The Stamp Act, which sailed through Parliament and received the King’s approval on March 22, 1765, was essentially a tax on paper goods. It required various legal and commercial documents to be printed on special paper which had been stamped, or embossed, by the Treasury Office in England, The items taxed included documents used in court proceedings, insurance policies, licenses to practice law, deeds, leases, mortgages, bonds, contracts, bills of lading, customs clearances, playing cards, pamphlets, almanacs, and newspapers.
Americans learned of the Stamp Act in April 1765, seven months before it was scheduled to go into effect. Grumblings were heard here and there, but no one grumbled more effectively than a twenty-nine-year-old Virginian named Patrick Henry.
Patrick Henry was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. The upstart leader of a radical minority, Henry waited until most of his fellow legislators had left for home at the end of May. Then, with only 39 of 116 members present, Henry pushed through five resolves that condemned the Stamp Act and affirmed American rights.
Patrick Henry’s fifth resolve denied Parliament’s right to tax the colonies. The legislature later rescinded this resolution and erased all mention of it from the official record. But word was out. The resolves were circulated in other colonies and printed in newspapers, appearing first in the Newport Mercury.
The Mercury printed all the resolves without mentioning that the fifth had been rescinded. It also printed a mysterious sixth resolve, suggesting that it, too, had been adopted by the Virginia legislature. The fictional sixth resolve sanctioned disobedience:
Resolved, that his Majesty’s Liege People, the Inhabitants of this Colony, are not bound to yield Obedience to any Law of Ordinance whatever, designed to impose any Taxation whatsoever upon them, other than the Laws or Ordinances of the General Assembly aforesaid.
Confusion intensified when the Maryland Gazette published its version of the Virginia Resolves. It added a seventh resolution to the growing list:
Resolved, 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.
As newspapers throughout the colonies reprinted the Virginia Resolves, they mistakenly included the sixth and seventh resolutions as though they had been adopted by the Virginia legislature. This was apparently owing to the efforts of Patrick Henry and his allies. When the conservative editor of the Virginia Gazette had refused to print even the authentic resolves, this left no reliable account from which other newspapers could draw. Henry and his friends filled the void. They distributed their expanded version of the Virginia Resolves, and this version wound its way through the colonies. The physician David Ramsay described the tremendous influence of the Virginia Resolves:
They circulated extensively, and gave a spring to the discontented. Till they appeared, most were of the opinion, that the [Stamp] Act would be quietly adopted. Murmurs, indeed, were common, but they seemed to be such as would soon die away. The countenance of so respectable a colony as Virginia confirmed the wavering and emboldened the timid. Opposition to the Stamp Act, from that period, assumed a bolder face. The fire of liberty blazed forth from the press. The flame spread from breast to breast, till the conflagration became general.
The Stamp Act was hard on printers of newspapers, pamphlets, and almanacs. In addition to imposing a tax on newspapers themselves, it imposed heavy taxes on advertisements. Moreover, newspapers printed in any language other than English had to pay double the normal rate. This was a veritable decree of bankruptcy for German printers in Philadelphia.
Threatened with economic distress, many printers rallied in opposition to the Stamp Act. As David Ramsay remarked:
Printers, when uninfluenced by government, have generally arranged themselves on the side of liberty, nor are they less remarkable for attention to the profits of their profession. A stamp duty, which openly invaded the first, and threatened the last, provoked their united and zealous opposition.
Among the colonial newspapers protesting the Stamp Act, one stood out: the Boston Gazette, printed by Benjamin Edes and John Gill. Governor Bernard of Massachusetts assailed the Gazette as “the most factious paper in America,” and he called a major contributor, James Otis, “perhaps as wicked a man as lives.”
As we have seen, many Americans erroneously believed that Virginia had called for resistance against the Stamp Act. The legislature of Rhode Island followed this false lead and endorsed resistance, but it was the only colonial assembly to go this far. The resistance movement against the Stamp Act arose not from colonial legislatures but from the press and extra-legal organizations calling themselves “Sons of Liberty.”
Unlike trade laws, the Stamp Act could not be evaded through smuggling. How, then, could Americans oppose it? One way was to boycott British goods until Parliament repealed the detested law. But organizing a nonimportation movement took time, so Americans searched for other ways to keep the Stamp Act from going into effect.
Radicals arrived at an ingenious and violent solution. They would pressure the stamp distributors to resign their offices. Thus, without a way to distribute stamped paper, the government could not collect its taxes. The town of Boston spearheaded this strategy.
