Jack Tar and the Stamp Act Riots
by Thomas McCord
Following impressment, the first conflicts which can be considered directly pre-Revolutionary began in 1765 with the Stamp Act. Following the French-Indian War, Jack Tar faced great economic troubles. The return of men from the Royal Navy and the decommissioning of privateer vessels meant that there were a great number of seamen unemployed and looking for work. But far from being able to accommodate this surge, the merchant marines in New York were facing their own troubles. The Molasses Act of 1733, which placed a tax on Molasses, along with new shipping regulations passed in 1763 and finally the Stamp Act in 1765 all served to depress the shipping industry in New York, making the transition from a war time to peace time economy which started in 1763 all the more difficult.
Further worsening Jack Tar's employment situation was the means by which the colonies chose to deal with these restrictions. Facing the restrictive trade regulations enacted by the British, the New York sought to turn inward, emphasizing the production of domestic goods. The more self-sufficient the colonies grew, the less demand there was for overseas trade and the further the maritime economy declined.
And if that were not enough, New York's seamen faced heightened competition for what few jobs remained. British soldiers were permitted to take jobs while on leave, and because they were already in possession of a paying job, they could afford to undercut the unemployed seamen's salary needs. This added pressure caused directly by British soldiers combined with the sense that British regulations were at the source of their trouble forged, in Jack Tar's mind, a direct connection between the actions of the British and their own economic misfortunes.
It is not surprising then that New York's seamen chose to riot against the Stamp Act which had so deeply devastated the trade upon which they relied. On November 1, 1765 New York citizens assembled in the Fields and marched on the city's fort (where the stamps were being held) in order to protest the recent arrival of stamps in the City. Somewhere between 400 and 500 members of the mob numbering approximately 2,000 were seamen.
Reportedly, a seaman even led the mob with a chair strapped to his head and an effigy of Caldwallader Colden (see image to right), the stamp distributor for New York City, who was later hung from a gallows. The mob then marched on the residence of Major James, a man who the public viewed as aiding in the protection of the stamps. The mob destroyed the house and its contents before finally heading home at approximately two in the morning.
The next day saw a smaller scale version of the previous night's proceedings (this one approximately 200 strong) and a direct march on the fort was only prevented by a declaration the Colden would not take any action in regards to the stamps until the new governor, Henry Moore, arrived in New York. As a result of these riots and a continuous stream of threatening letters to Colden, the stamps were transferred to City Hall late on November 5, 1765.
This pacified the mob for a while, but not indefinitely. Within the next several months, Jack Tar continually threatened stamp officers, strictly enforced non-importation in the port and even burned a shipment of stamps on January 7th, 1766. When the Stamp Act was finally repealed on March 17, 1766, the seamen celebrated not out of gratitude to Britain but as a personal triumph. Although revolution was hardly even a notion for the colonists at this point, much less a goal, there was already a distinction between the colonies and England for Jack Tar. This gap would only continue to widen for the next decade until the Revolution finally began.
To learn more about Jack Tar and the Revolution, click here.
Lemisch, Jesse. "Jack Tar in the Streets: Merchant Seamen in the Politics of Revolutionary America." The William and Mary Quarterly, no. 25 (1968): 371-407.
Lemisch, Jesse. Jack Tar vs. John Bull; the role of New York's seamen in precipitating the Revolution. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1997.
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