Ornamental Separator

Acting Up

Williamsburg was not resigned to the imposition of the Stamp Act

The Stamp Act is a prominent chapter in the American story. Williamsburg saw plenty of protest and politicking related to the act before and after it was passed in Parliament. Even after its repeal, local citizens saw the Stamp Act’s effects in a series of bizarre events, even igniting a feud between two highly placed Virginia families.

The Stamp Act began routinely enough. As first minister, George Grenville introduced a series of resolutions in Parliament’s House of Commons on March 9, 1764. These resolutions formed the foundation of his plan with a twofold purpose: to regulate commerce in America, where smuggling was rampant, and to offset the tremendous cost of protecting the colonies. The British taxpayer was already overburdened from the Seven Years’ War, and the general sentiment was that America should pay for her own security.

Most of the resolutions were incorporated into what became known as the Sugar Act, but Grenville’s 15th resolution, a possible stamp tax for the American colonies, initiated discussion about whether the colonies should be informed before such a tax became law.

In the end, the colonies were never officially notified or asked to raise the revenue themselves.

Virginians learned of the proposed tax quickly. An ominous letter printed in the Virginia Gazette in April warned of the impending arrival of “ravens, who will feed upon and rip up your very vitals, such as officers of Stamp Duties.” Edward Montague, the Virginia House of Burgesses’ agent in London, had written a letter concerning it on April 11, 1764. By May, indignation over Grenville’s resolution was already aroused. At the June meeting of the Virginia legislature’s Committee of Correspondence, the members directed Robert Carter Nicholas and George Wythe to write to Montague. “The Colony is much alarmed at the Attempt in parliament to lay a Duty,” the committee asserted.

By the fall session of the legislature, members were prepared for formal protest. The House of Burgesses wrote documents that were sent to King George III, the House of Lords and the House of Commons stating Virginia’s opposition to the tax on two premises: The British constitution protected its subjects from taxation without their consent, and Virginia’s charters and past practice gave the House of Burgesses the sole right to tax Virginians.

These protests were ignored. George III signed the Stamp Act into law on March 22, 1765, to take effect Nov. 1.

Williamsburg knew of the Stamp Act’s passage before the end of the spring session of the House of Burgesses. At the Capitol, freshman burgess Patrick Henry introduced his Stamp Act Resolves, a series of resolutions in response to the tax, on May 29. Even though his resolves drew heavily on the opposition documents approved by the House months earlier, the Capitol rang with heated debate that drew a crowd. Henry’s well-known “Caesar-Brutus” speech elicited a cry of “Treason” from the Speaker.

But on May 30, the House approved five resolutions by close votes — the last by only one. House leaders ultimately persuaded the burgesses to expunge the fifth resolution as too radical. Local printer Joseph Royle declined under government pressure to print the four remaining resolves in his Gazette, but printers in other colonies did. They published various numbers of resolves, as many as seven, making Virginia appear more radical than it actually was.

The arrival of George Mercer on Oct. 30 to take up his duties as Virginia’s stamp distributor proved to be Williamsburg’s most dramatic event. The General Court was meeting, and the merchants were meeting at the exchange near the Capitol, so the town was bustling with a “concourse of Gentlemen assembled from all parts of the colony.” The Stamp Act was due to go into effect in two days. Tensions were high. A crowd gathered, determined to coerce Mercer to resign before Nov. 1.

Mercer had arrived by ship in Hampton, Virginia, and had prudently left the stamped paper on board the vessel. He could truthfully say that he had no stamped paper with him, and just as important to him, the paper remained safe. Mercer had posted a sizable bond to ensure he would deliver the revenue engendered by that paper, so its safety was paramount.

Mercer’s own safety was not guaranteed. As he walked from his lodgings through the exchange, he was surrounded by the throng, of which Lt. Gov. Francis Fauquier wrote: “This Concourse of people I should call a Mob, did I not know that it was chiefly if not altogether composed of Gentlemen of property in the Colony some of them at the Head of their Respective Counties, and the Merchants of the Country.”

The crowd demanded that Mercer resign his office. The decision was an important one, Mercer replied, and he needed time to consult with others. He would give them an answer on Nov. 1. But that answer did not satisfy the crowd.

