The Stamp-Act Riot of 1765

At the present day, when personal ambition takes the place of patriotism, and love of principle gives way to love of party; when the success of the latter is placed above constitutional obligations and popular rights, one seems, as he turns back to our early history, to be transported to another age of the world, and another race of beings.

Nothing shows how thoroughly understood by the common people were the principles of liberty, and with what keen penetration they saw through all shams and specious reasoning, than the decided, nay, fierce, stand they took against the stamp act. This was nothing more than our present law requiring a governmental stamp on all public and business paper to make it valid. The only difference is, the former was levying a tax without representation in other words, without the consent of the governed. The colonies assembled in Congress condemned it; hence the open, violent opposition to it by the people rises above the level of a common riot, and partakes more of the nature of a righteous revolution. Still, it was a riot, and exhibited the lawless features of one.

The news of the determination of the English Government to pass a stamp act, raised a storm of indignation throughout the colonies, from Massachusetts to South Carolina, and it was denounced as an oppressive, unrighteous, tyrannical measure. From the wayside tavern and the pulpit alike, it was attacked with unsparing severity. The Government, however, thought it a mere ebullition of feeling, that would not dare exhibit itself in open opposition. Nor does this confidence seem strong, when we remember the weakness of the colonies on the one side, and the strength of an organized government, with the law and force both, on the other.

Cadwallader Colden, a Scotchman by birth, and a clergyman by profession, was at that time acting Governor of New York; and to guard against any resort to force on the part of the people when the stamps should arrive, had Fort George, on the Battery, reinforced by a regiment from Crown Point, its magazines replenished, the ramparts strengthened, and its guns trained on the town. The people saw all this, and understood its import; but it had the opposite effect from that which was intended, for, instead of overawing the people, it exasperated them.

At length, in October, 1765, a ship with the British colors flying came sailing up the bay, and anchored off Fort George. In a short time the startling tidings was circulated, that she brought a quantity of stamps. It was like sounding an alarm bell, and the streets became thronged with excited men, while all the provincial vessels in the harbor lowered their colors to half mast, in token of mourning. In anticipation of this event, an organization of men had been formed, called “Sons of Liberty.” They at once assembled, and resolved at all hazards to get hold of those stamps. They had caused the act itself to be hawked about the streets as “the folly of England and the ruin of America,” and now they determined to measure their strength with the Governor of the colony. That night, when the town was wrapped in slumber, they quietly affixed on the doors of every public office and on corners of the streets, the following placard:

Pro Patria.

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

Vox Populi.

“We Dare.”

To the stamp distributors they said, “Assure yourselves, the spirit of Brutus and Cassius is yet alive. We will not submit to the stamp act upon any account or in any instance.”

McEvers, the head stamp distributor, frightened by the bold, determined attitude of the people, refused to receive the stamps, and Golden had them sent for greater safety to Fort George. He had written, to the British Secretary, ” I am resolved to have the stamps distributed_.” But the people were equally resolved they should not be. Still, on the 30th day of October, he and all the royal governors took the oath to carry the stamp act into effect; but they soon discovered that they could find no one bold enough to act as distributor. All along the sea coast, in every part of the colonies, the people were aroused, and either assembling quietly, or called together by the ringing of bells and firing of cannon, presented such a united, determined front, that not one person remained duly commissioned to distribute stamps. On the last day of October, the merchants of New York came together, and bound themselves to “send no new orders for goods or merchandise, to countermand all former orders, and not even receive goods on commission, unless the stamp act be repealed” that is, give up commerce at once, with all its wealth and benefits, rather than submit to a tax of a few shillings on paper.

Friday, the 1st of November, was the day fixed upon for a public demonstration of the people throughout the colonies against it, and never dawned a morning more pregnant with the fate not only of a nation, but of the world.

From New Hampshire to South Carolina it was ushered in by the tolling of muffled bells, the firing of minute guns, and flags hung at half mast. Eulogies were pronounced on liberty, and everywhere people left their shops and fields, and gathered in excited throngs to discuss the great question of taxation.

