Reaction to the Stamp Act



News of the passage of the stamp act reached the colonists and excited the hot indignation of the people. Everywhere the act was denounced. The people in villages and cities gathered in excited groups and boldly expressed their indignation. The pulpit thundered condemnation and defiance in the name of a righteous God; at public gatherings the orators denounced it; the newspapers teemed with seditious essays, and the colonial assemblies rang with rebellious utterances. Among the foremost of those who boldly denounced the act in almost treasonable language was Patrick Henry, then about twenty-nine years of age. He had lately been elected a member of Virginia House of Burgesses, who were in session at that time in the old Capitol at Williamsburg. When the news was published to that body by the Speaker, a scene of wild excitement ensued. Henry calmly tore a blank leaf from an old copy of Coke upon Littleton, on which he wrote five resolutions and submitted them to the House. The first declared that the original settlers brought with them and transmitted to their posterity all the rights enjoyed by the people of Great Britain.

The second affirmed that these rights had been secured by two royal charters granted by King James. The third asserted that taxation of the people by themselves, or by persons chosen by themselves, was the distinguishing characteristic of British freedom, and without which the ancient constitution could not exist. The fourth maintained that the people of Virginia had always enjoyed the right of being governed by their own Assembly in the article of taxes, and that this right had been constantly recognized by the king and people of Great Britain. The fifth resolution, in which was summed up the essentials of the preceding four, declared "That the General Assembly of this colony have the sole right and power to levy taxes and impositions upon the inhabitants of this colony; and that every attempt to vest such power in any other person or persons whatsoever, other than the General Assembly aforesaid, has a manifest tendency to destroy British as well as American freedom."

These resolutions, so spontaneous and so bold, filled the members with astonishment. Had a thunderbolt fallen among them, they would not have been more amazed. The boldest were astounded; timid ones were alarmed, and the few royalists in the House were startled and indignant. Some, whose hearts and judgments were with Henry, and who afterward appeared in the forefront of revolution, hesitated, and even opposed the fifth resolution as being too radical and incendiary. The resolutions were seconded by George Johnson of Fairfax, and a violent debate ensued. Threats were uttered; and the royalists abused Mr. Henry without stint. He defended the resolutions, the fifth one particularly, with vigorous logic delivered in eloquent words. With pathos and denunciatory invective, he excited the sympathy, the fears and the anger of that Assembly, in a most remarkable degree. He played upon their passions as a skillful musician would touch the keys of his instrument. They were borne upon the tide of his eloquence, which was now calm, now turbulent, passive and yielding, until, in his clear bell-tones, he exclaimed, "Caesar had his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third-" when Mr. Robinson, the Speaker, springing to his feet and striking his desk violently with his gavel, interrupted him by crying out-- "Treason! Treason!" This word was shouted back from all parts of the House by the royalists, and the Assembly was in the greatest confusion. Henry never faltered, but rising to a loftier altitude and fixing his flashing eyes on the Speaker, whom he knew to be a defaulter at that moment, he finished his sentence saying-"may profit by their example; if that be treason, make the most of it!"

When Henry sat down, Peyton Randolph, the king's attorney, and others arose and denounced the fifth resolution as disloyal and dangerous to the public welfare. Again Henry took the floor, and his eloquence and logic, like a rushing avalanche, swept away the sophistries of his opponents. The resolutions were carried; the fifth by a majority of only one. That evening Mr. Henry left Williamsburg for his home. Some of those who voted for the fifth resolution under excitement, became alarmed after reflection; and the next morning, in the absence of Henry, the House reconsidered and rejected it. So the vitality of the resolutions as a revolutionary agent was destroyed. Manuscript copies of them had been sent to Philadelphia and the east. News of the rejection of the fifth immediately followed. Ardent patriots somewhere, anxious to have the political voice of Virginia sounding throughout the land the sentiments of Patrick Henry, caused the four resolutions which were actually adopted to be re-written in slightly changed form, and two more to be added, which gave out trumpet tones of revolution in the following manner:

"5. Resolved, That his Majesty's liege people, the inhabitants of this colony, are not bound to yield obedience to any law or ordinance whatsoever, designed to impose any taxation whatsoever upon them other than the laws and ordinances of the General Assembly aforesaid.

