Throwing Off the British Yoke  Part I

In March, 1765, the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act, the little entering wedge that first opened the breach between the American colonies and the mother country, England, a breach that was suffered to grow and widen through the folly and weakness of her king, George III., and the stupidity and wickedness of his ministers, until at last England lost her colonies, and they came into a free national existence.

In itself this Stamp Act was not so oppressive a measure. It simply enacted that all receipts, deeds, contracts, and other legal papers, even to marriage licenses, should be written or printed on stamped paper, which paper should be sold only by the collectors of revenue, and should form part of the tax to be collected from the colonies. Such a tax is a favorite mode of raising revenue to-day with several European governments, as well as with our own.

The difficulty with the colonists was that a principle, a right, was involved. In order to put ourselves in their place we must stop and consider how the Briton of that day prized and jealously guarded the British constitution. And well he might, for the people had secured that noble instrument by a thousand years of struggle with kings and nobles. First came Magna Charta, the Great Charter, which the barons forced from King John in 1215 ; next the Petition of Right in 1628, one of the conditions of which was that the king should not make "forced loans," that is, tax the people without their consent; third, the Habeas Corpus (" you may have the body ") Act, which prevented the king from imprisoning a subject without due process of law; fourth, the Bill of Rights of 1689, and, fifth, the Act of Settlement of 1700, the last two still further limiting the power of the crown.

There were, of course, other grants, but the above are generally considered as the five great pillars of the English constitution. Now, the American colonists in 1765 considered themselves Britons, and therefore heirs to all the rights and privileges of this grand instrument, and they held. that this act of the king and Parliament in taxing them without their consent was illegal and unconstitutional, and that they should resist it to the end; for if the king could lay this tax without their consent he could lay others and others, until their property was all swept away.

They were willing, they said, to pay their just share of the taxes, but if they did they must send men to Parliament to look after their rights and defend their interests. Such was the principle at stake.

Statesmen would have foreseen that the time had now come for making America a part of the empire and giving her due representation; but King George and his ministers were not statesmen, and they rushed blindly on to the disruption of their empire.

You have read in your histories how the other colonies resisted this act. New York's action was as spirited and determined as any. Hitherto her chief cause of complaint had been that she had not sufficient voice in her local government, and that the laws and regulations governing her trade were burdensome and intended to confine it solely to the mother country; but here was a clear case of the violation of an Englishman's constitutional rights, and her people determined to have nothing to do with the stamped paper.

The ship Edward, bearing the first cargo of it, arrived from England on October 23, 1 765, and as she anchored under the guns of Fort George, though convoyed by a frigate and tender, she was greeted with hisses, derisive cheers, and menacing gestures by a great crowd of citizens gathered on the Battery to see her come in, while the shipping in the harbor lowered their flags to half- mast in token of grief. That night, men stealing by the rattle watch went quietly through the town, posting on trees, fences, and buildings handbills on which was written in a bold, free hand:


The first man that distributes or makes use of stamped paper let him take care of his house, person, and effects.


These handbills produced the effect designed. McEvers, the collector, to whom the stamped paper had been consigned, refused to touch it. No one could be found bold enough even to receive it into his warehouse or shop.

At last, in despair, Lieutenant Governor Golden ordered it stored in the fort until the 1st of November, the day the act was to go into operation, should arrive.

Thursday, the 31st of October, came, the day on which the governor was to take the oath that would put the act into effect. The city awoke in a fever of excitement. Bells were tolled; flags flew at half-mast. " The last day of liberty," the Whigs called it. Here and there muffled drums were heard beating the funeral march; great numbers of country people streamed in; there were, also, many sailors from the ships; the townspeople joined these, and all paraded the streets, singing patriotic songs, and threatening dire vengeance en any one daring to use the stamped paper. In the evening, two hundred of the principal merchants engaged in trade with England met in the assembly room of the City Anns Tavern, made brave and patriotic speeches, and passed spirited resolutions " to import no goods from England while the Stamp Act remained unrepealed," " to countermand all orders for spring goods already sent," " to sell no English goods on commission," and " to buy none from strangers that might be sent out."