Mercer made his way to Charlton’s coffeehouse porch, where he rightly believed he would find some protection. Indeed, as the crowd kept pressing him for an earlier answer, someone cried, “Let us rush in!” Fauquier and some of his Council then moved to the top of the porch steps, and the crowd fell back. After Mercer promised an answer at the Capitol at 5 p.m. the next day, Fauquier escorted him safely to the Palace. There Fauquier told Mercer that if he were not afraid for his life, “his honor and Interest both demanded he should hold the office,” despite Mercer’s father’s and brother’s fears for him. Mercer left the Palace without having made a decision.

The crowd at the Capitol the next day was even larger and eager to hear whether the Stamp Act would go into effect in Virginia. Mercer said he would not execute the act without the General Assembly’s consent. That was the answer the crowd wanted to hear.

The Gazette reported:

This declaration gave such general satisfaction that he [Mercer] was immediately born[e] out of the Capitol gate, amidst the repeated acclamations of all present. Then he was conducted to a publick house, and an elegant entertainment ordered to be provided, where he spends [sic] the evening with a number of Gentlemen. He had no sooner arrived there than the acclamations of the company were redoubled, drums, French-horns, &c. sounding all the while. As soon as night set in the whole town was illuminated, the bells set a ringing, and every mark of joy shown, at this Gentleman’s declining, in such a genteel manner, to act in an office so odious to his country. In short, we have never had so much, and so general rejoicing upon any occasion, in so short a time; and to crown the whole, there will be to-morrow night a splendid ball.

Even with Mercer’s resignation, the Stamp Act affected Virginia. On Nov. 1, the General Court met at the Capitol as scheduled, but no lawyers appeared. When the governor, who presided as chief justice, asked for the stamped paper necessary for court business, Mercer answered that he did not have it. When Fauquier asked the clerk whether he would proceed without it, the clerk declined, citing the risk of a penalty. The judges agreed unanimously to adjourn. County and city courts closed as well.

While many Virginians were delighted that British merchants could not collect debts in Virginia courts, there were other consequences. Probates came to a stop. Deeds could not be recorded. Ships could not clear without the proper papers, though Peter Randolph, a surveyor general for customs, took it upon himself to advise customs officers to allow ships to clear as long as the captains provided a waiver of damages in case the vessel was seized. Fauquier added his approval for that practice on Nov. 7. Afterward, the governor signed and affixed the colony’s official seal to certificates stating that there was no stamped paper in Virginia.

George Grenville’s successor, Charles Watson-Wentworth, Lord Rockingham, brokered the repeal of the Stamp Act. George Mercer, who had returned to England, was one of those who testified before the House of Commons that the Stamp Act could not be executed without military force. Recognizing that the act was unenforceable, but unwilling to surrender the sovereignty of Parliament, the ministry’s solution was to first pass the Declaratory Act, which stated that Parliament had the right to legislate for the colonies “in all Cases whatsoever.” Both the repeal and the Declaratory Act received the royal assent on March 18, 1766.

News of the repeal was published in Williamsburg on May 2, and Fauquier officially proclaimed it on June 9. Four days later, a ball was held in Williamsburg to celebrate, and the town was illuminated. Soon the courts reopened, and life resumed its old rhythm.

Or almost. For two families, the Lees and the Mercers, continued animosity about events surrounding the Stamp Act festered, culminating in a very public feud.

Richard Henry Lee apparently had been opposed to the Stamp Act from the time Virginians first heard of it. In May 1764, he wrote as much to a gentleman from London. On Nov. 14, 1764, Lee appears to have made the motion for, and was appointed to, the committee charged with drafting the documents the burgesses hoped would forestall the act, and he is credited with writing the address to the king. In September 1765, Lee even orchestrated a two-day pageant near the Westmoreland County courthouse that included hanging and then burning effigies of George Grenville and George Mercer before a large crowd “of all ranks and denominations.” The emphasis was on Mercer, whose effigy carried signs proclaiming “Money is my God” and “Slavery I love.” Mercer’s “dying speech” was read, in which “he” confessed to betraying his country. Mercer’s effigy’s punishment was “for traitorously aiding and assisting in the destruction of his country’s liberty.”

Mercer had served honorably as a colonel during the French and Indian War and his family took issue with the assassination of his character. Mercer himself was in London as an agent of the Ohio Company.

