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: