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America: 1763-1776

Colonial Opposition to the Stamp Act

The Stamp Act

Further Impositions: The Quartering Act and the Townshend Duties

Summary

In late summer 1765, a group of Boston artisans, shopkeepers, and businessmen formed a group known as the Loyal Nine to oppose the Stamp Act. The Loyal Nine planned to lead the public in forcing stamp distributors, who alone could collect money for stamped paper, to resign before taxes were due on November 1, 1765.

Bostonians were in the habit of congregating in large groups to express themselves politically. On certain festival days it was not uncommon for large crowds from the North End and South End of the city to converge upon each other, throwing stones and whatever else they could find, and engaging in rowdy fistfights. The Loyal Nine, in an effort to harness the power of both groups, oversaw a truce between the two groups, which were united under the leadership of a South End shoemaker, Ebeneezer MacIntosh.

On the morning of August 14, 1765, Bostonians awoke to find an effigy of stamp collector Andrew Oliver hanged from a tree. Oliver did not take the hint to resign immediately, so at dusk, MacIntosh led several hundred men in destroying a new building that Oliver owned. At this point the Loyal Nine disappeared, and the mob moved on without their controlling influence. They demonstrated outside Oliver's house, "stamping" his effigy to pieces. They then ransacked his house, destroying it. Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson arrived with the sheriff driving off the mob with a barrage of stones. Oliver resigned.

Violence was contagious in the colonies. Twelve days later, Hutchinson's home was destroyed as well. Violence next struck in Newport, Rhode Island, where a crowd organized by local merchants grew beyond control. The crowd burned effigies and destroyed the homes of three stamp distributors, and then turned against the merchants. A sailor named John Webber assumed control, and threatened to destroy the merchants' homes and warehouses if they did not pay an enormous sum. He was caught and jailed before any destruction took place.

Political dissent became organized quickly. Groups calling themselves the Sons of Liberty formed throughout the colonies to control the widespread violence. They directed violent demonstrations against property rather than individuals, and ensured that no one was killed. They forbade their followers to carry weapons, and used military formations to maneuver large crowds. On October 7, 1765, representatives of nine colonial assemblies met in New York City, at the Stamp Act Congress. The colonies agreed widely on the principles that Parliament could not tax anyone outside of Great Britain, and could not deny anyone a fair trial, both of which had been done in the American colonies.

By late 1765, most stamp distributors had resigned, and legal and business proceedings only continued because the colonial legislatures threatened to withhold the salaries of those in a position to halt them. By the end of 1765, almost every colony was functional, without stamped paper.

By this point, social and political elites had assumed leadership of the colonial opposition to the Stamp Act. On October 31, 1765, New York's merchants decided to boycott British goods, and they were soon joined by other cities. This move put the British economy, which exported about 40 percent of its manufactures to America, in considerable danger. Soon Britain's businessmen were clamoring for the repeal of the Stamp Act.

In mid 1765, the Marquis of Rockingham had succeeded Prime Minister Grenville. He hesitated to advocate repeal and offend the House of Commons, which was outraged and resentful of colonial resistance. However, led by William Pitt, support for repeal grew. In March 1766 Parliament finally repealed the Stamp Act, and passed the Declaratory Act, which stated that Parliament had the authority to legislate for the colonies in all cases.

Commentary

It was not surprising that Boston emerged as the center of resistance to the Stamp Act. In 1765, Bostonians were not living particularly well. The port city, which relied on trade, had been substantially hurt by British restrictions--more so than other cities in the colonies. Moreover, in 1760 the city suffered a great fire that burned nearly 200 warehouses down and left ten percent of the city's population homeless. By 1765, the city had still not completely recovered. The majority of the population blamed British policy for the continued hard times that followed the French and Indian War. Additionally, the Boston town meeting was known for its somewhat radical views on self-government. Many of the most vociferous critics of Parliament, including James Otis and Samuel Adams, lived in Boston.

It is therefore understandable that the first demonstrations against the British took place in Boston. It is also understandable that the primary feature of the so-called Stamp Act crisis, organized political action, would have risen up in Boston. The formation of the Loyal Nine was the first step on a road to what would eventually become unified thinking and action spanning the colonies. Without organization, violence would have been without direction, as it was in the incident in Rhode Island. The Loyal Nine took the first step in channeling the power of the people, uniting two groups that would otherwise have been antagonistic toward each other, and directing that energy against a common foe. This sort of coalition building would prove crucial in the years to come as political leaders went about uniting the thirteen distinctive colonies in resistance.

From its beginnings in the Loyal Nine, grass-roots political organization took on even more sophistication with the leadership of the Sons of Liberty. Now, instead of simply pointing the masses in the right direction, the movement had goals, and the Sons of Liberty took distinct and successful measures to achieve those goals. Also, they exhibited a firm control over their followers that demonstrated an acute knowledge of social and political realities. For instance, they did not want to alienate elites with overly violent and disorganized mob tactics. Therefore they used the utmost discipline and did not permit their followers to carry guns. Knowing the value of martyrs, they decided early on that the only lives lost during the resistance would be American.

Without the organization of the Sons of liberty, elites would never have bought into the resistance. However, seeing that the masses were capable of controlled political expression, politicians and businessmen alike decided that they should join the opposition and lead it to an even more sophisticated, more publicly visible plane. These elites reigned in the scattered demonstrations of the masses, fearing that passion and turmoil would lead the opposition to an early death. It was the actions of the elites, most notably the boycott of British goods, which in the end led Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act.

Because the Declaratory Act's wording was vague, colonists chose to interpret it to their advantage. They saw it as a way for Parliament to save face after the Stamp Act had failed, and did not consider it to be a threat. However, Parliament chose to interpret the act broadly, to mean that the colonies could not claim exemption from any Parliamentary measure, including taxation. This fundamental disagreement would be the source of much future disagreement.

Despite the difficulties of 1765, most colonists soon put the year's strife behind them, and thanked king and Parliament for repealing the Stamp Act. The vast majority of the colonists still felt a deep emotional loyalty to Britain, but after 1765, they viewed the government in London with a higher level of scrutiny.

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