It’s Been 250 Years Since the Event that Kicked Off the American Revolution: The Stamp Act Crisis

tags: American Revolution, Stamp Act Crisis

Jonathan Carriel is the author of the Thomas Dordrecht Historical Mystery Series, the most recent of which is Exquisite Folly, set amid the Stamp Act crisis in New York City.  

"Proof sheet of one penny stamps Stamp Act 1765" by Board of Stamps (engraver unknown) - Wikipedia

Patrick Henry’s Virginia Resolves of May 29, 1765, reprinted in newspapers throughout the colonies, alerted Americans that the Stamp Tax was the first unquestionable instance of taxation without representation, and had to be vigorously opposed. A fortnight later, Massachusetts called for a colonial congress, to be held in New York City in October. By July, the tax, and how to respond to it when it would become effective on November 1, was the premier topic of conversation.  Colonists were persuaded that the Stamp Tax, piled on top of the crushing Sugar and Currency Acts, would destroy all trade and render everyone destitute. Businesses and families came to see November 1st as a deadline, and strove to cram extra hours of work into their days in preparation.

Bostonians organized the first public demonstration against the tax on August 14, 1765. This was followed by a disorganized riot two weeks later that caused property damage that shocked the more conservative opponents of the tax. Riots also occurred in Rhode Island, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, while less overt violence could be found throughout the seaboard.

New York, notoriously partisan, and then as now the most ethnically and religiously diverse place in America, was slower than the then-larger provinces to respond, and was very wary of inciting mob rule. The various factions differed strongly on the proper response, but they agreed on one proposition:  the Stamp Tax was a terrible idea that would cause great economic hardship for all. On September 5, the local paper urged a solemn protest for the day of implementation—a “funeral” procession for “Lady North American Liberty,” who was not expected to survive the “cruel stamp upon her vitals.”  The most radical faction produced a news sheet—the Constitutional Courant—on September 19, that even hinted at the desirability of American independence:  “If [Britain] would strip us of all the advantages derived to us from the English constitution, why should we desire to continue our connection? We might as well belong to France, or any other power; none could offer a greater injury to our rights and liberties than is offered by the Stamp Act.” Only two years after the end of the brutal war against France – the French and Indian War – those were drastic words! 

The Stamp Act Congress convened on October 7, 1765, in New York’s City Hall, with nine colonies represented. While important historically as an indication of colonial unity, the three-week session was anticlimactic for the town.  The delegates sequestered themselves, and refused to divulge their deliberations or even their results; they drafted a protest to Parliament, but the import of it became known in America only months later. 

When a commercial ship bearing pre-stamped paper intended for New York distribution arrived in the harbor on Tuesday, October 23, it first passed an anchorage full of ships with their cross-yards askew—symbolic, mariners explained, of “Mourning, Lamentation, and Woe!” Then it faced two thousand armed New Yorkers lining the Battery, determined that the stamps were not to be landed. Negotiations proved fruitless.  When darkness fell, the citizens stood down, intending to resume the vigil at dawn.  However, the royal Governor, Cadwallader Colden, who was intransigently determined that the stamps were to be deployed, roused the Navy during the small hours to row the crates of stamped paper ashore, where they were secured inside Fort George, which stood just below Bowling Green with virtually the identical footprint of today’s Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House. 

Perhaps smarting from having been so easily out-foxed, someone produced a dire broadside that was suddenly posted all over the city on October 24: 

Pro Patria

The first man that distributes or makes use of stampt paper—

Let him take care of his house, person, and effects

Vox Populi

We dare

On the eve of implementation, Thursday afternoon, October 31, two hundred of the city’s “principal merchants” endorsed the first non-importation agreement. The boycott had been suggested elsewhere—prompting months of frantic effort to expedite all business—but this was the first commitment, and there was no guarantee that the other seaports would follow suit.

