaded the House of Representatives to direct the province to sue for its full third.
The case dragged through the year 1761 and into 1762, when the superior court, guided by Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson, reversed a lower court ruling and decided against the province.35
While this case was being heard, another of greater consequence for merchant interests was decided. This involved the writs of assistance, the general search warrants used by Customs officials in the enforcement of the navigation acts. The warrants had expired at the death of George II and had to be renewed.
The question before the Massachusetts courts involved the legality of writs issued by the superior court. That court could not claim chancery jurisdiction under which the court of Exchequer in England commonly issued the writs, for it after all could not hold the Customs accountable. Oxenbridge Thacher, representing the merchants with James Otis, Jr., made this point in a careful legal argument against the writs after Jeremiah Gridley, appearing for the Customs, argued that the needs of the state took priority over individual liberty.
Young Otis ignored all such legal niceties in favor of constitutional argument: the writs of assistance, he maintained, violated fundamental principles of the constitution, and not even Parliament could issue such a writ. Thomas Hutchinson remained cool before this brilliant heat and, after consulting the authorities in England, upheld the legality of the writs.36
These struggles generated others: the two sides sniped at one another about the control of political office, the enforcement of Customs regulations, and a host of other matters. In 1763, Bernard, trying vainly to heal a festering wound with an inadequate poultice, offered Otis, Sr., a vacant judgeship in Barnstable County.
The senior Otis took it and then proceeded to act in his usual independent way. Bernard enjoyed more success the next year, blocking the House’s attempts to protest against the Sugar Act until after Parliament passed it.37
Understandably, the “popular” faction led by the two Otises felt overwhelmed by frustration and failure on the eve of the passage of the Stamp Act. When the legislature met in January 1765—barely a month before the Stamp Act was introduced in Parliament—it discovered that its frustration was to be renewed, not by Governor Bernard or Thomas Hutchinson, but by James Otis, Jr.
For Otis was now off on one of his curious aberrations, first voting for the governor’s man, Richard Jackson, as colonial agent, and then joining those voting Thomas Hutchinson additional salary as chief justice, salary Otis had opposed successfully three years earlier.
If this performance shocked the House, Otis’s next actions stunned all who knew him. In the spring, Otis published two pamphlets which seemed to repudiate the constitutional position he had taken earlier in The Rights of the British Colonies (1764).38
These two new tracts conceded the English case for Parliamentary sovereignty, Parliament’s right to tax the colonies, and, in the strangest twist of all, argued that the colonies were represented in Parliament in law if not in fact.
The consternation these arguments produced among his friends may have surprised Otis, who never thought that he had given away his earlier defense of colonial rights. And in a sense he was correct.
Both positions rested on an assumption that Parliament was a body determined to correct its own mistakes, which is exactly what Otis urged it to do the year before in The Rights of the British Colonies. At that time, he provided an elaborate case for the rights of the colonies; now in the efforts of 1765, he was redressing the balance somewhat by pointing to the sovereignty of Parliament.
To Massachusetts and to the House, Otis’s assumptions mattered not at all. He seemed to be a late convert to Parliamentary orthodoxy, and his conversion to English political advocacy did not raise him to sainthood in Boston’s eyes; in fact, the town almost decided it could play the game of repudiation too, and in the May election very nearly did not return him to the House.
Newspapers in Boston—never gentle or subtle—suggested that the administration had bought Otis. The charge was plausible, though untrue, and Otis, a thoroughly shaken man, denied it in a piece he wrote for the Boston Gazette in the middle of May. The same day, Samuel Waterhouse, a Customs officer writing for another newspaper, went too far and hit Otis too hard with “light” verse called “Jemmibullero,” a parody of Lillibulero. Boston’s voters read:
And Jemmy is a stupid curr, and Jemmy is a fool;
And Jemmy is a madman, and Jemmy is an ass,
And Jemmy has a leaden head, and forehead spread with brass.39
And they decided that perhaps Otis should be given another chance. He did not lead the list of representatives, but he won re-election nonetheless.
While Otis was plunging the popular faction into disarray, news of the Stamp Act arrived in Massachusetts and with it information that Andrew Oliver, Hutchinson’s brother-in-law, had been appointed stamp distributor for the colony.
The House, confused and irresolute after Otis’s apparent defection, could not seem to rally itself. Governor Bernard counseled submission, and the House in effect agreed. To be sure, it joined the Council in an address to Parliament protesting the Act, but by current standards this statement was not far from the description given it in July by the Boston Gazette: “a tame, pusillanimous, daubed, insipid thing.”40
The full extent of the House’s weakness became clear when it failed to block the appointments of Oliver and Hutchinson to the Council. When the governor prorogued the House early in June, it seemed to have swallowed the bitter medicine of the Stamp Act rather meekly.
