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, June 09, 2016

A Sixteen-Year-Old Standing up to the Sheriff?

According to Isaiah Thomas, writing his History of Printing in the first decade of the 1800s, his decision to print the 5 Dec 1765 Halifax Gazette with mourning borders to show (someone’s) displeasure with the Stamp Act had a significant effect in Nova Scotia.

It “made no trifling bustle in the place,” he modestly stated. Writing of his sixteen-year-old self in the third person, Thomas described what happened next:
Soon after this event the effigy of the stampmaster was hung on the gallows near the citadel, and other tokens of hostility to the stamp act were exhibited. These disloyal transactions were done silently and secretly; but they created some alarm;—a captain’s guard was continually stationed at the house of the stampmaster to protect him from those injuries which were expected to befall him. It is supposed the apprehensions entertained on his account were entirely groundless. . . .

An opinion prevailed that Thomas not only knew the parties concerned in these transactions, but had a hand in them himself; on which account, a few days after the exhibition of the stampmaster’s effigy, a sheriff went to the printing house, and informed Thomas that he had a precept against him; and, intended to take him to prison, unless he would give information respecting the persons concerned in making and exposing the effigy of the stampmaster.

He mentioned, that some circumstances had produced a conviction in his mind, that Thomas was one of those who had been engaged in these seditious proceedings. The sheriff receiving no satisfactory answer to his enquiries, ordered Thomas to go with him before a magistrate; and he, having no person to consult or to give him advice, in the honest simplicity of his heart was going to obey the orders of this terrible alguazil; but, being suddenly struck with the idea, that this proceeding might be intended merely to alarm him into an acknowledgment of his privity of the transactions in question, he told the sheriff he did not know him; and demanded imformation respecting the authority by which he acted.

The sheriff answered that he had sufficient authority; but, on being requested to exhibit it, the officer was, evidently, disconcerted, and showed some symptoms of his not acting under “the king’s authority”—however, he answered, that he would show his authority when it was necessary; and again ordered this “printer of sedition” to go with him.

Thomas answered, he would not obey him unless he produced a precept, or proper authority for taking him prisoner.

After further parley the sheriff left him, with an assurance that he would soon return; but Thomas saw him no more; and he, afterward, learned that this was a plan concocted for the purpose of surprising him into a confession.
That sounds like the young printer taking a daring and noble stand for the freedom of the press in Nova Scotia. But the problem with this story is that the dates don’t add up.

TOMORROW: Nova Scotia’s anti-Stamp demonstration.

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