December 20, 2011 essays

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The Sons of Liberty and Resistance to the Stamp Act, Part Two

News of the Boston riots spread quickly throughout the colonies. The Boston Sons of Liberty provided a strategic model that other colonies adopted in order to prevent the Stamp Act from being implemented.  New organizations sprang up everywhere, and these Sons of Liberty used violence and threats of violence to pressure stamp distributors to resign.

The New York distributor, James McEvers, wished to avoid the fate of Boston’s Andrew Oliver. McEvers explained that he could not risk losing his property.

I have a large store of goods and seldom less than twenty-thousand pounds currency value in it with which the populace would make sad havoc. With respect to my own person I am not much concerned about it, but I must confess I am uneasy about my store, as a great part of what I have been laboring hard for is centered there.

McEvers resigned. The stamp distributors for New Jersey, New Hampshire, Virginia, and North Carolina followed suit. John Hughes, the distributor for Delaware and Pennsylvania, pledged he would not enforce the Stamp Act unless the other colonies did. In Georgia, George Angus managed to do his job for two weeks, after which he left for parts unknown.

Other distributors required more persuading. In Rhode Island, a mob burned an effigy of Augustus Johnston and ransacked his house. In Maryland, a mob pulled down the house of Zachariah Hood and forced him to flee the colony with only the clothes on his back. In South Carolina, two distributors fled for their lives. In Connecticut, Jared Ingersoll was accosted by a mob and told he would be lynched. All these men saw the light and resigned.

Resistance to the Stamp Act was not confined to the mainland colonies. In the Bahamas, the residents of New Providence informed the distributor that he would be buried alive if he failed to resign. After he refused, the crowd dug a grave and lowered a coffin into it. The distributor had second thoughts and yielded.

The Stamp Act was scheduled to go into effect on November 1, 1765. By that time, however, there were no distributors left in the thirteen mainland colonies — except in Georgia where (as noted previously) the distributor lasted only two weeks. The Sons of Liberty had been remarkably efficient. 

Bells tolled on November 1, the official beginning of the Stamp Act, as Americans declared this to be a day of mourning. Violence was minimal, except in New York City, where the Sons of Liberty transported effigies of Lt. Governor Colden and the devil to Colden’s house. After seizing Colden’s carriage the mob hanged the effigies and consigned them, along with the carriage, to a huge bonfire.

New Yorkers then turned their sights on Major Thomas James of the Royal Artillery. James had called the Sons of Liberty “a pack of rascals,” claiming that he could drive them out of the city with two dozen men. The protesters stripped the Major’s house of its furnishings and used them to rekindle their patriotic bonfire.

Americans responded to the Stamp Act with more than mob violence. In October 1765, twenty-seven men from nine colonies met in New York City to oppose the Stamp Act. Known as the Stamp Act Congress, this assembly was controlled by moderates, so it did not endorse violent resistance. But it did affirm some basic principles of the resistance movement:

It is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that no taxes should be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives.

After asserting the principle of no taxation without representation, the Stamp Act Congress maintained that Americans could never be adequately represented in the British Parliament. 

The people of these colonies are not, and from their local circumstances, cannot be represented in the House of Commons in Great Britain.

This claim was necessary because of a theoretical dispute that had emerged during the Stamp Act crisis. Defenders of the Stamp Act agreed that representation was a necessary precondition for taxation, but they also argued that Americans were in fact represented in Parliament – not actually, but virtually

The doctrine of virtual representation was defended by Thomas Whately, Secretary of the Treasury under George Grenville. Whately wrote:

The fact is, that the inhabitants of the Colonies are represented in Parliament. They do not indeed choose the members of that assembly; neither are nine-tenths of the people of Britain electors. The Colonies are in exactly the same situation. All British subjects are really in the same situation; none are actually, all are virtually represented in Parliament. For every member of Parliament sits in the House, not as Representative of his own Constituents, but as one of that august assembly by which all of the Commons of Great Britain are represented.

Some Americans called for colonial representation in Parliament. As James Otis put it in The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved: 

A representation in Parliament from the several colonies can’t be thought an unreasonable thing, nor if asked, could it be called an immodest request. Besides the equity of an American representation in Parliament, a thousand advantages would result from it. It would be the most effectual means of giving those of both countries a thorough knowledge of each others interests; as well as that of the whole, which are inseparable.

This call for colonial representation was rejected by most American theorists, because they believed the colonies could never be adequately represented in Parliament. Sam Adams explained:

We are far from desiring any Representation in England, because we think the Colonies cannot be equally and fully represented; and if not equally then in effect not at all. A representative should be, and continue to be, well acquainted with the internal circumstance of the people whom he represents. Now the Colonies are at so great a distance from the place where Parliament meets, from which they are separated by a wide ocean; and their circumstances are so often and continually varying, as is the case with all countries not fully settled, that it would not be possible for men, though ever so well acquainted with them at the beginning of a Parliament, to continue to have an adequate knowledge of them during the existence of that Parliament.

Only American assemblies, according to Sam Adams, could fairly represent Americans. Therefore, only American assemblies could legitimately tax Americans. This argument became the dominant theme of the American resistance movement. The Stamp Act Congress declared:

The only representatives of the people of these colonies, are the persons chosen therein, by themselves; and no taxes ever have been, or can be constitutionally imposed on them, but by their respective legislatures.

In addition to riots and the Stamp Act Congress, Americans used yet another strategy to oppose the Stamp Act. Merchants from New York, Philadelphia, and Boston signed agreements to stop importing most British commodities. These nonimportation agreements paralyzed trade between Britain and the colonies. An English merchant reported:

The present situation of the colonies alarms every person who has any connection with them. The avenues of trade are all shut up. We have no remittances, and are at our wit’s end for want of money to fulfill our engagements with our tradesmen.

American merchants owed British creditors some four-million pounds sterling, and many Americans suspended payments until the Stamp Act was repealed. An English politician noted the effectiveness of this tactic:

The weapon with which the colonies armed themselves to most advantage, was the refusal of paying the debts they owed to our merchants at home, for goods and wares exported to the American provinces. These debts involved the merchants of London, Liverpool, Manchester, and other great trading towns, in a common cause with the Americans, who forswore all traffic with us, unless the obnoxious Stamp Act was repealed. 

British merchants pressured Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act, and Parliament did so in March 1766. At the same time, however, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act, which affirmed Parliament’s right to pass laws and statutes sufficient to bind the people of America “in all cases whatsoever.” This broad assertion of Parliamentary power – a theoretical face-saving device, so to speak – did nothing more than infuriate Americans even more. Radicals would repeatedly cite the Declaratory Act as evidence of Parliament’s intent to reduce Americans “under absolute despotism,” as the Declaration of Independence later put it.

Years later, in 1774, Edmund Burke, who had consistently opposed all attempts to tax the American colonies, delivered a brilliant speech before the House of Commons. Burke perceptively noted that theoretical appeals to parliamentary sovereignty would merely push Americans, who had a long tradition of freedom, closer to the edge of independence. 

Do not burden [the Americans] by taxes; you were not used to do so from the beginning. Let this be your reason for not taxing. These are the arguments of states and kingdoms. Leave the rest to the schools; for there only they may be discussed with safety. But, if intemperately, unwisely, fatally, you sophisticate and poison the very source of government, by urging subtle deductions, and odious to those you govern, from the unlimited and illimitable nature of supreme sovereignty, you will teach them by these means to call that sovereignty itself in question. When you drive him hard, the boar will surely turn upon the hunters. If that sovereignty and their freedom cannot be reconciled, which will they take? They will cast your sovereignty in your face. Nobody will be argued into slavery. 

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