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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Monday, August 24, 2015

Details of the First Stamp Act Protest

The anonymous account of Boston’s 14 Aug 1765 Stamp Act protest I quoted yesterday also includes a passage that’s prompted a lot of questions about who was behind the event:
…thus Hung the Image thro all the Day tho Three Guineas [£3.3s.] was offerd to any one that should take it down and no one dared to make the Tryall. The Paper on which A. O in Capitals was wrote blew off and at mid Day a person came with an Hanchif over his Face went up with a Ladder and fastnid it on in the Sight of Numbers who dard not obstruct him. It was observd that in making a Slip his Trousers slide up and discovered a silke Stockinge and Breeches answerable in Goodness—from whence you may infer that some of them undress’d were not of the lowest Class.
Trousers were stereotypically sailors’ dress, and this anecdote suggests that a man wealthy enough to afford silk stockings and good breeches had disguised himself as a sailor during the protest. That man was probably a member of the Loyall Nine, the political club that included both better established craftsmen and young merchants.

That evening, “Forty or fifty tradesmen, decently dressed,” led the procession with the effigy, according to Thomas Hutchinson, writing in his capacity as historian. The organizers were obviously trying to present the protest as coming from the middling class, not the gentility.

Another passage from that letter that I skipped yesterday described where that procession went:
They…proceeded to the Town House [shown above in 1751], went thro that and here the noise was Bombs bursting and cannons firing, on this the Governor and Councillors who were above stairs consulting the Dispersion of the Mob, thought it prudent to extinguish their Lights and take to their Heels as fast as they could.
Gov. Francis Bernard’s account said only:
knowing that we were sitting in the Council Chamber, they gave three huzza’s by way of defiance, & passed on.
However, Lt. Gov. Hutchinson confirmed that the crowd was actually in the building:
Just at dark an amazing mob brought the image thro the court house [Town House] the council then sitting above…
And Cyrus Baldwin wrote that the effigy “was brought by the Mob through the main street to the Townhous, carried it through…” The street level of the Town House (now the Old State House Museum) was set aside for a merchants’ exchange. Evidently in the evening it was open to pedestrians.

Baldwin’s letter contains another curious phrase about how the procession started: “after sun sett the North gave up & the South keept not back.” That appears to refer to the North End and South End Gangs, best known from their annual brawl on Pope Night. The effigies, the procession to the center of town, and the bonfire on Fort Hill were all part of the South End Gang’s regular Pope Night ritual.

The South End’s “captain” for that year, shoemaker Ebenezer Mackintosh, was soon being called the leader of the protest movement, so he was probably at the head of those “forty or fifty Tradesmen” who marched the effigy through the Town House. However, as Loyall Nine member Henry Bass wrote at the end of the year, those men were “not a little pleas’d to hear that McIntosh has the Credit of the whole Affair.”

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