The Day the Presses Went Silent

nypl.digitalcollections.95aa698d-b65d-5d52-e040-e00a18064066.002.w250 years ago today, the Stamp Act was in legal effect throughout the British North American colonies—including not only the “Thirteen Colonies” but also British possessions in Canada and the West Indies. As those who study the American Revolution know, the matter was rather different when it came to the on-the-ground impact.

In Canada and the West Indies, many colonists protested, but nearly all undertook to follow the law, which required that a stamp appear on nearly all printed documents, ranging from almanacs and newspapers to legal documents such as bills of lading and wills. On the mainland, the protests were both more virulent and more sustained. During the summer and fall of 1765, colonists gathered in town squares, underneath “Liberty Trees,” and marched through towns with effigies of the appointed stamp officers, George Grenville, and Lord Bute. They began to organize as “Sons of Liberty” to oppose the act’s passage and enforcement. And by the end of October, these groups had forced the resignations of stamp officers in each of the thirteen colonies (though a few did not yet know they were resigning, as they were still in transit from England on November 1).

Such, at least, is the standard narrative, one well chronicled over sixty years ago by Edmund and Helen Morgan, and one which historians (present company included) are only just beginning to revise. With the 250th anniversary upon us, a number of scholars have commemorated the event in public, in particular the excellent blogging of Boston 1775. In my own Revolutionary America course, students have worked to create a Twitter feed (@KillingStamp) that chronicles the protests as they were happening 250 years ago.

With the anniversary of the effective date (November 1) now upon us, however, I think it’s important to reflect on one element of the Stamp Act crisis that we can often too easily overlook: uncertainty. That is, on November 1, uncertainty hung like a cloud over the colonies where protesters had attempted to (usually successfully) nullify the Act. Printers did not know whether they could continue to publish their newspapers, and if they did, whether they would come under sanction by the British government. They undertook a range of solutions to that problem, from shutting their presses down entirely to printing anonymously (in Boston, they thumbed their noses at Parliament and continued to put their names on the mastheads and colophons). Courts did not know whether they could legally operate with unstamped documents—even in Massachusetts, where opposition was strongest. Many shut down for the winter of 1765 and spring of 1766.

Everywhere, therefore, colonists were uncertain, because even if they had thwarted the enforcement of the Act, it was still in effect, and legally each printer who published, each merchant and lawyer who did business, was subject to a penalty of fines or imprisonment for acting without stamps. Even the staunchest foe of the Stamp Act, in other words, had no idea whether the nullification would stick, or whether the British ministry, acting through its governors and officers in the colonies, would be able to enforce the law.

Capturing that uncertainty is a difficult challenge for historians: we know how the story ends. And to make matters worse, the very nature of the Stamp Act as a tax on printed matter means that our sources change on November 1. The decisions that printers made—to publish or not, to use their names or not—have enormous implications for how we study the Stamp Act.[1] Through the end of October, we have a plentiful collection of printed accounts detailing the protests in each port city, the declarations forced upon stamp officers, the legal arguments of political elites, and the actions of governors and others who thought the law must be enforced. After November 1, we lose contact with some ports entirely; printers in both Annapolis and Charleston completely shut their presses for six months, for example. In other places, we must rely on bibliographers and others would can trace the anonymously printed sheets titled “No Stamped Paper to be Had” to a specific printing office. The story moves into manuscripts, letters and other notes, and constricts to the cities that continued printing.

The Morgans described the Stamp Act crisis as the “prologue to revolution.” Fred Anderson re-framed it in his book, Crucible of War, as a consequence of the Seven Years War. But on November 1, 1765, colonists weren’t thinking about either of those events (of course, in the case of the Revolution). They were uncertain. They knew they had succeeded at nullifying the Act. No one had any idea what came next.


[1] As some of you know, I’m currently working on a book manuscript in which I will discuss further the ways in which printers and the printing trade shaped political protests, including an entire chapter on the Stamp Act crisis. Stay tuned.

One response


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: