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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Thursday, October 29, 2015

Two Virginia Gentlemen and the Stamp Act

As I noted back in May, the Virginia House of Burgesses was the first American institution to protest the Stamp Act—albeit not as forcefully as first thought, or later reported.

Virginians were also ahead of their southern neighbors in protesting the new law on the street, starting even before their stamp master had made his way back from Britain.

George Mercer (1733-1784), a former military companion of George Washington, was first hanged and burnt in effigy in Westmoreland County on 24 Sept 1765. Richard Henry Lee (shown here) led that protest, ordering his slaves to cart the effigy around and reportedly himself playing the part of a clergyman taking its confession before execution.

Mercer arrived in Virginia in the last week of October 1765. On the evening of 30 October, newspapers reported, he reached the colonial capital of Williamsburg.
…upon his walking up streets as far as the Capitol, in his way to the Governor’s, [Mercer] was accosted by a concourse of gentlemen assembled from all parts of the colony, the General court [House of Burgesses] sitting at this time. They insisted he should immediately satisfy the company (which constantly increased) whether he intended to act as a commissioner under the Stamp Act;

Mr. Mercer told them that any answer to so important a question that he should make, under such circumstances, would be attributed to fear; though he believed none of his countrymen, as he had never injured them, could have any design against his person; insisted that he ought to be allowed to wait on the Governor and Council, and to receive a true information of the sentiments of the colony (whose benefit and prosperity he had as much at heart as any man in it) and that he would, for the satisfaction of the company then assembled, give them his answer on Friday [1 November] at ten o’clock.

This seemed to satisfy them, and they attended him up as far as the Coffee-House, where the Governor, most of the Council, and a great number of gentlemen were assembled; but soon after many more people got together, and insisted on a more speedy and satisfactory answer, declaring they would not depart without one. In some time, upon Mr. Mercer’s promising them an answer by five o’clock this evening [31 October], they departed well pleased; and he met with no further molestation.

And accordingly he was met this evening at the capitol, and addressed himself to the company as follows:
I now have met you agreeable to yesterday’s promise, to give my country some assurances which I would have been glad I could with any tolerable propriety have done sooner.

I flatter myself no judicious man can blame me for accepting an office under an authority that was never disputed by any from whom I could be advised of the propriety or weight of the objections. I do acknowledge that some little time before I left England I heard of, and saw, some resolves which were said to be made by the House of Burgesses of Virginia; but as the authenticity of them was disputed, they never appearing but in private hands, and so often and differently represented and explained to me, I determined to know the real sentiments of my countrymen from themselves: And I am concerned to say that those sentiments were so suddenly and unexpectedly communicated to me, that I was altogether unprepared to give an immediate answer upon so important a point; for in however unpopular a light I may lately have been viewed, and notwithstanding the many insults I have from this day’s conversation been informed were offered me in effigy in many parts of the colony; yet I still flatter myself that time will justify me; and that my conduct may not be condemned after being cooly inquired into.

The commission so very disagreeable to my countrymen was solely obtained by the genteel recommendation of their representatives in General Assembly, unasked for; and though this is contradictory to public report, which I am told charges me with assisting the passage of the Stamp Act, upon the promise of the commission in this colony, yet I hope it will meet with credit, when I assure you I was so far from assisting it, or having any previous promise from the Ministry, that I did not know of my appointment until some time after my return from Ireland, where I was at the commencement of the session of Parliament, and for a long time after the act had passed.

Thus, gentlemen, I am circumstanced. I should be glad to act now in such a manner as would justify me to my friends and countrymen here, and the authority which appointed me; but the time you have allotted me for my answer is so very short that I have not yet been able to discover that happy medium, therefore must intreat you to be referred to my future conduct, with this assurance in the mean time that I will not, directly or indirectly, by myself or deputies, proceed in the execution of the act until I receive further orders from England, and not then without the assent of the General Assembly of this colony; and that no man can more ardently and sincerely wish the prosperity thereof, or is more desirous of securing all its just rights and privileges, than

Gentlemen, Yours &c.,
George Mercer.
Rather than stick around, Mercer headed back to Britain, warning the imperial government that the Stamp Act was unenforceable. Sympathetic bureaucrats there appear to have leaked letters to him showing that another Virginian had applied for the job of stamp master months before: none other than Richard Henry Lee.

TOMORROW: Stamp masters in deep trouble in the deep south.


William Thomas Sherman said...

Do you mean to suggest that Richard Henry Lee took up the cause of American Independence because he was denied job preferment by the British government, and, no less and for of all posts, that of stamp duty enforcer? What are your sources on these various allegations against him you raise? And even if someone else accused him of disappointment at being denied a British government appointment, does it necessarily follow that that individual's claim is credible?

J. L. Bell said...

You've jumped well beyond what I wrote, Mr. Sherman, while not acknowledging some of the details I did write.

As I said, Mercer came into possession of documents showing that Lee had inquired about the stamp master job when the possibility first arose. This led to a controversy in the Virginia newspapers in 1766. Lee acknowledged that he had indeed pursued that job, but argued that he didn't understand the full implications of the Stamp Act at the time. Mercer and his proponents definitely tried to leave the impression that Lee had come out so strongly against the law because he had been disappointed.

And indeed, it's possible that if Lee had gained the post of stamp master his history would have been quite different. Most of the stamp masters who survived until the war ended up being Loyalist or neutral, not strong advocates for independence. Being a target for mob violence might put one off the idea of greater democracy. But we'll never know about a counterfactual like that.

