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The Eve of the Revolution, Chapter III: The Rights of a Nation

“The frozen politicians of a more northern government,” according to the “Boston Gazette,” “say they [the people of Virginia] have spoken treason”; but the “Boston Gazette,” for its part, thought they had “spoken very sensibly.” With much reading of the resolutions and of the commendatory remarks with which they were everywhere received, the treasonable flavor of their boldest phrases no doubt grew less pronounced, and high talk took on more and more the character of good sense. During the summer of 1765 the happy phrase of Isaac Barre–“these sons of liberty”–was everywhere repeated, and was put on as a kind of protective coloring by strong patriots, who henceforth thought of themselves as Sons of Liberty and no traitors at all. Rather were they traitors who would in any way justify an act of tyranny; most of all those so-called Americans, accepting the office of Stamp Master, who cunningly aspired to make a farthing profit out of the hateful business of enslaving their own countrymen.

Who these gentry might be was not certainly known until early August, when Jared Ingersoll, himself as it turned out one of the miscreants, brought the commissions over from London, whereupon the names were all printed in the papers. It then appeared that the gentleman appointed to distribute the stamps in Massachusetts was Andrew Oliver, a man very well connected in that province and of great influence with the beet people, not infrequently entrusted with high office and perquisites, and but recently elected by the unsuspecting Bostonians to represent them in the council of Massachusetts Bay Colony. It seemed inconsistent that a man so often honored by the people should meanwhile pledge himself to destroy their liberties; and so on the morning of the 14th of August, Mr. Oliver’s effigy, together with a horned devil’s head peeping out of an old boot, was to be seen hanging from the Liberty Tree at the south end of Boston, near the distillery of Thomas Chase, brewer and warm Son of Liberty. During the day people stopped to make merry over the spectacle; and in the evening, after work hours, a great crowd gathered to see what would happen. When the effigy was cut down and carried away, the crowd very naturally followed along through the streets and through the Town House, justifying themselves–many respectable people were in the crowd–for being there by calling out, “Liberty and Property forever; no Stamp.” And what with tramping and shouting in the warm August evening, the whole crowd became much heated and ever more enthusiastic, so that, the line of march by some chance lying past the new stamp office and Mr. Oliver’s house, the people were not to be restrained from destroying the former and breaking in the windows of the latter, in detestation of the hated Stamp Act and of the principle that property might be taken without consent. Mr. Oliver hastened to resign his office, which doubtless led many people to think the methods taken to induce him to do so were very good ones and such as might well be made further use of. It was in fact not long afterwards, about dusk of the evening of the 26th of August, that a mob of men, more deliberately organized than before, ransacked the office of William Story, Deputy Registrar of the Court of Admiralty, and, after burning the obnoxious records kept there, they forcibly entered the house, and the cellar too, of Benjamin Hallowell, Comptroller of the Customs. “Then the Monsters,” says Deacon Tudor, “being enflam’d with Rum & Wine which they got in sd. Hallowell’s cellar, proceeded with Shouts to the Dwelling House of the Hon-l. Thos. Hutchinson, Esq., Lieut. Governor, & enter’d in a voyalent manner.” At that moment the Lieutenant-Governor was sitting comfortably at dinner and had barely time to escape with his family before the massive front door was broken in with axes. As young Mr. Hutchinson went out by the back way he heard someone say: “Damn him, he’s upstairs, we’ll have him yet.” They did not indeed accomplish this purpose; but when the morning broke the splendid house was seen to be completely gutted, the partition walls broken in, the roof partly off, and the priceless possessions of the owner ruined past repair: mahogany and walnut furniture finished in morocco and crimson damask, tapestries and Turkey carpets, rare paintings, cabinets of fine glass and old china, stores of immaculate linen, India paduasoy gowns and red Genoa robes, a choice collection of books richly bound in leather and many manuscript documents, the fruit of thirty years’ labor in collecting–all broken and cut and cast about to make a rubbish heap and a bonfire. From the mire of the street there was afterwards picked up a manuscript history of Massachusetts which is preserved to this day, the soiled pages of which may still be seen in the Boston library. Mr. Hutchinson was no friend of the Stamp Act; but he was a rich man, Lieutenant-Governor of the province, and brother-in-law of Andrew Oliver.

