Firebrand Of The Revolution


On the morning of August 14, 1765, the effigy of old Andrew Oliver, Boston distributor of stamps, hung from the Liberty Tree, a great oak in Hanover Square. Sam inspected the stuffed figure with care and wondered aloud how it got there. That night a mob knocked down the frame of the stamp office and built a fire of the debris in front of Oliver’s house. After burning the decapitated effigy, they made the real Oliver swear to resign at the Liberty Tree—which he did, finally, under the added humiliation of a driving December rainstorm.

Sam was pleased. The event, he announced, “ought to be for ever remembered in America,” for on that day “the People shouted; and their shout was heard to the distant end of this Continent.” Two weeks later rioters sacked and gutted the mansion of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson, emptying his wine cellar and scattering his papers in the street.

On November 1, 1765, the day the Stamp Act went into effect, church bells tolled as for the dead. Flags hung at half-mast; from the harbor rolled the dull boom of minute guns. For the next six weeks the people of Boston refused to buy stamps. Port business came to a halt, law courts tried no cases. Sam had warned the farmers: “If our Trade may be taxed why not our Lands? Why not the Produce of our Lands and in short everything we possess or make use of?” He doubly damned the stamp revenue by prophesying that it would be used to fasten an episcopacy on puritan New England. In the provincial House, to which he had been elected in September, Sam had a gallery installed to bring waverers under the accusing eye of his patriots. He and his colleague James Otis published a black list of those House members whose antagonism to the act lacked proper vigor. Frightened stamp officials fled for protection to Castle William in the harbor. Enforcement collapsed, and early in the next year Parliament repealed the act. But Sam did not join in Boston’s celebration. Why rejoice, he grimly demanded, when Parliament has only granted us our just due?

The defeat of the Stamp Act suggested that no one in the colonies could hatch and execute a scheme with half Sam’s cunning. His strategy was to let Britain make all the moves and then give her a bloody nose. “It is a good maxim in Politicks as well as War,” he counselled, “to put and keep the enemy in the wrong.” Britain soon obliged again. In May, 1767, Parliament launched a series of colonial bills named for their sponsor, Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Townshend Acts placed import duties on painters’ colors, glass, lead, paper, and tea. At the same time they set up Commissioners of Customs with broad powers, authorized search warrants, and specified that the revenue would be used to pay Crown officials previously salaried (and therefore in part controlled) by the colonies.

Sam worked hard at nonimportation as the chief weapon against the Townshend Acts. By 1769 all the colonies had joined in the boycott. Sam revelled in their unity: “The tighter the cord of unconstitutional power is drawn round this bundle of arrows, the firmer it will be.”

To enforce the boycott in Boston, gangs ranged outside the homes of Tory merchants by night, and small boys pelted their customers with dirt and dung by day. One shopkeeper, more obstinate than the rest, was ridden out of town to the gallows and loosed only when he swore never to return. Tories slept with loaded pistols by their beds. Governor Francis Bernard pleaded for military protection, and in September of 1768 two regiments of soldiers sailed in from Halifax. They set up guardposts, and levelled a pair of cannon at the town hall.

Overnight Governor Bernard became the most hated man in Massachusetts. The House demanded his removal; at Harvard, students slashed his portrait. Sam denounced him as “a Scourge to this Province, a curse to North America, and a Plague on the whole Empire.” Recalled to England, Bernard sailed at the end of July, 1769, leaving Hutchinson to act as governor in his place. Despite Sam’s outraged cry that Boston was now an occupied town, the troops remained, and he began sending a periodic Journal of Events to other colonies, accusing the redcoats of beating defenseless boys and raping women.

Early in March, 1770, a soldier was injured in a scuffle with dockmen. One morning soon after, the town was plastered with forged notices, allegedly signed by redcoats, promising a broad-scale attack on the townspeople. That night, March 5, as a bright moon shone on the late snow, a crowd gathered in front of the Custom House. It began to taunt the nine-man guard; snowballs and brickbats flew, the guard fired, and five citizens were left dead or dying.