Sunday, December 17, 2017

Episode 023: The Stamp Act Congress

No one was surprised that the colonies were not fans of the Stamp Act.  The Act drew near universal condemnation.  The only thing that divided colonists were between the camp that believed, yeah, it sucks but the law is the law and those in the camp of this will not stand!  A surprisingly large number of people at all levels of colonial society seemed to be in the latter camp.

The objections went far beyond, taxes are annoying because they cost me money.  Rather, people in all classes seemed to accept the opinion held only by radical Whigs in London that this was a fundamental freedom issue.

Even if the new taxes did not hit you personally, or at least not very hard, everyone seemed to grasp that this could be the beginning of much larger problems.  Once colonists accepted the idea that Parliament could lay direct taxes on them, there was no line they could draw when those taxes became higher, broader, and more intrusive.  Without representation in Parliament, the colonies had no effective way to prevent the government from continually reaching into the colonial piggy bank any time they needed a little extra cash.  And let’s face it, all governments think they can use a little extra cash.

Protest image of Stamp,
originally published in the
Pennsylvania Journal
(from Wikimedia)
Some in London thought this might be resolved by giving the colonists a few representatives in Parliament.  This idea never went anywhere because the colonists themselves rejected the idea.  If you had separate tax policies for England and the colonies, a small minority of members would not be able to do anything as the English majority passed legislation against their interests.  Colonists saw the way England was able to suck money out of Wales and Scotland.  Even with some representation in Parliament, those regions remained much poorer and dependent on England and its majority in Parliament.

Any principled stand, therefore, had to be based on the idea that colonial taxes could only come from colonial legislatures.  Parliament never had authorization to tax colonists and that this power grab was an act of tyranny.  It’s also worth noting that the wrath of the colonists was squarely focused on Parliament and the Grenville ministry, not the King himself.

Colonists were emphatically not seeking independence.  They wanted to be partners in the royal empire governed by King George.  The English Parliament would regulate England while colonial legislatures would regulate the colonies.  They could still cooperate in protecting all British interests from outside attack.  Under current law, when colonial legislatures passed any law, it had to be approved by the King through the Privy Council.  Therefore, the King still retained control over colonial actions. No one was seeking to change that.  They simply wanted the English Parliament to deal with matters in England, while colonial legislature dealt with matters for the colonies.

Legislative Protest

Like the previous year with the Sugar Act, colonial legislatures sent protests to Parliament and petitions to the King objecting to the Stamp Act.  Before the Act even passed, six colonies had written protests saying that such an act was unacceptable.

In Massachusetts, James Otis had become head of the legislature’s Committee of Correspondence.  Rather than simply shoot off another petition to Parliament, Otis recommended Massachusetts encourage other colonies to get together in a regional Congress.  That way, the colonies could put forth a united effort to repeal the Stamp Act.  This initiative led to the Stamp Act Congress a few months later, and which I will get to in a few minutes.  This proposal had the effect of delaying an immediate response in most colonies.  Most seemed content to wait for a coordinated event in the fall.

The Virginia Resolves

Virginia, like the other colonies, seemed content to wait for concerted action later in the year.  They probably would have done so, but for the actions of one freshman member of the House of Burgesses who wanted to make a statement before the session ended.  Patrick Henry was still in his late 20’s and already had a reputation for being a troublemaker.  His had built on the reputation established by the Parson’s case I discussed back in Episode 17.  As a member of the House of Burgesses, he had already attacked a bill that year that would have helped credit-starved plantation owners to borrow government funds.  It was supported by the leadership and as you might guess, by many of the wealthiest plantation owners in the colony.  Henry spoke out against the bill and saw it defeated, winning him no friends in the House.

Patrick Henry arguing for the Virginia Resolves
(artist's conception Peter Rothermel 1841)
(from Wikimedia)
In late May 1765, as the members were rushing to get out of town before the summer heat, Henry decided to introduce five resolves in response to the Stamp Act. These came to be known as the Virginia Resolves.  The first four were relatively uncontroversial, which in summary said, Colonists have the same rights as subjects in Britain, that Britain only taxes its people through the authority of its representative body, and that Virginia has traditionally only been taxed by its own elected legislature.  The fifth, resolve, however raised some eyebrows:
Resolved, therefor that the General Assembly of this Colony have the only and exclusive Right and Power to lay Taxes and Impositions upon the inhabitants of this Colony and that every Attempt to vest such Power in any person or persons whatsoever other than the General Assembly aforesaid has a manifest Tendency to destroy British as well as American Freedom.
Virginians could only be taxed by the colonial legislature, and not Parliament, was the crux of the whole dispute and the most hotly contested point.  The Burgesses debated the resolves and passed them in a closely divided vote.  Because several more conservative members were not present for the vote, they held a second vote the next day that repealed the controversial fifth resolve.

