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Stamp Act Crisis

As November 1*, 1765 approached — the effective date for the enforcement of the Stamp Act — opposition to the new form of taxation spread through the colonies. Demonstrations in Boston convinced the royally appointed stamp distributor that he should resign his position rather than risk life and limb. Similar events occurred in Rhode Island and Maryland. The focal point of opposition, however, was in New York City where the distributor’s resignation prompted royal officials to call for assistance; soldiers from Crown Point were brought into the city, which heightened tensions all the more. The stamped paper arrived aboard ship in New York harbor on October 23, coinciding with the end of the Stamp Act Congress. A huge crowd gathered and it appeared certain that violent opposition would greet any effort to bring the paper ashore. Royal officials avoided the confrontation by unloading the cargo in the dead of night. After learning of the stamped paper landing, merchants formed the first of their Nonimportation Agreements; their hope was that an effective boycott would force British manufacturers to lobby Parliament for an end to the Stamp tax. On November 1, a huge crowd marched down Broadway displaying an effigy of Cadwallader Colden, the colony's highly unpopular governor; Colden seemed to enjoy confrontation and had gone out of his way to defend royal prerogative. Members of the throng had appropriated the governor’s coach and added it to the parade; at the end of the route the coach was smashed into kindling and used as part of a great celebratory bonfire on Bowling Green. The crowd also turned its wrath on the home of a swaggering British artillery commander who had boasted that he would be able to collect the stamp tax, by force of arms if necessary. His house was pulled down by the mob. Property destruction began to alarm some of those who opposed the tax, but had holdings of their own. In the end, a broader crisis was averted when Governor Colden wisely turned the stamped paper over to local officials who were not royal appointees. The combination of threats and violence exerted the desired impact throughout the colonies. Only one stamp distributor was still in office on November 1 and that was in Georgia where loyalties toward Britain were strong. Little or no effort was expended to use stamped documents and business in most areas proceeded as usual. London merchants may have preferred to see the colonies pay some taxes, but their direct concern was that the nonimportation movement there was affecting their trans-Atlantic commerce. On January 17, 1766, they appealed to Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act, warning that the petitioners were, "by these unhappy events, reduced to the the necessity of applying to the House in order to secure themselves and their families from impending ruin." An interesting aspect of the resistance to the Stamp Act was created when the court of Northampton County, Virginia, "... unanimously declared it to be their opinion that the said act did not bind, affect, or concern the inhabitants of this colony, inasmuch as they conceive the same to be unconstitutional; ..." This was an assertion of a local right to rule on constitutionality, which the U.S. Supreme Court later declared to belong to them alone under the constitution of 1789. On February 21, a resolution to repeal the Stamp Act was introduced in Parliament. It carried 276-168. The King assented on March 17, 1766.

*The choice of November 1 as the enforcement date for the Stamp Act was particularly unfortunate. The first week in that month had traditionally been a time of raucous demonstrations in New England and New York where Guy Fawkes’ Day was celebrated on November 5. It was on that date in 1605 that a Roman Catholic plot to blow up Parliament had been discovered. Bonfires, fireworks and parades celebrated the event in England and that tradition was later transported to the colonies. The occasion took on the name of Pope Day in New England where antipathy toward Roman Catholicism was particularly strong. See timeline of the American Revolution.