"6. Resolved, That any person who shall, by speaking or writing, maintain that any person or persons other than the General Assembly of this colony have any right or power to lay any taxation whatsoever on the people here, shall be deemed an enemy to this his Majesty's colony."

These resolutions, so full of bold, revolutionary force, were first published in Boston as the actual resolves of the Virginia legislature on the 29th of May, 1765. They flew upon the wings of the press and the letters of committees of correspondence all over the provinces, and gave the first decisive impulse toward united resistance. Within a fortnight after they were published, Massachusetts, on the recommendation of Otis, sent out an invitation to all the colonies to meet her by delegates in a general Congress in New York the following autumn. In the beautiful month of June, the Virginia resolves and the Massachusetts circular reached all the colonies, and everywhere they met a hearty response. The Sons of Liberty were very active; and yet there were many wise and patriotic men, knowing that Great Britain had made provision for enforcing the stamp act by quartering troops on the colonists, if necessary, prepared not only to submit, but to profit by the measures. Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, whose patriotism no man ever doubted, perceiving that the office would be very lucrative, applied for the appointment of stamp-distributor; and even Dr. Franklin, considering the colonies too weak in numbers then to resist the arms of Great Britain, advised Ingersoll, the agent for Connecticut then in England, to accept the same office, and added:"Go home and tell your countrymen to get children as fast as they can," so intimating that by increase in population the Americans might secure their liberties. It was a cunning scheme of Grenville to appoint Americans to the office of stamp-distributors. He thought they would be more acceptable to their countrymen than foreigners. He was mistaken. They were regarded as accomplices in the plot against liberty. "If the ruin of your country is decreed, are you free from blame for taking part in the plunder?" indignantly exclaimed Daggett, of New Haven; and he spurned Jared Ingersoll as a public enemy.

The stamp act was to go into effect in the colonies on the first day of November, 1765. Ingersoll arrived at Boston at the beginning of August, bearing commissions for stamp-distributors, and on the 8th of that month their names were published. They immediately became objects of public resentment and scorn. There was a general determination not to allow them to exercise the functions of their office. Manifestations of hostility to them instantly appeared. Andrew Oliver, secretary of the province of Massachusetts, who had been appointed "stamp-master" for Boston, was the first to feel resentment. A large elm tree, standing at the edge of the town, had been a shelter for the Sons of Liberty at their out-of-town meetings during the summer. It was called "Liberty Tree," and the ground under it, "Liberty Hall." At dawn on the morning of the 14th of August, an effigy of Oliver, with emblems of Bute and Grenville, was seen hanging upon that tree. Crowds went to view it. Hutchinson, chief justice of the province, ordered the sheriff to take it down. "We will remove it ourselves at evening," quickly said the populace, and the sheriff to take it down. "We will remove it ourselves at evening," quickly said the populace, and the sheriff kept his hands off the effigy.

At twilight a great multitude gathered around Liberty Tree. The effigy was taken down, laid on a bier, and was borne by the populace through the old State House directly under the Council Chamber, shouting "Liberty, Property, and no Stamps!" That multitude, at first orderly, now became a riotous mob. They tore down a building which Oliver was erecting for a stamp office, and made a bonfire of it. They shouted, "Death to the man who offers a piece of stamped paper to sell!" and rushing toward Oliver's house, they there beheaded the effigy, and would doubtless have killed him if they could have caught him. He had escaped by a back way. They broke into his house, and in brutal wantonness destroyed his furniture, trees, fences and garden; and after saluting the governor with three cheers, they dispersed. Believing his life to be in danger, Oliver resigned his office the following morning, and the town was quieted. The cowardly Bernard, after ordering a proclamation for the discovery and arrest of the rioters, fled to the castle on an island in Boston harbor. "The prisons would not hold them long," said the Rev. Jonathan Mahew of the West Church, whose voice had been heard in favor of the people more than a dozen years before. "We have sixty thousand fighting men in this colony alone," he said. Twelve days afterward, at night, another mob burned all the records of the admiralty court, ravaged the house of the comptroller of the customs, and splitting open the doors of Chief-Justice Hutchinson, whom they regarded as a secret public enemy, they broke his furniture, scattered his plate and the contents of his valuable library, and left his house a wreck. He and his family had barely time to escape. The better class of citizens frowned upon these proceedings, and the officers of the crown, terror-stricken, were very quiet.