Despite the repeal, newspapers all over the continent and in Britain reported all five resolves, making Virginia look like a hotbed of protest.  To enflame issues even more, most papers reported two additional resolves that were never considered.  One said that colonists were not bound to pay any taxes other than those of the General Assembly, and another that said anyone who supported other taxes in speech or writing, should be deemed an enemy of the colony.  Passed or not, these were the fighting words everyone read in the papers.

Street Mobs in Boston

Some colonial leaders realized that tough words were not enough.  They would only defeat the Stamp Act by refusing to allow it to take effect.  Nine Boston working class men formed a group in the summer of 1765 known as the Loyal Nine.  Their purpose was to prevent Stamp Act enforcement in Massachusetts.  The group expanded quickly and changed its name, in honor of Isaac BarrĂ©’s speech, to the Sons of Liberty.  This group was not interested in recruiting lawyers and politicians.  Rather, they were looking for working class folks who did not mind brawling in the streets.

Andrew Oliver
(from Wikimedia)
On the morning of August 14, Bostonians found two hanging effigies on High Street.  One was labeled “A.O. The Tax Man”, a clear reference to Andrew Oliver, who had been appointed the Stamp Tax agent for Massachusetts.  The other effigy was the devil, but some thought it was meant to represent Prime Minister Grenville himself.  When the Sheriff tried to take down the effigies, an angry mob chased him away.

Later that day, about 3000 men led by Ebenezer Mackintosh, the gang leader we discussed in Episode 21, descended on the wharf to destroy a small recently built shack that was to become the Stamp Tax office.  After disassembling it and throwing the pieces into a bonfire, the mob marched to Andrew Oliver’s house.  Oliver had wisely fled and remained in hiding as the mob destroyed everything in his house.

It is important to remember that Boston, like virtually every city and town in North America, had no professional police force.  They had a sheriff, who in times of trouble that required more hands, had authority to call up the militia to restore order.  As the mob was rampaging through the streets on the 14th, Gov. Bernard asked the Sheriff to call up the militia.  The Sheriff had to inform him that most of the militia was in the mob already.  With that, Bernard instructed his servants to hide his valuables and fled to the safety of Castle William in Boston Harbor.

Lt. Gov. Hutchinson showed a little more backbone by confronting the mob in the streets with the Sheriff and reading them the Riot Act.  That was a real thing.  The Riot Act required authorities to inform an unlawful assembly that they needed to disburse before using force, often lethal force, to break up the rioters.  Before he could finish, the mob chased Hutchinson and the Sheriff down the street.  Fortunately for them, they both escaped the mob and went into hiding.

The next day, a group of men met with Oliver to recommend he resign as stamp tax collector before something worse happened.  Oliver pointed out that he had not yet even received his formal appointment, but did announce he would not collect any taxes and would send instructions to London that he would not accept the position.

Stamp Act Protest (from Wordpress)
That small victory led to further rioting on Aug. 26.  Rumors swirled for days in advance.  People from the countryside swarmed into Boston to participate.  Again led by Ebenezer Mackintosh, the group targeted the homes of Charles Paxton - Surveyor of Customs, Benjamin Hallowell -  Comptroller of Customs, and William Story, Register of the Vice-Admiralty Court.  Paxton’s landlord, eager to save his property, bought off the mob by bringing out a barrel of rum punch and convincing the rioters that he was on their side and could they please not destroy his property.  Hallowell and Story were not as lucky as now drunken rioters ransacked and destroyed their homes, also raiding their large wine cellars and getting even more drunk.  Next, they turned to Lt. Gov. Hutchinson’s mansion.  Unlike the others, Hutchinson had remained in his home.  But threatening mobs forced him to flee for his life along with his family as rioters stole or destroyed nearly every piece of furniture and other items in his lavish home.  They even began ripping off the roof shingles and cutting down a cupola on the top of the house.

You may ask why they did not simply burn the homes.  Doing so would likely cause an out of control fire that would destroy neighbors’ homes as well.  The mob remained disciplined enough to restrict the damage to the actual targets of their wrath.  Let’s keep our riots neat and tidy guys.

One might be tempted to attribute the rioting to the organizing skills of Samuel Adams and the new Sons of Liberty organization.  But, in fact, Boston was not the only town where such rioting occurred.

Newport Mobs

On August 27, a group in Newport Rhode Island hung effigies in town bearing the likenesses of Augustus Johnston, the designated Stamp distributor for the colony, as well as Thomas Moffet and Martin Howard, outspoken advocates for British taxation.  It is not clear if the date was coordinated with the Boston Riots, but there is evidence that the Rhode Island protesters had been planning for at least a week.

When Johnston did not take the hint to resign the next day, rioters moved that evening to ransack the homes of the three men who had been hung in effigy.  The men themselves sought refuge on a British naval vessel in the harbor.  On the 28th, Johnston resigned his office.  Rioters actually returned most of his household items afterwards.

More Mobs Elsewhere

In Maryland, Zachariah Hood was hanged in effigy on Aug. 29.  Failing to take the hint, he saw his warehouses burned on Sept. 2.  Undeterred, Hood fled to New York where he remained under military protection.  When he finally tried to leave his protective custody in November, a group or 100 men kidnapped him and forced him to resign.  Returning home to Maryland, he found that no one in the colony would do business with him.  Broken, he eventually moved to England.

In Connecticut, Stamp distributor Jared Ingersoll was also kidnapped and forced to resign in front of an angry mob.  In Pennsylvania, John Hughes who was the Stamp distributor for the colony, was hanged in effigy and had to put his house under guard.  He was also Speaker of the House and refused to send delegates to the Stamp Act Congress, leading to a tense night in front of his home between angry mobs and armed guards.  Although he avoided outright violence, his career in politics was over and he found that even doing business was nearly impossible.  He eventually left Pennsylvania for good.

Stamp tax officials in other colonies quickly resigned their commissions either upon hearing of possible threats against them or their property, or simply based on what they had heard about in places like Boston and Newport.  Unlucky George Mercer of Virginia arrived on a ship from England in October, with stamped paper aboard the same ship, met at the dock by an angry crowd of 2000, he was obliged to resign his commission before he could disembark.

Gov. Colden, NY
(from Wikimedia)
In New York, the Stamp Act agent had been forced to resign early on.  However, when the stamped paper arrived on Oct. 23rd, Gov. Colden, supported by 180 British regulars, decided to unload the stock at Fort George secretly at night.  The public quickly discovered what had happened and a mob of 2000 men besieged the fort.  They destroyed the British commander’s home, threw rocks at the soldiers in the fort, and taunted at them to fire.

The soldiers wisely decided not to fire on the crowd.  Maj. James could have fired the “shot heard around the world” that day in 1765.  Doing so likely would have resulted in the mob arming itself and overrunning the fort.  Gen. Gage was in the city, but not in the fort, trying to give the impression that everything was fine.  He wanted the Governor to turn over the paper and prevent bloodshed.  After a couple of weeks, on Nov. 5, Gov. Colden did just that. Like Boston, the mobs in New York were large, angry and motivated.  Unlike Boston, they were not terribly organized.  This indicates that the lower classes were just as motivated as anyone else to block the Stamp Act.  They did not need upper class leaders to challenge officials.

By Nov. 1, the day the Stamp Act was supposed to go into effect, only Georgia, which still had several companies of British regulars on hand, and a relatively small Sons of Liberty group, was able to make any attempt at enforcing the new law.  The tax distributor in that colony arrived in December, sold a few stamped documents before he too wisely decided to pack up and go.

The Stamp Act Congress

Massachusetts had proposed a meeting for a coordinated political response to the Stamp Act.  In light of the summer riots, such a meeting seemed more important than ever.  Despite that, four Governors successfully prevented state legislatures from meeting to select delegates.  Therefore, New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia did not send delegates.  Nova Scotia, also invited, declined to send a delegation.

Twenty-seven delegates from nine colonies met in New York’s City Hall (later called Federal Hall) on October 7, 1765.  Over the next 18 days, the group negotiated a response.  Sadly for historians, the meetings were not open to the public and no good notes of the negotiations have survived, although there is a bare bones Journal of events..  The Congress first produced a Declaration of Rights and Grievances which made clear they remained loyal to the king and owed “all due subordination” to Parliament.  They stated that they had the same rights as subjects in Britain, including the right not to be taxed except through their representatives.  They were not represented in Parliament and could not be properly represented there.  Therefore, only their local legislatures could impose taxes.

Stamp Act Congress (from history1700s)
Next, they focused on the age old British right totrial by jury.  They argued that trying cases in admiralty courts subverted that right.

The Congress also pointed out the real world problems with the law, extracting hard currency for taxes, when there was not enough in the colonies to pay it.  It would certainly prevent them from having money to make private purchases from British merchants.

Therefore, the Congress humbly requested the repeal of the Stamp Act and use of admiralty courts to try the colonists.

The Congress used the Declaration to produce petitions for the King, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons.  The full texts of these documents are interesting.  The Petition to the King comes with the humility and flattery you reserve for the guy who can have you hanged if he decides you are being too impertinent.  We love being British subjects and all, but would you mind reinstating our basic rights to tax ourselves and have jury trials?  The House of Lords petition focuses more on the need to restore ancient rights.  The Commons petition focuses more on the economic harm and points out the harm to both British and colonial economies that the loss of trade will cause if the law continues.