I think one valuable part of the whole Stamp Act story is how the political sides were not well defined in 1765. Men like Richard Henry Lee, Benjamin Franklin, Henry Laurens, and Timothy Ruggles were feeling their way through the issues without knowledge of what would come next, or how the American populace or the London government would respond. Jared Ingersoll provided the report from London that inspired the whole "Sons of Liberty" movement and then ended up ruining his career in America by taking the stamp master job. Patrick Henry launched a career with some fiery speeches and proposals that turned out to say far less than people perceived, yet far more than most people had thought possible at the time.

William Thomas Sherman said...

I have read this same post, "Thursday, October 29, 2015, Two Virginia Gentlemen and the Stamp Act," three times (just to make sure I am not perhaps going blind or something), and I see nowhere in this article your source for Lee's seeking the post in question (or, for that matter, that he led the mob -- but this last is a comparatively small point.) I will grant I am far from being an expert on Richard Henry Lee, but what you are asserting about him is no little absurd; so perhaps you could in a future post furnish us with a follow up; including an examination of Lee's purported character and motives as you see them -- with documentation.

William Thomas Sherman said...

The following I found in the Letters of RH Lee 1762-1778. While there is a 1762 petition seeking a place on "his majesty's council," there is of course no reference to the stamp tax of 65. (Lee's brother William was Sheriff of London in 1774, but I don't know which brother he refers to as already being on the said council.) Meanwhile, here is this from 1764:

TO MY DEAR SlR, CHANTILLY, VA. May 31, 1764.
At a time when universal selfishness prevails, and
when (did not a very few instances evince the contrary)
one would be apt to conclude that friendship, with
Astrea, had fled this degenerate world, how greatly
happy must be the man who can boast of having a
friend. That this happiness is mine, the whole tenor
of my life s correspondence with you proves most
Many late determinations of the great, on your side
of the water, seem to prove a resolution, to oppress
North America with the iron hand of power, unre
strained by any sentiment, drawn from reason, the
liberty of mankind, or the genius of their own govern
ment. Tis said the House of Commons readily re
solved, that it had right to tax the subject here,
without the consent of his representative; and that, in
consequence of this, they had proceeded to levy on us a
considerable annual sum, for the support of a body of
troops to be kept up in this quarter. Can it be sup
posed that those brave adventurous Britons, who orig
inally conquered and settled these countries, through
great dangers to themselves and benefit to the mother
country, meant thereby to deprive themselves of the
blessings of that free government of which they were
members, and to which they had an unquestionable
right ?...[etc.]

J. L. Bell said...

Two short, open-access articles that discuss the conflict between the Mercers and the Lees can be found at the Encyclopedia Virginia and Colonial Williamsburg websites. There’s more detail in this chapter of Mary Elizabeth Virginia’s 1992 thesis on Richard Henry Lee. [Let’s now pause to consider how little choice Mary Elizabeth Virginia had when it came to choosing a historical specialty.]

The public side of the Mercer-Lee argument played out in the Virginia Gazette newspapers, mostly Purdie & Dixon’s. The first story of this issue shows the Mercers’ accusation, Lee’s admission from a Maryland newspaper, and the Mercers’ comments on it.

One of the outcomes of that argument was a duel arranged between Lee’s brother Arthur and George Mercer’s brother James. The book Williamsburg at Dawn tells that story. I haven’t read it, but I’ve read another of the author’s short books, and I therefore expect it’s well researched and juicily written.

J. L. Bell said...

It looks like you’ve quoted from The Letters of Richard Henry Lee (1911). If you go on to page 9, you’ll find a footnote referring to the controversy. On page 16 is Lee’s version of events..

William Thomas Sherman said...

Thank for raising this and later providing the sources as requested, yet I don't think Lee comes out anywhere or nearly so bad as your original comments imply. From these various items, what I gather is that Lee acted far more out of ignorance with respect to what was going on and developing than venal jealousy. And were it actually the latter (which I hardly think the case), we indeed would have to conclude him to be little better than a moron and utterly reckless of his own character and reputation.

J. L. Bell said...

My posting above simply describes Richard Henry Lee's actions. On 24 Sept 1765 he led a demonstration against the Stamp Act focused on an effigy of stamp master George Mercer. At the end of the previous year he had written to Britain asking for the same job, a fact that Mercer and his family revealed in 1766. If you think those events make Lee look “bad,” that’s not because of anything I added to the facts. I wrote nothing about “venal jealousy”; if you inferred that motivation and then didn’t like the conclusion, that’s something for you to work out with your mental image of Lee.

You accept Lee's claim of "ignorance with respect to what was going on." The Mercers pointed out that when Lee wrote to London in November 1764, Americans had been debating the prospect of a Stamp Act for months. As my other sestercentennial postings have described, prime minister George Grenville had proposed such a law in Parliament in the spring of 1764 and then delayed it for a year in order to collect feedback from the American colonies. The possible Stamp Act was a big topic of conversation in the Virginia House of Burgesses and other legislatures. The delegates formed committees and sent back reports urging Parliament not to adopt the law.

If Lee had inquired about the post of stamp master in late 1763, he could easily have been ignorant of its implications. But by late 1764, the outline of the Stamp Act was clear. The basic question of whether Parliament could enact a tax on the colonies was inherent in the law. Lee couldn’t have missed that. He didn’t know, because no one knew, the breadth and depth of the opposition to that law by late 1765.

Lee may well have jumped at an political and economic opportunity and then sincerely changed his mind after reflecting at more length. He doesn’t appear to have pursued the stamp master job past his initial inquiry. Like Jared Ingersoll in Connecticut, Lee may have felt that he’d enforce the Stamp Act more fairly than others and therefore be of service to his fellow Virginians. Those possibilities might mitigate our judgment of Lee. Yet the fact remains that Lee himself didn’t offer such generous thoughts to George Mercer when he was hanging and burning an effigy of the man.