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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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Protesting the Stamped Papers inside Fort George

As I noted back here, the designated Stamp Tax collector for New York, James McEvers, resigned that post on 26 Aug 1765, after hearing about how Bostonians had smashed up Andrew Oliver’s house.

Acting governor Cadwallader Colden insisted on enforcing the law nonetheless. Because the British military had made New York its base at the end of the Seven Years’ War, there was a sizable contingent of soldiers in the city, as well as Royal Navy ships and marines. Colden thus didn’t have the problem that stymied Gov. Francis Bernard in Massachusetts—that he could not rely on the militia to stop a mob when the mob was made up of the militiamen.

Colden asked the navy, under the command of Capt. Archibald Kennedy, to intercept the ships carrying stamped paper and carry that precious cargo to Fort George, there to be protected by the Royal Artillery under Maj. Thomas James.

That didn’t sit well with the city’s inhabitants, as reported in the New-York Gazette of 7 Nov 1765 and reprinted eleven days later in the Boston Post-Boy:
On the 23d of October, by Capt. Davis, arrived a parcel of the stamps, which immediately raised a spirit of general uneasiness in the town;—they were put under convoy of a man of war, landed and deposited in the fort. The Governor had very injudiciously, some time before the arrival of the stamps, made a great shew of fortifying the fort, providing it with mortars, guns, ammunition, and all the necessaries for the regular attack of an enemy—and it was given out that he threatened to fire on the town if the stamps were molested (which greatly exasperated the people). Representations against these measures were made to him; and they were, I believe, discontinued, but resumed again upon the arrival of the stamps.

From this time several papers appear’d stuck up in public places about the town, threatening every person that should deliver or receive a stamp. The preparations at the fort were continued with greater vigour, and the people grew more uneasy and enflamed. On the 31st of October, the merchants had a meeting, where they enter’d into an obligation that none of them should order any goods from England till the stamp act was repeal’d, that the orders already sent (and not executed) should be countermanded, (except grindstones, &c. for such ships as were there belonging to this place) and that they should accept no goods on commissions, or assist in the sale of any sent here. This was subscribed by upwards of two hundred merchants.

The shopkeepers also obliged themselves to purchase no goods sent here contrary to the above articles, till the stamp act was repealed. That evening a large company suddenly assembled and marched to the walls of Fort George, and from thence thro’ several streets in the city. The magistrates appeared, and endeavoured to disperse them, but in vain. After a short time they suddenly dispersed of themselves without doing any mischief. It was rumour’d about town a much larger concourse would assemble the next night, and their visit was by some expected, while others thought they would meet no more.
The map above shows Fort George, courtesy of the Library of Congress. The big round spot at the bottom is the Bowling Green with a statue of King George III in the center. (ADDENDUM: The statue was installed in 1770.) It’s currently the site of the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House.

TOMORROW: The day the Stamp Act was supposed to take effect.


DCC said...

Great article. Thank you, JL.

Just one minor comment. There is no "s" after "Custom" when used with "House," as in Customhouse, or in the preferred form Custom House.

J. L. Bell said...

You're right that the official name of that New York building now is "Custom House," though one of its tenants, the Smithsonian, occasionally uses "Customs House." I changed it accordingly. Both forms appear in eighteenth-century documents, sometimes with hyphens and sometimes not.