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Boston in the Stamp Act Crisis

By Cliff Odle

In American history, it is easy to be drawn to landmark events that give us a grasp on the bigger picture. Although helpful, the simplicity of these famous dates can be misleading. We can easily point out that the Boston Massacre occurred on March 5, 1770, or that the infamous Tea Party exploded on the harbor on December 16, 1773, or that the Midnight Ride was on the evening of April 18, 1775, but this does not paint a complete picture of that period in time. The American Revolution is not quite as simple as a list of names and dates.

These significant events are effects of revolution. Finding the causes is a bit more complicated. The movement itself is long and complicated, with origins more than ten years prior to the first shots being fired. It is not an hour or a day that started it, but a number of years that rested in the middle of the 1760s. The complicated origin of this movement is often called the "Stamp Act crisis."

1764 was a period of confusion and unrest throughout the British Empire. Just a year before, the Earl of Bute, the Prime Minister, or head of the British Government, stepped down from his position. He was replaced by a young and ambitious politician named Lord George Grenville. With his new position, Grenville had inherited the responsibility of a massive debt as a result of the Seven Years War with France. Although the empire had acquired thousands of miles of the North American continent, as far west as the Mississippi River, the debt from the war would be difficult to pay off.

On top of the debt, the British Empire had other large expenses. The sparsely settled land was hard to control, though, and Parliament had decided to maintain a ten thousand-man army on the continent to protect its prize, as well as to keep an eye on their established colonies on the east coast. But a standing army a half a world away from the British Isles was costly, and combined with the debt from the war, it was clear both to Grenville and to Parliament that they would need to raise taxes from the colonies.

The colonists disagreed. It was widely believed, as well as written into charters of many colonies, that only local assemblies elected by colonists had the right to tax them. This was a fundamental belief of British subjects that dated back hundreds of years, and colonists were not about to abandon it. When Parliament passed its first tax on them, a revised version of the Molasses Act, which is commonly called the Sugar Act, colonists resisted. In 1764, when rumors of a Stamp Act arrived in the colonies, colonists began planning a larger resistance.

Massachusetts Bay's colonial assembly, led by Lt. Governor Thomas Hutchinson, wrote a letter to Parliament, politely pleading to overturn the taxes forced on the colonies and allow them to continue to enjoy the same "privileges" that they had enjoyed since their settlement in the early 17th century. Parliament ignored the calmly worded letter, and after that approved the Stamp Act in March of 1765.

More radical Boston politicians such as James Otis and Samuel Adams were embarrassed by their colony's weak attempts to resist the Stamp Act. Their embarrassment peaked in May of 1765, when Virginia passed the much more strongly worded "Virginia Resolves." The Resolves declared parliamentary taxes on the colonies illegal, and accused supporters of such taxes to be enemies of British rights. They would not be left behind again. Less than two weeks after Patrick Henry introduced his resolves to the Virginia House of Burgesses, James Otis proposed a meeting of representatives from all of the colonies in New York. The Massachusetts "circular letter" was sent to the thirteen colonies that would eventually declare their independence, and was to meet on October 1, 1765 - a full month before the Stamp Act was to go into effect.

While Boston's politicians were setting the political standard of American resistance to British injustices, its citizens were also meeting in back rooms to discuss more direct action solutions. The Caucus Club, for example, was planning street demonstrations and protests to take place throughout the town in the following months, organized by some of Boston's leading politicians, merchants, and publishers.

The British government failed to officially inform Massachusetts Bay's Governor, Francis Bernard that the Stamp Act had been passed, and did not officially inform Andrew Oliver that he had been appointed stamp distributor of the colony. Nonetheless, word did reach the colony through newspaper reports from London, and the colonists made their British-appointed governors pay for their relationship to the British government.

On August 14, 1765, a mob ransacked Oliver's warehouse and hung a representation of him in protest. Two weeks later, they destroyed Thomas Hutchinson's house as well. Although Otis and Adams publicly condemned the mob action of August 26, they were probably aware it was going to happen.

The Stamp Act Congress met in New York in October, and Timothy Ruggles of Massachusetts was elected chair. The group, over the course of three weeks, drafted petitions to Parliament and King George. The petitions were ultimately approved in some form by nearly all of the colonies, and then sent to Parliament.

The Stamp Act went into effect on November 1, 1765, but went unenforced until its repeal in March of the following year. Although the repeal had nothing to do with the Stamp Act Congress's petition (Parliament actively ignored it), the colonists believed that their united bargaining, as well as their mob actions, had an effect on Parliament.

From then on, the individual colonies recognized that they were stronger together than they were apart. From its Bostonian beginnings, this unified relationship would last for centuries, and pave the way for the United States to become most powerful country in history.

Further Reading: Morgan, Edmund S. Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution. University of North Carolina Press. Chapel Hill, NC. 1995.

Edited by: Marisa Calleja

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