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, November 19, 2015

The New Yorkers’ “private Unnatural and Brutal Revenge”

When New Yorkers were demonstrating against the Stamp Act on the night of 1 Nov 1765, they knew that the colony’s supply of stamped paper was inside Fort George. And they knew that the man in charge of Fort George’s defenses was Maj. Thomas James of the Royal Artillery.

In the words of the New-York Gazette, Maj. James “had unfortunately incurred the resentment of the public, by expressions imputed to him” during the dispute over the stamps.

Specifically, James later stated he’d been accused of the following:
  • “I threatened to cram the Stamps down their Throats with the End of my Sword”
  • “If they attempted to rise I [said I] would drive them all out of the Town for a pack of Rascals, with four and twenty men”
  • “I had in Contempt to the Gentlemen thrown an Almanack into the Fire that had not been stampt”
  • “I had turnd some Ladies and Gentlemen off the Ramparts of Fort George, because they should not see the Works I was carrying on”
  • “I had been over Officious in my Duty”
When Parliament asked him about those accusations the next year, he “answer’d in the Affirmative.” The legislators wouldn’t let him go on to say that, even so, “it was no Sanction for their [the protesters’] private Unnatural and Brutal Revenge or an Indemnification for their Insults upon Government.”

Unfortunately for the major, though he was safe inside Fort George, his property was not. That’s because, with the British military making New York its base for North American operations, he had rented a mansion called Vaux Hall, beside the Hudson River near King’s College.

The New-York Gazette continued:
It is said he had taken a Lease of the house for three years, and had obliged himself to return it in the like good order as he received it; it had been lately fitted up in an elegant manner, and had adjoining a large handsome garden stored both with necessaries and curiosities,—and had in it several summer houses; the house was genteely furnished with good furniture; contained a valuable library of choice books, papers, accounts, mathematical instruments, draughts, rich clothes, linen, &c. and a considerable quantity of wine and other liquors.—

The multitude bursting open the doors, proceeded to destroy every individual article the house contain’d,—the beds they cut open and threw the feathers abroad, broke all the glasses, china, tables, chairs, desks, trunks, chests, and making a large fire at a little distance, threw in every thing that would burn—drank or destroy’d all the liquor—and left not the least article in the house which they did not destroy—after which they also beat to pieces all the doors, sashes, window frames and partitions in the house, leaving it a meer shell; also destroyed the summer houses, and tore up and spoiled the garden.

All this destruction was compleated by about 2 o’clock [A.M.]. The imagined cause of resentment operated so powerfully, that every act of devastation on the goods of this unhappy gentleman was consider’d as a sacrifice to liberty.—Many military trophies, even the colours of the royal regiment, were taken and carried off triumphantly.
New York’s anti-Stamp demonstration thus ended as Boston’s and Newport’s had done, with the destruction of a house. And not necessarily the house of the man designated to collect the new tax, but the house of a royal official who spoke up for enforcing the law.

TOMORROW: Naval support?

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