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Chapter 28

WASHINGTON'S IDEAS CONCERNING THE STAMP ACT--OPPOSITION TO IT IN THE COLONIES--PORTENTOUS CEREMONIES AT BOSTON AND NEW YORK--NON-IMPORTATION AGREEMENT AMONG THE MERCHANTS--WASHINGTON AND GEORGE MASON--DISMISSAL OF GRENVILLE FROM THE BRITISH CABINET--FRANKLIN BEFORE THE HOUSE OF COMMONS-- REPEAL OF THE STAMP ACT--JOY OF WASHINGTON--FRESH CAUSES OF COLONIAL DISSENSIONS--CIRCULAR OF THE GENERAL COURT OF MASSACHUSETTS--EMBARKATION OF TROOPS FOR BOSTON--MEASURES OF THE BOSTONIANS.


Washington returned to Mount Vernon full of anxious thoughts inspired by the political events of the day, and the legislative scene which he witnessed. His recent letters had spoken of the state of peaceful tranquillity in which he was living; those now written from his rural home show that he fully participated in the popular feeling, and that while he had a presentiment of an arduous struggle, his patriotic mind was revolving means of coping with it. Such is the tenor of a letter written to his wife's uncle, Francis Dandridge, then in London. "The stamp act," said he, "engrosses the conversation of the speculative part of the colonists, who look upon this unconstitutional method of taxation as a direful attack upon their liberties, and loudly exclaim against the violation. What may be the result of this, and of some other (I think I may add ill-judged) measures, I will not undertake to determine; but this I may venture to affirm, that the advantage accruing to the mother country will fall greatly short of the expectation of the ministry; for certain it is, that our whole substance already in a manner flows to Great Britain, and that whatsoever contributes to lessen our importations must be hurtful to her manufactures. The eyes of our people already begin to be opened; and they will perceive, that many luxuries, for which we lavish our substance in Great Britain, can well be dispensed with. This, consequently, will introduce frugality, and be a necessary incitement to industry. ... As to the stamp act, regarded in a single view, one of the first bad consequences attending it, is, that our courts of judicature must inevitably be shut up; for it is impossible, or next to impossible, under our present circumstances, that the act of Parliament can be complied with, were we ever so willing to enforce its execution. And not to say (which alone would be sufficient) that we have not money enough to pay for the stamps, there are many other cogent reasons which prove that it would be ineffectual."

A letter of the same date to his agents in London, of ample length and minute in all its details, shows that, while deeply interested in the course of public affairs, his practical mind was enabled thoroughly and ably to manage the financial concerns of his estate and of the estate of Mrs. Washington's son, John Parke Custis, towards whom, he acted the part of a faithful and affectionate guardian. In those days, Virginia planters were still in direct and frequent correspondence with their London factors; and Washington's letters respecting his shipments of tobacco, and the returns required in various articles for household and personal use, are perfect models for a man of business. And this may be remarked throughout his whole career, that no pressure of events nor multiplicity of cares prevented a clear, steadfast, undercurrent of attention to domestic affairs, and the interest and well-being of all dependent upon him.

In the mean time, from his quiet abode at Mount Vernon, he seemed to hear the patriotic voice of Patrick Henry, which had startled the House of Burgesses, echoing throughout the land, and rousing one legislative body after another to follow the example of that of Virginia. At the instigation of the General Court or Assembly of Massachusetts, a Congress was held in New York in October, composed of delegates from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and South Carolina. In this they denounced the acts of Parliament imposing taxes on them without their consent, and extending the jurisdiction of the courts of admiralty, as violations of their rights and liberties as natural born subjects of Great Britain, and prepared an address to the king, and a petition to both Houses of Parliament, praying for redress. Similar petitions were forwarded to England by the colonies not represented in the Congress.

The very preparations for enforcing the stamp act called forth popular tumults in various places. In Boston the stamp distributor was hanged in effigy; his windows were broken; a house intended for a stamp office was pulled down, and the effigy burnt in a bonfire made of the fragments. The lieutenant-governor, chief justice, and sheriff, attempting to allay the tumult, were pelted. The stamp officer thought himself happy to be hanged merely in effigy, and next day publicly renounced the perilous office.

Various were the proceedings in other places, all manifesting public scorn and defiance of the act. In Virginia, Mr. George Mercer had been appointed distributor of stamps, but on his arrival at Williamsburg publicly declined officiating. It was a fresh triumph to the popular cause. The bells were rung for joy; the town was illuminated, and Mercer was hailed with acclamations of the people.

