The Stamp Act crisis in North Carolina
Harry McKown, “November 1765: The Stamp Act Crisis in North Carolina,” This Month in North Carolina History, November 2006.
Provided by UNC Libraries / North Carolina Collection.
On Saturday, November 16th, 1765, Dr. William Houston, a respected resident of Duplin County, arrived in Wilmington, North Carolina for a short visit. Houston had recently been appointed — to his great surprise, since he had not sought the position — distributor of stamps for the colony of North Carolina under a new revenue law enacted by the Parliament of Great Britain. Houston may have heard that the new tax was unpopular among his fellow colonists, but he quickly learned that the citizens of Wilmington were particularly upset about it. A crowd of three or four hundred people accompanied by drums and flags appeared at his inn and escorted Houston to the courthouse where, in the presence of Wilmington’s mayor and several aldermen, he was told that he would have to resign his position as stamp distributor. Under the circumstances, and not having wanted the job in the first place, Dr. Houston resigned on the spot. This made him the crowd’s hero, and Houston was carried in an armchair back to his inn and toasted by his admirers with “the best Liquors to be had.” More toasting followed around a bonfire that night as opponents of the new tax cheered themselves and their noble endeavor. The assault on Dr. Houston, while no one was harmed and the whole affair was more or less good-natured, was a symptom of a very real and serious division between Great Britain and her American colonies, a division which would soon lead to revolution.
For much of their early history the British colonies in North America had been treated with what has been called benign neglect. Great Britain regulated the colonies’ external trade through a series of navigation acts, but colonial assemblies took over responsibility for their internal affairs, including levying taxes and appropriating money. This changed as a result of the Seven Years War (1756–1763), which Americans knew as the French and Indian War. In North America British and colonial troops fought the French based in Canada, but Great Britain was also engaged in Europe and India in what Winston Churchill called “the first world war.”
Britain made many important gains during the war but at a great cost, and emerged from the conflict determined to bring its colonies under firmer control and raise some of the revenue necessary to support the new empire from colonial sources. As a part of this new policy Britain decided to station a permanent army in America to provide for colonial defense and pay for that army with funds raised in the colonies themselves. To this end Parliament, in March 1765, required that Americans pay a small tax on certain kinds of public papers, such as newspapers, pamphlets, insurance policies, ship’s papers, playing cards, and legal papers. To show that the tax had been paid, a stamp would be affixed to the paper. To the British this seemed reasonable and fair. To many American colonists, however, it violated the custom that direct taxes be levied only by colonial assemblies and the principle that Englishmen could only be taxed by a body in which they were represented. First resistance to the Stamp Act came in Boston, where the property of the stamp distributor was burned and the home of the colonial governor attacked. In response to an invitation from the legislature of Massachusetts, nine colonies sent delegates to the Stamp Act Congress in October 1765.
No delegates from North Carolina attended the Congress, but feeling in the colony, especially in the coastal area, was very much opposed to the tax. Governor William Tryon worked hard to convince North Carolinians to accept the tax, but when HMS Diligence arrived on November 28th bringing the tax stamps, the colonists refused to let them be brought ashore. In mid-January two ships were seized by the British navy in the Cape Fear River for sailing with unstamped papers. A thousand armed colonists forced the release of the ships and their crews. Governor Tryon discovered that he could not rely on magistrates and other law enforcement officials to suppress the disorder since so many of them had joined the protesters. The tension was finally eased by the repeal of the Stamp Act in March 1766. Life in colonial North Carolina returned to normal, but the Stamp Act Crisis had revealed serious, on-going problems in the relationship between Great Britain and the American colonies.
Resistance Before the Revolution THE STAMP ACT ON THE CAPE FEAR. (Extracts from an address delivered by Capt. S. A. Ashe before the North Carolina Society of Colonial Dames at Old Brunswick, N. C.) When the next year  a bill was introduced to carry the resolution into effect, it met with considerable opposition in the House of Commons, for the protests of the colonists were not unheeded. Still, the ministry, under Lord Bute, persisted, and the measure was carried. All America was at once stirred. Bold and courageous action was taken in every colony, but in none was a more resolute spirit manifested than here upon the Cape Bear. The governor was Try on, who had but lately suc- ceeded to that office. He was an officer of the army, a gentle- man by birth and education, a man calculated by his accom- plishments and social qualities to shine in any community. He sought the speaker of the House, and asked him what would he the action of the people. Resistance to the death,” was the prompt reply. That was a warning that was full of meaning. It pledged the speaker to revolution and war in defense of the people’s rights. The Assembly was to meet in May, 17 65. But Tryon astutely postponed the meeting until November, and then dissolved the Assembly. He did not wish the members to meet, confer, con- sult, and arrange a plan of opposition. He hoped by dealing with gentlemen, not in an official capacity, to disarm their an- tagonism and persuade them to a milder course. Vain delu- sion ! The people had been too long trained to rely with confi- dence on their leaders to abandon them now, even though Par- liament demanded their obedience. The first movement was not long delayed. Within two months after the news had come that the odious act had been passed, the people of North Carolina discarded from their use all clothes of British manufacture and set up looms for weav- ing their own clothes. Since Great Britain was to oppress them, they would give the world an assurance of the spirit of independence that would sustain them in the struggle. In October information was received that I)r. Houston, of Duplin County, had been selected in England as stamp master. At [ 91 ] 92 Chronicles of the Cape Fear River once proceedings were taken to nullify the appointment. At that time Wilmington had less than 500 white inhabitants, hut her citizens were very patriotic and very resolute. Rocky Point, fifteen miles to the northward, had been the residence of Maurice Moore, Speaker Moseley, Speaker Swann, Speaker Ashe, Alexander Lillington, John Swann, George Moore, John Porter, Colonel Jones, Colonel Merrick, and other gentlemen of influence. It was the center from which had radiated the influences that directed popular movements. Rearer to Onslow, Duplin, and Bladen than Wilmington was, and the residence of the speaker and other active leaders, it was doubtless there that plans were considered, and proceedings agreed upon that involved the united action of all the neighbor- ing counties. At Wilmington and in its vicinity were Harnett, DeRosset, Toomer, Walker, Clayton, Gregg, Purviance, Eus- tace, Maclaine, and DuBois, while near by were Howe, Smith, Davis, Grange, Ancrum, and a score of others of the loftiest patriotism. All were in full accord with the speaker of the Assembly; all were nerved by the same spirit; all resolved to carry resistance, if need be, to the point of blood and death. We fortunately have a contemporaneous record of some of their proceedings. The North Carolina Gazette , published at Wilmington, in its issue of November 20, 1765, says: On Saturday, the 19th of last month, about 7 o’clock in the evening, near five hundred people assembled together in this town and exhibited the effigy of a certain honorable gentleman; and after letting it hang by the neck for some time, near the courthouse they made a large bonfire with a number of tar barrels, etc., and committed it to the flames. The reason assigned for the people’s dislike to that gentleman was from being informed of his having several times expressed himself much in favor of the stamp duty. After the effigy was consumed, they went to every house in town and brought all the gentlemen to the bonfire, and insisted on their drinking “Liberty, Property, and No Stamp Duty,” and “Confusion to Lord Bute and All His Adherents,” giving three huzzahs at the conclusion of each toast. They continued together until 12 of the clock, and then dispersed without doing any mischief. Doubtless it was a very orderly crowd, since the editor says so. A very orderly, harmless, inoffensive gathering; patriotic, and given to hurrahing ; but we are assured that they dispersed without any mischief. And continues the same paper: On Thursday, the 31st of the same month, in the evening, a great number of people assembled again, and produced an effigy of Liberty, Resistance Before the Revolution 93 which they put in a coffin and marched in solemn procession with it to the churchyard, a drum in mourning beating before them, and the town bell, muffled, ringing a doleful knell at the same time; but before they committed the body to the ground, they thought it advisable to feel its pulse, and, finding