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, August 23, 2015

Another Account of the Stamp Act Protests

About a century ago, there was a trend in American publishing to issue the works of famous authors in multi-volume sets. Those were “limited and numbered editions,” but that often meant the publisher would print only a few hundred copies with the title page The Works of Alexandre Dumas, another few hundred copies as Alexandre Dumas’s Works, another few hundred as Dumas: The Complete Works, and so on.

As an added inducement to collectors, the publishers sometimes included actual manuscript pages with these sets. For example, as the Harvard Gazette recently reported, in 1906 Houghton Mifflin published a twenty-volume collection of Henry David Thoreau’s works with a page from Thoreau himself—a handwritten manuscript—bound into the first volume of each set.

Of course, this commercial transaction split that part of Throreau’s papers into 600 separate pieces. It was, Harvard curator Leslie Morris says, “a nightmare for people who want to actually work with the manuscripts.” Morris and his colleagues recently put a lot of effort into regaining one part of that trove, Thoreau’s account of looking for Margaret Fuller’s body and effects after she drowned in a shipwreck off Fire Island, New York.

Likewise, in 1876 the city of Boston published a special edition of the program for its Celebration of the Centennial Anniversary of the Evacuation of Boston by the British Army bound with “engravings, broadsides, newspapers, and manuscripts” from the Revolutionary period. Decades later that volume came to the Massachusetts Historical Society, and researchers realized one of those manuscripts was a previously unknown account of the 14 Aug 1765 Stamp Act protests. The society published that text in its Proceedings volume for 1966.

This manuscript is undated, unsigned, unaddressed, and probably unfinished. It appears to be a draft of a letter written on 15 Aug 1765. No one has identified the handwriting. The writer revealed no inside knowledge of the protest organizers. He (or she) wasn’t terribly sympathetic with those men or with the populace, but he (or she) didn’t write favorably about the royal officials, either.

Here are some extracts from that document:
Our Stamp Officer [Andrew Oliver] hung on one of the greatet Trees by Deac. [John] Eliots at the south End, resembling him as near in size Form and Dress as such a piece of Pagentry Would admit of with Diverse Libels hung on and a peic of Low Poetry descriptive of the Minds of the People. Near by was Boot with a Little Devil peeping out and thrusting the Stamp officer with a Horrid Fork. . . .

It was Observd that a Connecticut Man very attentively viewd the Image and at length took off the Lines on which some one asked him what he was about. He replied, that as he was going home he was only taking a Sample of the Fruit of that Tree, it would be seen more; for he was satisfied that some their Trees would bear the like. . . .

As Nightsun went down in an Instant a Crowd of People to the amount of a Thousand Suddenly appeard, but from whence they came none say—and with great Solemnity took down the Image put in a Coffin and carried it thro the main Street stop at the Governors [Province House, shown above] went up his Yard gave 3 Huzzas, on which all the People ran out in great surprise.
The letter described how the crowd visited the Town House and destroyed Oliver’s building, but I’ll discuss those passages later.
Some of the Mob went to the Secretarys [i.e., Oliver’s] House. The Lieut Governor [Thomas Hutchinson] who it is said followed them there with the High Sheriff [Stephen Greenleaf] drew their Swords and threatned them further that they got one or Two of them into a Room and shut the Doors in order to secure them, upon which the Mob was enragd and upon an Alarm given Crowds poured down from Fort Hill entered the House and the two great officers of State fled (the Secretary had already securd himself in Charles Paxtons house).

They took Possession went from Top to Bottom satisfied themselves with good Cheer broke all his Glass Windows &c. and Three very valuable Looking Glasses and then returned to fort Hill Where they were entertained with a good Bon Fire and Wine in flowing Bowls and at Eleven Clock dispersed.
And there the manuscript breaks off.

TOMORROW: The conspiracy theory of the Stamp Act protest.


Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

The fact that the Stamp Act protesters actually processed right right through the Old State House, and more or less under the Council Chamber, seems to be a feature of the events of August 14th that gets glossed over. Nice bit of historical sleuthing, John!

J. L. Bell said...

Not so much sleuthing as convincing myself after reading two accounts describing that action that it actually took place. Gov. Bernard left it out of his report, which was published early on and may therefore have an outsize role in later historians' descriptions of the event. Since it wasn't part of my picture of the action initially, I dismissed the phrase at first, but then I found other mentions and had to change that picture.