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Number 108 / Spring 2015
THE FATAL STAMP
Preserving America’s Past Since 1791
Effigies, raging fires, houses wrecked and looted, rampant propaganda, swelling outrage. Welcome to Boston, 1765. In March 1765, Parliament passed, and George III assented to, the Stamp Act. The resulting un - rest arguably marks the start of the American Revolution. Two hundred and fifty years later, the MHS commemorates the passage (and popular rejection) of the Stamp Act with the exhibition, now on display, God Save the People! From the Stamp Act to Bunker Hill. To tell the story of the coming of the American Revo- lution in Boston, this exhibition fol- lows the evolution of colonial thought and political action through the let- ters and diaries of men and women caught up in the conflict, together with political cartoons, newspapers, maps, and portraits. The Stamp Act required that a wide range of legal and trade documents, as well as newspapers and even dice and playing cards, carry official stamps of differing values. It offended colonists for a number of reasons and exacerbated the sense among patriots that they suffered under tyrannical rule. It was the first time Parliament had imposed a direct tax on the Ameri- can colonies—that is, a tax implemented without the consent of colonial legislature—amounting to taxation without representation. What we know as the Stamp Act has a much longer title, and the first half of the title is helpful in highlighting another reason for the backlash:
An act for granting and applying certain Stamp Duties, and other Duties, in the British Colonies and Plantations in America, towards further defraying the Expences of defending, protecting, and securing the same . . .
Defraying “the Expences of defending, protecting, and securing” the colonies meant, in short, paying the salaries of British troops who were stationed in North America with nothing much to do since the close of the French and Indian War. Tensions between American colonists and British forces, not at all helped by the Stamp Act, would continue to mount, coming to a dramatic head in the Boston Massacre four years later. The response in Boston was vehement. Stamp
masters, agents commissioned to admin- ister the tax, faced the very real threat of gang and mob violence. One such figure, Andrew Oliver, was hanged in effigy from what would later be called the Liberty Tree, and a mob ransacked his home—after they had leveled the stamp office—in the first Stamp Act riot, on August 14, 1765. The next day, Cyrus Baldwin wrote to his brother Loammi describing the
riot and reporting Oliver’s resignation: It is reported that Mr Olver the said Stamp Master wrote to the Governor & Counsel that it was not worth while for him or any body else to accept the office of a Stamp Master in this place. . . . Tis hopd what Mr Oliver has Suffer’d will be Sufficient warn- ing to others not to take Offices that Encroach upon American liberty.
Oliver was not alone in that opinion. Many stamp masters throughout the colonies were intimidated into resigning their posts. Oliver’s papers, which offer a fascinating glimpse into the life of a colo- nist who found himself on the wrong side of the burgeoning conflict, reside at the MHS.
MHS Miscellany 2
Chair Charles C. Ames
Co-Vice Chairs Nancy S. Anthony Frederick G. Pfannenstiehl
Secretary Judith Bryant Wittenberg
Treasurer William R. Cotter
The Officers & Board of Trustees of the Massachusetts Historical Society
The Massachusetts Historical Society is an independent research library that collects, preserves, makes accessible, and communicates manuscripts and other materials that promote the study of the history of Massachusetts and the nation—a mission it has pursued since 1791.
Trustees Benjamin C. Adams Oliver F. Ames Frederick D. Ballou Levin H. Campbell, Jr. Joyce E. Chaplin William C. Clendaniel Herbert P. Dane Amalie M. Kass Anthony H. Leness G. Marshall Moriarty Lisa Nurme Lia G. Poorvu Byron Rushing Paul W. Sandman Joseph Peter Spang William N. Thorndike
Life Trustees Bernard Bailyn Leo Leroy Beranek Levin H. Campbell Henry Lee
Trustees Emeriti Nancy R. Coolidge Arthur C. Hodges James M. Storey John L. Thorndike Hiller B. Zobel
President Dennis A. Fiori
MHS Miscellany, no. 108 Periodical Newsletter of the Massachusetts Historical Society
Masthead illustration: “Plan & Elevation of the Tontine Crescent, now erecting in Boston.” From the Massachusetts Magazine, 1794. All images are from the MHS collections unless otherwise credited. The MHS occupied the Tontine Cres- cent from 1794 until 1833.
