Military history


Nullification by Violence, and an Elite Effort to Reassert Control


BY THE DATE the Stamp Act formally took effect, November 1, only one royal governor in America had any hope of enforcing it, and that was the result of an administrative oversight. Governor James Wright of Georgia still had command of several troops of mounted men, the Georgia Rangers, raised during the war to defend the province. Because the colony was too small and poor to pay them, the Crown had placed the rangers on the regular establishment and somehow forgotten to demobilize them after the return of peace. Thus Wright alone had the military muscle to face down the local Sons of Liberty and execute the law.1 Elsewhere governors could only command the militia (uselessly, since as the colonel of Boston’s regiment had pointed out to Governor Bernard, the mobs were made up of militiamen) or request regulars from the commander in chief. But even though Gage offered a hundred men each to the governors of Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Maryland, none of them dared accept, for fear of inflaming the mobs to even greater destructiveness. Where the first unexpected riots had occurred—Boston, Newport, Annapolis—there had been no garrisons at all. Only New York had both redcoats on hand and a governor, fierce old Cadwallader Colden, willing to use force; but that made matters worse.

When the shipment of stamped paper arrived at Manhattan on October 23 the New York distributor had long since resigned. Colden intended to execute the law regardless, and two thousand men, determined that he would not, lined the Battery to prevent the stamps from being landed. That night the authorities sneaked them into Fort George for safekeeping, only to discover that in doing so they had placed the fort in peril. Major Thomas James, the commandant who had once boasted that he could subdue the city with two dozen troops, now feverishly prepared to stave off an attack. By November 1, James and his garrison of about 180 soldiers had sufficient cannon and grapeshot on hand to defend themselves and the governor, but the mob ruled everywhere else. That night two thousand “Rabble or rather Rebels” rioted in the city. By four the next morning, they had hanged Colden’s effigy, then burned it on Bowling Green in a bonfire stoked with “his chariot & 2 sleighs & a chair”; seized the guards posted to protect Major James’s house, then gutted the structure with extraordinary thoroughness; surrounded the fort, hammered on its gates, chucked rocks at the troops, and taunted them for lacking the courage to shoot.

That the redcoats in Fort George did not open fire owed less to the major’s restraint or the governor’s wisdom than to General Gage’s fear of what would happen if so much as a pistol were discharged. Because there had been no time to remove ordnance stores from the army’s warehouses on the East River, most of the muskets, field artillery, and ammunition in New York—a very large amount indeed—lay within easy reach of the demonstrators. Gage therefore refused to join Colden and James inside the fort, remaining at his residence in the city, maintaining outward calm, and quietly urging the governor to give up the God-damned stamps. Finally, on November 5, Guy Fawkes Day, facing highly plausible rumors that a mob would storm the fort that evening, Colden handed them over to the mayor, who removed them to City Hall under the escort of the Sons of Liberty and a crowd of perhaps five thousand people. Since the reports had credibly maintained that the mob leaders planned to take Gage hostage and use him as a shield, the commander in chief must have been relieved to discover that Colden possessed some small capacity for compromise, after all. But it had been a near-run thing, and a foot put wrong at the end might well have provoked civil war. 2

War, of course, was something that no one wanted. That it came so close in New York can be attributed to local peculiarities: a garrison large enough to be provocative but too small to be effective; Major James’s silly boast; Colden’s ram-you-damn-you personality; and the socially fragmented, virtually ungovernable character of the New York mob. Unlike Boston, where the two standing crowds had internal structures that the Loyal Nine and other local leaders could use to gain control after August 26, New York’s mob was largely made up of seamen, most of whom lacked deep community ties and felt little need to submit to the authority of the city’s shorebound radical leaders. Moreover, New York’s Sons of Liberty emerged latest of all in the colonies and did not succeed in becoming spokesmen for the opposition until after November I.3

Everywhere outside New York, however, the late summer’s riots had shocked local leaders into seeking leverage over the mobs, while provincial politicians had scrambled to stake out positions in opposition to the act. Thus it was in the interest of gaining control over a fluid, potentially anarchic situation that, from September through the end of the year, colonial assemblies outdid one another in passing resolutions denouncing taxation without consent. Ultimately nine provinces issued antistamp resolves, and nine sent delegates to the Stamp Act Congress, to articulate colonial objections, to petition for the act’s repeal—and to try to demonstrate that they were willing to stand up for English liberties and Englishmen’s rights. 4

The twenty-seven delegates who had met at New York’s city hall from October 7 through October 25 represented a range of opinions as well as colonies, but they agreed from the start on the necessity of moderation. Their caution could be seen when they chose as chairman the Massachusetts conservative Timothy Ruggles, rather than the less predictable James Otis. Thereafter this aggregation of fortyish lawyers, landowners, and merchants did their best to become invisible, meeting in secret, keeping a journal that recorded nothing anyone said, and refusing to publish the declaration and petitions upon which they finally agreed. There can be little doubt that they hurried to conclude their sessions and get out of town when it became clear that the mob and Colden were on a collision course. And—even though the public would not see them until the next spring, when a Boston newspaper finally got hold of copies—no one could have discovered any sentiment more bold than polite in either the congress’s Declaration of Rights and Liberties or in the petitions it sent to king, Lords, and Commons.

In declaring their “humble Opinion, respecting the most essential Rights and Liberties of the Colonists and the Grievances under which they labour” the delegates tried to construct an argument not from abstract principles, but from what they hoped were indisputable historical facts. The colonists, they maintained, had never forfeited their liberties as Englishmen, including the rights to taxation by consent and trial by jury; their lack of representation in Parliament meant that they could give their consent only through their assemblies; therefore the Stamp Act was “inconsistent with the Principles and Spirit of the British Constitution,” while Parliament’s extensions of vice-admiralty jurisdiction under the American Duties Act “have a manifest Tendency to subvert the Rights and Liberties of the Colonies.” As for other customs exactions, the congress remained cautious. These were “extremely Burthensome and Grievous,” and insofar as they restricted commerce, unwise; but the delegates stopped short of calling them taxes, and therefore beyond the power of Parliament to grant. To send a petition to the House of Commons might be taken to imply submission to Parliament’s authority, of course, and the delegates approached that touchiest of issues on tiptoes of circumspection. 5

In their petition to the king and their memorial to the House of Lords the delegates ducked the issue of sovereignty, but in the petition to the House of Commons they could not avoid the question that lay at the heart of the dispute. Did the colonies’ “due Subordination to the Parliament of Great-Britain” require their limitless submission to Parliament’s will? Tentatively, delicately—in contrast to the torrent of practical objections they poured out elsewhere—the delegates responded only with a query: “It is also humbly submitted, Whether there be not a material Distinction in Reason and sound Policy, at least, between the necessary Exercise of Parliamentary Jurisdiction in general Acts, for the Amendment of the Common Law, and the Regulation of Trade and Commerce through the whole Empire, and the Exercise of that Jurisdiction, by imposing Taxes on the Colonies.” 6In other words, the Stamp Act Congress wanted the House of Commons to make a voluntary distinction between its legislative authority over the colonies and its authority to tax the colonists. Americans, the delegates implied, would submit to any laws Parliament might impose on their trade, or indeed on most other aspects of life, so long as it did not try to tax them directly, or meddle with such fundamental English rights as trial by jury. But how the delegates expected the House of Commons to draw a line separating acceptable legislation “in general Acts” from “the Exercise of Jurisdiction” in unacceptable acts, like tax laws, remained as foggy as their syntax.

That the Stamp Act Congress failed to achieve clarity on the central point of contention between the colonies and the British government is hardly surprising. Theoretical precision was never the delegates’ goal. They were rather struggling to find a consensus that would embrace the conservatives as well as the radicals among them, and simultaneously convince the British authorities of their fundamental loyalty and reasonableness. That they produced only extremely moderate documents in doing these things should not obscure the fact that they actually acted together. Nor should their inability to articulate a coherent set of principles prevent us from understanding their desperate, shared need to find them.

The delegates to the Stamp Act Congress in effect acted out in microcosm a political drama taking place in every colony, as gentlemen accustomed to controlling public life confronted a loss of control that looked as if it might become total. That only New York City saw any serious violence on the day the act was to take effect testifies to their general, if imperfect, success. In Boston the Loyal Nine (who now called themselves Sons of Liberty) spared no effort, and the merchants of the town spared no expense, in bringing the rioting to an end. They must have heaved a collective sigh almost as big as Governor Bernard’s when the united mobs of the North and South Ends paraded on November 1 and again on Pope Day in “the greatest order,” carrying no weapons, throwing no stones, and burning their effigies in the afternoon to ensure “the Town might be perfectly quiet before Night.” Most sizable towns in the colonies staged mock funerals for American liberty or enacted other protests on November 1. Whatever the rituals, however, everywhere an ostentatious decorum prevailed. The emergent leaders of opposition to the act were bent on proving their respectability, responsibility, and loyalty to the Crown. They wanted the Stamp Act repealed; and they knew that Parliament would never do that if the colonies remained the scene of licentiousness and violence.7

