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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Saturday, August 29, 2015

Anti-Stamp Act Protests in Rhode Island

Public protests against the Stamp Act spread outside of Boston in August 1765 so quickly that I’ve fallen behind the sestercentennial anniversaries of those events.

Since the Newport Historical Society is commemorating that port town’s protests with a reenactment today, I’m focusing on the events in Rhode Island.

On 24 August, ten days after the first protest at Boston’s Liberty Tree, A Providence Gazette Extraordinary appeared. William Goddard (1740-1817) had stopped publishing this newspaper in May. This special issue was “Printed by S. and W. Goddard,” the “S.” being William’s mother Sarah (c. 1701-1770).

Sarah Goddard resumed the weekly publication of the paper in 1766 as “Sarah Goddard, and Company.” From January 1767 to 1769, the colophon clarified that she printed “(In the Absence of William Goddard),” the son having gone on to other cities. Finally she sold the business to employee John Carter, who maintained the paper for decades to follow. Her daughter, Mary Katherine Goddard, established a print shop in Baltimore.

That issue of the Providence Gazette was extraordinary indeed, being almost entirely devoted to one political cause:
  • Above the masthead it proclaimed, “Vox Populi, Vox Dei” (“The Voice of the People is the Voice of God”).
  • The essays were all about the problems with the Stamp Act, including a paragraph from Isaac Barré’s speech in Parliament.
  • The news was all about anti-Stamp Act protests in Boston and Connecticut, and similar disturbances in Britain.
  • The paper printed five resolutions from the Providence town meeting modeled on the resolutions that the Virginia House of Burgesses had reportedly passed that spring.
  • The last page described a new paper mill that the Goddards were helping to build outside Providence—a business potentially at odds with the Stamp Act.
In his history of the Revolution, the Rev. William Gordon wrote that “Effigies were also exhibited; and in the evening cut down and burnt by the populace” in Providence on this date, but I haven’t found any confirmation of that.

Instead, the next big development in Rhode Island appears to have happened down in Newport on 27 August. Here’s the description of that day published in the 2 September Newport Mercury:
Last Tuesday Morning a Gallows was erected in Queen-Street, just below the Court-House, whereon the Effigies of three Gentlemen were exhibited, one of whom was a Distributor of Stamps, which was placed in the Center. The other two were suspected of countenancing and abetting the Stamp Act.

Various Labels were affixed to their Breasts, Arms, &c. denoting the Cause of these indignant Representations, and the Persons who were the Subjects of Derision.—They hung from Eleven o’Clock till about Four, when some Combustibles being placed under the Gallows, a Fire was made, and the Effigies consumed, amidst the Acclamations of the People.—The whole was conducted with Moderation, and no Violence was offered to the Persons or Property of any Man.
A report published in London later that year offered some more physical details: “about nine o’clock in the morning, the people of Newport, in Rhode Island, brought forth the effigies of three persons, in a cart, with halters about their necks, to a gallows, twenty feet high.”

Notably, the Mercury didn’t identify the three “Persons who were the Subjects of Derision,” even by initials. But everyone in town knew who they were:
  • Rhode Island’s stamp-tax collector, Augustus Johnston (c. 1729-1790).
  • Martin Howard, Jr. (1725–1781), a lawyer who had written a pamphlet titled A Letter from a Gentleman at Halifax to His Friend in Rhode Island, supporting the Stamp Act—a very rare position for an American to take.
  • Dr. Thomas Moffatt (c. 1702–1787), another supporter of stronger royal government.
Moffatt later identified three merchants—Samuel Vernon (1711-1792), William Ellery (1727-1820), and Robert Crook—as guarding the spectacle from local officials, just as the Loyall Nine did in Boston. The doctor also said that to build a crowd they “sent into the streets strong Drink in plenty with Cheshire cheese and other provocatives to intemperance and riot.” Yet that day ended with no other destruction than the burning of the effigies.

TOMORROW: But it wasn’t over yet.


Chris Hurley of Woburn said...

Cheshire cheese is a provocative to intemperance and riot? I had no idea.

J. L. Bell said...

This explains why wine and cheese parties always end with an attack on the neighbors’ houses.