Then George Mercer’s brother James revealed what Richard Henry Lee wanted most to conceal: that Lee himself had applied for the stamp distributor position in November 1764. The feud escalated. With George in England, James and their father, John Mercer, squared off against Lee and his brother Dr. Arthur Lee. For a time, the conflict was confined to the issues of the Virginia Gazette. Then in early 1767, Arthur Lee challenged James Mercer to a duel.

It was an anticlimactic affair. James Mercer went to the racetrack just outside Williamsburg looking for Arthur Lee, and Lee did likewise. It appears, however, that they went at different times.

No matter. Each accused the other of cowardice in the press. At the end of May, Lee’s second, Corbin Griffin, announced in the Virginia Gazette that at the coffeehouse he would prove Mercer a coward. It isn’t known when the fisticuffs occurred, but William Rind’s Gazette published Mercer’s account of the “wrangle” on July 23. John Mercer wrote George that James “without receiving any damage broke the Doctors head, & closed his eyes in such a manner as obliged him to keep his house sometime.” As a coup de grace, Mercer’s supporters burned an effigy of Lee in front of his Williamsburg lodging.

The Stamp Act affair faded from Williamsburg’s concern. While the Mercers and Lees battled, however, a new event propelled America toward war. On June 29, 1767, George III gave the assent to Charles Townshend’s Revenue Act, beginning the next cycle of colonial protest over limits on freedom and new taxes on everything from paper and paint to tea.

Cathy Hellier
is a historian in the Historical Research and Digital History Department at The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Header Image from National Postal Museum, Smithsonian Institution

Stamp Act: The Misconceptions

The King Was Old and Tyrannical

George III was not at all old at the time of the Stamp Act crisis. Born in June 1738, he had been heir to the throne since his father’s death in 1751. When his grandfather George II died suddenly in October 1760, in the midst of the Seven Years’ War, the 22-year-old prince became George III. When the Stamp Act crisis began brewing in March 1764, George III was only 25.

And his sensibilities were far from tyrannical. His tutor John Stuart, Earl of Bute, had instilled in him British constitutional principles, foremost of which was parliamentary sovereignty. That unshakable belief in Parliament as the supreme lawmaker eventually caused many Americans to consider him a tyrant.

British Political Unity

The British government was not a monolithic entity that was uniformly opposed to American rights. George III appointed a premier to “form a government,” filling the positions of the executive branch and getting the king’s agenda through Parliament. George III had difficulties appointing first ministers who accomplished these tasks to his satisfaction.

There were, therefore, several ministers between his 1760 accession and 1770, and the ministers seldom agreed with their predecessors about colonial policy.

This period was a highly factionalized one in British politics and the factions disagreed on many measures, including colonial taxation.

Taxation Without Representation

Because Americans did not vote for members of the House of Commons, most did not consider themselves represented in Parliament. A common British viewpoint, however, embraced “virtual representation,” by which those elected to the House of Commons represented those who did not vote as well as those who did. The reasoning: Members of the House of Commons lived under the laws they passed and therefore shared the interest of those who did not vote.

But, as colonists pointed out, members of Parliament did not have to pay the taxes that they levied on Americans, and until now Parliament had not levied taxes, other than customs and import duties, on the American colonies.

Great Britain had, and has, an uncodified constitution based on some written documents and legislation but also common law and customs. Setting a new precedent, therefore, was exceedingly important because it changed the Constitution. For this reason, American colonists, including Virginians, vigorously protested the Stamp Act before it even passed as legislation. If Parliament had the ability to tax the colonies, they correctly reasoned, where would it stop?

More From This Issue

Career Path

Childhood museum trips pointed exhibition planner in a professional direction

7 Minute Read

An Alternative View of 1774

Not Everyone Was Ready for Revolution

13 Minute Read

Garden Getaway

These mainstays are part of the Historic Area’s garden geometry — and it’s a beautiful lesson

4 Minute Read

Leaving an Impression

Make a signature statement with a stamp

2 Minute Read

Refurnishing the Palace

A 1770 inventory revolutionized the look of a beloved building

7 Minute Read

Fatal Infatuation

Prime Minister George Grenville was in love with his Stamp Act plan — but the American colonies outsmarted him

14 Minute Read