J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, November 04, 2010

“An Exhibition of Effigies at Portsmouth”

In 1765, the Stamp Act was due to take effect on 1 November. And four days after that was the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, which young men in most American seaports celebrated with processions, bonfires, and perhaps a few hangings in effigy. New Englanders called this holiday “Pope Night.”

That year, Boston’s town fathers worked hard to convince the South End and North End gangs, led by shoemaker Ebenezer Mackintosh and shipwright Henry Swift respectively, not to have their usual Pope Night parades and brawls. They feared the violence might get out of hand, and ruin the town’s reputation. That story is pretty well known.

I didn’t know, however, that there was a similar effort on a smaller scale up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Unlike Boston, that port doesn’t appear to have had rival Pope Night gangs. But town officials did worry about the town’s young men getting out of control.

This is how Portsmouth handled the Stamp Act crisis, according to the Rev. Jeremy Belknap’s History of New Hampshire:

The person appointed distributor of stamps for New-Hampshire, was George Messerve, son of the late Colonel, who died at Louisbourg [in 1758]. He received his appointment in England, and soon after embarked for America, and arrived at Boston. Before he landed, he was informed of the opposition which was making to the act; and that it would be acceptable to the people if he would resign, which he readily did, and they welcomed him on shore.

An exhibition of effigies at Portsmouth had prepared the minds of the people there for his reception; and at his coming to town he made a second resignation, on the parade, before he went to his own house. This was accepted with the usual salutation; and every one appeared to be satisfied with the success of the popular measures. Soon after, the stamped paper destined for New-Hampshire arrived at Boston in the same vessel with that intended for Massachusetts; but there being no person in either Province who had any concern with it, it was, by order of [Massachusetts] Governor [Francis] Bernard, lodged in the castle.

The stamp-act was to commence its operation on the first day of November. . . . In the mean time, the newspapers were filled with essays, in which every plea for and against the new duties was amply discussed. These vehicles of intelligence were doomed to be loaded with a stamp; and the printers felt themselves interested in the opposition. On the last day of October, the New-Hampshire Gazette appeared with a mourning border. A body of people from the country approached the town of Portsmouth, under an apprehension that the stamps would be distributed; but being met, by a number from the town, and assured that no such thing was intended, they quietly returned.

The next day, the bells tolled, and a funeral procession was made for the Goddess of Liberty; but on depositing her in the grave, some signs of life were supposed to be discovered, and she was carried off in triumph. By such exhibitions, the spirit of the populace was kept up; though the minds of the most thoughtful persons were filled with anxiety.

It was doubtful, whether the Courts of Law could proceed without stamps; and it was certain that none could be procured. Some licentious persons began to think that debts could not be recovered, and that they might insult their creditors with impunity. On the first appearance of this disorderly spirit, associations were formed at Portsmouth, Exeter and other places, to support the Magistrates and preserve the peace.

The fifth of November had always been observed as a day of hilarity, in remembrance of the powder-plot. On the following night, a strong guard was kept in Portsmouth. By these precautions, the tendency to riot was seasonably checked, and no waste of property or personal insult was committed; though some obnoxious characters began to tremble for their safety.
“Obnoxious characters” being Belknap’s terms for supporters of the royal government.

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