Taxing Times: The Stamp Act of 1765
On Friday 22 March 1765, the British Parliament voted to pass one of the most incendiary and politically damaging pieces of legislation in its history - the Stamp Act. The purpose of this controversial act was to levy a direct tax in the British Colonies in America on certain printed papers, including legal documents, licences, newspapers and playing cards, all of which were required to bear an official stamp to indicate that the duty had been paid.
Rioting on the Streets
On the evening of 15 August, Francis Bernard, holed up in the fort of Castle William, noted down the tumultuous events that had taken place in Boston the previous day.
In his letter Bernard relates that the first signs of trouble came at dawn, when the effigy of a man was found hanging from a tree in one of the streets in town. Inscriptions accompanying the effigy made it clear that it was intended to represent Andrew Oliver, the merchant who had recently taken on the role of the Stamp Distributor in Boston. Initially some members of the Governorâ€™s Council dismissed this gesture as no more than â€˜a boyish sportâ€™ but Bernard thought the matter to be far more serious.
As it grew dark, the emboldened mob carried the effigy of Mr Oliver to the Town House, where the Council were still debating. Giving three huzzahs of defiance, the discontents then marched onwards to the newly constructed Stamp Office and pulled it down. Next, they congregated outside Mr Oliverâ€™s house where they beheaded his effigy before burning it on a bonfire. Still not satisfied, the protestors then proceeded to break into Oliverâ€™s house. On learning that Mr Oliver had already fled the property they scoured the town â€˜declaring that they would kill himâ€™. Failing to find the object of their anger, the mob eventually dispersed on its own accord at around midnight.
The Cradle of Liberty
Unsurprisingly, Mr Oliver resigned from his post the very next day. Nevertheless, the anger and spirit of resistance in Boston lingered. On 16 August Bernard recorded that:
"The common talk of the town is that the Stamp Act shall not be executed here; that the man who offers a stamped paper to sell will be immediately killed; that all the power of Great Britain shall not oblige them to submit to the Stamp Act; that they will die upon the place first."
Further protests in the colonies followed and the British government was finally compelled to repeal the Stamp Act in March 1766 but by this point the seeds of revolution had begun to take root. On learning that the hated act had been revoked, Bostonians celebrated at the tree from which the effigy of Mr Oliver had been hanged the previous year - already it was being referred to as â€˜The Liberty Treeâ€™.