Following the conclusion of the French and Indian War, England recognized the harsh realities of its post-war debt. By January 5, 1763, Britain’s funded debt was a staggering £122,603,336 with an annual interest of £4,409,797. A year later, the debt was almost £7,000,000 larger and by January of 1767, it had increased yet another £7,000,000.
After reviewing the state of Britain’s finances, Chancellor of Exchequer, George Grenville, concluded that the American colonies had benefited greatly from the protection of the Crown while contributing very little in taxes. At the same time, Grenville pointed out, an active smuggling trade coupled with massive colonial customs mismanagement, particularly in the New England region, had led to an annual £6,000 deficit in duties collected in American ports. Accordingly, he suggested that a direct tax be levied on the American colonies in order to generate additional revenue.
The first two revenue-raising measures that Great Britain imposed on her American colonies were the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765. The Sugar Act established tariffs on colonial trading and also attempted to curb the American practice of smuggling sugar and molasses from the West Indies by placing a three pence per gallon tax on foreign molasses. The act established a list of “enumerated goods” that could be shipped only to England, including lumber, and set forth procedures for the accounting, loading and unloading of cargo in port. Violations of the act were prosecuted in a vice-admiralty court, where defendants would be denied the right to a jury trial and where the presumption was of guilt rather than innocence.
The second revenue-raising measure was the Stamp Act, which levied an unprecedented direct tax on almost every piece of public paper in the colonies. Newspapers, almanacs, deeds, wills, custom documents, even playing cards were among the many papers subjected to the tax. The Stamp Act went so far as to impose a tax upon tax receipts.
The Sugar and Stamp acts brought on an explosion of riots, boycotts and protests throughout the colonies, particularly in Massachusetts. At first, the colony’s response was peaceful, with the inhabitants merely boycotting certain goods. However, resistance soon became violent. It began on August 14, 1765 with an effigy of Andrew Oliver, an appointed stamp distributor, being hung from a “liberty tree” in plain view by the “sons of liberty.” That evening, the Oliver’s luxurious home was burned to the ground. The following evening, incited by a rumor that he supported the Stamp Act, the home of Thomas Hutchinson, Lieutenant Governor of the colony, was surrounded by an unruly mob. When Hutchinson refused to accede to the demand that he come out and explain his position, the mob broke several windows and then dispersed. Two weeks later, on August 28, 1765, an even larger mob assembled and descended upon the homes of several individuals suspected of favoring the Stamp Act, including again that of the Lieutenant Governor. As Hutchinson later described it, “the hellish crew fell upon my house with the rage of divels and in a moment with axes split down the door and entered. My son heard them cry ‘damn him he is upstairs we’ll have him.’ Some ran immediately as high as the top of the house, others filled the rooms below and cellars and others remained without the house to be employed there. I was obliged to retire thro yards and gardens to a house more remote where I remained until 4 o’clock by which time one of the best finished houses in the Province had nothing remaining but the bare walls and floors.”
Of course, mob violence was not limited to just Boston. Weeks after the riots, the violence spread northward to Newburyport and as Joshua Coffin described in his work A Sketch of the History of Newbury, Newburyport, and West Newbury, from 1635 to 1845, the seaport community instituted its own brand of street justice.
In late September, Newburyport officials declared “the late act of parliament is very grievous, and that this town as much as in them lies endeavour the repeal of the same in all lawful ways, and that it is the desire of the town that no man in it will accept of the office of distributing the stampt papers, as he regards the displeasure of the town and that they will deem the person accepting of such office an enemy to his country.” However, when an unknown Newburyport resident disregarded the town’s warning and accepted an appointment as a “stamp distributor”, an angry mob quickly mobilized.
According to Coffin, the crowd immediately started a campaign of intimidation against the stamp distributor. “In Newburyport, the effigy a Mr. I— B—, who had accepted the office of stamp distributor, was suspended, September twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth, from a large elm tree which stood in Mr. Jonathan Greenleaf's yard, at the foot of King street, [now Federal street], a collection of tar barrels set on fire, the rope cut, and the image dropped into the flames. At ten o'clock, P. M., all the bells in town were rung. ‘I am sorry to see that substitute,’ said a distinguished citizen of Newburyport, ‘I wish it had been the original.’”
Not satisfied that their message had been properly conveyed, members of the mob then armed themselves with clubs and patrolled the town questioning strangers and residents alike about their position on the crisis. “Companies of men, armed with clubs, were accustomed to parade the streets of Newbury and Newburyport, at night, and, to every man they met, put the laconic question, “stamp or no stamp”. The consequences of an affirmative reply, were anything but pleasant.”
As Coffin noted, when one stranger was unable to answer the mob’s questions, they beat him severely. “In one instance, a stranger, having arrived in town, was seized by the mob, at the foot of Green street, and, not knowing what answer to make to the question, stood mute. As the mob allow no neutrals, and as silence with them is a crime, he was severely beaten.” A second man fared better when he was able to provide a clever answer. “The same question was put to another stranger, who replied, with a sagacity worthy of a vicar of Bray, or a Talleyrand, ‘I am as you are.’ He was immediately cheered and applauded, as a true son of liberty, and permitted to depart in peace, wondering, no doubt, at his own sudden popularity.”
The actions of the mob had the desired effect. By November 1, 1765, “not a sheet of stamped paper was to be had throughout New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and the two Carolinas.” The following March the act was repealed.
When word reached Newburyport, the town quickly celebrated. “The joy of the people, on hearing the intelligence, was as great, as their indignation had been at its passage . . . ‘Our people … were almost mad with drink and joy. A deluge of drunkenness.”