Most of the anti–Stamp Act activists’ efforts in the autumn and early winter of 1765 thus came to center on finding means of resistance that would put pressure on the British government without provoking it to impose its authority by force. The single greatest factor in enabling the leaders to gain control over crowd actions was probably the news of Grenville’s fall, which arrived in September and built up hope that a new administration would look favorably on the colonies’ petitions. But what should be done in the meantime, and how could Parliament most effectively be induced to repeal the act? The intimidation of the stamp officers had made the tax uncollectible, but that did not settle the most significant issues that grew out of the act. Could colonists determined to prove their loyal and law-abiding character go on after November 1, carrying out the business that was supposed to require stamps, as if nothing had happened? Would courts and customhouses remain closed, or would they perform as usual? If the colonists allowed them to stay closed, they would in effect be recognizing the validity of the law even though they were not paying the tax. Yet as the governor of Rhode Island had discovered after the Newport riots, even a few days without trade could badly wound a seaport’s economy. Could court officers and customsmen be forced to execute their duties if they chose not to join the majority of colonists in denying the law’s validity?

These questions, aired in club rooms, coffeehouses, taverns, and the press, had no easy answers, but the very act of discussion helped colonists clarify their position to themselves. Courts and customhouses would have to operate or anarchy and economic stagnation would follow; everyone agreed on that. Everyone also agreed that the Sons of Liberty could not make judges decide cases or customsmen clear vessels by holding pistols to their heads. The debates thus pointed away from violence toward a subtler method of coercion: ostracism. Any judge who would not open his court, any customsman who refused to certify cockets on unstamped paper, could be shunned as an enemy of liberty. Even those with fortitude enough to hold out against their neighbors’ hostile silence would eventually run out of food and clean clothes. Community solidarity, exerted in consistent and forceful boycotts, might be a slower means of gaining the officials’ cooperation than threatening to pull down their houses, but in the long run it would be even more effective.8

So, too, colonial activists concluded that the most effective means of coercing Parliament to recognize their rights would simply be to refuse to trade with Britain until the offensive tax had been repealed. As early as August 1764 merchants in Boston had thought of protesting the American Duties Act by voluntarily restricting the importation of luxury items, and New England newspapers aired the suggestion to a wider audience in the fall of the year. In September 1765, Boston’s merchants transformed suggestions into action by refusing to place orders for consumer goods from Britain until Parliament repealed the Stamp Act. “Upwards of Two Hundred principal Merchants” of New York followed suit at the end of October with an agreement to place no new orders with their correspondents in Britain “unless the STAMP ACT be repealed,” and to allow no goods shipped from Britain after January 1, 1766, to be sold. In November more than four hundred of Philadelphia’s merchants and traders entered a nonimportation covenant on similar terms.9

The architects of these boycotts intended to create so much distress in those sectors of the British economy dependent on colonial trade that English manufacturers and merchants would join Americans in demanding the repeal of the Stamp Act. If British workers, thrown out of employment, should be moved to riot, so much the better. With characteristic pith, a writer who signed himself Humphry Ploughjogger observed in the Boston Gazette that he would “rather the Spittlefield weavers should pull down all the houses in old England, and knock the brains out of all the wicked great men there, than [that Americans] should loose their liberty.” 10

Humphry Ploughjogger offered his opinions on “Pollyticks” as those of a humble countryman, one not “book larnt enuff, to rite so polytly, as the great gentlefolks, that rite in the News-Papers.” 11 But there was nothing unlearned about Humphry’s creator, John Adams, a thirty-year-old attorney with a Harvard degree and enough ambition for a dozen ordinary men. The son of a farmer from Braintree, he had spent a couple of rudderless years after graduation (in the class of 1754) before he found his calling in the law. Thereafter he suffered occasionally from self-doubt, but not from lack of success; yet while the growth of his practice and reputation pleased him, he was at heart not so much a barrister as a writer on politics, and the Stamp Act controversies whetted his appetite for publication. In 1765 he practically bombarded the Gazette with writings that ranged from Ploughjogger’s dialect letters to a series of anonymous, scholarly essays on English liberties and natural rights that he misleadingly entitled “A Dissertation on Canon and Feudal Law.”