The medicine further soured stomachs and minds a few days later when copies of the Virginia Resolves arrived and made their way into the local newspapers. The version published by the Boston Gazette indicted anyone who asserted that a body other than the Massachusetts legislature had any right to tax the colony as “AN ENEMY TO THIS HIS MAJESTY’S COLONY 41
And the Gazette soon published a piece denouncing the “frozen politicians” of the colony who called the Virginians’ action treason, an obvious reference to James Otis, Jr., still off on his own wild tangent.
From this point on, heads, and presumably stomachs, cleared, and the frozen grew warm, heated up by the resolves. Governor Bernard called them “an Alarm bell to the disaffected.”42 The newspapers helped too by printing essays and letters all calculated to rouse public opinion.
A small group of men, resolving to do more than publish and talk, plotted violence against Andrew Oliver, who had been selected Distributor of Stamps in Massachusetts.
These men styled themselves the Loyal Nine, soon to be changed to the Sons of Liberty. They included artisans, shopkeepers, and a printer, Benjamin Edes, who with John Gill published the Boston Gazette. No legislative leader joined them, though Samuel Adams may have met secretly at times with several; and the only member who had any claim to social status was John Avery, a merchant, Harvard, class of 1759, who came of good stock.
The Loyal Nine seem usually to have met at Chase and Speakman’s distillery on Hanover Square, and there presumably they planned the riot of August 14.43
To do the rough work of rioting they turned to experience, the recently united North and South End mobs. These groups had entertained themselves for years, most notably in a session on Guy Fawkes Day, November 5, which the two mobs usually commemorated by brawling, a peculiar but apparently satisfying way of celebrating the frustration of an explosion.
The fights between the two mobs were not gentle affairs; they used clubs, bricks, stones, and fists on one another, and in the fracas of 1764 a child who got in the way had been killed.
Understandably, neither mob kept a roster of its members, but we know that most were craftsmen, workers of lesser skills, sailors, apprentices, and boys.
After the fight of 1764, some sort of rough agreement was apparently worked out between the two groups, and the leader of the South Enders, Ebenezer MacIntosh, a cobbler by trade and a man of commanding presence, assumed leadership of the combined group.
Persuading MacIntosh and his followers to enlist against the Stamp Act probably was not very difficult. All the Loyal Nine had to do was to induce the mob to substitute one local enemy for another—instead of the opposing mob, the enemy was Andrew Oliver and the crew of placemen who had gobbled up offices for years. Oliver was well known; he and his ilk stood to profit by the stamp tax, and current gossip had it that Oliver’s brother-in-law, Thomas Hutchinson, had recommended the tax. Striking a blow for liberty meant hitting such creatures.
The identification of English and local tyranny was made evident early on the morning of August 14. The town awoke to find an effigy of Oliver hanging in a tree; beside it hung a large boot, representing the Earl of Bute, a play on his name.
Bute, of course, was no longer in office in England, but he was remembered as an evil man, symbolic of, if not responsible for, the recent dangerous encroachments upon colonial liberties. The point was made clearly in the symbols in the tree, where a devil was shown crawling out of the boot.44
Several people living near the tree offered to take down the effigy of Oliver but were warned not to do so. Lt. Governor Thomas Hutchinson ordered the sheriff and his officers to remove the effigy, but the sheriff soon reported that removal would cost him and his officers their lives.
By this time, Governor Bernard smelled serious trouble and summoned the Council to tell them so. Several agreed but several others dismissed the hanging effigy as “trifling Business”; both groups agreed that any action would make matters worse.45
At the first dark of evening, Ebenezer MacIntosh and the mob took the effigy of Oliver and, parading past the Town House where the governor and Council were in worried session, gave three huzzas as if to reassure the Council that affairs were now in the right hands.
The mob then marched to a new building on Andrew Oliver’s dock on Kilby Street. Oliver had intended to rent rooms in the building to shopkeepers, but the mob, calling the building the “Stamp Office,” tore it down in five minutes. MacIntosh then led the way to Oliver’s house on nearby Oliver Street. Here in front of the house, a part of the mob beheaded the effigy, presumably for Oliver’s edification, while others broke the windows in the house.
Fort Hill was a few steps away, and the mob moved to it, apparently to give the town—and Oliver—a better view of the proceedings. And interesting proceedings they were: just in case anyone was unaware of the stamp tax, the effigy was “stamped”—with the feet of the mob—and then burned.
The only thing to do then was to return to the house, which the mob did willingly enough, only to find the doors barricaded. These could be broken down and were, accompanied by calls to find Oliver and kill him. Oliver had long since departed, and his friends who had remained within the house to protect it now prudently followed after him.
The mob searched several nearby houses—Oliver was hidden in one—but gave up when a neighbor told them that Oliver had fled to Castle William in the harbor. Disappointed, the mob contented itself by smashing Oliver’s furniture and tearing off the wainscoting.46
Sometime during these events, Governor Bernard ordered the colonel of the militia “to beat an alarm,” to summon his regiment which might put down the riot. The colonel replied that if a drummer could be found who was not in the mob, he would be knocked down as soon as he made a sound, and his drum would be broken.
