Monday, July 3, 2017

"The Most Calm, Decent and Dispassionate Measures" - Lexington's Reaction to the Stamp Act Riots

Following the conclusion of the French and Indian War, England attempted to curb the financial burden created as part of its war time effort of the 1750s.  The government implemented a series of economic programs aimed at having those it considered to have benefited most by the successful conclusion of the war, the American colonies, share in the burden of debt.

The first two revenue raising measures that Great Britain imposed on her American colonies were the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765. The Sugar Act established tariffs on colonial trading and also attempted to curb the American practice of smuggling sugar and molasses from the West Indies by placing a three pence per gallon tax on foreign molasses. The act established a list of “enumerated goods” that could be shipped only to England, including lumber, and set forth procedures for the accounting, loading and unloading of cargo in port. Violations of the act were prosecuted in a vice admiralty court, where defendants would be denied the right to a jury trial and where the presumption was of guilt rather than innocence. The second revenue raising measure was the Stamp Act, which levied an unprecedented direct tax on almost every piece of public paper in the colonies. Newspapers, almanacs, deeds, wills, custom documents, even playing cards were among the many papers subjected to the tax. The Stamp Act went so far as to impose a tax upon tax receipts.

The Sugar and Stamp acts brought on an explosion of riots, boycotts and protests throughout the colonies, particularly in Massachusetts. At first, Massachusetts’ response was peaceful, with the inhabitants merely boycotting certain goods. However, resistance to the taxes soon became more violent. Under the guidance of Samuel Adams, Bostonians began a campaign of terror directed against those who supported the Stamp Act. It began on August 14, 1765 with an effigy of Andrew Oliver, the appointed stamp distributor for Massachusetts, being hung from a “liberty tree” in plain view by the “sons of liberty.” That evening, the Oliver’s luxurious home was burned to the ground. A chastened Oliver quickly resigned his commission. The following evening, incited by a rumor that he supported the Stamp Act, the home of Thomas Hutchinson, Lieutenant Governor of the colony, was surrounded by an unruly mob. When Hutchinson refused to accede to the demand that he come out and explain his position, the mob broke several windows and then dispersed. Two weeks later, on August 28, 1765, an even larger mob assembled and descended upon the homes of several individuals suspected of favoring the Stamp Act, including again that of the Lieutenant Governor. Hutchinson managed to evacuate his family to safety before the mob arrived. Then, as Hutchinson later described it, “the hellish crew fell upon my house with the rage of divels and in a moment with axes split down the door and entered. My son heard them cry ‘damn him he is upstairs we’ll have him.’ Some ran immediately as high as the top of the house, others filled the rooms below and cellars and others remained without the house to be employed there. I was obliged to retire thro yards and gardens to a house more remote where I remained until 4 o’clock by which time one of the best finished houses in the Province had nothing remaining but the bare walls and floors.”

The mob’s show of force had the desired effect. With Oliver’s resignation, the stamps could not be properly distributed. Additionally, no other stamp officer was willing to step forward to assume Oliver’s legal role. In short, Boston was crippled and could not enforce the act. The town standoff between Boston and the Crown continued through the fall and winter of 1765.

Lexington, being both close in proximity and tied economically to Boston, quickly became embroiled in the stamp crisis. A town meeting was held on October 21, 1765 to address the Stamp question, and determine what instructions should be given to William Reed, the representative of Lexington to the Massachusetts General Court. A committee was established, composed of the selectmen James Stone, Thaddeus Bowman, Robert Harrington, Benjamin Brown and Samuel Stone, Jr. Supervised by the Reverend Clarke, the committee drafted a series of instructions. Although stopping short of challenging Parliament’s right to pass laws regulating the American colonies, the instructions from Lexington did challenge the perceived results of the act:

"What of all most alarms Us is an Act Commonly Called the Stamp Act, the full Execution of which we Apprehend would divest us of our Most inestimable Charter Rights and Privileges, Rob us of our Character as Free and Natural Subjects, and of almost Everything we ought as a People hold Dear. Admitting that there was No Dispute as to the Right of Parliament to impose such an Act upon us, yet we Cannot forbear Complaining of it in itself considered, as unequal and unjust, and a Yoke too heavy for us to bear, And that not only as it falls heaviest on the poor, the widow and the fatherless and the orphan, not only will it embarrass the Trade and Business of this infant country . . . But more especially . . . it will quickly drein the Country of little Cash remaining in it, Strip Multitudes of their Property and reduce them to Poverty."

The committee further asserted that the act was in violation of the basic rights and liberties guaranteed to them as Englishmen, an opinion shared by many of the residents of Massachusetts. The prevailing view in Massachusetts during this crisis was that the power to tax rested not with Parliament, but with the colony’s General Court. Invoking the colony’s Royal Charter and the right to self-government guaranteed therein, the committee declared

"We humbly conceive this Act to be directly repugnant to those Rights and Privileges granted to us in our Charter, which we always hold sacred, as confirmed to us by the Royal word and Seal, and as frequently recognized by our Sovereign and the Parliament of Great Britain, wherein it is expressly granted to us and to our children--- That We shall have and enjoy all Liberties and Immunities of Free and Natural Subjects, within any of His Majesty’s Dominions, to all intents, and . . . Further, that the Full Power and Authority to impose and levy proportionable and reasonable Taxes, upon the Estates and Persons of all the Inhabitants within the Province, for the Support and Defense of His Majesty’s Government, are granted to the [Massachusetts] General Court or Assembly thereof . . . But by this Act a Tax, ---Yea, a heavy Tax, is imposed, Not only without and beside the Authority of Said General Court, in which this power, (which has never been forfeited nor be given up) is Said to be Fully and exclusively lodged; But also directly in opposition to an essential Right or Privilege of Free and Natural Subjects of Great Britain, who look upon it as their Darling and Constitutional Right never to be Taxed but by their own Consent, in Person or by their Representatives."

The resolution also chastised Parliament for its decision to eliminate the right to a jury trial by transferring prosecutions to admiralty courts. “By this Act we are most deeply affected as hereby we are debarred of being tried by juries in case of any breach or supposed breach of it, - a right which, until now, we have held in common with our brethren in England . . . This we apprehend will open a door to numberless evils which time only can discover.”

Yet, Lexington was not Boston. The citizens of the small dairy town rejected the use of violence and rioting. The resolutions even went to great lengths to “earnestly recommend . . . the most calm, decent and dispassionate measures for our open, explicit and resolute assertion and vindication of our charter rights and liberties . . . We take it for granted, therefore, that you will carefully avoid all unaccustomed and unconstitutional grants, which will not only add to the present burden, but make such precedents as will be attended with consequences which may prove greatly to the disadvantage of the public.”

With the riots receiving widespread coverage in London newspapers coupled with the successful boycott program undertaken by New York, Philadelphia and Boston, England finally yielded. Realizing the Stamp and Sugar Acts could never be enforced in America, the acts were repealed on March 4, 1766. However, before striking the laws, Parliament announced the Declaratory Act of 1766, which emphasized its authority to legislate for the colonies in all cases whatsoever.

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