Government offered the usual rewards–which were never claimed–for evidence leading to the detection of any persons concerned in the riots. Men of repute, including the staunchest patriots such as Samuel Adams and Jonathan Mayhew, expressed their abhorrence of mobs and of all licentious proceedings in general; but many were nevertheless disposed to think, with good Deacon Tudor, that in this particular instance “the universal Obhorrance of the Stamp Act was the cause of the Mob’s riseing.” It would be well to punish the mob, but punishing the mob would not cure the evil which was the cause of the mob; for where there was oppression the lower sort of people, as was well known, would be sure to express opposition in the way commonly practiced by them everywhere, in London as well as in Boston, by gathering in the streets in crowds, in which event some deplorable excesses were bound to follow, however much deprecated by men of substance and standing. If ministers wished the people to be tranquil, let them repeal the Stamp Act; if they were determined to persist in it, and should attempt to land and distribute the stamps, loyal and law-abiding citizens, however much they might regret the fact, could only say that similar disorders were very likely to become even more frequent and more serious in the future than they had been in the past.

As the first of November approached, that being the day set for the levying of the tax, attention and discussion came naturally to center on the stamps rather than on the Stamp Act. Crowds of curious people gathered wherever there seemed a prospect of catching a glimpse of the bundles of stamped papers. Upon their arrival the papers had to be landed; they could therefore be seen; and the mere sight of them was likely to be a sufficient challenge to action. It seemed a simple matter to resist a law which could be of no effect without the existence of certain papers, paper being a substance easily disposed of. And everywhere in fact the stamps were disposed of–disposed of by mobs, with the tacit consent and impalpable encouragement of many men who, having a reputable position to maintain, would themselves by no means endure to be seen in a common crowd; men of good estate whom no one could think of as countenancers of violence, but who were, on this occasion, as Mr. Livingston said, “not averse to a little rioting” on condition that it be kept within bounds and well directed to the attainment of their just rights.

A little rioting, so easy to be set on foot, was difficult to keep within reasonable bounds, as Mr. Livingston and his friends in New York soon discovered, somewhat to their chagrin. In New York, even after the stamps were surrendered by Lieutenant-Governor Colden and safely lodged in the Town House, there were many excesses wholly unnecessary to the attainment of the original object. Mr. Colden’s new chariot, certainly never designed to carry the stamps, was burned; and on repeated occasions windows were broken and “particulars” threatened that their houses would presently be pulled down. Mr. Livingston was himself the owner of houses, had an immense respect for property rights and for the law that guaranteed them, and therefore wished very much that the lower sort of people would give over their mobbish practices now that the stamps had been disposed of. Since the law could not now operate without stamps, what more was necessary except to wait in good order, patiently denying themselves those activities that involved a violation of the law, until the law should be repealed? The Stamp Act Congress had protested in a proper and becoming manner; merchants had agreed not to import British goods; the Governor had closed the courts. Stopping of business would doubtless be annoying and might very likely produce some distress. But it would be legal and it would be effective: the government would get no revenue; British merchants no profit; and Americans could not be charged with violating a law the failure of which was primarily due to the fact that papers indispensable to its application were, for one reason or another, not forthcoming.

Mr. Livingston, happily possessed of the conservative temperament, was disposed to achieve desired ends with the least possible disturbance of his own affairs and those of his country; and most men of independent means, landowners and merchants of considerable estates, moneyed men and high salaried officials whose incomes were not greatly affected by any temporary business depression, were likely to be of Mr. Livingston’s opinion, particularly in this matter of the Stamp Act. Sitting comfortably at dinner every day and well knowing where they could lay hands on money to pay current bills, they enjoyed a high sense of being defenders of liberty and at the same time eminently law-abiding citizens. They professed a decided preference for nullifying the Stamp Act without violating it. Sitting at dinner over their wine, they swore that they would let ships lie in harbor and rot there if necessary, and would let the courts close for a year or two years, rather than employ taxed papers to collect their just debts; with a round oath they bound themselves to it, sealing the pledge, very likely, by sipping another glass of Madeira. In the defense of just rights, Mr. Livingston and his conservative friends were willing to sacrifice much: they foresaw some months of business stagnation, which they nevertheless contemplated with equanimity, being prepared to tide over the dull time by living in a diminished manner, if necessary even dispensing with customary bottles of Madeira at dinner.

Men of radical temperament, having generally less regard for the status quo, are quick to see ulterior motives back of conservative timidity and solemn profession of respect for law and order. It was so in the case of the Stamp Act. Small shopkeepers who were soon sold out and had no great stock of “old moth-eaten goods” to offer at enhanced prices, rising young lawyers whose fees ceased with the closing of the courts, artisans and laborers who bought their dinners (no Madeira included) with their daily wage–these, and indeed all the lower sort of people, contemplated the stopping of business with much alarm. Mr. John Adams, a young lawyer of Braintree and Boston, was greatly interested in the question of the courts of justice. Were the courts to be closed on the ground that no legal business could be done without stamped papers? Or were they to go on trying cases, enforcing the ‘collection of debts, and probating wills precisely as if no Stamp Act had ever been heard of? The Boston superior court was being adjourned continuously, for a fortnight at a time, through the influence of Messrs. Hutchinson and Oliver, to the great and steadily rising wrath of young Mr. Adams. The courts must soon be opened, he said to himself; their inactivity “will make a large chasm in my affairs, if it should not reduce me to distress.” Young Mr. Adams, who had, no less than Mr. Oliver, a family to support and children to provide for, was just at the point of making a reputation and winning a competence “when this execrable project was set on foot for my ruin as well as that of America in general.” And therefore Mr. Adams, and Mr. Samuel Adams, and Mr. Otis, and Mr. Gridley, in order to avert the ruin of America in general, were “very warm” to have the courts open and very bitter against Messrs. Hutchinson and Oliver whose “insolence and impudence and chicanery” in the matter were obvious, and whose secret motives might easily be inferred. Little wonder if these men, who had managed by hook or crook to get into their own hands or into the hands of their families nearly all the lucrative offices in the province, now sought to curry favor with ministers in order to maintain their amazing ascendancy!

When the Stamp Act was passed, all men in America had professed themselves, and were thought to be, Sons of Liberty. Even Mr. Hutchinson had declared himself against ministerial measures. But scarce a month had elapsed since the law was to have gone into effect before it was clear to the discerning that, for all their professions, most of the “better sort” were not genuine Sons of Liberty at all, but timid sycophants, pliant instruments of despotism, far more intent upon the ruin of Mr. Adams and of America in general than any minister could be shown to be. For the policy of dispensing with activities requiring stamped papers, much lauded by these gentry as an effective and constitutional means of defeating the law, was after all nothing but “a sort of admittance of the legality of the Stamp Act, and had a tendency to enforce it, since there was just reason to apprehend that the secret enemies of liberty had actually a design to introduce it by the necessity to which the people would be reduced by the cessation of business.” It was well, therefore, in view of such insidious designs of secret enemies, that the people, even to the lowest ranks, should become “more attentive to their liberties, and more inquisitive about them, and more determined to defend them, than they were ever before known or had occasion to be.”

