- Loyalism and the Liberty BoysPopular Politics and Allegiance in British New York
The winter of 1765 was a difficult time for a royal governor in British North America. Protests, trade boycotts, riots. Destruction. In Manhattan, the chaos was among the most severe in the colonies. "Our Port is now Shut up," wrote William Bayard, a merchant and colonial assemblyman. By then, Bayard was thirty-eight years old and successful in business. He was also married to Catherine McEvers, whose brother James McEvers was intimately caught up the implementation of the Stamp Act. "[S]hould It not be Repealed," Bayard went on, "our Ruin is Inevitable." "Such is the Real Distress of the Times," he added, that the city- or even continent-wide problems could "in all probabilities bring on all the Horrors of a Civil War."1
The Stamp Act is often described or represented as the first step that colonists took toward revolution and independence. Historians may now disagree about what the causes of the Revolution were but they are in near unanimous agreement about the Stamp Act's ostensibly indispensable role in mobilizing patriots. Contemporary historians of Revolutionary America and of New York often framed it this way. Mercy Otis Warren wrote of the Stamp Act, it "was the first innovation that gave a general alarm throughout the continent. As soon as this intelligence was transmitted to America," she went on, "an universal murmur succeeded." Opposition was "too general." People's "spirits" were "too much agitated."2 The Stamp Act, Warren and other contemporary historians remembered, changed how colonists understood their relationship with Britain.3 [End Page 54]
Loyalist historians agreed. Thomas Jones, who served in a variety of civic positions in New York prior to 1776, wrote in his History of New-York during the Revolutionary War: "The American stamp act … occasioned a universal tumult throughout the colony."4 William Smith Jr., a historian of the colony, wrote, "The new Tax gives the highest Disgust." In another letter, Smith wrote of the impact of the Stamp Act. He reported, "the State of America is so extremely altered," adding, "I am very fearful not only of Discontent and partial Tumults against them, but that a general Civil War will light up and rage all along the Continent."5
Such discontent toward Parliament had not been articulated in colonial British America before. For historians, then and now, it provides a comfortable starting point for the imperial crisis in the march toward independence. Indeed, almost all historians have eschewed the neat temporal organization the Stamp Act of 1765 provides. It offers a ten-year period in which colonists went from Britons to Americans and everyday life and things were politicized. For instance, Carl L. Becker writes, the Stamp Act was "the entrance of the unfranchised classes into the political arena. The November riots marked the first state in the separation of radicals and conservatives," he continued.6 Similarly, Gary J. Kornblith and John M. Murrin note, "In mobilizing against the Stamp Act, urban crowds defended not only the principle of home rule, but also the prerogatives of many of whose who ruled at home."7 In an authoritative account of the Stamp Act Congress, C. A. Weslager described it as "the first step along the road to unify the thirteen colonies, paving the way for the First and Second Continental Congress."8 Various other accounts about the Stamp Act, the American Revolution, and New York have similarly characterized it as, to use one historian's wording, "the first phase" of the Revolution.9 This temporal organization, [End Page 55] beginning in around 1765 and marching toward 1775, has held sway for more than a generation.
Equally important, historians have shifted their focuses away from Revolutionary causation. For Jack N. Rakove, this was a natural step. "[T]he major causal problems of explaining why the Revolution occurred," writes Rakove, have been "largely solved" by historians of the 1960s and 1970s, himself included.10 Such approaches to the runup to the Revolution also have had a disproportionate effect on those colonists who resisted the Stamp Act but later became loyalists. Although there has been a renaissance of...