Two hundred and fifty years ago this month—on August 14 and 26, 1765—tax riots convulsed Boston and changed the course of American history.
As many as 3,000 people took to the streets to protest a tax recently enacted in London for “defraying the Expenses of defending, protecting and securing the British Colonies and Plantations in America,” territories vastly expanded by the 1763 Peace of Paris, which ratified sweeping British victories over France and Spain in the “French and Indian” or Seven Years War.
This Stamp Act required a wide variety of colonial publications and business and legal documents to be printed or written on special taxed paper stamped with proof of payment. Parliament had long imposed customs duties on certain branches of American trade, but had never before directly taxed its colonists there.
To its critics—most memorably Patrick Henry of Virginia and James Otis, Jr. of Massachusetts—the Stamp Act, as a tax imposed by London without colonial legislative consent, threatened the very basis of colonial self-government. Circulated in pamphlets and newspapers, warnings of the dangers the Act posed fanned the flames of opposition.
On the night of August 14, protesters paraded through Boston’s streets bearing two anti-government effigies—one representing Province Secretary Andrew Oliver—found hanging that dawn among the branches of a great elm soon famous as the “Liberty Tree.” They demolished a structure rumored to be Oliver’s new “Stamp Office,” beheaded the Oliver effigy in front of his residence, burned both effigies atop Fort Hill, and returned to vandalize Oliver’s house (Oliver himself having fled).
Unable to call out the militia—many of whose members were rioters themselves—Royal Governor Francis Bernard made for the safety of Castle William in the harbor (site of today’s Fort Independence). The following evening, as fires again burned on Fort Hill, Oliver renounced his appointment as Massachusetts’s Stamp Act commissioner.
Violence erupted again August 26. This time, the target was Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson—brother-in-law of Oliver and one of the few colonial officials who had attempted to face down the protesters twelve days earlier. Hutchinson himself having escaped the rioters, they turned their rage on his massive, three story brick mansion, leaving it a ruined shell.
Soon Newport, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston—even St. Kitts and Nevis in the West Indies—witnessed similar crowd actions. Everywhere in the thirteen mainland colonies but Georgia, tax agent designees renounced their commissions in the face of crowd violence. The Stamp Act was a dead letter before its implementation date had even arrived.
Toasting empire two years before
Just two summers earlier, the town had seen public demonstrations of a very different sort—celebrations of the signing of the 1763 Peace of Paris. Ending a generation of global imperial conflict that had deeply embroiled Massachusetts, the treaty marked the demise of the French empire in continental North America, and appeared to herald a golden age of peace and prosperity for Britain’s subjects there. (Learn more by visiting the enhanced digital edition of the Old State House exhibition 1763: A Revolutionary Peace, a project supported by Mass Humanities and the NEH).
Conditions for an explosion
But the peace proved a troubled one. The ending of lavish wartime military spending triggered an empire-wide economic contraction. British national debt had nearly doubled in nominal terms during the conflict, surging from 78% to 117% of estimated GDP.1 With domestic taxes already high, Britain’s postwar leadership determined that their American subjects should start paying a share of imperial administrative and defense costs and begin properly adhering to imperial regulations in general.
But measures which seemed mild in London looked outrageous in the colonies. Gripped by recession and already paying heavy provincial taxes, more than a few colonists were sufficiently angered—or desperate—to take the streets. Many more expressed their opposition to the Stamp Act by boycotting British consumer goods. Nine colonial governments took part in a “Stamp Act Congress” to coordinate their opposition. Activists took to calling themselves “Sons of Liberty,” appropriating a term of praise for the colonists used by a Parliamentary opponent of the act’s original passage.
Finally, in March, 1766, with a new British ministry in office eager to diffuse the crisis and powerful merchants in the American trade intent on ending the boycott, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act. But that body simultaneously insisted that this action had been taken on pragmatic, economic grounds, and that its right to legislate for the colonies remained absolute.
From victory to revolution
In 1763, colonial Americans, among them many veterans of the struggle with France and Spain, took great pride in the victorious empire’s territorial gains—indeed they had never felt themselves more “British.” But instead of harnessing this enthusiasm to their advantage, British governing circles pursued policies grounded in anxieties about fiscal solvency and imperial governability. This clash of fears and expectations, this stark divergence of views about London’s proper relationship with the colonies, would prove revolutionary.
1) British credit in fact remained remarkably resilient. Indeed, despite the general failure of measures attempting to raise revenues in the colonies, London was able to borrow what it needed to fight the American Revolutionary War—thwarting French and Spanish imperial objectives even if it lost the thirteen mainland colonies. And Britain rode an even greater wave of credit to victory in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Statistics drawn from Mitchell, British Historical Statistics and dataset of S.N. Broadberry et al. (full citations listed under “Sources” below).
The author thanks Pleun Bouricius, John Bell, Nat Sheidley, and especially Fred Anderson (whose account of the Stamp Act crisis in his Crucible of War this piece follows closely) for their editorial and interpretive contributions. All errors, of course, are the author’s alone.
“Great Britain: Parliament – The Stamp Act, March 22, 1765” full text published online by The Avalon Project, Yale Law School Lillian Goldman Law Library.
Broadberry, S.N., Campbell, Bruce, Klein, Alexander, Overton, Mark, and van Leeuwen, Bas, underlying dataset for “British Economic Growth, 1270-1870: An Output-Based Approach” University of Kent School of Economics Discussion Papers (December, 2011).
Mitchell, B.R., British Historical Statistics. (Cambridge, England, 1988), Chapter XI, Table 7 “Nominal amount of the unredeemed capital of the public debt of the United Kingdom—1691-1980.”
[Parliamentary Archives], ‘No Taxation Without Representation’ An Exhibition by the Parliamentary Archives online exhibition presented by the archives of the British parliament.
Anderson, Fred, Crucible of War: the Seven Years War and the Fate of British Empire in America, 1754-66. (New York, 2000), especially Parts IX and X.
Bell, John L., “Introducing the Stamp Act,” “Finally, the Debate Over the Stamp Act,” “Stamp Act Approved by King, Leading to a Change of Government,” “Stamp Act Approved by Lords,” “Virginia Considers a Firm Stand Against the Stamp Act,” “Virginia Resolutions ‘of an extraordinary Nature’ in Newport,” “Virginia Takes a Less Firm Stand Against the Stamp Act,” “Virginia Takes an Even Less Firm Stand Against the Stamp Act,” “Massachusetts Issues Invitations for a Stamp Act Congress—in New York,” “The Massachusetts Stamp Act of 1755.” Blog entries posted at Boston1775: History, analysis, and unabashed gossip about the start of the American Revolution in Massachusetts
Oats, Lynne and Sadler, Pauline, “Accounting for the Stamp Act Crisis,” The Accounting Historians Journal 35.2 (December, 2008): 101-43.