Commemorating the 250th Anniversary of the Stamp Act Protests

By Jonathan Carriel and Fred Cohen

Members of the Lower Manhattan Historical Society and the American Revolution Round Table of New York joined forces Sunday evening, November 1, to mark the 250th anniversary of the first major clash of the American colonists with British imperial authorities. This confrontation occurred at the financial district’s Bowling Green (established 1733), on November 1, 1765.

SAR 522-Bowling Green dedicatory plaqueThe original protest was a revolt against the first unquestionable instance of taxation without representation. The British government was determined to make Americans pay to reduce the enormous debt it had run up during the Seven Years’ War. But Americans had already paid taxes to their elected provincial assemblies, contributing substantially to the war effort, and were determined not to be taxed by an institution increasingly seen as foreign. After months of build-up, New Yorkers organized a major demonstration for the implementation day, November 1, after having made it clear that they were determined not to allow the stamps (the mechanism of the tax) to be distributed. Some two thousand New Yorkers— then one-tenth the city’s population—paraded down Broadway from the Common (now City Hall Park) to Bowling Green—behind a hearse bearing the casket of “Lady North American Liberty,” who was presumed not to have survived the “cruel stamp upon her vitals.”

SAR 522-- historical 'rabble'On reaching the little park, demonstrators were shocked to face cannons, which had been moved from the waterfront to the shoreward bastion of Fort George (an earthworks fortress left by the Dutch), which stood exactly where the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House now stands. Despite shouts, slogans, burning effigies and flourished torches, no shots were fired, but those present surely never forgot that the cannons had threatened them. The searing memories on both sides drove a wedge through the relationship with the mother country which, after ten more years of irritations, faced an outright revolution.

SAR--2 Carriel, Fleming, Cookinham

Jonathan Carriel, Thomas Fleming, Frederick Cookinham

The history enthusiasts who appeared at the commemoration were few but engaged.  They were welcomed by Arthur Piccolo, chairman of the Bowling Green Association; then were addressed by author Jonathan Carriel, creator of the Thomas Dordrecht Historical Mystery Series (set in Colonial New York) on the details of the protest—as related above. Carriel was followed by the noted historian and prolific author Thomas Fleming who briefly spoke on the significance of the protest—as marking the first sign of organized resistance and independence of New York. Lastly we heard from Frederick Cookinham, proprietor of “In Depth Walking Tours” and historian, on the physical context of the protests.  (Among other interesting facts, Cookinham pointed out the locale of Benedict Arnold’s home overlooking Bowling Green, and of the site of the Cunard family home, loyalists who repatriated to England rather than abide the boisterous rabble of revolu­tionary New York).  Re-enactors led the compact crowd in political chanteys in evocation of those that rent the quiet on that portentous night in 1765.

What do we want?
No stamps, no stamps!

When do we want it?
Right now, right now!

What are the stamps?
Unjust, unjust!

Will they repeal?
No trust, no trust!

Will we persist?
We must, we must! 

Huzzah!  Huzzah!  

Some of Sunday’s rabble then dispersed to catch up on the New York City Marathon and the World Series; and some retired to Fraunces Tavern—which might well have provided (already venerable) harbor to the original Stamp Act protesters 250 years ago.

Jon Carriel is the author of the Thomas Dordrecht Historical Mystery Series: Die Fasting [1758], Great Mischief [1959], If Two are Dead [1762] and Exquisite Folly [1765].  Fred Cohen is a NYC-based photographer and occasional contributor to Woman Around Town.