Interestingly, none of the documents advocated resistance to the law, addressed the rioting taking place, or threatened any sort of action should the King or Parliament fail to act.  The threats of loss of trade were not explicit threats of boycott.  Rather, they were simple economics - take away all our cash and we won’t have any to buy from your merchants in London.

The Congress sent the petitions to London but did not release them to the public.  It would not be until the following spring when a Boston newspaper received copies and published them.  Most Americans found them too timid and weak.

The obsequious language and the failure to reference any colonial reactions to the law was quite intentional.  The Congress did not want to give any indication that it was fomenting treason.  Some thought the the Congress, which was extra-legal, might itself be treason.  Directly attacking royal or parliamentary authority in a more aggressive way might be seen as advocating treason.  Similarly, discussing riots or boycotts in any way other than complete condemnation, which they were not ready to do, could also be construed as treason.  Therefore, best to ignore those issues.

Despite the keeping the petitions mild and respectful, Parliament rejected them as coming from an unlawful assembly.  London was not going to encourage colonies getting together and coordinating a united strategy against the government.


November 1, 1765, the day the Stamp Act took effect, came and no one was using the required stamps.  Essentially now all trade, court activity, and publications were illegal as they did not have the required stamped paper to perform any of those activities. Newspapers continued to publish without the stamps.  No one seemed sure what to do at this point.  Colonial authorities mostly awaited instructions from London.

Next week, Parliament and the administration meets colonial resistance by quietly backing down.

Next Episode 24: Stamp Act Repeal and Declaratory Act

Previous Episode 22: Stamp Act and Quartering Act of 1765

Click here to donate
American Revolution Podcast is distributed 100% free of charge. If you can chip in to help defray my costs, I'd appreciate whatever you can give.  Make a one time donation through my PayPal account.

You may also donate via VenmoZelle, or popmoney (send to

Click here to see my Patreon Page
You can support the American Revolution Podcast as a Patreon subscriber.  This is an option for people who want to make monthly pledges.  Patreon support will give you access to Podcast extras and help make the podcast a sustainable project.

An alternative to Patreon is SubscribeStar.  For anyone who has problems with Patreon, you can get the same benefits by subscribing at SubscribeStar.

Click here to go to my SubscribeStar Page

Visit the American Revolution Podcast (

Further Reading


Full text of the Stamp Act of 1765:

Good easy to read summary of Stamp Act details:

The Stamp Act, a Brief History, Journal of the American Revolution:

Declaration of Rights and Grievances (full text):

Stamp Act Congress Petitions (full text):
I have not found a good web site for these petitions, other than the appendix of Hutchinson’s book which is thankfully available online.  If anyone has a better source to link, please let me know.

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Journal of the first Congress of the American Colonies, in opposition to the tyrannical acts of the British Parliament, by Stamp Act Congress, Lewis Cruger (ed) (1845) (This is the journal of the Stamp Act Congress proceedings).

The Writings of Samuel Adams, Vol. 1, by Harry Cushing (ed) (1904).

Samuel Adams, by James Hosmer (1913).

The History of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, from 1749 to 1774, by Thomas Hutchinson, John Hutchinson (ed) (1828) (This book was edited and published in London using Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s personal papers.  The editor was his grandson).

The Diary and Letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, by Thomas Hutchinson, Peter Hutchinson (ed) (1884) (Editor was Thomas Hutchinson’s great-grandson).

Great Debates in American History, Vol. 1, Marion Mills Miller (ed) (1913).

James Otis, the Pre-revolutionist, by John Clark Ridpath (1898)

The Life of James Otis, of Massachusetts, by William Tudor (1823).

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Anderson, Fred Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766, Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.

Hawke, David The Colonial Experience, Prentice-Hall, 1966.

Jennings, Francis Empire Of Fortune: Crowns, Colonies & Tribes in the Seven Years War in America, W.W. Norton & Co. 1988.

Knollenberg, Bernard Growth of the American Revolution 1766-1775, Liberty Fund, 1975.

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Little Brown & Co. 1943.

Morgan, Edmund & Hellen The Stamp Act Crisis, Univ. of NC Press, 1953.

Smith, Page A New Age Now Begins, Vol. I, McGraw-Hill, 1976.

Weslager, C.A. The Stamp Act Congress, Associated Univ. Press, 1976 (Includes a complete copy of Stamp Act Congress Journal).

Ubbelohde, Carle The Vice - Admiralty Courts and the American Revolution, Omohundro Institute, 1960.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

1 comment: