If This Be Treason...'


After England announced its infamous Stamp Tax in 1765, most Americans seethed quietly and waited for the inevitable, much like taxpayers today would react. But rebellious Britons had overcome a similar oppression two years earlier, and it served as an inspiration. A permanent standing army In 1763, following England's victory in the French and Indian War, Parliament had decided to keep about eight thousand troops in the American colonies on the pretext of intimidating the Indians. But since the army had dissolved every one of its Indian fighting units, it was clear the ministry's real objective was intimidating the colonists. As a partial means to fund this force, Parliament proposed a tax on cider, which was produced in England's West Country. Despite heated opposition, it became law, touching off massive protests. Inspired by John Wilkes' newspaper North Briton, the people of West Country rose in rebellion, chanting Wilkes' slogan, 'Liberty, Property, and No Excise!' Effigies of Prime Minister Lord Bute were hung and set ablaze in bonfires. The rioters marched, demonstrated, resisted. But most importantly, they refused to pay the tax and harassed the tax collectors. Though the government sent the army to West Country to subdue the protests, Parliament relented two years later and repealed the tax. The failure of the cider tax left British leadership undeterred. They would simply shift the burden of supporting the army to the colonists. The Stamp Tax approaches On March 8, 1765, the Stamp Bill became law, to take effect on November 1. For all printed transactions, colonists would have to buy officially stamped paper from the Crown's Board of Stamp Commissioners. Newspapers, pamphlets, dice, playing cards, wills, leases, deeds -- just about everything and everyone was affected. In addition, no newspaper or pamphlet could be published without the name of the printer or author, which worked to suppress critics of government policy. When news of the Stamp Act reached the colonies in April, most people fell into shocked silence. They hated it, but who were they to oppose the mighty British? Newspaper editors sent each other wooden shoes befitting their forthcoming status as slaves. A firebrand speaks out in Virginia On May 20, a new member took his seat in Virginia's House of Burgesses -- the fiery lawyer and orator, Patrick Henry. In getting elected, Henry had spent more than eight pounds sterling -- seven pounds to buy 28 gallons of rum, the rest to carry it to the polls. Henry drafted five resolutions condemning the Stamp Act, then presented them to the House on May 29, coincidentally his 29th birthday. The older, more conservative members bristled. Who was this upstart and why was he trying to antagonize the ministry? When Henry ended his speech saying that some good American would do to George III what Brutus had done to Caesar, Speaker John Robinson flew into a rage and accused him of treason. 'If this be treason,' Henry famously replied, 'make the most of it.' Henry eventually apologized, saying he was speaking from a passionate interest in 'his country's dying liberty.' After accepting his apology, the House passed his resolutions by a narrow margin. Henry's supporters offered two more resolutions, more radical and sharply-worded than the others, but both were soundly defeated. Believing his work finished, Henry headed home. The Old Guard, taking advantage of his absence, succeeded in rescinding all of the Resolves. A supreme irony Joseph Royle, editor of Virginia's only newspaper, the Virginia Gazette, was so offended by the resolutions that he refused to acknowledge them in print. But this didn't prevent them from wide distribution. Henry and his supporters fed them to other newspapers as if they had passed the House. The Resolves spread like wildfire throughout the colonies, awakening people to the possibility of action. On June 24, the Newport, Rhode Island Mercury became the first newspaper to print the Resolves, believing the House of Burgesses had passed all seven of them. The people were behind them, but only mass action could stop the Stamp Act. The question was, who would lead the protests? Boston's great radical Many colonial radical leaders found the Resolves treasonable. But not Samuel Adams. In the early summer of 1765, Adams organized a diverse group of Bostonians called the Loyal Nine. Their job was to lead mob action against the royally-appointed stamp distributor in Massachusetts, Andrew Oliver. On the morning of August 14, a growing crowd gathered near an effigy of Oliver hanging from a 100-year-old elm known as the Liberty Tree. At dusk they took the effigy down and carried it in a mock funeral procession to Oliver's new stamp distribution building, chanting 'Liberty, Property and No Stamps!' They razed the building, then marched to Oliver's home, beheaded the effigy, and showered his house with stones. They then climbed a nearby hill and ceremoniously stamped Oliver's effigy before burning it in a huge bonfire. By the time the mob returned to Oliver's home threatening to kill him, he had escaped to a military post on the island of Castle William. Royal Governor Francis Bernard quickly followed. His efforts to summon the militia had failed, since the drummers were part of the crowd. Oliver resigned his post, and the other colonies eagerly followed Boston's example. In some cases, stamp masters quit before mob action got underway. England repealed the Stamp Act in March 1766, but not before asserting full parliamentary authority over the colonies in the Declaratory Act. For years, the colonists celebrated August 14 as 'a happy day, on which liberty arose from a long slumber.' Will today's Americans someday celebrate a rebirth of liberty? Our colonists killed the Stamp Tax. Are we up to doing away with the income tax?

For further reading, see: Langguth, A. J., Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution, Touchstone Books, New York, 1988. Rothbard, Murray N., Conceived in Liberty, Vol. III Advance to Revolution, 1760-1775, Mises Institute, Auburn, AL, 1999.

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George F. Smith is the author of The Flight of The Barbarous Relic, a novel about a renegade Fed chairman.  Visit his website.