[Footnote: Holmes's Annals, vol. ii., p. 138.]

The 1st of November, the day when the act was to go into operation, was ushered in with portentous solemnities. There was great tolling of bells and burning of effigies in the New England colonies. At Boston the ships displayed their colors but half-mast high. Many shops were shut; funeral knells resounded from the steeples, and there was a grand auto-da-fe, in which the promoters of the act were paraded, and suffered martyrdom in effigy.

At New York the printed act was carried about the streets on a pole, surmounted by a death's head, with a scroll bearing the inscription, "The folly of England and ruin of America." Colden, the lieutenant-governor, who acquired considerable odium by recommending to government the taxation of the colonies, the institution of hereditary Assemblies, and other Tory measures, seeing that a popular storm was rising, retired into the fort, taking with him the stamp papers, and garrisoned it with marines from a ship of war. The mob broke into his stable; drew out his chariot; put his effigy into it; paraded it through the streets to the common (now the Park), where they hung it on a gallows. In the evening it was taken down, put again into the chariot, with the devil for a companion, and escorted back by torchlight to the Bowling Green; where the whole pageant, chariot and all, was burnt under the very guns of the fort.

These are specimens of the marks of popular reprobation with which the stamp act was universally nullified. No one would venture to carry it into execution. In fact no stamped paper was to be seen; all had been either destroyed or concealed. All transactions which required stamps to give them validity were suspended, or were executed by private compact. The courts of justice were closed, until at length some conducted their business without stamps. Union was becoming the watch-word. The merchants of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and such other colonies as had ventured publicly to oppose the stamp act, agreed to import no more British manufactures after the 1st of January unless it should be repealed. So passed away the year 1765.

As yet Washington took no prominent part in the public agitation. Indeed he was never disposed to put himself forward on popular occasions, his innate modesty forbade it; it was others who knew his worth that called him forth; but when once he engaged in any public measure, he devoted himself to it with conscientiousness and persevering zeal. At present he remained a quiet but vigilant observer of events from his eagle nest at Mount Vernon. He had some few intimates in his neighborhood who accorded with him in sentiment. One of the ablest and most efficient of these was Mr. George Mason, with whom he had occasional conversations on the state of affairs. His friends the Fairfaxes, though liberal in feelings and opinions, were too strong in their devotion to the crown not to regard with an uneasy eye the tendency of the popular bias. From one motive or other, the earnest attention of all the inmates and visitors at Mount Vernon, was turned to England, watching the movements of the ministry.

The dismissal of Mr. Grenville from the cabinet gave a temporary change to public affairs. Perhaps nothing had a greater effect in favor of the colonies than an examination of Dr. Franklin before the House of Commons, on the subject of the stamp act.

"What," he was asked, "was the temper of America towards Great Britain, before the year 1763?"

"The best in the world. They submitted willingly to the government of the crown, and paid, in all their courts, obedience to the acts of Parliament. Numerous as the people are in the several old provinces, they cost you nothing in forts, citadels, garrisons, or armies, to keep them in subjection. They were governed by this country at the expense only of a little pen, ink, and paper. They were led by a thread. They had not only a respect, but an affection for Great Britain, for its laws, its customs, and manners, and even a fondness for its fashions, that greatly increased the commerce. Natives of Great Britain were always treated with particular regard; to be an Old-England man was, of itself, a character of some respect, and gave a kind of rank among us."

"And what is their temper now?"

"Oh! very much altered."

"If the act is not repealed, what do you think will be the consequences?"

"A total loss of the respect and affection the people of America bear to this country, and of all the commerce that depends on that respect and affection."

"Do you think the people of America would submit to pay the stamp duty if it was moderated?"

"No, never, unless compelled by force of arms."

[Footnote: Parliamentary Register, 1766.]

The act was repealed on the 18th of March, 1766, to the great joy of the sincere friends of both countries, and to no one more than to Washington. In one of his letters he observes: "Had the Parliament of Great Britain resolved upon enforcing it, the consequences, I conceive, would have been more direful than is generally apprehended, both to the mother country and her colonies. All, therefore, who were instrumental in procuring the repeal, are entitled to the thanks of every British subject, and have mine cordially."

