Friday, July 06, 2012

Stamp Act Resistance, British Capitulation, And The Townshend Acts In Pre-Revolutionary America

I am co-author of a new American history textbook for college students, The American Challenge: A New History of the United States. Below, in a passage I co-authored with Norwood Andrews, we discuss the spreading resistance to the British Stamp Act in the 1760s, and the British’s government’s capitulation on this law, and rising opposition to the Townshend Acts, as the 13 British colonies in North America edge closer to revolution. 

Together, Patrick Henry’s inflammatory rhetoric and the explosion of the Boston mob helped spread flames across the colonies.  In July, Otis had called for a Stamp Act Congress of delegates from all the colonies.  Representatives from nine colonies convened in New York in October, and issued more resolutions.  Like the Virginia Resolves, the Congress invoked the historic rights and liberties of British subjects.  Others went about it differently.  Local politicians organized demonstrations, which turned into riots, in Newport, Rhode Island, in several Connecticut towns, and in New York City, where crowds seized the colonial governor’s coach, burned it, and sacked the home of a commander of the local British garrison manning the harbor.  In each of the colonies, stamp distributors either resigned their commissions on their own or were forced to do so by mobs.  

The spirit of rebellion turned out to be difficult to contain, and even whites leading the opposition to the Stamp Act became nervous as they feared that their slaves might also rise up.  In Charles Town, South Carolina, white artisans had marched with their effigies on the local stamp distributor’s home, chanting and waving flags bearing the word “Liberty.”  Whites were a minority in the city;  most of the residents were black slaves. Whites began to fear that the African Americans would attempt a revolt of their own.  One day in January 1766, as one white resident recalled it, “some negroes, apparently in thoughtless imitation, began to cry ‘Liberty,’ ” and almost simultaneously more than one hundred slaves escaped from plantations outside the city.  “The city was thrown in arms for a week,” and masters throughout the colony alerted each other and prepared for the worst.

As the protests echoed up and down the Atlantic seaboard, respectable protest leaders sought greater control over the forces they had unleashed. In Boston, shortly after stating their disapproval and regret over the destruction of Hutchinson’s mansion, the Loyal Nine rebranded themselves as “Sons of Liberty” (using a phrase from a speech in the House of Commons) and focused on sustaining the opposition movement while calming its penchant for violence.  The new name was quickly adopted by opposition leaders in other colonies.  In Boston, the Sons of Liberty claimed some successes.  They held mass meetings and mock trials of the Stamp Act, under the same elm tree (now renamed the Liberty Tree, or “Liberty Hall”) where the demonstrations had begun.  With funds contributed by a wealthy young merchant named John Hancock, they bought a general’s fine uniform for McIntosh, and arranged for him to lead both of the Pope’s Day companies in a more orderly celebration. (Several years later, when McIntosh fell into debtor’s prison, none of the Sons of Liberty could be found to bail him out.)

Meanwhile, in late 1765, merchants in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia organized a boycott of British goods, which proved crucial in killing the hated Stamp Act.  Rising prosperity over decades had fostered the trade in British-made goods, but with the economic downturn reducing new purchases anyway, merchants were willing to suspend new shipments and focus on selling off their existing inventories.  Sons of Liberty enforced the boycott, which proved to be a turning point.  In London, Grenville had alienated the King over matters unrelated to the empire, and was dismissed from his ministry in July 1765.  The incoming government had no commitment of its own to the stamp tax, and it received numerous petitions from hard-pressed British merchants seeking policies that would promote trade rather than discourage it.  Franklin, still in London, offered testimony before Parliament that shrewdly emphasized colonial loyalty as well as economic grievances.  In March 1766, an act repealing the Stamp Act was passed into law.  An accompanying Declaratory Act, however, set an ominous tone, insisting that Parliament retained “full power and authority” to make laws binding the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.”
The Townshend Acts

The colonists’ rejoicing over the death of the Stamp Act was short-lived.  The Declaratory Act cast a shadow over their celebrations from the start, with its defiant message that many of the colonists’ arguments had been heard but not accepted.  The sugar taxes remained in place. Moreover, the budget problems facing His Majesty’s government had hardly disappeared with the Stamp Act.  Barely a year after the Stamp Act’s repeal, an entirely new tax scheme essentially reopened the whole dispute.  Another turnover of ministries placed responsibility for government finances in the hands of Charles Townshend, a clever politician with a short attention span and few visible principles, who became Chancellor of the Exchequer (the British equivalent of Treasury Secretary.).  He felt forced to seek revenues from America.  Townshend’s Revenue Act of 1767 placed new import duties on an odd selection of goods for which colonial consumers relied on the import trade:  lead, paint, glass, paper, and tea.  The revenue yield would not be great, but Townshend viewed it as a first step.  Perhaps more important, it would cover salaries for royal governors and magistrates.  Townshend packaged his revenue act with other laws aimed at strengthening the authority of royal customs collectors, and punishing New York for failing to pay for housing British army forces.  

