Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Stamp Act Went Into Effect 250 Years Ago Yesterday.

We have been trying to keep the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home up to speed with some of the best stuff out there on the 250th anniversary of the Stamp Act.  See our recent posts here and here.  I have actually been working on some stuff related to the Stamp Act in New Jersey.  Stay tuned.

J.L. Bell at Boston 1775 is providing the best coverage on the Internet related to this anniversary. He offers a day-by-day and blow-by-blow account of the events taking place in Boston during this period. For example, see yesterday's post on Bostonians hanging George Grenville and John Huske in effigy.

As Joseph Adleman reminds us at The Junto, the Stamp Act went into effect in British North America on November 2, 1765.  Here is a taste of his piece on the sense of uncertainty that the colonists faced during the crisis.


With the anniversary of the effective date (November 1) now upon us, however, I think it’s important to reflect on one element of the Stamp Act crisis that we can often too easily overlook: uncertainty. That is, on November 1, uncertainty hung like a cloud over the colonies where protesters had attempted to (usually successfully) nullify the Act. Printers did not know whether they could continue to publish their newspapers, and if they did, whether they would come under sanction by the British government. They undertook a range of solutions to that problem, from shutting their presses down entirely to printing anonymously (in Boston, they thumbed their noses at Parliament and continued to put their names on the mastheads and colophons). Courts did not know whether they could legally operate with unstamped documents—even in Massachusetts, where opposition was strongest. Many shut down for the winter of 1765 and spring of 1766.

Everywhere, therefore, colonists were uncertain, because even if they had thwarted the enforcement of the Act, it was still in effect, and legally each printer who published, each merchant and lawyer who did business, was subject to a penalty of fines or imprisonment for acting without stamps. Even the staunchest foe of the Stamp Act, in other words, had no idea whether the nullification would stick, or whether the British ministry, acting through its governors and officers in the colonies, would be able to enforce the law.

Capturing that uncertainty is a difficult challenge for historians: we know how the story ends. And to make matters worse, the very nature of the Stamp Act as a tax on printed matter means that our sources change on November 1. The decisions that printers made—to publish or not, to use their names or not—have enormous implications for how we study the Stamp Act.[1] Through the end of October, we have a plentiful collection of printed accounts detailing the protests in each port city, the declarations forced upon stamp officers, the legal arguments of political elites, and the actions of governors and others who thought the law must be enforced. After November 1, we lose contact with some ports entirely; printers in both Annapolis and Charleston completely shut their presses for six months, for example. In other places, we must rely on bibliographers and others would can trace the anonymously printed sheets titled “No Stamped Paper to be Had” to a specific printing office. The story moves into manuscripts, letters and other notes, and constricts to the cities that continued printing.

Read the entire post here.