Late in the spring of 1765, word of Parliament’s passage of the Stamp Act, one of the so-called Grenville Acts (named for George Grenville, Prime Minister of Great Britain and King George III’s Chancellor of the Exchequer) reached the New World. Parliament had passed the law in March, but of course trans-Atlantic communication at the time was slow and uncertain. Once news of the Act reached the shores of North America, however, it spread quickly through the colonies, prompting protests up and down the Atlantic coast. Patrick Henry addressed Virginia’s House of Burgesses, introducing the Virginia Resolutions challenging the legality of the new tax, and stating “If this be treason, make the most of it!”
Boston’s more radical citizens, including Samuel Adams and James Otis, responded with similar rhetoric, and before long Parliament’s latest outrage was dominating conversations in every tavern in the city.
Ethan Kaille, thieftaker and conjurer, whose life and work in Colonial Boston are the subject of the Thieftaker books and stories, mentions the Stamp Act several times in his day journal during the spring and summer of 1765. The following entry, dated May 30, exactly 247 years ago today, marks his first mention of the law and of the unrest it would provoke in Boston — unrest that culminated in the riots of 26 August, which serve as the backdrop to Thieftaker (to be released July 3).
30 May 1765 — In the past day or two, the entire city, it seems, has been taken with a sort of fever. Everywhere one goes, conversations turn on a single subject, the so-called Stamp Tax passed earlier this year by Parliament. To hear some speak of the law, one might believe that Mister Grenville and His Majesty the King had themselves sailed across the Atlantic and plucked every last pound, shilling, and pence from the pockets of all Boston’s denizens.
Such outrage! Such rhetoric! The King, it is said, is a despot! Grenville is a puppet of the devil himself. The law is an abomination! I’ve heard all of this and worse just here in the Dowsing Rod, spoken with great passion over ales and flips and drams of whiskey.
When I attempt to point out — politely, calmly, in an even voice and with a friendly smile — that surely as subjects of the British Empire we all ought to be willing to pay our share of taxes to the land we all love and honor, I am shouted down, called a traitor and worse!
A traitor! For supporting my king!
Even Kannice, who dotes on me far more than I deserve, treated me quite coolly after I spoke thus of the new law. Somehow this Stamp Tax is perceived differently from other taxes that have come before. Perhaps I lack the subtlety to grasp the difference. Perhaps I am not of the proper disposition to see the law for the affront it clearly is to so many. Whatever the reason, I find myself in the minority, and not merely in Kannice’s tavern.
The passions aroused by the Act, while seeming to me to be all out of proportion with the substance of the law itself, already run deep in this city, and I am afraid that the matter will not simply pass in a few days. It seems that those few who railed against the previous Grenville Acts have managed to sow seeds of discontent. Now the Stamp Tax — like spring rain on fertile ground — has allowed those seeds to sprout and take root. Those who consider the law an outrage see it not as an isolated affair, but rather as the continuation of a pattern of abuse.
Something is happening in this city that I had not considered possible. People here are starting to think of themselves not just as British subjects living remotely from the seat of the Empire, but rather as something else, something different, something unique. This is the only way to explain their refusal to acknowledge Parliament’s authority in this matter.
To my mind, either we who live in Boston are subjects of the king, or we are not. It seems rather simple. But in this, too, I am in the minority, or so it sometimes seems. To many others, we are Americans as well as Britons. An odd phenomenon to be sure — like a bird that tries also to be a fish — and one whose meaning may not be made clear for some time to come.
I fear that the months ahead could prove painful and disruptive; perhaps even dangerous. I see great tumult in Boston’s future, and I believe that none of us can know where it might lead.