The British parliament expected some grumbling in response to the Stamp Act. Few parliamentarians anticipated the diversity and the strength of the colonial response. News of the act reached the colonies in April 1765, with the tax itself scheduled to take effect on November 1st. In that ensuing seven months there was a firestorm of debate, posturing, protest and petitioning in most of the 13 colonies. Colonial assemblymen, who often felt disregarded and snubbed by their fellow politicians in London, were furious at the apparent lack of consultation. Merchants, who had been griping about the Sugar Act for months prior, joined in the chorus of protest. Town meetings heard speakers ranging from political theorists discussing issues of representation, down to rabble-rousers predicting a whole raft of British taxation that would eventually bleed them dry. The public consensus was that if no stamps were purchased then the act couldn’t be enforced; they pledged to boycott the stamps and were, for the most part, true to their word. Some wanted to go further, a less savoury element of the crowd deciding that harassment, intimidation and violence against royal officials was the best course of action. Their actions were motivated as much by boredom, long-standing grudges, booze and yearning for a fight as much as any political ideal.
The most famous victims of these mobs – often called the ‘Sons of Liberty’, although that label is not definitive – were Andrew Oliver and Thomas Hutchinson. Oliver was the man appointed to oversee the implementation of the Stamp Act. On August 14, Oliver’s home was burgled, supplies of the stamp paper stolen and an effigy of Oliver himself was hanged and burned outside. The implied threat was too much for the ‘stamp man’ and he resigned from this office. A fortnight later there was an attack on the home of Hutchinson, the Massachusetts lieutenant-governor who was widely disliked (Samuel Adams loathed him and he was a target for some vindictive cartoonists, see picture at right). Although Hutchinson considered the Stamp Act to be a flawed policy, he nevertheless considered it legal and pledged to implement it. On August 26 a large mob gathered outside Hutchinson’s stately home in Boston. He fled for his life when the crowd smashed windows, ransacked the building and destroyed his priceless collection of books (but not before helping themselves to Hutchinson’s wine cellar). Never a supporter of democracy or popular politics, the actions of the mob embittered Hutchinson, who was to become governor of Massachusetts in 1771 with Oliver as his lieutenant. Other lower officials were victims of threats, intimidation, vandalism, arson and beatings throughout the second half of 1765, to the extent where virtually nobody wanted to be seen selling the hated tax stamps, let alone buying them.
A historian’s view:
“According to General Gage, the lawyers and merchants who started the mobs in New York also became uneasy about the extraordinary power which they had called into being. Once the violence had begun, a number of demagogues appeared, not distinguished by birth or breeding and only too eager to call out the mob on any pretext. Gage thought that the better sort would have preferred to end all riots, but that they would never call in troops to suppress the mob… They must use the power of the mob to defeat the power of Parliament, but they must not allow the mob to escape from their own direction and upset the delicate balance of social classes within the colony.”
Edmund S. Morgan
These actions were extreme though and they appalled the colonial elite as much as the British. American politicians decided on a more mature and coordinated response: the Stamp Act Congress. In October 1765, 28 delegates from nine different colonies (Georgia, North Carolina, New Hampshire and Virginia declined) gathered in New York to discuss possible responses to the stamp tax crisis. The delegates produced a manifesto called The Declaration of Rights which, like most revolutionary documents of the period, pledged affection and loyalty to the king – before going on to explain how the king and his parliament had usurped colonial rights. The statement declared that since the colonists could only vote for their local assemblies, only those bodies had the authority to tax. The congress also asserted the right to a trial by jury, denied by the Admiralty Courts, and complained about the shortage of specie (gold and silver) because of British policy. This declaration was not the first affirmation of colonial rights – but it was the first made by a body purporting to represent all colonists, as Americans rather than members of a colony or region.