When Bostonians awoke on August 14, 1765, they found an effigy, dressed in rags, hanging from a huge elm tree at the intersection of Essex and Orange Streets. The effigy represented Andrew Oliver, the stamp distributor and brother-in-law of Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson. This effigy, Governor Bernard reported, could not be removed:
Some of the neighbors offered to take it down, but they were given to know that would not be permitted. The Sheriff reported, that his officers had endeavored to take down the effigy, but could not do it without imminent danger to their lives.
Later that day a crowd of tradesmen cut down the effigy and carried it to the wharves at Boston’s south end, to the site of an unfinished building owned by Andrew Oliver. The protesters assumed (mistakenly) that this was the office from which Oliver planned to distribute stamps, so they engaged in a form of protest known as “pulling down the house.” This took less than thirty minutes.
The crowd then gathered the timber from Oliver’s building and carried it, along with the effigy, to Oliver’s home at the foot of Fort Hill. There they ceremoniously beheaded the effigy and not-so-ceremoniously threw rocks through Oliver’s windows.
Next, the protesters ascended Fort Hill, and, to further emphasize their displeasure with the Stamp Act, they “stamped” their feet on what remained of Oliver’s effigy and burned it in a bonfire made, appropriately enough, of the wood from Oliver’s former building. Then it was back down the hill to Oliver’s house once again. By now, however, the stamp distributor and his family had wisely found sanctuary in a neighbor’s home. Governor Bernard told what happened next:
The mob, finding the doors barricaded, broke down the whole fence of the garden towards Fort Hill, and coming on beat in all the doors and windows of the garden front, and entered the house. As soon as they had got possession, they searched about for Mr. Oliver, declaring they would kill him; finding that he had left the house, a party set out to search two neighboring houses, in one of which Mr. Oliver was, but happily they were diverted from this pursuit by a gentleman telling them, that Mr. Oliver was gone with the Governor to the Castle. Otherwise he would certainly have been murdered.
When Governor Bernard tried to call out drummers to alert the local militia, he was told that most of the drummers were probably in the mob. The Governor then fled to the safety of Castle William in Boston Harbor. Later that night, Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson took matters in hand. Bernard described his fate:
After 11 O’Clock, the mob seeming to grow quiet, Lt. Governor Hutchinson and the Sheriff ventured to go to Mr. Oliver’s house to endeavor to persuade them to disperse. As soon as they began to speak, a ringleader cried out, “The Governor and the Sheriff! To your arms, my boys!” Presently after a volley of stones followed, the two gentlemen narrowly escaped through favor of the night, not without some bruises.
The day after this riot, Andrew Oliver promised to resign his commission as Stamp Distributor.
On August 26, twelve days after the first riot, Boston witnessed another one. At dusk a huge crowd gathered around a bonfire on King Street. Shouting “Liberty and Property!”the mob split into two groups. One group made its way to the home of William Story, an official of the vice-admiralty court (which tried smugglers and other violators of trade laws). This group wrecked Story’s house, plundered its contents, and burned official papers. The other group inflicted a similar fate on the home of Benjamin Hallowell, Comptroller of Customs.
The night was still young, so the two mobs combined forces and marched to the beautiful house of Thomas Hutchinson, Lieutenant Governor and Chief Justice of Massachusetts. Hutchinson described what happened:
The hellish crew fell upon my house with the rage of devils and in a moment with axes split down the doors and entered. My son, being in the great entry, heard them cry, “Damn him, he is upstairs; we’ll have him.
When the rioters discovered Hutchinson had left, they set to work on his house and possessions. The destruction, as Hutchinson noted, was systematic and thorough:
One of the best finished houses in the Province had nothing remaining but the bare walls and floors. Not contented with tearing off all the wainscot and hangings and splitting the doors to pieces, they beat down the partition wall; and although that alone cost them near two hours they cut down the cupola and they began to take the slate and boards from the roof and were prevented only by the approaching daylight from a total demolition of the building. The garden fence was laid flat, and all my trees broke down to the ground. Such ruins were never seen in America. Besides my plate and family pictures, household furniture of every kind, my own, my children and servant’s apparel, they carried off about 900 sterling in money and emptied the house of everything whatsoever except a part of the kitchen furniture, not leaving a single book or paper in it, and have scattered or destroyed all the manuscripts and other papers I had been collecting for 30 years together besides a great number of public papers in my custody.
The leader of the Boston riots was Ebenezer McIntosh, a shoemaker and commander of Boston’s south-end gang. When McIntosh was arrested, some leading merchants informed the Sheriff that should additional violence occur no one would try to stop it. McIntosh was released.
Some other rioters were arrested, but a crowd entered the home of the jailer and compelled him to surrender the key. No one was ever punished for participating in the Boston riots.
George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith's fourth book, The System of Liberty, was recently published by Cambridge University Press.