Sunday, January 29, 2023

The Epocha of the Stamp Act

John Adams (1735–1826)
From John Adams: Revolutionary Writings 1755–1775

“Burning of Stamp Act, Boston.” Photomechanical print of a postcard, 1903. The framed artwork in the center is a hand-colored reproduction of one of twelve engravings about the American Revolution that were drawn in 1784 by German artist Daniel Chodowiecki (1726–1801). (Library of Congress)

After a hiatus of nearly three years, on December 18, 1765, John Adams resumed his habit of keeping a diary. In that day’s entry, he noted, “The Year 1765 has been the most remarkable Year of my Life.” In fact, the entire period during which he neglected his diary proved most consequential for a Harvard graduate in his late 20s who had once aspired to follow in his father’s footsteps and live a quiet life as a farmer.

In late 1762, Adams renewed his acquaintance with Abigail Smith prior to the wedding of her older sister, Mary, and his close friend Richard Cranch. He had been unimpressed with all three Smith sisters when he met them three years earlier. At the time, he was on the verge of proposing marriage to their second cousin Hannah Quincy, the daughter of Josiah Quincy, a leading town citizen and justice of the peace. Comparing the sisters’ demeanor to Hannah’s compassionate character, he wrote, “Parson Smiths Girls have not this fondness, nor this Tenderness,” but John nevertheless seemed to have second thoughts—and Hannah had several suitors. A rival, the physician Bela Lincoln, proposed first.

Abigail was only fifteen when she first failed to make an impression on John, but as an eighteen-year-old she no longer paled next to Hannah Quincy. A month before the Cranch wedding, he sent her a letter that begins:
By the same Token that the Bearer hereof satt up with you last night I hereby order you to give him, as many Kisses, and as many Hours of your Company after 9 O’Clock as he shall please to Demand and charge them to my Account. . . .
They were married two years later, in October 1764. “His marriage to Abigail Smith was the most important decision of John Adams’s life, as would become apparent with time,” writes historian David McCullough. “She was in all respects his equal and the part she was to play would be greater than he could possibly have imagined, for all his love for her and what appreciation he already had of her beneficial, steadying influence.” McCullough wryly points to the abandonment of Adams’s diary, with the resulting absence of any mention of his courtship of and marriage to Abigail, as “a sure sign of how preoccupied he was.”

In early 1764, while John was still courting Abigail, a smallpox outbreak occurred in Boston; on March 13, the town voted to allow anyone to be inoculated during the next five weeks. Until Edward Jenner’s discovery in the 1790s of vaccination (which used a milder but immunizing disease, cowpox), inoculation with the smallpox virus was itself very dangerous, not only to the patient receiving inoculation but to others who had not had the disease, and many physicians generally resisted inoculation unless an outbreak of the disease threatened to get out of control. By March 30 there had been 699 cases of natural smallpox with 124 deaths, and 4,977 cases of inoculated smallpox with only 46 deaths. Adams decided to endure the treatment and on April 13 he was successfully inoculated under the care of Dr. Joseph Warren, who later became a close friend. During the month he quarantined himself in Boston, he and Abigail exchanged a total of 21 letters.

Before the end of the first year of their marriage, John became active in the struggle against implementation of the Stamp Act. Issued in March 1765 and scheduled to take effect on November 1, the Act imposed a hefty tax on the paper used in the colonies for newspapers, almanacs, pamphlets, broadsides, and legal and commercial documents. By the time word of the Act reached the colony, Adams had begrudgingly become an official in his hometown of Braintree, twelve miles south of Boston: he had been nominated for—and then elected—surveyor of highways, responsible for the maintenance of roads and bridges. “I was very wroth, because I knew no better, but said Nothing,” he wrote years later in his autobiography. “My Friend Dr. Savil came to me and told me, that he had nominated me to prevent me from being nominated as a Constable: for said the Doctor, they make it a rule to compell every Man to serve either as Constable or Surveyor, or to pay a fine. I said they might as well have chosen any Boy in School, for I knew nothing of the Business.” The position, however, pushed him into a more prominent role at town meetings.

That summer, protests against the Stamp Act occurred throughout the colonies. In Boston, on August 14, mobs looted the home of Andrew Oliver, a prominent merchant who had been appointed stamp distributor for Massachusetts, and they hanged him in effigy. In Adams’s diary is an extended passage that may have been meant as a letter to a newspaper but was apparently never published. On the one hand, Adams wrote, “to be carried thro the Town, in such insolent Tryumph and burned on an Hill, to have his Garden torn in Pieces, his House broken open, his furniture destroyed and his whole family thrown into Confusion and Terror, is a very attrocious Violation of the Peace and of dangerous Tendency and Consequence.” On the other hand, he reminded his would-be readers how Thomas Hutchinson, the Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, had filled prominent government posts with almost a dozen members of his own family—including Andrew Oliver, his brother-in-law. “Is not this amazing ascendancy of one Family, Foundation sufficient on which to erect a Tyranny? Is it not enough to excite Jealousies among the People?” And would it not be prudent, he continued, “to remove these Jealousies from the Minds of the People by giving an easy solution of these Difficulties?” Two weeks later another mob attacked Hutchinson’s three-story mansion, looting the valuable objects and destroying virtually everything else, including his papers and manuscripts and even the walls and roof. Hutchinson and his family escaped only moments before the crowd arrived.

The following month, Adams wrote “Instructions to Braintree’s Representative Concerning the Stamp Act,” directing the town’s representative in the Massachusetts legislature, the General Court, to oppose the Stamp Act. Adopted unanimously at a town meeting, Adams’s document denounced the Act as unconstitutional: “We have always understood it to be a grand and fundamental Principle of the Constitution, that no Freeman should be subjected to any Tax, to which he has not given his own Consent, in Person or by Proxy.” After it was printed on October 10 in the Massachusetts Gazette the Braintree Instructions were adopted by about forty other towns.

Between 1802 and 1807, with the Revolution and his Presidency behind him, Adams worked on his autobiography. “It is not for the Public but for my Children that I commit these Memoirs to writing,” he states in the preface, and all three volumes of the unfinished work remained unpublished until 1961. Early in the first volume, Adams recalls the events that unexpectedly altered his life and career—from the smallpox epidemic to his marriage to the Stamp Act—and we present those passages below.

Notes: Adams’s preparatory treatment for smallpox inoculation with a milk-and-vegetable diet and purgatives was popularized by Dr. Adam Thomson of Philadelphia in 1750. Draper’s paper was the Massachusetts Gazette, published by Richard Draper. The Mr. Paine mentioned by Adams should not be confused with Thomas Paine, referred to earlier. Instead, he is Robert Treat Paine, who later became a member of the Continental Congress.

The refusal of colonial lawyers to purchase stamped legal paper resulted in the closing of the court system in Massachusetts. On behalf of Boston townsmen, Adams, accompanied by lawyers Jeremiah Gridley and James Otis Jr., appeared before Governor Francis Bernard on December 20 and argued unsuccessfully for the reopening of the courts, particularly the Court of Common Pleas, the main trial court in Massachusetts. Otis was a celebrated lawyer whose speeches and writings Adams revered, but by this time the mental illness that would end Otis’s political career was beginning to reveal itself. “He is liable to great Inequalities of Temper—sometimes in Despondency, sometimes in a Rage,” Adams wrote in his diary at the end of December 1765.

Faced with the intransigence of all the American colonies, the British House of Commons repealed the Stamp Act on February 24, 1766.

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In the Winter of 1764 the Small Pox prevailing in Boston, I went with my Brother into Town and was inocculated under the Direction of Dr. Nathaniel Perkins and Dr. Joseph Warren. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.