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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Sunday, November 01, 2015

“The day the stamp-Act was to take Place”

The Stamp Act was scheduled to take effect on the first day of November in 1765. After that date, all courts in British North America were supposed to reject filings that weren’t on stamped paper. All ships leaving American ports on or after that date were supposed to have Customs forms on stamped paper, and the Royal Navy was empowered to stop ships to check. Newspapers published after that date were required to appear on stamped paper.

And yet in the most populous British colonies on the continent, from New Hampshire to South Carolina, stamp masters had been intimidated into resigning. In many of those places the royal authorities were keeping the stamped paper under wraps lest it be stolen or destroyed. So the big question was whether judges, Customs officers, and other royal appointees would insist on following the law or let business go on without stamps.

In Boston, the Whigs kept up their anti-Stamp campaign by reprising the opening act: hanging effigies on the elm they had named Liberty Tree. Here’s a report that appeared in the newspapers of 4 November:
Last Friday being the day the stamp-Act was to take Place, the Public were not much alarmed or displeased at the Morning’s being ushered in by the Tolling of Bells in several Parts of the Town, and the Vessels in the Harbour displaying their Colours half mast high, in token of Mourning: and tho’ some previous Steps had been taken by Authority to prevent any Pageantry, fearing lest Tumult and Disorder might be the Consequence yet the People were soon informed that the Great Tree at the South part of the Town (known by the Name of the Tree of Liberty ever since the memorable 14th of August) was adorned with the Effigies of the two famous or rather infamous enemies of American Liberty; G—ge G—nv—e and J–hn H–sk–.

The Figures continued suspended without any Molestation till about 3 o’clock in the Afternoon, when they were cut down in the View and amid the Acclamations of several Thousand People of all Ranks, and being placed in a Cart, were with great Solemnity and Order followed by the Multitude, formed into regular Ranks, to the Court House, where the Assembly was then sitting; from thence proceeding to the North End of the Town and then returning up Middle Street, they pass’d back thro’ the Town to the Gallows on the Neck, where the Effigies were again hung up, and after continuing some Time were cut down, when the Populace, as a token of their utmost Detestation of the Men they were designed to represent, tore them in Pieces and flung their Limbs with Indignation into the Air.—

This being done, three Cheers were given, and every Man was desired to repair to his Home, which was so punctually performed, that the Evening was more remarkable for Peace and Quietness than common; a Circumstance that would at any Time redound to the Honour of the Town, but was still more agreeable, as the Fears of many were great least it should prove another 26th of August; for the horrid Violences of which Night we hope the good Order of this will in some measure atone, as it is a Proof such Conduct was not agreeable to the Sentiments of the Town, but was only the lawless Ravages of some foreign villains, who took Advantage of the over heated Temper, of a very few people of this place, and drew them in to commit such violences and disorders as they shuddered at with horror in their cooler hours.
No, Boston’s leaders didn’t want “another 26th of August,” when mobs had attacked royal officials’ houses, culminating in the near-destruction of Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s mansion in the North End. That event sullied the reputation of Boston, its political leaders, and the whole anti-Stamp Act movement.

And getting through the first of November wasn’t enough. As the 4 November issue of the Boston Gazette makes clear, the town was looking forward with great anxiety to the following day:
Notwithstanding the Insinuations of those who would represent the Inhabitants of this Town as Mobbish, it has no doubt given Pleasure to the General Assembly now sitting, to find it quite otherwise; and that the spirited Endeavours of those who would picture the Betrayers of their invaluable Liberties in a just and ridiculous View, are attended with the greatest Order and Decorum. . . .

We are well assured, and we have Reason to think, that the Inhabitants are satisfied in it, that if any Exhibitions are made, as usual, on the 5th of the Month, the same unexceptionable Behaviour will be observed; those true Sons of Liberty having agreed to unite as Brethren, in preventing Disorders of every Kind, and in promoting the COMMON CAUSE.
In other words, the North-End and South-End gangs should not take advantage of a historic anniversary to have a series of brawls testing who was tougher and more patriotic, no matter how fun that tradition was.

TOMORROW: “G—ge G—nv—e” was George Grenville, but who was “J–hn H–sk–”?

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