Before I continue I would like to address something that I hope clarifies why I might appear to be somewhat condescending. I have absolutely no idea how much people know about American History, or our system of government. I have met people who are far more educated than I am as it pertains to these two subjects and I have met those who probably couldn’t pass a 5th grade history or civics class.
Therefore, I am going on the assumption that you know absolutely nothing about these subjects; which in all likelihood, (due to the fact that much of what you have been taught is incorrect), is probably closer to the truth than you care to admit. So if I appear to be speaking down to your level of education, please bear with me as I am attempting to catch up those who aren’t as knowledgeable as you are in regards to the subjects under discussion. That said, let’s move on to the next area of discussion.
I have often wondered if people have given any consideration to the amount of time that passed between when the first Pilgrims landed at Plymouth to the time the delegates to the Second Continental Congress voted to declare their independence. I’m sure that now that I have mentioned it you could to some simple math to figure it out, but let me save you the effort; it was 156 years.
While that is ten times less than the length of time the Roman Empire existed, it is still a respectable amount of time for a people to exist as subjects under a monarch before they decided to ‘…assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…’ (Declaration of Independence)
You see, that is something I don’t think people have really given any consideration to. Sure, they use the word Colonists all the time to describe them, but I don’t think they have really thought about what a Colony is. At the beginning, every group of people who wished to travel outside the established British Empire to the New World had to obtain a charter from the British Government to establish a Colony. Think of a Colony this way, it is a holding of the Crown; it’s people are subject to the laws and edicts passed by their sovereign and they are subject to taxes to support the empire. If the King demanded that they pay 15% of all the tobacco grown, and 25% of all the cotton, then that was what they would have to pay as subjects of the realm.
The thing was, the British Colonies were not the only Colonies in the New World. Spain had holdings there, as did France; both of whom were potential enemies to the British. Not only that, but there were the local Native American Indians who were being slowly forced off their land by the increasing number of English settlers that the King had to contend with.
In the year that the first hundred settlers first arrived at Plymouth the total population of the English Colonies was only 2,000 people. By the time the Declaration of Independence was signed that number had escalated to over 2.5 million. Not only that, the English Colonies had expanded from two settlements to cover most of the Eastern Seaboard all the way west to the Appalachian Mountains. All that land and all those people were under the dominion of the King of England and subject to his law; that is the nature of a Colony.
Although the Colonists were technically British Subjects, they were relatively free to govern themselves as long as they did not openly rebel against the laws passed by Parliament; so the first hundred or so years passed in relative peace between the Colonies and the Crown. However, this peace sense of independence that had been growing in the Colonies; not so much the desire to sever all ties with England, rather that they had established legislatures of their own and they should be allowed to make laws which governed the internal operation of each Colony.
Then along came the French and Indian War. The French and Indian War was part of a global war between the British and the French which pitted the British Colonists against the French, who were vastly outnumbered and had to rely upon help from the Native Indians to even the odds. Of course troops from both countries were involved which proved costly for the Crown.
As subjects of the Crown, the King felt it right that they should bear a portion of the cost of his having to send troops to defend them. To cover this cost, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, a direct tax upon the Colonies; the first direct tax which they had been subjected to. This angered many; particularly those in and around the Boston area who had grown especially independent minded. Men like Samuel Adams and John Hancock were very vocal in their opposition to these new taxes. They felt that due to the fact that not a single Colonist was ever chosen to serve in Parliament they were being taxed without representation in the body imposing these taxes; hence the saying, “taxation without representation.”
Samuel Adams declared the Colonists position on taxation best when he wrote, “For if our Trade may be taxed why not our Lands? Why not the Produce of our Lands & every thing we possess or make use of? This we apprehend annihilates our Charter Right to govern & tax ourselves – It strikes our British Privileges, which as we have never forfeited them, we hold in common with our Fellow Subjects who are Natives of Britain: If Taxes are laid upon us in any shape without our having a legal Representation where they are laid, are we not reduced from the Character of free Subjects to the miserable State of tributary Slaves.”
After Parliament passed the Stamp Act, agents were put into place to collect the tax upon all printed materials; including legal documents, playing cards, magazines and newspapers. In Boston, Andrew Oliver was assigned as the Crown’s tax collector. On August 14, 1765 an effigy of Andrew Oliver was hung from a giant Elm Tree at the corner of Essex and Orange Streets. This tree would come to be known as The Liberty Tree.
