|Stamp Act Protesters|
In which we see how a metaphorical credit card bill helped trigger a non-metaphorical war.
So look, kids: we’ve been talking about a general feeling of unease among some people in British North America in the middle of the eighteenth century—a perception that some authorities (like religious ones) weren’t really legitimate and that others (like government ones) were condescending when they weren’t outright dismissive. And, as we know, feelings can be powerful things.
—Does that include feelings of boredom?
Sure, Chris. Boredom is among the most powerful.
Well, Jonah, you might say boredom is a gateway feeling. It leads to others like restlessness and impulsivity. Or passivity.
Like I said, passivity. Are you making an observation or an argument, Chris?
—Just an observation. Not that I’m suggesting that you’re in any way boring.
Of course not, Chris. Jonah will wake you up when class is over.
—We have math next. I should probably just let him sleep.
Well, I’ll let you be the judge of that. Anyway, my real point is to say that while perceptions are a very important part of politics, policy can be even more so, if for no other reason that it’s often a source or justification for attitudes. You may remember I mentioned the Molasses Act of 1733 as a law that went largely unenforced and was regarded as irrelevant. But then the French and Indian War came along, with lots of huge bills to pay, and the British started enforcing laws that had been ignored for decades.
The Molasses Act was just one piece, and a relatively minor one, of a larger strategy that included a package of new laws the British Parliament put into place after the war. There were new financial regulations involving the use of currency, for example, which was always painfully scarce in the colonies, making it difficult to pay for things or settle debts. I mentioned that Proclamation about not going west of the Alleghenies, which really annoyed young guys like George Washington, who was in the real estate business and believed the whole point of the French and Indian War was to get their hands on those lands west of the mountains. None of those new regulations were intolerable. But then came a real problem: the Stamp Act.
—That was in the homework.
Right. What did the Stamp Act say, Jonquil?
—I didn’t really get it. It was a tax you paid on paper?
You’re on the right track. It might be more useful to think of it as a tax on documents: contracts, wills, that kind of thing. Also newspapers, which were not really documents in the same way, but a source of information that was largely read by the wealthy. This was key: the British were looking to raise revenue, and they were making a real effort to focus on the people who really could afford to pay, like people who hired lawyers or tracked the shipment of goods in newspapers. The idea was that when you bought such material, you’d pay a tax and get a receipt in the form of a stamp that would go on the document and prove you got it legitimately. The law was structured in such a way that it would pay for itself: the people issued the stamps would keep a portion of what they collected as a salary.
For the British, the Stamp Act seemed both fair and efficient. To make sure, government officials approached Benjamin Franklin, who was sort of a super-lobbyist extraordinaire, and asked him what he thought of the idea. Franklin basically said, yeah, if you’re gonna raise taxes, this isn’t a bad way to do it. (In fact, Franklin pulled some strings to get a stamp commissioner’s job for a buddy back in Pennsylvania.)
—What do you mean that Franklin was a super-lobbyist? He seems to keep coming up.
Indeed he does, Yin. Franklin is a truly amazing character, and I’d love to give a course just on him. In short: Franklin was born in Boston, which he found stifling. He ran away to Philadelphia, which was an up-and-coming-city, when he was your age. Then we went to London briefly, and came back to Philly. He made a fortune as a printer, franchised his operation out to other guys around the colonies, and retired from the business. He then explored his interest in science. He also continued to be involved in civic affairs. In the 1750s, the colonial government of Pennsylvania sent him to London to represent the colony’s interests to the imperial government. Soon other colonies, like Massachusetts and South Carolina, also hired him. So he was like the unofficial American representative in England. He was there for about 15 years. He was the coolest of the Founding Fathers. Incredibly intelligent, and that included his social skills. Impossible not to like the guy. (And about as impossible to really get to know him.)
Anyway, the British put the Stamp Act into effect in 1765. And it proved to be an utter disaster. The colonists hated it.
Well, some of it is obvious: who likes taxes? I also suspect that the very thing that made it fair made it a problem: rich people are in a much better position to complain than poor people, not in terms of having a more legitimate grievance, mind you, but in knowing how to get heard—and getting around rules they don’t like. But rich people weren’t the only unhappy ones. One of the more remarkable things about the Stamp Act is the way it unleashed simmering anger that now burst to surface. That anger included angry mobs. One mob raided the house of the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, and reduced it to a stack of toothpicks. That buddy of Franklin? He wrote back to him and said: thanks for nothing. I can’t go out and stamp documents—people will kill me. The outrage was so great that there was a meeting, known as the Stamp Act Congress, with representatives from a number of colonies. Back at the start of the French and Indian War, Franklin had suggested that the colonies cooperate, and no one was interested. Now, suddenly, it seemed that for the first time they were serious about coming together. In protest. The Stamp Act Congress sent a petition to London saying the law was illegal.
By the end of 1765, it was clear to the British government that the Stamp Act had backfired. All the noise aside, it was failing its actual purpose: to raise money. The colonists were refusing to play by the rules. So the government had to go back to the drawing board and try again. But how? The answer was in two steps. First, the Stamp Act was repealed. Then, the same day, the British Parliament passed the Declaratory Act, which essentially said the colonists were obligated to obey the laws of the British government. Which is a little like saying to a child who refuses to go to bed: all right, stay up then. But from now on you’re sticking to your bedtime, fella!
Well, I was hoping for something more like a shock of recognition: more like “Oh.”
—It’s not that good, Mr. K.
Oh. Well, then. I’ll keep going. Sort of like the British government: that didn’t work, so we’ll try something else. Here’s the something else: the Townshend Acts. These were a series of new taxes on lead, glass, paper and tea. Again: luxury items.
—But if people were mad last time, why would this time be any different?
Excellent question, Sadie. Actually, this time was different, but not in the way the British wanted. And the reason for that is a fellow named Sam Adams.
—As in the beer?
Yes, Ethan: Sam Adams was a brewer. Not a very good one, though. At least not as a businessman.
—Was he related to John Adams?
Yup. They were cousins.
—Were they close?
Pretty close. Though Sam was a little more exciting than John, who was kind of a dweeb.
—That doesn’t sound very respectful, Mr. K.
Hey, I like John Adams. I’m a dweeb. We dweebs need to stick together.
—So I guess Adams didn’t hang out much with Benjamin Franklin, then.
Well, not much. They did sleep together once.
Yes. Pretty good story.
—Benjamin Franklin was gay?
Did I say that?
—Well, you said they slept together.
I’ll tell you about it after class one day.
—Why not now?
Because it’s time for Chris to sleep through math.
Next: Boycott terrorism