At the same meeting a committee of correspondence was appointed to urge similar action on the part of other cities. Philadelphia merchants did not sign this " non-importation agreement," as it was called, until the I4th, and Boston merchants not until December 9; so we see that both the non-importation acts and the committees of correspondence of the Revolution, of which so much has been said, had their origin in New York.

Further, it was agreed at this time to hold a grand mass meeting next evening on the common (now City Hall Park). What took place then is so vividly described by a country lad, E. Carther by name, who came in with the others, that we give his letter just as it was written.

First he informed his parents what the governor did on this memorable Stamp Act day:

" He sent for the soldiers from Tortoise; he planted the cannon against the city; he fixed the cow horns with musket balls. Two cannon were planted against the fort gate for fear the mob should break in, loaded with grape shot; he ordered the cannon of the Battery to be spiked up for fear the mob should come so far as to break out in civil war and knock down the fort. Major James had said, ' Never fear, I will drive New York with 500 artillery soldiers.' He [Major James] placed soldiers at the Gate to prevent the mob letting out the prisoners.

"He ordered 15 artillery soldiers at his house near the College [Columbia College], where Black Sam formerly dwelt, and the rest of the soldiers he kept within the fort ready for an engagement."

In the evening the citizens began to muster about the streets.

" About seven in the evening I heard a great Hozaing near the Broadway. I ran that way with a number of others when the mob first began. They had an ephogy [effigy] of the Governor made of paper which sat on an old chair that a seaman carried on his head. The mob went from the Fields down the Fly [Pearl Street] Hozaing at every corner with amazing sight of candles. The mob went from there to Mr. McEvers who was appointed for Stamp master in London. Since he did not accept it they honored him with three cheers. From thence they went to the Fort that the Governor might see his ephogy if he dare show his face. The mob gave seven Hozas and threatened the officer upon the wall. They jeered Major James for saying he could drive New York with 500 men. The mob had assurance enough to break open the Governor's coach house, and took his coach from under the muzzles of his cannon. They put the ephogy upon the coach, one sat up for coachman with the whip in his hand, whilst others drawed it about the town, down to the Coffee house, and the Merchants Exchange."

After speeches by their leaders, they turned and marched back to the fort " with about 500 or 600 candles to alight them."

" I ran down to the fort to hear what they said. As the mob came down it made a beautiful appearance, and as soon as Major James saw them I heard him say from off the walls: Here they come by.'—As soon as the mob saw the fort they gave three cheers, and came down to it. They went under the cannon which was planted against them with grape shot. They bid a soldier upon the walls to tell the ' rebel drummer' or Major James to give orders to fire. They placed the gallows against the fort gate, and took clubs and beat against it, and then gave three Hozas in defiance. They then concluded to burn the ephogy, and the Governor's coach in the Bowling Green before their eyes."

After burning the coach, the people, mad with excitement, went to Major James's house and destroyed his furniture, except " one red silk curtain and the colors of the royal regiment," which they carried off in triumph.

Our letter writer continues: " The third day they was resolved to have the Governor dead or alive. The fort got up the fascines in order for battle, and the mob began before dark. The Governor sent for his Council which held about two hours whilst thousands stood by ready for the word. The Governor consented, and promised faithfully to have nothing to do with the stamps, and that he would send them back to London by Captain Davis of the Edward."

This account is in the main correct. At the people's demand the governor delivered the stamped paper to the mayor and aldermen, who deposited it in the City Hall, and no further attempt was made to enforce the odious tax in New York. The next spring, 1766, a new ministry, with the great statesman William Pitt at its head, came into power, and the obnoxious law was repealed, although Parliament still asserted its right to tax the colonies.
Website: The History
Article Name: Throwing Off the British Yoke Part I
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY:   A Brief History of the City of new York by Charles Burr Todd; American Book Company 1899
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