Rebellion, constitutional and unconstitutional ¬— Massachusetts State Quarter Coin

Today, the Massachusetts State Quarter Coin remembers the Stamp Act that was effective November 1, 1765 and the rebellion against the British requirement.

In 1972, the Massachusetts Historical Society published the Journals of the House of Representatives of Massachusetts 1765-1766.

An excerpt from the Introduction written by Malcolm Freiberg, Editor of Publications described the acts of rebellion against the Stamp Act:


“I dare say there is not a family between Canada and Pensecola that has not heard the name of the stamp act,” wrote an individual in a position to know, soon after the Massachusetts House ended its 1765— 1766 sessions, “and but very few tho perhaps intirely ignorant what it is but what have some formidable apprehensions of it.

“A gentleman some miles distant from me in the country,” he continued, “had occasion to send his servant in a dark evening to the barn and finding he had not gone as he was orderd enquired the reason. The servant told him he was afraid. Afraid — of what — of the stamp act.”

Not all Americans were so ignorant in the mid-1760s as the nameless country bumpkin. Most had heard of the Stamp Act — due to become effective on November 1, 1765 — and most had no love for it.

In levying a tax on the use of virtually every type of document, the statute was a kind of Universal Presence that Americans deplored as an invasion of privacy; worse, such taxes were imposed on them by Parliament, a legislature in which they were not, could not, and did not want to be represented.

In the lower house of the Massachusetts legislature, as the pages ahead indicate, the statute that Great Britain had imposed on her American colonies must be resisted — stoutly, firmly, and constitutionally.

More common folk who thought about the matter seemed to agree: the legislation must be resisted — stoutly, firmly, and, if necessary, unconstitutionally.

As the province charter required, the new House assembled for its first meetings on the last Wednesday of May 1765.

The usual housekeeping details — calling the roll, electing officers, choosing the Council (the upper house of the General Court) — attended to, the lawmakers then heard the Rev. Andrew Eliot deliver the annual Election Sermon and Gov. Francis Bernard open the sessions of the new General Court with the customary speech.

Now, in this year of incipient crisis, his remarks were perhaps more political than they might have been in 1764.

The heads of his discourse were but two: the character of a good ruler, and the duty of subjects. Both topics seemed summed up in Eliot’s observation that “Wisdom and integrity are always necessary to constitute a good ruler; but when the state of a people is perplexed and difficult, it requires more attention. . . . Such a critical season … is the present . . . when all orders of men are so generally alarmed . . . and apprehend their most valuable privileges in danger.”

Governor Bernard mentioned to the lawmakers such domestic concerns as potash, hemp, and lumber and concluded with oblique references to the Stamp Act as ultimately beneficial, to Parliament as a sanctuary of liberty and justice, and to George III as a patriot king.

Although the usual committees were named to respond to the governor’s remarks, no reply was forthcoming.

As a contemporary observed, “This Speech the House did not Answer, perhaps they did not understand it. Who Could?”

Perilous times indeed, when ministers spoke of endangered privileges and politicians of ashes, rope, and wood.

The assembled representatives indicated their understanding of the “critical season” by initiating a call, little more than a week into their first session, for a meeting of committees from the “several British colonies on this Continent, to consult together on the present Circumstances of the Colonies” to take place in New York City on the first Tuesday of October 1765.

This was, of course, what has ever since been known as the Stamp Act Congress; it was the first such inter-colonial gathering since the great Albany Congress of 1754; and Massachusetts’ representatives were responsible for its taking place.

Indeed, there were those who said that James Otis, Jr., one of the four members from Boston, was the prime mover.

The book in your hands indicates that he was on the nine-man committee that drafted the circular letter calling for the Congress and that he was one of the three delegates — the others were Col. Oliver Partridge and Brig. Timothy Ruggles — whom the Massachusetts House sent to the October meetings in New York.

And still another Massachusetts man was there: John Cotton, deputy secretary of the province, served as clerk to the Congress.

Soon after the close in late June of the first session of the General Court, copies of the Virginia Resolves arrived in the capital and were printed in the Boston newspapers.

Some in Boston, Otis among them, thought they amounted to treason.

But Oxenbridge Thacher, another Boston representative, said of the Virginians, “they are men! they are noble spirits!”

And Francis Bernard, whose private thoughts were often more perceptive than his public utterances, called the Resolves an “Alarm Bell to the disaffected.”