The colonel undoubtedly spoke the truth, for the mob would listen to no one in official authority. Thomas Hutchinson and the sheriff proved this to their own satisfaction about eleven P.M. when they appeared at Oliver’s house to try to persuade the mob to disperse.
Before they could speak, they heard, “The governor and the Sheriff my boys, to your Arms my boys,” the cry followed immediately by brickbats and stones. They ran and the mob remained, not to adjourn for another hour.47
The following day, August 15, Oliver received another sort of delegation, a small group of gentlemen who urged him to resign his commission as stamp distributor. Oliver did not have the commission, which had not yet arrived from England, but he promised to resign as soon as it did.
That night the mob again convened on Fort Hill around a bonfire, as if to remind Oliver what was expected of him. But the night’s agenda was short and tame; the mob moved from Fort Hill to Hutchinson’s house, pounding on his doors and shouting to him to come out. It smashed nothing, however, and Thomas Hutchinson, though a brave man, probably breathed easier.48
Hutchinson’s turn came eleven days later. He was a natural target: he was rumored to be an advocate of the Stamp Act and known by his actions to be a defender of Customs enforcement; besides, he had tried to get Oliver’s effigy removed from the tree, and he had appeared at Oliver’s house to attempt to convince the mob to go home.
And he was proud, even stiff-necked, and brave. How tempting to introduce him to humility while defending colonial rights.49
On the evening of August 26, after a day of rumors that local Customs officials would be attacked, a bonfire was lighted on King Street and a great crowd gathered shouting “liberty and property,” which, Bernard sardonically reported, was “the usual notice of their intention to plunder and pull down a house.”50
The mob actually had several houses in mind; to dispatch its business more efficiently it divided into two groups and each repaired to a different house. One went to the residence of Charles Paxton, the marshal of the vice admiralty court, only to discover that he rented the place. The owner of the house offered to treat them to a barrel of punch at a nearby tavern, an offer which was accepted.
Now, full of liquid and patriotic spirits, the mob moved to William Story’s house. Story was the deputy registrar of the vice admiralty court and evidently an unpopular man. The cry went up to kill Story, but he had escaped; the mob destroyed what it found within and carried the vice admiralty records outside where they were burned. Meanwhile, the second mob had surged to the house of Benjamin Hallowell, the comptroller of Customs. The beauty of Hallowell’s house may have provided a special inducement to do a thorough job—at any rate the crowd left it a shambles, with windows and doors smashed, furniture broken, wainscoting pulled off, books and papers scattered or stolen, and the wine cellar consumed.
By now the action had become almost routine, except that the greatest prize of all lay waiting. The prize, of course, was the handsome house of Thomas Hutchinson. Most of the evening lay ahead when the mob, its two halves back together for the chief work of the night, arrived. Hutchinson and his family were eating supper, probably rather uneasily, for they had heard talk that they would have uninvited visitors.
The family left just ahead of the mob, but Thomas Hutchinson decided to stay, a decision he held to until his oldest daughter returned and refused to leave unless he accompanied her. She probably thereby saved his life. As it was, he eluded his pursuers only by running through gardens and backyards to safety.
The mob took its time on his house. Virtually everything movable within was destroyed or stolen—papers, plate, furniture, clothing, and £900 sterling—and what could not be moved—walls, partitions, and roof—were severely battered.
The handsome cupola was cut off, a demolition that took three hours, and much of the slate roof was pulled down. Daybreak found the mob still hard at work; a part of the roof still survived and several brick walls still stood. Dawn finally discouraged the mob, who evidently had been determined to level the house to its foundations.
Historians reflecting on this episode have concluded that things got out of hand at Hutchinson’s house. Hutchinson himself opined three days later that “The encouragers of the first mob never intended matters should go this length.”51
There is other evidence along the same line, including an official statement of regret by the town meeting the following day. And Governor Bernard found much to his surprise that he would not have any difficulty in raising the militia on August 27 and for several weeks after to maintain order.
But then why should he? The opposition to the Stamp Act had expressed itself rather forcibly; no further violence seemed necessary at the end of August. The mob may have gone too far, and the town said it was sorry, but no one apologized for the riot of August 14 against Oliver, and no one repudiated opposition to taxation without consent.
The riot of August 26 may have proceeded farther than the Loyal Nine intended, but they could not have felt much displeasure that it had. Hutchinson was an enemy; he was Oliver’s brother-in-law; he apparently favored the Stamp Act; and he had been put in his place. In only a limited sense, then, had the action of August 26 been too extreme.
By late August two major colonies, Virginia and Massachusetts, each in its own way, had vented their anger at the Stamp Act. They in fact had started more than they knew; they had started a fire. Its spread seemed virtually inevitable.
READ MORE: 2. Children of the twice-born
The Glorious Cause : Robert Middlekauff