The mob spirit was manifested in several colonies, for the people were much exasperated against those who had accepted the office of stamp-distributors. In Providence, Rhode Island, after destroying the house and furniture of an obnoxious citizen, a mob compelled the stamp-officer to resign. At New Haven, in Connecticut, Ingersoll was denounced as a traitor; and the fact that the initials of his name were those of Judas Iscariot was publicly pointed out, and he was compelled to promise that he would not sell stamps or stamped paper. He was finally forced to resign by a multitude who threatened him with personal violence.

Cadwallader Colden, a venerable Scotchman, then eighty years of age, was acting-governor of New York. He was a liberal-minded man, but duty to his sovereign and his own political convictions compelled him to oppose the popular movements. James McEvers was appointed stamp-distributor for New York. The Sons of Liberty demanded his resignation. The governor protected him. When, late in October, stamps arrived, McEvers, alarmed, refused to receive them, and they were taken to the fort at the foot of Broadway for safety. The garrison was strong, and the governor had strengthened the works. This covert menace exasperated the people. Although armed British ships were riding in the harbor, and the guns of the fort were pointed toward the town, the Sons of Liberty were not afraid. They appeared in large numbers before the fort, and demanded the stamps. A refusal was answered by defiant shouts. An orderly procession soon became a roaring mob. Half an hour after the refusal, the governor was hung in effigy on the spot where Leisler, the democrat, was executed seventy-five years before. Then the mob went back to the fort, dragged Colden's fine coach to the open space in front of it, and tearing down the wooden railing that surrounded the Bowling Green, piled it upon the vehicle, and made a bonfire of the whole. Then they rushed out of town to the beautiful dwelling-place of Major James, of the artillery (at the present intersection of Worth street and West Broadway), where they destroyed his fine library, works of art and furniture, and desolated his beautiful garden, leaving his seat, called Ranelagh, a ruin. After parading the streets with the stamp act printed on large sheets and raised upon poles, with the words, "England's Folly and America's Ruin," the populace dispersed to their homes.

In New Jersey, Coxe, the stamp-officer, fearing violence, resigned. At Annapolis, in Maryland, the excited populace pulled down a house that Zachariah Hood, a stamp-officer, was repairing for the purpose, they thought, of selling stamps in it, and the governor dared not interfere. General alarm prevailed among the officers of the crown. They saw that the Americans were thoroughly aroused and very strong. In other colonies not here named, there was equal firmness, but less violence, in preventing the sale of stamps; and when the first of November arrived, the law, so far as its enforcement was concerned, was a nullity.

The invitation of Massachusetts for the colonies to meet in a representative convention in New York was promptly responded to favorably, and the famous "Stamp Act Congress," so called, assembled at New York on the 7th of October. Twenty-seven delegates were present, representing nine colonies, namely, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and South Carolina. Timothy Ruggles of Massachusetts, a rank tory at heart, was chosen to preside, and John Cotton was appointed secretary. Communications were received from the assemblies of New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia, saying they would agree to whatever might be done by the Congress. That body continued in session fourteen days, and the whole subject of the rights and grievances of the colonies was fully discussed. John Cruger of New York, was deputed to write a Declaration of Rights; Robert R. Livingston of New York, prepared a Petition to the King; and James Otis of Massachusetts, wrote a Memorial to both Houses of Parliament. These were adopted, and have ever been regarded as able state papers. They embodied the principles that governed the men of the Revolution that broke out ten years afterward. The proceedings were signed by all but the President and Robert Ogden of New Jersey, both of whom thus early manifested their defection from a cause which they afterward openly opposed. Ruggles was censured for his conduct by a vote of the Massachusetts Assembly, and was reprimanded, in his place, by the Speaker. He afterward became a bitter Tory, and took up arms for the king. In Mrs. Mercy Warren's drama called The Group, Ruggles figures as Brigadier Hate-all. Ogden was also publicly censured for his conduct; was burned in effigy, and at the next meeting of the New Jersey Assembly was dismissed from the Speaker's chair, which honorable post he held at the time of the Congress. These men had insisted in that body that resistance to the act was treason, and they, in turn, were denounced as traitors to the rights of man.