“Even the children at their games, though hardly able to speak, caught up the general chorus, and went along the streets, merrily carolling: ‘Liberty, Property, and no Stamps.'” [Footnote: Bancroft.]

In New York the uprising was terrific, for the population rushed together as one man as Gage, the commander of Fort George said, “by thousands.”

The sailors flocked in from the vessels, the farmers from the country, and the shouts, and ringing of bells, and firing of cannon made the city fairly tremble. Colden was terrified at the storm that was raised, and took refuge in the fort. An old man, bent and bowed with the weight of eighty years, he tottered nervously to the shelter of its guns, and ordered up a detachment of marines from a ship of war in port, for his protection. In his indignation, he wanted to fire on the people, and the black muzzles of the cannon pointing on the town had an ominous look. Whether he had threatened to do so by a message, we do not know; at any rate, the people either suspected his determination or got wind of it, for during the day an unknown person handed in at the fort gate a note, telling him if he did, the people would hang him, like Porteus of Edinburgh, on a sign post. He wisely forebore to give the order, for if he had not, his gray hairs would have streamed from a gibbet.

At length the day of turmoil wore away, and night came on, but with it came no diminution of the excitement. Soon as it was dark, the “Sons of Liberty,” numbering thousands, surged tumultuously up around the fort, and demanded that the stamps should be given up that they might be destroyed. Golden bluntly refused, when with loud, defiant shouts they left, and went up Broadway to “the field” (the present Park), where they erected a gibbet, and hanged on it Colden in effigy, and beside him a figure holding a boot; some said to represent the devil, others Lord Bute, of whom the boot , by a pun on his name, showed for whom the effigy was designed.

The demonstration had now become a riot, and the Sons of Liberty degenerated into a mob. The feeling that had been confined to words all day must now have some outlet. A torchlight procession was formed, and the scaffold and images taken down, and borne on men’s shoulders along Broadway towards the Battery. The glare of flaring lights on the buildings and faces of the excited crowd, the shouts and hurrahs that made night hideous, called out the entire population, which gazed in amazement on the strange, wild spectacle.

They boldly carried the scaffold and effigies to within a few feet of the gate of the fort, and knocked audaciously for admission. Isaac Sears was the leader of these “Sons of Liberty.”

Finding themselves unable to gain admittance, they went to the Governor’s carriage house, and took out his elegant coach, and placing the two effigies in it, dragged it by hand around the streets by the light of torches, amid the jeers and shouts of the multitude. Becoming at last tired of this amusement, they returned towards the fort, and erected a second gallows, on which they hung the effigies the second time.

All this time the cannon, shotted and primed, lay silent on their carriages, while the soldiers from the ramparts looked wonderingly, idly on. General Gage did not dare to fire on the people, fearing they would sweep like an inundation over the ramparts, when he knew a general massacre would follow.

The mob now tore down, the wooden fence that surrounded Bowling Green, and piling pickets and boards together, set them on fire. As the flames crackled and roared in the darkness, they pitched on the Governor’s coach, with the scaffold and effigies; then hastening to his carriage house again, and dragging out a one horse chaise, two sleighs, and other vehicles, hauled them to the fire, and threw them on, making a conflagration that illumined the waters of the bay and the ships riding at anchor. This was a galling spectacle to the old Governor and the British officers, but they dared not interfere.

What was the particular animosity against those carriages does not appear, though it was the only property of the Governor they destroyed, unless they were a sign of that aristocratic pride which sought to enslave them. There were, at this time, not a half dozen coaches in the city, and they naturally became the symbols of bloated pride. It is said the feeling was so strong against them, that a wealthy Quaker named Murray, who lived out of town, near where the distributing reservoir now is, kept one to ride down town in, yet dared not call it a coach, but a “leathern convenience.”

Although Sears and other leaders of the Sons of Liberty tried to restrain the mob, their blood was now up, and they were bent on destruction. Having witnessed the conflagration of the Governor’s carriages, they again marched up Broadway, and some one shouting “James’ house,” the crowd took up the shout, and passing out of the city streamed through the open country, to where West Broadway now is, and near the corner of Anthony Street. This James was Major in the Royal Artillery, and had made himself obnoxious to the people by taking a conspicuous part in putting the fort into a state of defence. He had a beautiful residence here, which the mob completely gutted, broke up his elegant furniture, destroyed his library and works of art, and laid waste his ornamented grounds. They then dispersed, and the city became quiet.

The excitement was, however, not quelled the people had not yet got hold of the stamps, which they were determined to have. Colden, having seen enough of the spirit of the “Sons of Liberty,” was afraid to risk another night, even in the fort, unless it was in some way appeased; and so the day after the riot, he had a large placard posted up, stating that he should have nothing more to do with the stamps, but would leave them with Sir Henry Moore, the newly appointed Governor, then on his way from England.

This, however, did not satisfy the Sons of Liberty: they wanted the stamps themselves, and through Sears, their leader, insisted on their being given up telling him very plainly if he did not they would storm the fort, and they were determined to do it.

The Common Council of the city now became alarmed at the ungovernable, desperate spirit of the mob, which seemed bent on blood, and begged the Governor to let them be deposited in the City Hall. To this he finally though reluctantly consented, but the feeling in the city kept at fever heat, and would remain so until the act itself was repealed.

Moore, the new Governor, soon arrived, and assumed the reigns of government. The corporation offered him the freedom of the city in a gold box, but he refused to receive it, unless upon stamped paper. It was evident he was determined to enforce the stamp act. But on consulting with Colden and others, and ascertaining the true state of things, he wisely abandoned his purpose, and soon made it publicly known. To appease the people still more, he dismantled the fort, which was peculiarly obnoxious to them from the threatening attitude it had been made to assume. Still, the infamous act was unrepealed, and the people refused to buy English manufactures, and commerce languished.

At length, Parliament, finding that further insistence in carrying out the obnoxious act only worked mischief, had repealed it. When the news reached New York, the most unbounded joy was manifested. Bells were rung, cannon fired, and placards posted, calling on a meeting of the citizens the next day to take measures for celebrating properly the great event. At the appointed time, the people came together at Howard’s Hotel, and forming a procession, marched gayly to “the field,” and right where the City Hall now stands, then an open lot, a salute of twenty-one guns was fired. A grand dinner followed, at which the Sons of Liberty feasted and drank loyal toasts to his Majesty, and all went “merry as a marriage bell.” The city was illuminated, and bonfires turned the night into day. In a few weeks, the King’s birthday was celebrated with great display. A huge pile of wood was erected in the Park, and an ox roasted whole for the people. Cart after cart dumped its load of beer on the ground, till twenty-five barrels, flanked by a huge hogshead of rum, lay in a row, presided over by men appointed to deal out the contents to the populace. A boisterous demonstration followed that almost drowned the roar of the twenty-one cannon that thundered forth a royal salute. As a fitting wind up to the bacchanalian scene, at night twenty-five tar barrels, fastened on poles, blazed over the “common,” while brilliant fireworks were exhibited at Bowling Green. The feasting continued late in the night, and so delighted were the “Sons of Liberty,” that they erected a mast, inscribed “to his most gracious Majesty, George the Third, Mr. Pitt, and Liberty.” A petition was also signed to erect a statue to Pitt, and the people seemed determined by this excess of loyalty to atone for their previous rebellious spirit. The joy, however, was of short duration the news of the riots caused Parliament to pass a “mutiny act,” by which troops were to be quartered in America in sufficient numbers to put down any similar demonstration in future, a part of the expense of their support to be paid by the colonists themselves. This exasperated “the Sons of Liberty”, and they met and resolved to resist this new act of oppression to the last. The troops arrived in due time, and of course collisions took place between them and the people. Matters now continued to grow worse and worse, until the “riot of the Sons of Liberty” became a revolution, which dismembered the British Empire, and established this great republic, the influence of which on the destiny of the world no one can predict.

History, Stamp Act,

Headley, Joel Tyler. The great riots of New York, 1712 to 1873: including a full and complete account of the Four Days' Draft Riot of 1863. New York: E. B. Treat, 1873.

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