Front cover: Detail from Boston- Gazette, and Country Journal, October 7, 1765. Back cover: Stephen Minot Weld, January 1862. All pho- tographs by Laura Wulf / all images from MHS collections unless other- wise noted.
Address: 1154 Boylston St. Boston, MA 02215 617-536-1608 www.masshist.org
Hours: The MHS reading room is open to the public free of charge, 9 am to 4:45 pm Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays; 9 am to 7:45 pm on Tues- days; and 9 am to 4 pm on Saturdays.
For more information: Please call ahead or check the website for directions, information about col- lections, reading room policies, holi- day hours, and special events.
Another man much maligned by the patriot cause—the most hated man in Massachusetts, in fact—was Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson. Like Oliver, Hutchinson suffered a mob attack on his property in consequence of the Stamp Act. On August 26, rioters looted and wrecked his Boston home. Another of his properties suffered a different fate: years later, when Hutchinson was exiled and living in Lon- don, James and Mercy Otis Warren, among his most vocif- erous opponents, acquired his country estate in Milton.
Though this article has mused on the unwitting villains of the story, exhibition visitors (and anyone who crosses our threshold, physically or virtually) will be treated to highlights from our matchless collections on the Revolu- tion’s heroes, including John and Abigail Adams, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Joseph Warren, Josiah Quincy, Paul Revere, and many more. It is no accident that the Society’s collecting on the American Revolu- tion has such extraordinary breadth and depth: the MHS was founded in 1791 to collect, preserve, and communicate the young nation’s history, by people who lived through it. Given the richness of our collect- ing, the MHS is naturally the site of significant scholarship on the Revolu- tion. In April, the Society encouraged new scholarly approaches to the topic with the conference “So Sudden an Altera- tion”: The Causes, Course, and Consequences of the American Revolution. The conference featured a key- note address by Woody Holton, the McCausland Professor of History at the University of South Carolina, “‘Not Yet’:
Left: Thomas Hutchinson, portrait by Edward Truman, 1741. Above: Samuel Adams, engraving by Paul Revere, 1774. Facing: Screenshot of the comparison tool feature of Perspectives on the Boston Massacre, a new presentation on the MHS website.
3 Spring 2015 / no. 108
The Originality Crisis in American Revolution Studies,” and a proposal by Boston University Professor of History Bren- dan McConville, “The Great Cycle: The Professional Study of the American Revolution, 1960–2015.” Visit www.masshist.org/collections/online?bmode=topics and browse by “Era of the Revolution” to explore our many online presentations on the topic, and come investigate the nation’s complicated past in the halls of our 1154 Boylston Street building. God Save the People! From the Stamp Act to Bunker Hill is on display from February 27 to September 4, 2015; it is free and open to the public Monday through Satur- day from 10 am to 4 pm.
From the President I often get questions about our location. Now it cannot be missed. By the time you read this, the walls of our build- ing will have been transformed into a huge poster—in the form of a wrap that surrounds the scaffolding supporting our latest building conservation project. The balustrade
capping our walls has badly deterio- rated due to what is called rust jacking. Unknown to us, water had been leaking into the roof beams for decades. As they rusted, encrustation grew, which pushed up the limestone balustrade. Not until the tilting and cracking were identified during an engineer’s routine structural inspection did the problem become evi- dent. Over the winter, the same Indiana quarry that produced the balustrade in 1899 worked to create an exact copy, now being installed along with a new roof. A
national register landmark designed by the noted Boston architect Edmund M. Wheelwright, our headquarters is our
largest artifact, deserving of the care we take to maintain all of our collections. When the scaffolding comes down in July, we hope you won’t notice the change, but our gigantic poster will certainly be missed.
Nine Civil War Collections Digitized &
Microfilmed The Society has more than 3,600 separate collections of family and personal papers, and for 224 years, the MHS has balanced preservation and accessibility issues relat- ing to those historical materials. We have achieved goals in both areas for 9 Civil War manuscript collections thanks to a recently completed project funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services through a program admin- istered by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commis- sioners. MHS staff digitized ev