On the first of November, 1765, the stamp act became a law in America. It had been ably discussed by the brightest intellects in the land, and generally denounced, sometimes with calmness, sometimes with turbulence. It was manifest to all that its enforcement was an impossibility; yet its existence was a perplexity. No legal instrument of writing was thereafter valid without a stamp, by a law of the British realm. But on that day there remained not one person commissioned to sell a stamp, for they had all resigned. The royal governors had taken an oath that they would see that the law was executed, but they were powerless. The people were their masters, and were simply holding their own power in abeyance.

The first of November was Friday. It was a "black Friday" in America. The morning was ushered by the tolling of bells. A funeral solemnity overspread the land. Minute-guns were fired as if a funeral procession was passing. Flags were hoisted at half-mast as if there had been a national bereavement. There were orations and sermons appropriate to the occasion. The press spoke out boldly. "The press is the test of truth; the bulwark of public safety; the guardian of freedom, and the people ought not to sacrifice it," said Benjamin Mecom, of New Haven, in his Connecticut Gazette, printed that morning, and filled with patriotic appeals. This was the spirit of most of the newspapers. Such, also, was the spirit of most of the Congregational pulpits. Patriots everywhere encouraged each other; and a yearning for union was universally felt. "Nothing will now save us but acting together," wrote the sturdy Gadsden of South Carolina. "The province that endeavors to act separately must fall with the rest, and be branded besides with everlasting infamy."

As none but stamped paper was legal, and as the people had determined not to use it, all business was suspended. The courts were closed; marriages ceased; vessels lay idle in the harbors, and the social and commercial operations in America were paralyzed. Few dared to think of positive rebellion. The sword of British power was ready to leap from its scabbard in wrath; and a general gloom overspread society. Yet the Americans did not despair nor even despond. They held in their hands a power which might compel the British Parliament to repeal the obnoxious act. The commerce between Great Britain and the colonies had become very important, and any measure that might interrupt its course would be keenly felt by a large and powerful class in England, whose influence was felt in Parliament. The expediency of striking a deadly blow at that trade occurred to some New York merchants, and on the 31st of October-the day before the obnoxious act went into operation-a meeting was held in that city, and an agreement entered into not to import from England certain enumerated articles after the first of January next ensuing. The merchants of Philadelphia and Boston readily entered into a similar agreement. So also did retail merchants agree not to buy or sell goods shipped from England after the first of January. In this way was begun that system of nonimportation agreements which hurled back upon England, with great force, the commercial miseries she had inflicted upon the colonies.

The patriotic people co-operated with the merchants. Domestic manufactures were commenced in almost every family. Forty or fifty young ladies, calling themselves "Daughters of Liberty," met at the house of Rev. Dr. Morehead, in Boston, with their spinning-wheels, and spun two hundred and thirty-two skeins of yarn during a day and presented them to the pastor. There were upwards of one hundred spinners in Mr. Morehead's society. "Within a month," wrote a gentleman from Newport, Rhode Island, some time afterward, "four hundred and eighty-seven yards of cloth and thirty-six pairs of stockings have been spun and knit in the family of James Nixon, of this town." Other families were mentioned in which several hundred yards of cloth were made. Another from Newport said: "A lady of this town, though in the bloom of youth, and possessed of virtues and accomplishments, engaging, and sufficient to excite the most pleasing expectations of happiness in the married state, had declared that she should rather be an old maid than that the operations of the stamp act should commence in these colonies." The wealthiest vied with the middling classes in economy, and wore clothing of their own manufacture. That wool might not be scarce, the use of sheep flesh for food was discouraged. One source of British prosperity was thus dried up. When firm but respectful appeals went to the ears of the British ministry from America, the merchants and manufacturers of England seconded them, and their potential voices were heeded.





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