In the colonies, few were truly eager for renewed conflict, and at first the response to the Townshend Acts was muted.   For the colonists, the issue remained not the amount of the tax, but that the colonies had no voice in the debate about the Townshend duties.  The Townshend duties might be a small burden, but the colonists could see clearly enough how they could create a precedent for future taxes imposed by an unresponsive Parliament across the Atlantic Ocean.

Once again, Boston took the lead.   Samuel Adams, a longtime member of the Caucus group and one of the Sons of Liberty, stepped forward.  Adams, uniquely well suited to the leadership role he created, was respectable yet humble, the son of a prosperous tradesman (and maltster, a provider of malted grains—not a brewer as legend has it, although close).  Never successful in business himself, he led an austere life out of both necessity and principle. While the increasingly erratic Otis had connected with the rank and file through bold oratory and shared animosity, Adams treated Caucus followers as social equals and maintained their trust—and votes—through his absolute commitment to the idea of a common cause.  Holding a seat in the Massachusetts colonial legislature, Adams secured its approval of a letter to “sister colonies,” presenting the case against the Townshend Acts as “infringements of their natural and constitutional rights.”  

The Massachusetts Circular Letter stirred a renewal of opposition throughout the colonies.  In Boston, it led to the suspension of the legislature itself (by Royal Governor Francis Bernard, acting on orders from London).  As royal customs commissioners attempted to enforce the duties, ominous crowds again filled the streets.  At “Liberty Hall,” under the tree branches, the Sons of Liberty convened official town meetings and passed resolutions condemning the governor.  The newly arrived customs commissioners appealed for armed support, reporting to London that, “the Governor and Magistracy have not the least Authority or power in this place.”  Their request was heard. In October 1767, transport ships arrived from Canada carrying four regiments of British army regulars.  Boston was now a city under military occupation.

As accounts of strife in Boston spread through the colonies, resistance took on a more urgent character.  In London, Townshend and his successors remained intent on asserting imperial authority, and directed governors in all colonies to dissolve legislatures that endorsed the Massachusetts Circular Letter. Cut off from expressing opposition through their established institutions, colonists resorted to more extreme tactics.  Non-importation of British goods, the same policy agreed upon by merchants during the Stamp Act crisis, became a crucial means of resistance once again.  This time, however, a more resolute imperial policy would test the ability of colonists to mount a sustained opposition.  Merchants had suffered economically during previous boycotts, and they wanted to spread the pain of resistance around more broadly.  In each of the seaport cities, artisans—often having struggled for years to compete with imported British products—now emerged in a critical role.  Under pressure from Samuel Adams and his followers, Boston merchants reluctantly agreed in August 1768 to cease shipments of most British goods. In Charles Town, an alliance of artisans and rice planters put forward similar demands in a series of public meetings.  But, as opponents organized, they also began looking beyond the merchants and toward consumers, toward the broader public itself.  In Boston, town officials encouraged “Persons of all Ranks” to sign an agreement publicly pledging to “encourage the Use and Consumption of all Articles manufactured in any of the British American Colonies” and to avoid purchasing “Articles from abroad.”  So-called “Subscription lists” quickly spread beyond Boston as well.

By 1769, while “committees of inspection” in each colony enforced the non-importation campaign among merchants, the consumer boycott movement had extended the resistance movement into colonial communities and households.  A decision not to buy imported “Articles”—or a pledge not to do so—made one a participant in the broader struggle against British tyranny.  Spending money on luxury items took on a new political meaning. It made one a traitor to a virtuous cause. Attempting to discredit the resistance movement, Peter Oliver (brother of Andrew Oliver, the Boston stamp distributor) portrayed the Boston subscription list in what he thought was a ridiculous way:  “Among the various prohibited Articles, were Silks, Velvets, Clocks, Watches, Coaches & Chariots; & it was highly diverting, to see the names & marks, of Porters & Washing Women.”  For Oliver, a statement “signed” by humble and illiterate folk meant that the movement represented little more than a mob action.  Unscrupulous boycott leaders, he suggested, had manipulated the lower classes into an act of disloyalty.   The class diversity of boycott participants, however, suggested how deep the opposition to British government policies had grown.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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