New York’s wholesale commerce and international shipping halted on November 1. Ships lacking stamped customs declarations could face rejection at foreign ports. If they lacked stamped manifests, they were uninsurable. Contracts, deeds, leases, diplomas, and wills could not legally be signed without a stamp.  Books, pamphlets, or newspapers sold lacking one were blatantly against the law. 

The protests began at dusk. An effigy of the detested governor was paraded on a rail, and treated to the usual disrespect of colonial “rough music.”  In front of the Fort, it was shown directly to Colden, who had moved inside in some fear of his skin. While there, a carriage house outside the fort was forced, and Colden’s luxurious coach was stolen. A portable gallows was produced, bearing hanged effigies of the governor, Prime Minister George Grenville, and the devil himself. The mob then took these displays up Broadway to the Commons (now City Hall Park) amid, one opponent sniffed, the “utmost ribaldry.”

There, now swollen to two thousand persons—one-tenth the population—the “funeral of Liberty” began. Funerals were then extremely costly, elaborate affairs, so it’s legitimate to imagine a hearse drawn by black horses, complete with empty coffin, leading a torch- and candle-lit procession back down the Broadway to the tolling of church bells.

Everyone knew Fort George’s soldiers had been seen, earlier that day, moving cannons that normally were aimed out into the harbor up onto the northern bastion, where they would face directly down onto Bowling Green. And they had been observed loading those cannons with grapeshot. Did the two thousand people who filed into the half-acre park that night believe they’d be fired upon?  No.  But did they assume it impossible?  No, again:  they knew also that Governor Colden was adamant and unreservedly self-righteous, and imperial militaries had committed such atrocities before. And there was a coterie of well-oiled toughs in their midst spoiling for a fight.

The organizers were fully aware of this.  When a polite knock on the fort’s door was met with defiance, the rowdies charged the fort with scaling ladders. Keen to avoid pointless bloodshed, the organizers quickly ignited a bonfire in the park, pulling people away from the structure.  Into the fire went the rail, the gallows, the effigies, and the governor’s coach.

Despite verbal provocations from crazed members of the mob, the soldiers did not fire, and the organizers thought they’d succeeded in asserting their predominance and determination.  But someone yelled out that a hated redcoat officer had notoriously asserted that he planned to “cram the stamps down their throats with the point of my sword,” and that serious comeuppance was therefore due.  Hundreds raced a full mile north to Vauxhall Gardens, where the offending Major Thomas James had recently refurbished an elegant house.  When they were done, the walls were left standing; nothing else. Ironically, Major James was the artillery officer at Fort George—the man who had withheld fire.  Called in to Parliament some months later (probably seeking restitution), he was pointedly asked why he did not fire!  Had he fired, James explained, he might have done for nine hundred of the rabble; however, the following day, he would have anticipated fifty thousand militia from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, who would have demolished the fort and massacred all within.  (Historians Edmund and Helen Morgan speculated that, had this occurred, the American Revolution might have started in 1765.) 

Aside from creating a searing memory of loaded cannon aimed at peaceful protesters, the events of November 1 settled nothing.  The next four days were extremely tense.  The protesters re-grouped in anticipation of the traditional day of mayhem, Guy Fawkes Day. The governor received death threats. Radical zealots seriously discussed besieging the fort to destroy the stamps.  Colden took the extraordinary step of spiking the cannons remaining on the Battery, lest the mob turn them against the fort itself. Appeals for calm met indifference until mid-day on November 5, when the stamps were surrendered to the care of the city authorities, who locked them safely out of Colden’s grasp in City Hall. The convoy that escorted the seven heavy crates was cheered by some five thousand jubilant New Yorkers. 

The harbor stand-off, the merchants’ agreement, and the nearly-deadly riot—the worst the city had ever known, and the only significant American action on the implementation day—had to have remained as a watershed in New Yorkers’ and all Americans’ awareness of their status within the British empire. Over four years before the Boston Massacre, no other event could have stood out as dramatically.

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