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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Saturday, December 12, 2015

Charles Steuart’s Stamp Act Crisis

In early December 1765, the surveyor-general of the Customs service in North America, Charles Steuart, sat down in his office in Philadelphia to write a report to his superiors about the state of the continent. (I’ve seen this letter dated to both 7 and 8 December.)

The Stamp Act required all ships leaving North American ports after 1 November to carry Customs office documents, called “clearances,” that had been filled out on stamped paper, a way of collecting a tax on that bureaucratic transaction. That made the Customs agents responsible for enforcing the Stamp Act.

Steuart told his bosses that wasn’t easy:
Your Honours, I presume, have been informed of the distracted State of this Continent on Account of the Stamp Act, I am but ill qualified to give a Description of it, for though I have travelled near 2000 miles since my Arrival in America, I have been fortunate enough to escape all the scenes of Rage and Madness that have been acted in it. I must therefore beg Leave to refer to the Accounts from those Officers whose Residence enabled them to give more full Information and particularly to the Officers at New York, where the fury of the Mob committed great Excesses.

All the Distributors of Stamps between Halifax and St. Augustine have been compelled to resign their Commissions, and no stamp papers can be obtained in all these Countries, this has thrown them into great Confusion. The Courts of Law are shut, Redress for Injuries cannot be obtained, debts recovered, nor Property secured or transferred.

But the Evils necessarily occasioned by a Stop to the internal business and Police of the Colonies, are not equal to the Consequences of shutting up their Ports at this season of the year—permit me briefly to enumerate a few of them.

Thousands of Seamen and Others whose sole Dependance is on Navigation not only rendered Useless to their Country but deprived of the Means of Subsistance, Provisions for which there are at this time large Orders, particularly for Corn for France, Spain, Portugal, the Mediterranean &c. must perish on hand, while famin may spread itself through our West India Islands by being suddenly cut of from their usual Supplies; Ireland would be greatly distressed by the Want of flax seed from hence, on which her linen Manufacture depends; Other Articles of Produce by which Remittances may be made to Britain detained in the Country—the Revenue lessened, and trade and Navigation the Source of Wealth and the Support of a Maritime and Commercial Nation, entirely stopped, which must be attended with Ruin to Multitudes and distress to All. These are weighty Considerations, but a stronger Inducement for proceeding to Business here and at New York still remains.
By “proceeding the business,” Steuart meant having Customs officers approve ships for departure with documents on non-stamped paper. He was trying to make the case for his superiors to approve of that policy to ignore the law, at least temporarily.
The Officers at both Places have by their Address and prudence evaded for a full Month granting Clearances, in hopes that some way would be opened by which they might be extricated out of their Difficulties, that time did not pass without strong Applications and even threats, which they had great Reason to believe would soon become very serious.

It is supposed there are uow in this Port 150 Sail of Vessells; the frost generally sets in about Christmas, and continues upwards of two Months; Nothing is more certain than that so great a Number of Seamen shut up for that time, in a town destitute of all Protection to the Inhabitants, even a Militia, would commit some terrible Mischief, or rather that they would not suffer themselves to be shut up but would compel the Officers to clear Vessells without Stamps this would undoubtedly have been the Consequence of a few days longer delay. And, I hope, I need not add, it would have been highly imprudent to have hazarded the Event; the least Evil attending it would in all probability have been the Loss of about £5000—belonging to the Revenue in the Custom house.
So far Steuart’s letter has raised the specters of loss of imperial trade, famine in the Caribbean, damage to the Irish linen industry, and idle sailors rampaging through the North American ports and looting the Customs house. It may also have mentioned dogs and cats living together. All of which led up to…
The Collector came to me on the Morning of the 2d. Instant, told me his Situation, his Apprehensions and his Resolution of proceeding to business immediately; I could not refuse my Approbation and wrote circular Letters to all the other Ports in the district except Quebec, a Copy of which I have the Honour of sending herewith. I had before written to the Officers at New York when that City was governed by the Mob, that they must clear Vessells, if necessary, which they every Moment expected to be forced to, but the Arrival of their Governour gave them some Respite, and they got leave to wait till Philadelphia should take the lead; they accordingly began the 5th.
At last Steuart had gotten to the main substance of his report: he had already told the Customs officers in New York, Philadelphia, and other ports he supervised that they should clear ships to leave without the stamped paperwork.
The Governours were applyed to, but thought proper to observe a cautious Silence. I might have done the same, but do not think it honourable, nor consistent with my duty to withhold my Advice and Opinion in a Matter of Difficulty, when called upon by those who have a Right to demand them.

Having now without Exaggeration laid before your Honours the Situation in which the Officers of these two Ports stood, it is humbly hoped that, abstracted from any Reasoning on the Propriety of the Step they have been compelled to take, their Conduct and my Approbation of it will stand justified on the Plea of Necessity and Self Preservation.
This letter is thus an example of making a decision and asking for forgiveness afterward instead of proposing an action and asking for approval in advance.

These days Steuart is best known as the slaveowner in the Somerset case, but here he was playing a small but significant role in the Stamp Act crisis.

1 comment:

R.T. said...

What I like most about your postings, including this one, is the different perspectives -- some in favor of Britain, and some opposed to Britain -- among the people in colonial/Revolutionary America. You've really opened my eyes, and I've learned a helluva lot. Thanks!

BTW, at my new blog, I hope to emulate your objectivity.

All the best from R.T. at http://empireofliberty.blogspot.com/