some remains of life, they returned back to a bon- fire ready prepared, placed the effigy before it in a large two-armed chair, and concluded the evening with great rejoicings on finding that Liberty had still an existence in the colonies. Not the least injury was offered to any person. The editor of that paper, Mr. Stewart, was apparently anx- ious to let his readers know that the people engaged in these pro- ceedings were the very soul of order and the essence of modera- tion. So far they had done no mischief and offered no injury to any one. But still they had teeth, and they could show them. The next item reads: Saturday, the 16th of this instant, that is November: William Hous- ton, Esq., distributor of stamps for this province, came to this town; upon which three or four hundred people immediately gathered to- gether, with drums beating and colors flying, and repaired to the house the said stamp master put up at, and insisted upon knowing “Whether he intended to execute his said office or not.” He told them, “He should be very sorry to execute any office disagreeable to the people of this province.” *But they, not content with such declaration, carried him into the courthouse, where he signed a resignation satisfactory to the whole. They then placed the stamp master in an armchair, carried him around the courthouse, giving at every corner three loud huzzahs, and finally set him down at the door of his lodging, formed a circle around him, and gave three cheers. They then escorted him into the house, where were prepared the best liquors, and treated him very genteelly. In the evening a large bonfire was made and no person appeared on the streets without having “Liberty” in large letters on his hat. They had a table near the bonfire well furnished with several sorts of liquors, where they drank, in great form, all the favorite American toasts, giv- ing three cheers at the conclusion of each. “The whole was conducted,” says the editor, “with great decorum, and not the least insult offered to any person.’ 7 This enforced resignation of the stamp master was done under x It is not to be inferred from Dr. Houston’s action in this matter, in 1765, that he was in favor of taxation of the colonies by Great Britain. Benjamin Franklin, then the agent of several of the colonies in Lon- don, assumed, as a matter of course, that the Stamp Act would be oper- ative, and he recommended some of his friends to accept the office of stamp master. Dr. Houston did not apply for the appointment, and when the people arrayed themselves against it, he did not oppose them. Also, when, ten years later, the Revolution began, he was in full sym- pathy with other patriots in North Carolina and was a friend of inde- pendence and separation. 94 Chronicles of the Cape Fear River the direction of Alderman DeRosset, who received from Hous- ton his commission and other papers, and necessarily it was a very orderly performance. The ringing huzzas, the patriotic toasts, the loud acclaim, echoing from the courthouse square, reverberated through the streets of the town, but Mr. Stewart is quite sure that no mischief was done, and not the least insult was offered to any person. These and other similar proceedings led the Governor to send out a circular letter to the principal in- habitants of the Cape Fear region, requesting their presence at a dinner at his residence at Brunswick on Tuesday, the 19th of November, three days after Dr. Houston resigned ; and after the dinner, he conferred with these gentlemen about the Stamp Act. He found them fully determined to annul the act and prevent its going into effect. He sought to persuade them, and begged them to let it be observed at least in part. He pleaded that if they would let the act go into partial operation in the respects he mentioned, he himself would pay for all the stamps necessary. It seems that he liked the people, and they liked and admired him, and difficult indeed was his position. He was charged with the execution of a law which he knew could not be executed, for there was not enough specie in the province to buy the necessary stamps, even if the law could be enforced ; but, then, the people were resolved against recognizing it in any degree. The au- thority of the King and of the Parliament was defied, and he, the representative of the British Government, was powerless in the face of this resolute defiance. While still maintaining dig- nity in his intercourse with the people, the Governor wrote to his superiors in London strongly urging the repeal of the law. A week later the stamps arrived in the sloop of war Diligence. They remained on the sloop and were not landed at that time. Now was there a lull ; but the quietude was not to remain unbroken. In January two merchant vessels arrived in the harbor, the Patience and the Dobbs. Their clearance papers were not stamped as the act required. The vessels were seized and detained while the lawfulness of their detention was re- ferred to Attorney General Robert Jones, then absent at his home on the Roanoke. But the leaders of the people were de- termined not to submit to an adverse decision. They held meetings and agreed on a plan of action.