Investigating US History

The Stamp Act Protests

Tar and Feather
 
Angelo Angelis
Hunter College

Overview

Did a 1 cent stamp launch the American Revolution?

"Such another Experiment as the Stamp-Act wou'd produce a general Revolt in America." - George Mason, 1766.

In March 1765, the British Parliament announced a stamp tax. Beginning that November, American colonists would be charged taxes on a variety of printed items, including newspapers, wills, and playing cards. In most cases, the tax would be small, beginning at a half-penny. The response was surprising, at least to the men in Britain who had designed and approved the tax. American colonists, having recently fought in support of Britain, rose up in protest against the tax before it went into effect. The protests began with petitions, led to refusals to pay the tax, and eventually to property damage and harassment of officials. The Stamp Act protests established a pattern of action against British officials that would, in some cases, involve physical assault, as shown in the image to the right. We will take a closer look at this and other images and evidence in exercises that follow. But consider these questions for now. What would cause Americans to act in this manner?   Was the tax that expensive? Or were other issues at play?   But watch out.

Stamp agents are on their way and Sons of Liberty are on the prowl!
three stamps

 

Goals and Questions:

Goals

  • To introduce students to major issues, events, and questions related to the origins of the American Revolution.
  • To demonstrate the value of point and counterpoint in assessing history.
  • To exercise students' analytical skills using primary and secondary sources.

Questions

Origins (Causes)

  • Why did the British impose the Stamp Tax?
  • Why did the American colonists resist?

Immediate Consequences (Effects)

  • What form did colonial resistance take?
  • How did social and economic status influence the role colonists played in the protests?
  • Did the protests lead to repeal of the Stamp Act?

Long-term Consequences (Effects)

  • What effect did protest and appeal have on colonial politics?
  • What effect did repeal have on British policy concerning the colonies?

Background reading

 

 

Activities

Activity 1: Why the Stamp Act? And why all the fuss?

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For an original copy of the text of the Stamp Act and a complete transcript from the NATIONAL ARCHIVES website.

Investigating the Origins

Interrogating the Evidence

Historians begin with a question or set of questions. They use these questions to examine evidence or sources in order to develop and support their arguments. This exercise asks you to examine a group of sources against a series of questions given below. Be sure that you create a set of reading notes for your responses. You will need them later in this module.

Read.

Pose the Following Questions

  • What was Parliament's stated purpose for the tax, as it appears in the introduction of the Stamp Act?
  • How did Parliament's position compare with Benjamin Franklin's testimony?
  • Which colonists would be most opposed to the tax and which taxable item would most likely effect their decision?

Writing Exercise

Use the discussion board for your response.

Historians share their ideas with each other in a way that allows for a free exchange of interpretations. This exercise asks you to do this with your classmates using the discussion board assigned by your instructor.

  • Pick one of the colonists and post a brief comment that explains why that particular colonist would be likely to oppose the stamp tax.
  • Comment on at least two other postings that include colonists other than the one you chose.
  • Respond to at least two of the comments made about your original posting.

OPTIONAL SECONDARY EXERCISE FOR IN-CLASS DEBATE.

As assigned by the instructor.

  1. Read the biography of Thomas Dawes. [Click here]
  2. Consider the following question: How would Dawes have reacted to crowd actions protesting the Stamp Act in 1765 and to a similar crowd action in 1788?

Activity 2: What form did colonial resistance take?

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George Grenville
First Lord of the Treasury and later Prime Minister

"Mr. Grenville strongly urg'd not only the power but the right of Parliament to tax the colonys, and hop'd in Gods Name … that none would dare dispute their Sovereignty."  
- Edward Monatague

Investigating the protests

Interrogating the evidence

Historians draw their evidence from a variety of sources, including documents, vital records (such as birth certificates), images and artifacts (things people make and use).   This exercise asks you to draw on a combination of documentary and visual evidence. Examine the evidence against the suggest questions and make notes for later use.

The protest in ideas and words

Read two of the following documents. Which specific words, phrases, or ideas appear particularly important or useful in communicating an idea? Who was the audience for the documents you selected.

The protest in action

Read two of the following reports of the protests.   How did protests work? Who attended? Who or what was targeted? What was done?

Thomas Hutchinson, Account of the Stamp Mob

John Holt, Account of the Stamp Act Riots

William Bull, To the Board of Trade
 
The protest in images

Examine the following images . What do they add to the documentary evidence above?

  1. A Crowd In Protest                                                
  2. Protestors Burn an Officials House           
  3. Hanged in Effigy
  4. Tea Act Spoon           
  5. Tea Pot
  6. Affix Stamp Here

Writing Exercise

 

Use the discussion board for your response.

Create your own crowd action

  1. Return to the short biographies
  2. Pick a speaker, crowd leader, and crowd participant using what you have learned in the analytical exercise.
  3. The speaker should be someone who was likely to have written one of the protests or resolutions listed under The Protest in Words .
  4. The crowd leader should be someone who was in a position to recruit and lead the crowd.
  5. The crowd participant should be someone who was willing and able to carry out the physical requirements of the protest.
  6. Determine where your crowd would meet to plan the protest and what action they would agree to take.
  7. Post your choices and provide a brief reason to support each one.
  8. Respond to at least two other postings.

 

Activity 3: Investigating The Consequences

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William Pitt 1708-1778

Interrogating Sources

History can be examined by recreating events in a realistic context. This exercise asks you to do your own recreation by drawing on what you have already learned from your examination and analysis of the evidence and by looking at models drawn from the period we are investigating.

•  Examine the following evidence and consider what they tell you about the British and patriot responses to the repeal or ending of the Stamp Act.

  1. Images of Miss Anne Stamp , the Obelisk , the Stamp Act Spoon and Tea Pot, along with the text that accompanies each of them.
  2. Text of King George III, Repeal of the Stamp Act
  3. and the Declaratory Act.
  4. Read the quotation from William Pitt:

“Upon the whole, I will beg leave to tell the House what is really my opinion. It is, that the Stamp Act be repealed absolutely, totally, and immediately; that the reason for the repeal should be assigned, because it was founded on an erroneous principle. At the same time, let the sovereign authority of this country over the colonies be asserted in as strong terms as can be devised, and be made to extend every point of legislation whatsoever: that we may bind their trade, confine their manufactures, and exercise every power whatsoever - except that of taking money out of their pockets without their consent.”

From William Pitt's Speech to Parliament on Repeal of the Stamp Act

 

Full text of Pitt's Speech (click on context for information on the speech.)

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Writing Exercise

Submit your response as directed by your instructor.   But consider how you might construct and present your response to look as much like it would have in 1765.

  • Write a brief editorial on the meaning of repeal from either the American or the British perspective (as assigned by your instructor).
  • Or create a political cartoon from one of these perspectives that satirizes (makes political humor) the actions of the opposition.
  • Base your editorial or cartoon on what you have learned from the combined exercises and from the material presented on the repeal of the Stamp Act.

OPTIONAL VIEWING ACTIVITY

Reading an image?

“The Bostonians paying the excise-man, or tarring and feathering,” Philip Dawe [?], 1774 . This tinted engraving depicts the tarring and feathering of John Malcolm, a Commissioner of Customs, by the Sons of Liberty a little less than a decade after the Stamp Act protests. It also appeared in other versions

The image had multiple meanings for contemporaries. The read it as a larger message, but also took note of the specific symbols and phrases contained within the image.   These symbols and phrases connected to ideas and events that took place during the protests that lead up to the moment of Malcolm's punishment.  

How would 18 th Century Americans read this image? Read the image yourself and look for the different meanings and ideas it contains. (Some key symbols and phrases contained within circles). Click on the icon below when you have finished your reading for additional information on the symbols and phrases contained in this image.

DETAILED IMAGE

  1. The noose might be a general threat or a symbol that represented the popular use of effigies in protests.
  2. THE LIBERTY TREE
  3. Although it is unclear in this image, the poster, which hangs upside down, says “STAMP ACT.”   Hanging the sign upside down may indicate surrender on the part of the British, since there is a tradition that flags are hung upside down to signal surrender.
  4. This outfit identifies the participant as a sailor. The leather apron on the man next to him identifies him as an artisan. Why were they involved?
  5. The liquid used would be distasteful and likely to promote vomiting—possibly vinegar.
  6. The official's costume is the result of TARRING AND FEATHERING. It was a painful and dangerous practice that covered the subject with hot tar, rolled him in chicken feathers, and subjected him to public ridicule.
  7. BOSTON TEA PARTY
  8. Liberty cap on a pole, a symbol of the American Revolution and the SONS OF LIBERTY.

A SECOND IMAGE

Instructor's Annotations

The module as a whole requires more time than most instructors can allow for this particular topic. For this reason the module presents information, sources, questions and assignments as individual segments to be used by instructors as needed in their courses.

For example, you may choose to substitute on-line and in-class discussions for writing assignments, or assign writing where the module calls for discussion.   You may also design your own assignments in conjunction with any segment or combination of segments presented in the module.   A third alternative would be to have individuals or groups of students work on specific segments and offer their conclusions as class presentations.

The module also lends itself to a variety of additional assignments that ask students to complete additional research or to draw on their creative abilities.   Some suggested examples include:

  • Assign students to develop their own political cartoons on an event in the American Revolution or perhaps on a current political or social event.
  • Use one or more segments of the module to develop discussions or assignments on political satire. An effective comparison can be made between satire in the Revolutionary period and political and social satire in later periods under consideration in the course.   Also consider programming and formats that are popular with your students to draw comparisons with current satire.
  • A more in depth exploration of the history and variations of the song “Yankee Doodle” would introduce students to the use of song and poetry as propaganda and satire.   Students can also consider and present current popular music that contains social or political statements. Other music from the American Revolution can be found at:

http://www.halcyondaysmusic.com/colonialmusic/index.htm

http://www.earlyamerica.com/music/

http://library.thinkquest.org/TQ0312848/music.htm

http://www.americanrevolution.org/warsongs.html

  • A possible assignment might ask students to write a stanza on some other aspect of the American Revolution that would fit the tune of “Yankee Doodle” or another tune from the period.
  • Have students work in groups to develop skits or short plays that would present some aspect of the Stamp Act protests or related events. The presentations can be dramatic or satiric.
  • The class can work as a whole or in groups to produce a Stamp Act documentary or to film their skits and plays.
  • Assign students to research and write a biography on historical persons used in this module or on other men and women who lived through the American Revolution.
  • Students can research the role various groups played in the protests or in the American Revolution as a whole.   These might include women, African-Americans, Native Americans, Loyalists and Quakers.
  • Assign students to research local history in the American Revolution, if it is applicable to your geographic area.
  • Have students work in groups to present the British and Loyalist perspectives of the Stamp Act protest or the protests in general.

SUGGESTED READINGS AND RESOURCES

BOOKS AND JOURNALS

Adair, Douglass.   “ The Stamp Act in Contemporary English Cartoons .” The William and Mary Quarterly (October 1953): 538-542.

Bullion, John L.   “ British Ministers and American Resistance to the Stamp Act, October- December 1765 .” The William and Mary Quarterly > (January 1992): 89-107.

Granger, Bruce Ingham. “The Stamp Act in Satire.” American Quarterly (Winter, 1956): 368-384.

Morgan, Edmund. Prologue to Revolution: Sources and Documents on the Stamp Act Crisis, 1764-1766. University of North Carolina Press, 1959.

________.   The Stamp Act Crisis.   University of North Carolina Press, 1953.

Newcomb, Benjamin H.   “ Effects of the Stamp Act on Colonial Pennsylvania Politics.” The William and Mary Quarterly (April 1966): 257-272.

Ritcheson, Charles R.   “ The Preparation of the Stamp Act .” The William and Mary Quarterly 10 (October 1953):543-559.

British Politics and the Stamp Act Crisis: The First Phase of the American Revolution, 1763-1767.   Clarendon Press, 1975.

Thompson “Massachusetts and New York Stamp Acts .” The William and Mary Quarterly (April 1969): 253-258.

Weslager, C. A.   The Stamp Act Congress: With an Exact Copy of the Complete Journal.   University of Delaware Press, 1976.

 

DOCUMENTARIES

Prelude to Revolution [videorecording].   Produced by Charles Cahill and Associates; director, Pat Shields. AIMS Media, 1967.

Taxation without Representation [videorecording]. Produced by Charles Cahill and Associates. AIMS Media,1985.

Tea Party Etiquette [videorecording]. American Social History Project of City University of New York. American Social History Film Library, 1987.

 

WEBSITES

PBS LIberty! The American Revolution

American Revolution.Org

Digital History

From Revolution to Reconstruction

Spy Letters of the American Revolution

Teaching American History.org

The American Archives: Documents of the American Revolution

The American Revolution: National Discussions of Our Revolutionary Origins

The Avalon Project: A Documentary History of the American Revolution

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

The National Archives: Images of the American Revolution

U.S. History.Org