Beyond composing the Braintree town meeting’s instructions to its representative in the General Court, however, Adams still refrained from outright engagement in politics. Unlike his cousin Samuel, he was by temperament and preference more observer than organizer. His comparative detachment, however, sharpened his appreciation of the extraordinary character of recent events. In December a three-day northeaster gave him leisure to reflect on the Stamp Act crisis as he sat by the fire on his Braintree farm, together with Abigail, his wife of just over a year, and their infant daughter, Nabby. “The Year 1765,” he mused, has been the most remarkable Year of my Life. That enormous Engine, fabricated by the british Parliament, for battering down all the Rights and Liberties of America, I mean the Stamp Act, has raised and spread thro the whole Continent, a Spirit that will be recorded to our Honour, with all future Generations. In every Colony . . . the Stamp Distributors and Inspectors have been compelled, by the unconquerable Rage of the People, to renounce their offices. Such and so universal has been the Resentment of the People, that every Man who has dared to speak in favour of the Stamps, . . . how great soever his Abilities and Virtues had been esteemed before, or whatever his fortune, Connections and Influence had been, has been seen to sink into universal Contempt and Ignominy.

The People, even to the lowest Ranks, have become more attentive to their Liberties, more inquisitive about them, and more determined to defend them, than they were ever before known or had occasion to be. Innumerable have been the Monuments of Wit, Humour, Sense, Learning, Spirit, Patriotism, and Heroism, erected in the several Colonies and Provinces, in the Course of this Year. Our Presses have groaned, our Pulpits have thundered, our Legislatures have resolved, our Towns have voted[.] The Crown Officers have every where trembled, and all their little Tools and Creatures, been afraid to Speak and ashamed to be seen.12

Adams sensed, and over the next weeks frequently wrote, that a new kind of politics was emerging in the colonies. He found it astonishing that, “till the Stamp Act shall be repealed,” Americans had “resolved unanimously to hold in Utter Contempt and Abhorrence every Stamp Officer, and every Favourer of the Stamp Act, and to have no Communication with any such Person, not even to speak to him, unless to upbraid him with his Baseness.—So tryumphant is the Spirit of Liberty, every where.—Such an Union was never before known in America. In the Wars that have been with the french and Indians, [such] a Union could never be effected.” The kind of politics at which Adams marveled involved, as no politics before had, practically everybody: not just elite figures, but “the People, even to the Lowest Ranks.” 13

Abigail, at the very least John’s intellectual equal, might well have added a category that did not occur to him: women. Women too had stood in the crowds that watched effigies being hanged, and if they did not join the men and boys who pulled down houses, it is inconceivable that they did not raise their voices in the chorus that demanded the stamp distributors’ resignations. The Sons of Liberty implicitly recognized the importance of women as they devised their strategies of resistance. Ostracism of royal officials would never work unless it could be made universal, something it could never be unless the women who furnished essential domestic services and foodstuffs agreed to participate. Similarly, nonimportation had no hope of succeeding as a movement unless women, the main consumers of British textiles and other manufactures, were willing to forgo them, and increase their own burdens by producing homespun yarn and cloth to replace the boycotted items. If the implications of those facts still eluded men like Adams, who did not know how to think of women in political terms, they were none the less important and would not long elude the women themselves.14

Indeed, as 1765 shuddered to its end, practically everyone knew that amazing changes were taking place, but no one yet understood their significance. That so much turmoil between colonies and metropolis should have come about because of Britain’s epochal victory in the recent war only made it more bewildering. American colonists had fought and sacrificed, as they understood it, for the good of their empire. How, they wondered, could any politician who was not a rogue deny that colonial contributions of men and money had enabled Britain to conquer Canada and the West Indies? How could anyone but a scoundrel demand that Americans pay for those conquests twice—once with their blood and sweat and treasure during the war, once more with their taxes, afterward?

