Sunday, June 19, 2016

Stamp Act Crisis - Catalyst to Revolution, and the Birth of the Sons of Liberty

Pennsylvania Journal, October 31, 1765
(From Samuel Adams: A Character Sketch by
Samuel Fallows, 1898)
Have you ever noticed how sometimes the littlest acts create the biggest consequences?

England found itself strapped for cash at the close of the Seven Years War (known in the colonies as the French and Indian Wars), and saw the Stamp Act as a way to generate some much needed revenue.

When members of Parliament passed the Stamp Act on March 22, 1765, they didn’t give it a second thought. The tax was actually quite minor. It was expected to raise roughly £60,000 pounds, less than one-fifth of what it cost the Crown to keep troops stationed in North America for protection of the colonies. And, in all fairness, the revenues generated by the tax were to be used in the colonies to maintain order, and keep peace on the frontier.

The Stamp Act required colonists to pay a tax on every printed piece of paper—newspapers, magazines, broadsides, legal documents such as business licenses, permits, college diplomas, and even playing cards. Most of the fees weren’t outrageous, many of them started at less than a half-penny. The devil was in the details. The law required the tax to be paid in hard-currency—gold and silver, which was always in short supply in the colonies. And, the penalties for evading the tax were harsh. The fine was £10 for each pack of cards or pair of dice sold without a stamp, and £20 for each newspaper or pamphlet that did not list the name and address of the publisher. Tax evaders were to be tried before a Court of Admiralty, because Parliament felt colonial jury’s would be too lenient on tax evaders.  It also stipulated counterfeiters would be treated as felons, and suffer the penalty of death without benefit of clergy.


Another thing that riled the colonists was the tax coming so close on the heels of the Currency Act of 1765, and the Sugar Act of 1764 that taxed textiles, wines, sugar, molasses, and coffee.

And, it really wasn’t the Stamp Act that bothered the colonists so much as it was wondering what would come next? In the past taxes had been levied on the colonies to regulate trade. These new taxes were different. They were passed specifically to generate revenue for the Crown.

Concerned colonists began to ask themselves—if this new tax was allowed to stand, what would the next tax and the tax after that be?

……………..

The opposition was immediate, and often violent with two colonies—Virginia and Massachusetts—leading the charge.

The Virginia House of Burgesses lit up with impassioned pleas to remove the tax. Patrick Henry introduced the Stamp Act Resolves. The gist of the Resolves was that the colonists enjoyed the same rights as citizens of Britain, and as such Parliament had no right to tax them. If Virginians were to be taxed, they responded; those taxes should be passed by rightfully elected representatives from Virginia.

The demand was clear, no taxation without representation.

In Boston, the response was spearheaded by an underground group known as the Loyal Nine, the forerunner of the Sons of Liberty. Members of the group included John Avery, Henry Bass, Thomas Chase, Stephen Cleverly, Thomas Crafts, Benjamin Edes, Joseph Fields, John Smith, and George Trott.

The Loyal Nine fostered rebellion through mob violence, intimidation, and propaganda.  It is likely Samuel Adams wrote many of the articles opposing the Stamp Act that were published by Benjamin Edes in the Boston Gazette. The group posted broadsides and pamphlets all around Boston denouncing the Stamp Act. They hung effigies of tax collectors, public officials, and others who supported the tax. They staged their meetings and mob actions from a rallying point at the Liberty Tree.

The first public action taken by the Loyal Nine was against Andrew Oliver, the tax collector at Boston. On August 14, 1765, Oliver was hung in effigy (a model of him) on Newbury Street, along with a caricature of a boot with the devil climbing out.

Later that evening the Loyal Nine burned Oliver’s property on Kilby Street. With that building still in flames they made off with the statue of Oliver that had been hung in the tree earlier, and headed for his home. Outside of Oliver’s house, the mob beheaded the statute of Oliver, while the family watched helplessly from inside. Next they pelted stones at the house further terrifying those trapped inside.

After this the mob proceeded to the Fort Hill District where they burned the headless effigy of Oliver. Most of the crowd gave up and went home at that point, but a few hard core members, egged on by Ebenezer McIntosh, returned to Oliver’s (now empty) home where they proceeded to break out all of the windows and destroy anything of value.

The next day the Loyal Nine visited Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson, and demanded he write a letter to Parliament denouncing the Stamp Act—Hutchinson refused. On the night of August 26 a mob took vengeance on his house, looting and destroying the property.

The message was clear—if you supported the Stamp Act, you put yourself at the mercy of the Loyal Nine.
……………

Samuel Adams in midlife
(From Samuel Adams: A Character Sketch by
Samuel Fallows, 1898)
Over a very short period of time the Loyal Nine morphed into the Sons of Liberty. By the end of 1765 there was a Sons of Liberty Chapter in all thirteen colonies, and you guessed it—one of their favorite activities was harassing stamp distributors. The Boston chapter was founded by Samuel Adams and John Hancock. Another Boston chapter of the Sons of Liberty, called the Mechanics, was formed by Paul Revere. They served as spies, or intelligence gatherers, reporting on the whereabouts of British troops in the city of Boston.

In all fairness mob violence and intimidation was just a small portion of what the Sons of Liberty were all about. Much of their influence came about through peaceful acts like publishing newspaper articles, pamphlets, and broadsides that lambasted the Stamp Act.

Massachusetts initiated a call for a Stamp Act Congress. Nine of the original thirteen colonies were represented in the gathering. The Stamp Act Congress met at Federal Hall in New York City in October of 1765 to protest the tax. They issued a Declaration of Rights and Grievances which held to the tenant—no taxation without representation.

All of the fuss came as a complete surprise to the members of Parliament. To them it was a minor tax, and none of the money was coming back to the Crown. It was all being used to help safeguard the colonies. Prime Minister George Grenville offered to substitute another means of raising revenue, if the colonists could suggest a more acceptable one.

British merchants complained about lost revenues from colonists protesting the tax, and no one was ready to fight a battle over such a piddling amount. Parliament eventually repealed the tax in 1766 because it was cheaper to drop it, than to keep it. That same day Parliament approved the Declaratory Act which basically reaffirmed they had “full power and authority to make laws and statutes” over the “colonies and people of America” who were “subjects of the Crown of Great Britain.”

……………


More than anything else, the Stamp Act crisis paved the way for American independence. It brought the colonies together for the first time when they united to form the Stamp Act Congress. Even more important was the organization of the Sons of Liberty. They would play a pivotal role in every step of the revolution including the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party.

Excerpt from my book, History Bytes: 37 People, Places, and Events That Shaped American History.

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