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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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Andrew Oliver’s August Resignation

The anti-Stamp Act protest in Boston on 14 Aug 1765, followed that evening by the destruction of Andrew Oliver’s new building and other property, had a quick result: Oliver resigned as stamp agent for Massachusetts.

Oliver told his Connecticut counterpart Jared Ingersoll, who had visited Boston just a few days before, that he’d “stood the attack for 36 hours—a single man against a whole People, the Government not being able to afford me any help during that whole time.”

I’m not sure Oliver’s resistance quite totals to “36 hours.” That would have been from dawn on 14 August, when his effigy on Liberty Tree became apparent, to the evening of the 15th. Oliver resigned, according to his own writing, on that afternoon.

In the third, posthumously published volume of his history of Massachusetts, Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson described his friend’s decision:

Several of the council gave it as their opinion, Mr. Oliver being present, that the people, not only of the town of Boston, but of the country in general, would never submit to the execution of the stamp act, let the consequence of an opposition to it be what it would. It was also reported, that the people of Connecticut had threatened to hang their distributor [Ingersoll] on the first tree after he entered the colony; and that, to avoid it, he had turned aside to Rhode Island.

Despairing of protection, and finding his family in terror and great distress, Mr. Oliver came to a sudden resolution to resign his office before another night, and immediately signified, by a writing under his hand, to one of his friends, that he would send letters, by a ship then ready to sail for London, which should contain such resignation; and he desired that the town might be made acquainted with it, and with the strong assurances he had given, that be would never act in that capacity.
Oliver’s decision took Hutchinson by surprise, suggesting it came after he left the Council meeting. On 20 Aug 1765 the lieutenant governor wrote, “This resolution he took without my knowing any thing of it & yet I was charged with advising him against it.”

Gov. Francis Bernard told the story differently on 16 August:
In the Afternoon of Yesterday, sevral Gentlemen applied to Mr. Oliver, to advise him to make a publick declaration, that he would resign the Office, & never act in it; without which they said, his House would be immediately destroyed, & his Life in continual Danger. Upon which he was obliged to authorise some Gentlemen to declare in public, that he would immediately apply for leave to resign, & would not act in the Office, (as indeed it was impossible for him to do) until he received further Orders. This satisfied the Leaders; but the lower Part of the Mob were not so easily pacified. 
However, Bernard appears to have skipped town before any of that happened (it’s not in the part of the letter he composed on the evening of 15 August), so he was reporting hearsay.

Oliver addressed his official resignation to the Treasury Office in London, which oversaw the collection of the stamp duty. He also released the news to “one of his friends,” and then copied out those “terms of Capitulation” for Ingersoll:
Mr. Oliver acquaints Mr. Waterhouse that he has wrote to the Lds. of the Treasury, to desire to be excused from executing the Office of Distributor of the Stamps: and that when they arrive he shall only take proper care to secure them for the Crown, but will take no one Step for distributing the same at the time appointed by the Act. And he may inform his friends accordingly.

Thursday Afternoon, 15th. August.
Why did Oliver make Samuel Waterhouse the recipient of this letter? Waterhouse was only a private merchant (he joined the Customs office in 1772). Oliver might have chosen him for two reasons:
  • Waterhouse wrote a lot of newspaper essays supporting the royal government, so he knew how to get news into the press. (Indeed, the resignation was reported in the papers on 19 August.)
  • Oliver was giving Waterhouse a heads-up that the office of stamp agent was soon to be vacant in case he wanted to apply for it himself.
The Whigs in town considered the second possibility serious enough that the following February Oliver had to publicly declare that he hadn’t meant that at all. By then he’d had to resign again—but I’ll get to that in December.

TOMORROW: The mob turns out again.

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