[Footnote: Sparks. Writings of Washington, ii., 345, note.]

Still, there was a fatal clause in the repeal, which declared that the king, with the consent of Parliament, had power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to "bind the colonies, and people of America, in all cases whatsoever."

As the people of America were contending for principles, not mere pecuniary interests, this reserved power of the crown and Parliament left the dispute still open, and chilled the feeling of gratitude which the repeal might otherwise have inspired. Further aliment for public discontent was furnished by other acts of Parliament. One imposed duties on glass, pasteboard, white and red lead, painters' colors, and tea; the duties to be collected on the arrival of the articles in the colonies; another empowered naval officers to enforce the acts of trade and navigation. Another wounded to the quick the pride and sensibilities of New York. The mutiny act had recently been extended to America, with an additional clause, requiring the provincial Assemblies to provide the troops sent out with quarters, and to furnish them with fire, beds, candles, and other necessaries, at the expense of the colonies. The Governor and Assembly of New York refused to comply with, this requisition as to stationary forces, insisting that it applied only to troops on a march. An act of Parliament now suspended the powers of the governor and Assembly until they should comply. Chatham attributed this opposition of the colonists to the mutiny act to "their jealousy of being somehow or other taxed internally by the Parliament; the act," said he, "asserting the right of Parliament, has certainly spread a most unfortunate jealousy and diffidence of government here throughout America, and makes them jealous of the least distinction between this country and that, lest the same principle may be extended to taxing them."

[Footnote: Chatham's Correspondence, vol. iii., p. 189-192.]

Boston continued to be the focus of what the ministerialists termed sedition. The General Court of Massachusetts, not content with petitioning the king for relief against the recent measures of Parliament, especially those imposing taxes as a means of revenue, drew up a circular, calling on the other colonial Legislatures to join with them in suitable efforts to obtain redress. In the ensuing session, Governor Sir Francis Bernard called upon them to rescind the resolution on which the circular was founded,--they refused to comply, and the General Court was consequently dissolved. The governors of colonies required of their Legislatures an assurance that they would not reply to the Massachusetts circular,--these Legislatures likewise refused compliance and were dissolved. All this added to the growing excitement.

Memorials were addressed to the lords, spiritual and temporal, and remonstrances to the House of Commons, against taxation for revenue, as destructive to the liberties of the colonists; and against the act suspending the legislative power of the province of New York, as menacing the welfare of the colonies in general.

Nothing, however, produced a more powerful effect upon the public sensibilities throughout the country, than certain military demonstrations at Boston. In consequence of repeated collisions between the people of that place and the commissioners of customs, two regiments were held in readiness at Halifax to embark for Boston in the ships of Commodore Hood whenever Governor Bernard, or the general, should give the word, "Had this force been landed in Boston six months ago," writes the commodore, "I am perfectly persuaded no address or remonstrances would have been sent from the other colonies, and that all would have been tolerably quiet and orderly at this time throughout America."

[Footnote: Grenville Papers, vol. iv., p. 362.]

Tidings reached Boston that these troops were embarked and that they were coming to overawe the people. What was to be done? The General Court had been dissolved, and the governor refused to convene it without the royal command. A convention, therefore, from various towns met at Boston, on the 22d of September, to devise measures for the public safety; but disclaiming all pretensions to legislative powers. While the convention was yet in session (September 28th), the two regiments arrived, with seven armed vessels. "I am very confident," writes Commodore Hood from Halifax, "the spirited measures now pursuing will soon effect order in America."

On the contrary, these "spirited measures" added, fuel to the fire they were intended to quench. It was resolved in a town meeting that the king had no right to send troops thither without the consent of the Assembly; that Great Britain had broken the original compact, and that, therefore, the king's officers had no longer any business there.

[Footnote: Whately to Grenville. Gren. Papers, vol. iv., p. 389.]

The "selectmen" accordingly refused to find quarters for the soldiers in the town; the council refused to find barracks for them, lest it should be construed into a compliance with the disputed clause of the mutiny act. Some of the troops, therefore, which had tents, were encamped on the common; others, by the governor's orders, were quartered in the state-house, and others in Faneuil Hall, to the great indignation of the public, who were grievously scandalized at seeing field-pieces planted in front of the state-house; sentinels stationed at the doors, challenging every one who passed; and, above all, at having the sacred quiet of the Sabbath disturbed by drum and fife, and other military music.


Washington Irving