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, January 01, 2016

“Happy Years to the Sons of LIBERTY”

Since there’s no better time to quote carrier verses about the Stamp Act than now, the sestercentennial of the period when that law remained a hot topic in North American politics, here’s another example.

This one comes from New York and is credited to a well known newspaper seller there—Lawrence Sweeny, not a young apprentice but a grown man from Ireland.
New Year’s
For the YEAR 1766,
Being actually dictated,
Carrier of News, Enemy to Stamps, a Friend to the Constitution, and an Englishman every Inch.

I AM against the Stamp Act;
If it takes Place, I’m ruined for ever.
C———’s Coach and J———’s House!
Lord Colvil, General Murray!
I’m in Debt to the Doctors,
And never a Farthing to pay.
The Weather is severely cold.
I have the Rheumatism in my Leg,
And but little Hay for my little Horse,
And if Famine should stamp him to Death,
More than half my Fortune in gone!
What shall I say for the Boys of New-York?
Happy Years to the Sons of LIBERTY.

Ding Dong.
Ding Dong.
Long live the KING,
The KING live long.
But the DEVIL may Shoot,
Wicked G————l and B——.
Well, that certainly has the sound of something someone might dictate, especially late at night in a tavern. But what’s it all about?

At the bottom “G————l and B———” are clearly George Grenville and Lord Bute, the prime minister who proposed the Stamp Act and his predecessor who didn’t but still got blamed for it all over North America.

“C———’s Coach” refers to Lt. Gov. Cadwallader Colden’s coach, fed to a bonfire during New York’s anti-Stamp Act protest on 1 Nov 1765. “J———’s House” refers to the house rented by Maj. Thomas James and torn apart by rioters that night.

“Lord Colvil” must be Adm. Lord Colville, the man in charge of the Royal Navy in North America at that time. He was based in Halifax, not New York, but as the new year began he was threatening to have the navy seize any ship trying to leave harbor without the correct papers.

“General Murray” was Gen. James Murray, governor of Quebec. He doesn’t seem to have had anything to do with the Stamp Act in New York. But his accommodation of the French Canadians—the vast majority of the people he governed—was making him unpopular with the English settlers up in Canada.

The names of Colville and Murray would have been especially resonant for Sweeny since they were both commanders during the recent Seven Years’ War. According to an article in the Magazine of American History in 1877, the news carrier became known as “Bloody News” Sweeny for his habit of shouting out that phrase to sell newspapers during the war.

Finally, Sweeny is studied today as an early example of Irish-American humor and pride. For example, the American Antiquarian Society has featured the New Year’s verse he distributed in 1769, which is proudly and loudly Irish. That makes the 1766 handbill’s phrase “an Englishman every Inch” somewhat problematic. I take that as Sweeny’s claim to all the rights of Englishmen, including not having a Stamp Tax foisted upon you (even though by that year Englishmen had been paying a Stamp Tax for decades).

TOMORROW: Sweeny against the Stamp Act.


MA in English Lit said...

Not grasping the rhyme scheme -- so your "tavern dictation" hypothesis makes sense, especially if there were pauses between the utterances --

J. L. Bell said...

I think the whole things sounds better with lines alternately slurred or roared at the top of one's lungs, followed by singing the last lines and then falling asleep on the table.