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, September 28, 2015

Massachusetts Towns Line Up Against the Stamp Act

Two hundred and fifty years ago, representatives to the Massachusetts General Court were heading home after a very short legislative session.

Gov. Francis Bernard had called the lower house of the Massachusetts legislature to convene on Wednesday, 25 September, in Boston. Most of the representatives summoned to that meeting had been elected back in May, and their towns had given them instructions about how to vote on the big issues of the day. But the Stamp Act, and New England’s forceful response to it, had produced a bigger confrontation than anyone imagined. Many towns therefore held another meeting to come up with additional instructions for their legislators.

On 23 September, Boston’s town meeting approved its special instructions, reiterating its opposition to the Stamp Act and anything that looked like compromise about that new law. That argument came out of a committee, but the man who gets the most credit for drafting it is Samuel Adams. Though the instructions didn’t use the phrase “taxation without representation” (not coined until 1767), that idea was the philosophical basis for Boston’s objection to the stamp tax.

When Boston created its instructions, its representatives in the House were:
  • James Otis, Jr., the fiery attorney who a few years before had resigned his royal appointments and started to represent the interests of the Boston merchants.
  • Thomas Cushing, one of those merchants. His late father had employed Samuel Adams in his mercantile house as a young man, with results that convinced both of them that Adams’s talents didn’t lie in business.
  • Thomas Gray (1721-1774), also the province’s auditor. As a sign of how cozy the political class was then, the province treasurer whose accounts he checked was his older brother, Harrison Gray.
And there was a player to be named later.

Other Massachusetts towns came up with similar instructions for their representatives. In Braintree, Samuel Adams’s second cousin John was the principal drafter. John Adams later claimed that his draft had been adopted nearly without editing (there was a moderate amount of editing), and that it was the model for many other towns’ instructions (other towns were already making the same arguments). Braintree’s protest did use an impressive amount of legal jargon, however.

TOMORROW: The governor’s opening speech.

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