Thomas Hutchinson Recounts the Reaction to the Stamp Act in Boston


By the year 1760 there had been eighteen uprisings aimed at overthrowing colonial governments. There had also been six black rebellions, from South Carolina to New York, and forty riots of various origins. That rebellious energy soon began to be turned against England by the important people in the colonies who saw great advantages in freedom from British rule.

The Seven Years' War between France and England (known in America as the French and Indian War) ended in 1763, with the French defeated. Now the English could turn their attention to tightening control over the American colonies. Money was needed to pay for the war, and England looked to the colonies for that. Colonial trade had become important to the British economy.

With the French out of the way, the colonial leadership was less in need of English protection. At the same time, the English were now more in need of the colonies' wealth. So the elements were there for conflict. Especially because the war had brought glory for the generals, death to the privates, wealth for the merchants, and unemployment for the poor. The resulting anger could now be turned against England rather than against the rich men of the colonies.

One notable expression of this anger came in response to the imposition of the Stamp Act. The Stamp Act was a tax laid on the American colonies by the British crown to help alleviate the huge debt that had been accumulated by the costs of the French and Indian War. One of the more explosive reactions to the Stamp Act in 1765 was a series of attacks by a mob in Boston against the home of a rich merchant named Andrew Oliver, one of the officials charged with enforcing the Stamp Act, and then against the house belonging to the lieutenant governor, Thomas Hutchinson, who here describes the events1. William Gordon, who published the first complete history of the American Revolution in 1788, wrote of one of the riots: "Gentlemen of the army, who have seen towns sacked by the enemy, declare they never before saw an instance of such fury." The various violent reactions to the Stamp Act led the British parliament to repeal it.

From Voices of A People's History, edited by Zinn and Arnove

The distributor of stamps for the colony of Connecticut (Jared Ingersoll] arrived in Boston from London; and, having been agent for that colony, and in other respects of a very reputable character, received from many gendemen of the town such civilities as were due to him. When he set out for Connecticut, Mr. [Andrew] Oliver, the distributor for Massachusetts Bay, accompanied him out of town. This occasioned murmuring among the people, and an inflammatory piece in the next Boston Gazette. A few days after, early in the morning, a stuffed image was hung upon a tree, called the great tree of the south part of Boston [subsequently called Liberty Tree]. Labels affixed denoted it to be designed for the distributor of stamps. People, who were passing by, stopped to view it, and the report caused others to gather and the report caused others to gather from all quarters of the town, and many from the towns adjacent. The governor caused the council to be convened. Before they came, to any determination, the sheriff, with his deputies, had been to the place, but, by advice of some of the graver persons present, forbore any attempt to remove the image. The majority of the council, but not the whole, advised not to meddle with it; and urged as a reason, that the people were orderly, and, if left alone, would take down the image, and bury it without any disturbance ; but an attempt to remove it would bring on a riot, the mischief designed to be prevented. The governor, however, thought fit to meet the council again in the afternoon.

Before night, the image was taken down, and carried through the townhouse, in the chamber whereof the governor and council were sitting. Forty or fifty tradesmen, decendy dressed, preceded; and some thousands of the mob followed down King street to Olivers dock, near which Mr. Oliver had lately erected a building, which, it was conjectured, he designed for a stamp office. This was laid flat to the ground in a few minutes. From thence the mob proceeded for Fort Hill, but Mr. Oliver's house being in the way, they endeavored to force themselves into it, and being opposed, broke the windows, beat down the doors, entered, and destroyed part of his furniture, and continued in riot until midnight, before they separated.

The next day, the governor, by advice of council, issued a proclamation, offering a reward for discovering offenders, &c. Many of the offenders were known, and the proclamation was considered as a mere matter of form. Some of the council advised to a military watch in the town the next night, but a majority were against it, and thought it enough to recommend to the select men and justices, to increase the number of the ordinary town watch; but even this was not done. Several of the council gave it as their opinion, Mr. Oliver being present, that the people, not only of the town of Boston, but of the country in general, would never submit to the execution of the stamp act, let the consequence of an opposition to it be what it would. It was also reported, that the people of Connecticut had threatened to hang their distributor on the first tree after he entered the colony; and that, to avoid it, he had turned aside to Rhode-Island. Despairing of protection, and finding his family in terror and great distress, Mr. Oliver came to a sudden resolution to resign his office before another night, and immediately signified, by a writing under his hand, to one of his friends, that he would send letters, by a ship then ready to sail for London, which should contain such resignation; and he desired that the town might be made acquainted with it, and with the strong assurances he had given, that he would never act in that capacity.

This victory was matter of triumph. The mob assembled in the evening; not to insult the distributor, but to give him thanks, and to make a bonfire upon the hill near his house. It was hoped that the people, having obtained all that they desired, would return to order, but, having repeatedly assembled with impunity, a very small pretence served to induce them to re-assemble. The next evening, the mob surrounded the house of the lieutenant-governor and chief justice [Hutchinson's own home]. He was at Mr. Oliver's house when it was assaulted, and had excited the sheriff, and the colonel of the regiment, to attempt to suppress the mob. A report was soon spread, that he was a favourer of the stamp act, and had encouraged it by letters to the ministry. Upon notice of the approach of the people, he caused the doors and windows to be barred; and remained in the house. After attempting to enter, they called upon him to come into the balcony, and to declare that he had not written in favour of the act, and they would retire quite satisfied. This was an indignity to which he would not submit; and, therefore, he made no answer. An ancient reputable tradesman obtained their attention, and endeavoured to persuade them, not only of the unwarrantable-ness of their proceedings, but of the groundlessness of their suspicions of the lieutenant-governor, who might well enough wish the act of parliament had not passed, though he disapproved of the violent opposition to its execution. Some were for withdrawing, and others for continuing; when one of the neighbours called to them from his window and affirmed,, that he saw the lieutenant-governor in his carriage, just before night, and that he was gone to lodge at his house in the country. Upon this, they dispersed, with only breaking some of the glass. These attacks upon two of the principal officers of the crown struck terror into people of inferior rank; rank; and though they saw the danger from this 1765 assumed power in the populace, yet they would give no aid in discountenancing it, lest they should become obnoxious themselves; for there were whisperings of danger from further acts of violence. On Sunday the 25th of August, a sermon was preached, in what was called the West meeting-house, from these words, "I would they were even cut off which trouble you." The text alone, without a comment, delivered from the pulpit at that time, might be construed by some of the auditory into an approbation of the prevailing irregularities. One, who had a chief hand in the outrages which soon followed, declared, when he was in prison, that he was excited to them by this sermon, and that he thought he was doing God service.

Certain depositions had been taken, many months before these transactions, by order of the governor, concerning the illicit trade carrying on; and one of them, made by the judge of the admiralty, at the special desire of the governor, had been sworn to before the lieutenant-governor, as chief justice. They had been shewn, at one of the offices in England, to a person who arrived in Boston just at this time, and he had acquainted several merchants, whose names were in some of the depositions as smugglers, with the contents. This brought, though without reason, the resentment of the merchants against the persons who, by their office, were obliged to administer the oaths, as well as against the officers of the customs and admiralty, who had made the depositions; and the leaders of the mob contrived a riot, which, after some small efforts against such officers, was to spend its principal force upon the lieutenant-governor. And, in the evening of the 26th of August, such a mob was collected in King street, drawn there by a bonfire, and well supplied with strong drink. After some annoyance to the house of the registrar of the admiralty, and somewhat greater to that of the comptroller of the customs, whose cellars they plundered of the wine and spirits in them, they came, with intoxicated rage upon the house of the lieutenant-governor. The doors were immediately split to pieces with broad axes, and a way made there, and at the windows, for the entry of the mob; which poured in, and filled, in an instant, every room in the house.

The lieutenant-governor had very short notice of the approach of the mob. He directed his children, and the rest of his family, to leave the house immediately, determining to keep possession himself. His eldest daughter, after going a little way from the house, returned, and refused to quit it, unless her father would do the like.

This caused him to depart from his resolutions, a few minutes before the mob entered. They continued their possessions until day light; destroyed, carried away, or cast into the street, every thing that was in the house; demolished every part of it, except the walls, as far as lay in their power; and had begun to break away from the brickwork.

The damage was estimated at about twenty-five hundred pounds sterling, without any regard to a great collection of the publick as well as private papers, in the possession and the custody of the lieutenant-governor.

The town was, the whole night, under awe of this mob; many of the magistrates, with the field officers of the militia, standing by as spectators; and no body daring to oppose, or contradict.


1 Thomas Hutchinson Recounts the Reaction to the Stamp Act in Boston (1765). In Thomas Hutchinson, ed. Lawrence Shaw Mayo (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1936), vol. 3, pp. 86-88, 89-90.
The History of the Colony and Province of Massachusetts-Bay

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