Sunday, December 17, 2017

John Adams During the Stamp Act Crisis of 1765

John Adams in 1762
In 1765 John Adams was a young lawyer struggling to make ends meet. When the Stamp Act shut down the courts, he wasn’t sure what to make of it.

Obviously, it caused him personal and financial pain. That showed in his diary. He said the Stamp Act was an “enormous engine, fabricated by the British Parliament, for battering down all the rights and liberties of America…In every colony, from Georgia to New Hampshire inclusively, the stamp distributors and inspectors have been compelled by the unconquerable rage of the people to renounce their offices.”[1]

And, it wasn’t just upper-class citizens who protested the Stamp Act. “The people even to the lowest ranks, have become more attentive to their liberties, more inquisitive about them, than they were ever before known or had occasion to be.”[2] No matter what their profession, Americans were up in arms about the negative effects of the Stamp Act. “Our presses have groaned, our pulpits have thundered, our legislatures have resolved, our towns have voted; the crown officers everywhere have trembled.”[3]

From the tone alone, it sounds as if John Adams is already a rebel, or poised to cross the line.

There was a significant principle at stake. One the colonists would repeatedly invoke over the next decade. Adams said if the colonies accept this tax, “if this authority is once acknowledged and established, the ruin of America will become inevitable.”[4] The real fear. The unspoken concern was that if the colonies were to lie down and accept the tax, more taxes would soon follow. Once the precedent was set, what was there to stop Parliament from taxing the water they drink, or the air that they breathe?

At present, everything was in disarray. The courts were shut down, the probate office was closed-up, and the customs house was shuttered. No one was able or willing to decide what should come next. “The executive courts have not yet dared to adjudge the Stamp Act void, nor to proceed with business as usual, though it should seem that necessity alone would be sufficient to justify business at present.”[5]

The date was December 18, 1765.


John Adams hadn’t worked since the first of November. There was no prospect that the courts would reopen anytime soon. For Adams, it was a major disappointment. He was thirty, and chomping at the bit to grow his law practice. Instead, circumstances forced him to economize and cut back on his spending. Adams had just started to make his reputation, and now, because of the Stamp Act he was on the brink of ruin. A lesser man would have thrown in the towel. Adams used the downtime to study and improve himself.

On December 19, Adams learned he was one of three lawyers chosen to meet with Governor Thomas Hutchinson to determine how the courts could be reopened. The other two members of the committee were Jeremiah Gridley and James Otis.

Adams wasn’t sure why the Bostonians had chosen him to argue their cause, but, once selected, he felt compelled see it through.

Adams sounded out his strategy. “Should we contend that the Stamp Act is void—that the Parliament have no legal authority to impose internal taxes upon us, because we are not represented in it—and, therefore, that the Stamp Act ought to be waived by the judges as against natural equity and constitution. Shall we use these as arguments for opening the courts of law? or shall we ground ourselves on necessity alone?”[6]

The question was, how to get the courts open and get himself back in business as quickly as possible? Do you fight the system—or, in this case, the legality of the Stamp Act, and make a statement? Or, do you do what it takes to reopen the courts and get everything working again?

Adams took the high-ground. He based his argument on “the invalidity of the Stamp Act, it not being in any sense our act, having never consented to it.” So, there would be no misunderstandings, Adams clarified what the colonists were asking was for the judges to decide whether they “could be justified in proceeding with business without stamps?”[7]

It was a gamble, a gamble that didn’t work out, but one that showed the Colonist’s resolve.

Adams was not encouraged by his meeting with the governor. He did not see any quick resolution to the Stamp Act crisis. On New Year’s Day, 1766, John Adams wrote in his diary, “the eyes of all America are fixed on the British Parliament. In short, Britain and America are staring at each other; and they will probably stare more and more for some time.”[8]

On January 2, 1766, Adams confided in his diary about a newspaper article detailing the story of a group of freemen in Talbot County, Maryland, who hung a Stamp informer in effigy. “So triumphant is the spirit of liberty,” mused Adams. “Such a union was never known in America.”[9]

John Adams had hit the nail on the head.

Whether England realized it, or not, they were shooting themselves in the foot. The Stamp Act set the loss of their American colonies in motion by uniting them in thought and action. A better response would have been to give the Americans what they asked for—representation in Parliament. That would have stopped the entire argument then and there. Or, it would have forced the colonists to reframe their objection into easier to remedy terms.

What would it have cost the Crown to allow the colonies representation in Parliament?

The chosen representatives would have been a few men against many. The odds are the Americans would not have gotten what they wanted even if they were represented in Parliament, so why not give them a seat in the legislature?
Unless…

Unless the British were worried the spark of liberty would jump across the ocean and infect the populace in the homeland. That may have been the concern. Just as likely, they were indifferent to the colonists and unconcerned about their wants and needs. Or, it could be as Lord Waldgrave had said many years before. “George III will seldom do wrong, except when he mistakes wrong for right.”[10] The story of the American Revolution rests entirely on that statement. The Revolutionary War was a comedy of errors, brought about by misunderstandings, miscalculations, and mistaking wrong for right—again and again. Of this, the Americans were as guilty as the British.

Parliament repealed the Stamp Act on March 18, 1766, almost one year after enacting it. Things returned to normal, for a while.

Adams observed, “Every newspaper and pamphlet, every public and private letter, which arrived in America from England, seemed to breathe a spirit of benevolence, tenderness, and generosity. The utmost delicacy was observed in all the state papers in the choice of expressions, that no unkind impressions be left upon the minds of Americans.”[11]

The Crown did the best they could to gloss it over, forget about it, and pretend it never happened.

Unfortunately, for the British, the die was cast. The people were changed. Maybe, John Adams was one of the few men who noticed the change in temperament. The people were more united and willing to work as one. Even during the French and Indian Wars, when their lives were on the line, the Colonists found it too great of a challenge to work together.

The Stamp Act changed all that. It gave Americans a cause they could unite around.

More inter-colony cooperation would soon follow.





[1] Adams, Charles Francis. The Works of John Adams. Vol. 2. P. 155.
[2] Adams, Charles Francis. The Works of John Adams. Vol. 2. P. 154.
[3] Adams, Charles Francis. The Works of John Adams. Vol. 2. P. 154.
[4] Adams, Charles Francis. The Works of John Adams. Vol. 2. P. 155
[5] Adams, Charles Francis. The Works of John Adams. Vol. 2. p 156.
[6] Adams, Charles Francis. The Works of John Adams. Vol. 2. P. 157.
[7] Adams, Charles Francis. The Works of John Adams. Vol. 2. P. 158.
[8] Adams, Charles Francis. The Works of John Adams. Vol. 2. P. 170.
[9] Adams, Charles Francis. The Works of John Adams. Vol. 2. P. 173.
[10] Knight, Charles. The Popular History of England. p. 51.
[11] Adams, Charles Francis. The Works of John Adams. Vol. 2. P. 203.

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