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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Friday, September 18, 2015

Woody Holton on the Stamp Act’s Origins

Boston 1775 isn’t the only website running material on the Stamp Act this season. Humanities magazine shared this article by Prof. Woody Holton of the University of South Carolina.

Holton is reliable for contrarian takes, usually from a populist perspective, and in this article he says in part:
Contrary to popular myth, which has the British government adopting the Stamp Act to force Americans to pay down their share of its staggering debt, the real reason for the Stamp Act was to help fund a garrison of ten thousand British soldiers who remained in North America at the conclusion of an Anglo-French war in 1763. This was a sizable force: about the same number of troops Washington would have at Valley Forge fifteen years later.

Why weren’t these men sent home to Britain with their comrades? Thomas Gage, commander in chief of British forces in North America, explained in a December 1765 report to Lord Barrington, the secretary at war, that the redcoats had stayed behind because of “the Numerous Tribes of Savages who joined the French during the War, and over run our Frontiers.” . . .

At the close of the Seven Years’ War, the British government adopted two major policies aimed at appeasing the Indians. On October 7, 1763, the king-in-council issued a proclamation drawing an imaginary line along the crest of the Appalachian Mountains. All of the land west of this so-called “Proclamation Line” would be reserved for the Indians. . . .

the single most important reason for the British government’s unprecedented decision to leave ten thousand troops in North America after the Seven Years’ War was not to guard the colonists against Indian incursions. Just the opposite. It was to protect the Indians from the colonists.
See the full article for more of this argument, and Holton’s Forced Founders for even more.


Charles Bahne said...

An interesting article by Prof. Holton, and I found it rather convincing.

The official title of the Stamp Act begins, "An Act for granting and applying certain Stamp Duties, and other Duties, in the British Colonies and Plantations in America, towards further defraying the Expences of defending, protecting, and securing the same;...." There is no specific reference in the Act's title, nor in its preamble, to paying off war debts, unless one assumes that those debts are part of the general "Expences of defending, protecting, and securing". Thus this language, from the Act itself, supports Prof. Holton's thesis.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, that's what the law says. There are two weaknesses in that argument, as I see it. One is that it assumes the politicians who wrote the Stamp Act were telling the unvarnished truth, and that's not what we usually assume of politicians. There's plenty of other political rhetoric from the 1760s and 1770s that references the national debt in regard to new taxes in America.

Second is that money is fungible, meaning that if the Crown can pay for its military expenses in North America through the Stamp Act, that leaves more money from its other revenues to pay down the debt. In other words, the Stamp Act could address both problems, even if it nominally was aimed at only one.

I think it's worthwhile remembering the Stamp Act's stated purpose not because that's necessarily the end of the argument but because it opens up other questions about British policy. The Crown wasn't just looking back at its debt. It was also looking ahead to how it would govern its expanded North American claims and deal with its North American allies.

Alicia Wayland said...

There's a major error in the first paragraph of Woody Holton's article. Jonathan Trumbull was not the artist who painted "The Declaration of Independence." The artist was JOHN Trumbull, son of Governor Jonathan Trumbull Senior and younger brother of Jonathan Trumbull Junior. This is a frequent confusion but it's disappointing to see it occur in a major magazine published by the Humanities Council. I could find no way to comment on the article, either following the article or in any of the links on the home page and no email addresses listed for staff. So, to the Boston 1775 followers, I'm passing on what is probably a minor correction to most of you but to those who live in Lebanon, Connecticut, hometown of Governor Trumbull's family and where JOHN grew up living in the midst of Revolutionary fervor, it becomes important to set the record straight. Cheers.

Alicia Wayland
105 W. Town St.
Lebanon, CT 06249

J. L. Bell said...

Good point! There are already two prominent John Trumbulls to sort out, so mixing the Jonathan Trumbulls in with them makes life needlessly difficult.