To defend their liberties, not against ministers but against ministerial tools, who were secret betrayers of America, true patriots accordingly banded themselves in societies which took to themselves the name of Sons of Liberty and of which the object was, by “putting business in motion again, in the usual channels, without stamps,” to prevent the Stamp Act ever being enforced. Such a society composed mainly of the lower orders of people and led by rising young lawyers, was formed in New York. On January 7, at Mr. Howard’s coffee house, abandoning the secrecy which had hitherto veiled their activities, its members declared to the world their principles and the motives that would determine their action in the future:

“Resolved: That we will go to the last extremity and venture our lives and fortunes effectively to prevent the said Stamp Act from ever taking place in this city and province; Resolved: That any person who shall deliver out or receive any instrument of writing upon stamped paper…shall incur the highest resentment of this society, and be branded with everlasting infamy; Resolved: That the people who carry on business as formerly on unstamped Paper…shall be protected to the utmost power of this society.”

Malicious men said that the Sons of Liberty were “much concerned that the gentlemen of fortune don’t publically join them,” for which reason the society “formed a committee of correspondence with the Liberty Boys in the neighboring provinces.” In February, the society did in fact appoint such a committee, which sent out letters to all the counties of New York and to all the colonies except Georgia, proposing the formation of an intercolonial association of the true Sons of Liberty; to which letters many replies were received, some of which are still preserved among the papers of the secretary, Mr. John Lamb. The general sense of these letters was that an intercolonial association and close correspondence were highly necessary in view of the presence, in nearly every colony, of many “secret and inveterate enemies of liberty,” and of the desirability of keeping “a watchful eye over all those who, from the nature of their offices, vocations, or dispositions, may be the most likely to introduce the use of stamped paper, to the total subversion of the British constitution.”

No doubt the society kept its watchful eye on every unusual activity and all suspicious characters, but to what extent it succeeded in “putting business in motion again, in the usual channels, without stamps,” cannot be said. Both before and after the society was founded, much business was carried on in violation of the law: newspapers and pamphlets continued to flourish in the land; the inferior courts at least were sooner or later opened in nearly every colony; and not infrequently unstamped clearance papers were issued to shipmasters willing to take the risk of seizure in London or elsewhere. Mr. John Hancock, easily persuading himself that there should be no risk, shipped a cargo of oil with the Boston packet in December. “I am under no apprehensions,” he wrote his London agent. “Should there be any Difficulty in London as to Marshall’s clearance, You will please to represent the circumstances that no stamps could be obtained, …in which case I think I am to be justified, & am not liable to a seizure, or even run any risque at all, as I have taken the Step of the Law, and made application for clearance, & can get no other.”

Notwithstanding such practices, which were frequent enough, it was a dull winter, with little profit flowing into the coffers of Mr. Hancock, with low wages or none at all for worthy artisans and laborers; so that it must often have seemed, as Governor Moore said, “morally impossible that the people here can subsist any time under such inconveniences as they have brought on themselves.” Such inconveniences became more irksome as time passed, with the result that, during the cold and dreary months of February and March, it became every day a more pressing question, particularly for the poor, to know whether the bad times would end at last in the repeal or the admission of the tyrannical act.

Confronted with this difficult dilemma, the faithful Sons of Liberty were preparing in April to assemble a continental congress as a last resort, when rumors began to spread that Parliament was on the point of carrying the repeal. The project of a congress was accordingly abandoned, and everywhere recrimination gave place to rejoicing. On April 21, 1766, the vigilant Boston Sons voted that when the rumors should be confirmed they would celebrate the momentous event in a befitting manner–would celebrate it “Under the deepest Sense of Duty and Loyalty to our Most Gracious Sovereign King George, and in respect and Gratitude to the Patriotic Ministry, Mr. Pitt, and the Glorious Majority of both Houses of Parliament, by whose Influence, under Divine Providence, against a most strenuous Opposition, a happy Repeal of the Stamp Act, so unconstitutional as well as Grievous to His Majesty’s good Subjects of America, is attained; whereby our incontestible Right of Internal Taxation remains to us inviolate.”

The Eve of the Revolution