And so they were, as the common folk in Boston were soon to demonstrate.

When the Stamp Act Congress convened at New York early in October, it was a week late in starting, and only nine colonies had sent delegates, 27 in all.

Its first day was occupied with presentation of credentials; its second began with the selection of a chairman and a clerk. Timothy Ruggles of Massachusetts “appeared to have a Majority” of the votes and was chosen chairman; John Cotton of Massachusetts was chosen “Clerk to the Congress” without a dissenting vote.

The Congress then got down to business, for the next week and a half (Sunday only excepted) considering the “Rights and Privileges of the British American Colonists, with the several Inconveniencies to which they are, and must be subjected, by the Operation of the several late Acts of Parliament, particularly the Act called the stamp-act.”

Did John Cotton keep minutes of the debates? If he did, they appear not to have survived.

What has survived are the results of the deliberations — the so-called Declarations of the Congress, adopted on Saturday, October 19, and separate messages to George III, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons, adopted on Monday, the 21st.

After a recommendation that the colonies appoint special agents in England in order to present petitions there, adjournment of the Congress was in sight.

Stoutly, firmly, and constitutionally, the Stamp Act Congress had protested Parliamentary taxation.

By the time Massachusetts’ delegates returned home from New York, their efforts there seemed superseded by events in Boston, events that had transpired soon after the call for the Congress had first issued in June.

The arrival in Boston in July of the Virginia Resolves was followed by the appearance early the next month of the stamp distributor for Connecticut, Jared Ingersoll.

En route home from England, Ingersoll spent a few days in Boston and was seen in company with Andrew Oliver, the longtime province secretary.

Himself the stamp distributor for Massachusetts, Oliver courteously but unwisely accompanied Ingersoll out of town when the latter departed for Connecticut.

By August 14, the kindly Oliver was the object of the worst rioting Boston had seen for almost two decades.

After leveling a brick building on Oliver’s Dock which they thought had been erected as a stamp office, rioters made their way to Oliver’s home, “took Possession went from Top to Bottom satisfied themselves with good Cheer broke all his Glass Windows &c.”

The threat of more of the same on the next night induced Oliver to promise that he would not help carry out the Stamp Act in Massachusetts.

After the events of the 14th, wrote one observer, “I beleve people never was more Univasially pleasd not so much as one could I hear say he was sorry, but a smile sat on almost every ones countinance.”

After Oliver submitted his forced “resignation,” the same observer opined that “Tis hopd. what Mr. Oliver has Suffer’d will be a Sufficient warning to others not to take Offices that Encroach Upon American liberty.”

Behind the proceedings of the 14th and 15th — proceedings that were stout, firm, and unconstitutional — loomed the Stamp Act and Oliver as its nexus in the Bay Province.

Worse was to follow. On the night of Monday, August 26, 1765, there took place in Boston the riot, the one that today every schoolchild has heard of.

It began at dusk, with forays against individuals involved with the local admiralty court and the customs service.

Boston was properly shocked at the carnage of the 26th, the next day voting its “utter detestation of the extra ordinary & violent proceedings” by a “number of Persons unknown.”

Was it for reasons of common fame or common shame or both that the town records and this legislative Journal never once mentioned the names of the victims of the rioting on the 26th?

No one in Boston — and at least some of the participants were known — was ever punished for his involvement in the most serious uprising to date in the town’s history.

The events in the capital during August had been spectacular.

What followed them was by contrast almost ironic — the arrival of the stamps late in September and their safe deposit at Castle William, the Stamp Act Congress at New York City in October, and the inception of the Stamp Act on November 1 without incident.

And during the balance of the legislative year, much else would transpire in the Massachusetts House of Representatives relating to the Stamp Act.

It would indicate that whereas country bumpkins might not understand the Stamp Act and so feared it, the elected representatives of the people did understand it and so despised it.

Even the arrival of the joyous news, in the spring of 1766, of the repeal of the Stamp Act did not diminish their mistrust of putative favorers of that piece of legislation.

When a new General Court came into being late in May 1766, its composition would indicate that unhappy memories were long and suspicions of complicity durable, as the next volume in this series will indicate.


The Massachusetts State Quarter Coin shows with a German artist’s portrayal of the Bostonians’ resistance to the Stamp Act in 1765.

Massachusetts State Quarter Coin