This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections
“The stamps are now a Commodity no Body knows what to do with, and are more abominable, and dangerous to be meddled with, than if they were infected with the Pestilence,” wrote the New-York Mercury 250 years ago. “The stamps” was the shorthand phrase for the anticipated, but dreaded, tax imposed by the British Parliament upon the North American colonies in 1765. The colonists’ virulent reaction to them was at once a dress-rehearsal, and the opening act of the American Revolution.
In most cases, the stamped paper consisted of paper embossed in the left margin with a colorless seal. When stiff parchment was involved, the stamps looked like this, with colored paper held on with a staple.
We might remember from school days that the Stamp Act applied to documents, pamphlets, almanacs, diplomas, newspapers, playing cards, and dice. The net was a wide one, as it included deeds and wills and clearance for ships, and, without them, even the most routine commercial and legal transactions could not occur. In practice, the implementation was even more complicated as the paper came in various sizes at different prices, with different denominations of stamps required for business transactions of varied values. The paper itself was manufactured in England and required payment in hard currency. It really was something to complain about.
Newspapers did much of the complaining, with good reason, as they were expected to absorb the stamp surcharge for both their folio paper and for each advertisement. Since the Stamp Act was passed in March 1765 but would not go into effect until November 1, publishers had the time, motive, and means to report and urge resistance. They made sure to print out their almanacs early, and when the time came, not a single newspaper in the 13 colonies was issued on the stamped paper. The New-York Mercury took this route: it published as a single sheet without a masthead or date, thus posing as an informal—and exempt—circular.
Taking a closer look at the news in this “non-newspaper,” one reads in the cramped marginal text of the protests prompted by the Act’s implementation on November 1. A New York mob that burned the home and effects of the commander of the fort then paraded an effigy of the lieutenant governor accompanied by the Devil on a gallows. Another group proceeded to the acting governor’s coach house, took hold of his carriage, and dragged it to Bowling Green “where a Bon-Fire was immediately made, and the Drummer, Devil, Coach, &c. were consumed.” We are told that “whole Affair was conducted with such Decorum, that not the least Accident happened.” History, however, knows this as the Stamp Act Riot.
The lieutenant governor who found himself in such a hot spot was 76-year-old Cadwallader Colden, once a respected physician and naturalist, who was awaiting the arrival of the permanent governor. The stamps, as they arrived from England were to be administered by specially appointed distributors; this seemed like a lucrative job until intimidation from the Sons of Liberty resulted in the resignation of all of them. New York’s distributor walked away in late August after hearing of the rioting in Boston. Colden responded by trying to have the stamps brought in at night and by arming the fort. For his troubles he received threatening notes like these:
Colden’s letters and papers in the New-York Historical Society reveal both his disgust and fear of a “Mob.” He complained that anonymous “papers were passed upon the doors of Every public Office, and at the corners of the streets.” It remains a question for historians to debate how a tax that targeted merchants, lawyers, and publishers also galvanized street activists, artisans, tavern-frequenters, and sailors through the coordinating efforts of the newly-formed Sons of Liberty. The Liberty Boys saw to it that stamps could not be unloaded or used, that any stamps found would be burned, that newspapers continued to publish as usual—but only on ordinary paper, and that boycotts of imported goods were enforced.
The in-over-his-head lieutenant governor also could not prevent the transactions of a more orderly protest: the Stamp Act Congress met in New York City in October and included representatives of nine colonies. The result was a petition to Parliament against taxation without representation and asserting the right to trial by jury, a complaint that arose from the use of Vice-Admiralty courts to enforce the tax law.
In the end Colden threw up his hands and agreed to put the hated stamps into the “safekeeping” of the city council. The seven boxes of stamped paper, weighing more than a ton, were marched to City Hall with an escort of 5,000 New Yorkers, thus defusing the crisis until rumors of more stamps came up.
On May 14, 1766, Lieutenant Governor Colden received his new “chariot” from England. The bill of lading shown here is exactly the sort of document that would have required stamped paper had it originated in the colonies.
The same week brought definitive news of the repeal of the hated tax, the consequent celebrations, and the first erection of a “liberty pole.” But repeal came with the so-called Declaratory Act: making it clear that the colonies in America are “subordinate unto and dependent upon, the Imperial Crown and Parliament of Great Britain.” All of this insured that we would hear again from the Sons of Liberty, committees of correspondence, liberty poles, non-importation associations, and inter-colonial congresses.