Of course it was all a matter of perspective. A decade earlier, at the dismal beginning of the war, when British officers had tried to treat the colonists like subjects, they and their assemblies—fearing the loss of their prerogatives and the infringement of their constituents’ rights as Englishmen—had balked. William Pitt had broken the impasse by treating the provinces as if they were tiny Prussias to be subsidized in proportion to their contributions to the war effort. The colonists—thinking of themselves not as mercenaries but as patriots, voluntarily participating in the winning of a great empire—had understood these subsidies as no more than just, for they believed that in contributing lives and labor to the cause they were performing all the duties that they as subjects were contractually bound to render to their king. But at the end of the conflict George Grenville had had other obligations on his mind and other conceptions of the contract between the British state and its subjects. His duty as first lord of the Treasury was to honor His Majesty’s debt to the people and financial institutions that had lent the government the money it needed to carry on the war. Like Braddock and Loudoun, Grenville assumed that the colonists were neither more nor less than British subjects—and that the payment of taxes, not the bearing of arms, defined their responsibility to the state.

But colonists like John Adams failed to see how Americans could have been one kind of subject under Pitt’s war effort and another kind in the reformed postwar empire of George Grenville. The only reasonable explanation seemed to be that the coercive policies of 1755–57 had been revived, and they were being deprived of their rights as Englishmen. But the truth was that Grenville and his fellow reformers really were treating the colonists like Englishmen: as subjects, not allies, of a sovereign state. The colonists liked that just as little as they understood it.

In 1765 as in 1755, most Americans saw the treatment they were receiving at the hands of the British as mere abuse and resolved to resist it. But the fact that the great war was over had changed everything. No longer would military necessity make ministers hesitate to demand the subordination that was a sovereign’s due; nor would the colonists be able to stop short of articulating their reasons for resistance. But whereas in 1755–57 politicians in the assemblies had resisted by the traditional tactics of non-compliance and sullenness, in 1765 colonial politicians were no longer in effective control. Demonstrations and riots more fierce than any in living memory cracked open the shell of colonial politics, a carapace made brittle by war and depression and counterproductive efforts at imperial reform. The shape that stirred within—the inchoate form of a politics that called into question the colonies’ relationship to Great Britain, and which in so doing required the participation of ordinary men, and even women—remained as yet half seen, unknowable, frightening. Whether it would emerge and destroy the empire itself, or whether the men who had heretofore controlled colonial governments would somehow subdue it, rested entirely with a new and untried British ministry. As the New Year 1766 dawned, no one—in Westminster any more than in Braintree, Massachusetts—knew whether Grenville’s successors would resolve the crisis by repealing the Stamp Act, or try to preserve Parliament’s supremacy by sending troops to America, to enforce it.

JOHN ADAMS SPENT the mild last day of 1765 walking the fields of Braintree, looking over the stand of young maples that grew in his hemlock swamp. He was thinking of “what wretched Blunders” the British “do make in attempting to regulate” the colonies because “they know not the Character of Americans.” The next day the weather changed and he stayed home, defending himself against the sudden “Severe Cold” with tea, conversation, and reading. At evening he sat with his journal, contemplating the “Prospect of Snow,” and a New Year “of greater Expectation than any, that has passed before it. This Year,” he wrote, “brings Ruin or Salvation to the British Colonies. The Eyes of all America, are fixed on the B[ritish] Parliament. In short Britain and America are staring at each other.—And they will probably stare more and more for sometime.”

With lawyerly precision he laid out the central issues on the page. “1st. Whether in Equity or Policy America ought to refund any Part of the Expence of driving away the French in the last War? 2d. Whether it is necessary for the Defence of the B[ritish] Plantations, to keep up an Army there? 3d. Whether, in Equity, the Parliament can tax Us?” Turning over the evidence and the authorities, including Thomas Hutchinson’s History of the Colony and Province of the Massachusetts-Bay, he concluded that in fact “the Colonies were considered formerly both here and at Home, as Allies rather than Subjects. The first Settlement certainly was not a national Act, i.e., not an Act of the People nor the Parliament. Nor was it a national Expence. Neither the people of England, nor their Representatives contributed any thing towards it. Nor was the Settlement made on a Territory belonging to the People nor the Crown of England.” Historically, he concluded, the colonies had a strong case. But Adams also understood that such matters would never be decided by legal pleadings and historical argument, and he ended his entry on a darker note. “It is said at N. York, that private Letters inform, the great Men are exceedingly irritated at the Tumults in America, and are determined to inforce the Act. This irritable Race, however, will have good Luck to inforce it. They will find it a more obstinate War, than the Conquest of Canada and Louisiana.”15

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