Shortly thereafter, a shoemaker named Ebenezer MacIntosh cut down the effigy, and with a large crowd behind him, paraded it to the Town House where the Legislature met. From there they took it to Oliver’s office; which they then tore down. From there they marched to Oliver’s house; where they beheaded the effigy, set it afire, and burnt Oliver’s stable house, coach and chaise. The sheriff, Stephen Greenleaf and the Governor, Thomas Hutchinson, attempted to stop them, but they were stoned and had to retreat for their own safety.
This event caused Oliver to ask to be relieved of his position, but that was not enough to satisfy the angry mob; he was marched to the Liberty Tree and forced to publicly resign.
A few nights later, August 26 to be exact, another mob had gathered together and after some minor disturbances turned their attention to the Governor himself; a direct appointee of the Crown. Thomas Hutchinson was himself a Colonist, yet as an appointee of the Crown, an attack upon him or his property was considered to be an attack upon the Crown itself.
Hutchinson had been warned in advance that a mob was on its way, and had sent his family to safety. He himself fled shortly before the mob arrived, leaving his home empty and abandoned; which the mob took full advantage of. They ransacked and looted his home.
In Hutchinson’s own words, I’ll let him describe the destruction to his home, “Not contented with tearing off all the wainscot and hangings and splitting the doors to pieces they beat down the Partition walls and although that alone cost them near two hours they cut down the cupola or lantern and they began to take the slate and boards from the roof and were prevented only by the approaching daylight from a total demolition of the building. The garden fence was laid flat and all my trees &c broke down to the ground. Such ruins were never seen in America. Besides my Plate and family.
Pictures, household furniture of every kind, my own my children and servants apparel, they carried off about £900 sterling in money and emptied the house of everything whatsoever except a part of the kitchen furniture not leaving a single book or paper in it and have scattered or destroyed all the manuscripts and other papers I had been collecting for 30 years together besides a great number of Public papers in my custody. The evening being warm I had undressed me and slipped on a thin camlet surtout over my waistcoat, the next morning the weather being changed I had not clothes enough in my possession to defend me from the cold and was obliged to borrow from my host. Many articles of clothing and good part of my Plate have since been picked up in different quarters of the town but the furniture in general was cut to pieces before it was thrown out of the house and most of the beds cut open and the feathers thrown out of the windows.”
This violence was not confined to Boston either; in Rhode Island there was violence as well where a mob attacked the homes of two local officials; Thomas Moffat and Martin Howard. When the first official stamps arrived in New York Harbor for distribution, a proclamation was issued which warned, “…the first man that either distributes or makes use of stamped paper let him take care of his house, person, and effects.” In Maryland a court of 12 magistrates ruled the Stamp Act invalid, and directed all business to proceed as usual without any stamps.
Thus was the anger over the Stamp Act. It was not the heavy burden of the tax itself that angered the Colonists as much as it was the idea of a direct tax, and a tax imposed upon them without any representation in the body which enacted it.
If I may regress a bit, up until this point, each Colony was a distinctly different entity. As I mentioned in my previous segment, the original settlers to Plymouth consisted of many Puritan Separatists. However as the Colonies began to grow, each had their own religious belief which they practiced. The differing religious beliefs ranged from Quakers to Lutherans to Baptists, Anglicans and Catholics. Even a smattering of Jews lived and practiced their faith amongst the growing Colonies.
Each had their own belief and they often passed laws and ordinances which went along with their religious doctrine, or dogma. As such, each was independent from the others and governed themselves as they saw fit. Yet it was with the passage of the Stamp Act that they began to come together as united Colonies who were seeing their rights as freemen violated by a common threat; the power of Parliament and the Crown.
It was during this period that the Son’s of Liberty became a sort of underground network of Colonists who opposed the policies of their King. These people are looked upon today as patriots, today they would be looked upon as domestic terrorists. Can you imagine an angry mob today marching to their Governors home, ransacking and looting it to the extent the mob in Boston did to Thomas Hutchinson’s home? The outcry from the public would be deafening and those guilty of it would be hunted down and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Yet our forefathers understood the nature of their rights as British Subjects, and realized that the Stamp Act was a violation of their rights.
Although the Stamp Act was later repealed; possibly because it hurt British merchants whose goods were being boycotted in the Colonies; the outcry over the Stamp Act was the flame which would begin to grow; leading the Colonies to come to the conclusion that they must either suffer as slaves, or declare their independence.
And now is as good a time as any to pause and let you absorb what you have read. Until we meet again.