EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from the book, Conceived in Liberty – Murray Rothbard’s a full treatment of the Colonial period of American history, a period lost to students today.
CHAPTER 32: Government Replaced by the Sons of Liberty
The Stamp Act was, in effect nullified throughout the period of its official enforcement in the colonies. It was nullified by the official bodies of the colonies, but even more so by the direct action of the people in forcing the stamp masters to resign, in carrying on business and trade as usual in defiance of the Stamp Act, and in forcing the royal customs officials to allow ports to remain open to ships without stamps. Corollary to this process of revolutionary mass nullification of the Stamp Act was a highly significant phenomenon that increasingly occurred in the colonies: a withering away of the authority of all organs of government, and a virtual shift to a condition of quasi-anarchism.
The revolutionary situation rendered the royal executive impotent and the colonial assemblies ineffective. The judges did not usually meet, and when they did it was at the behest rather of the radical organizations of the people than of the legally constituted authority. In short, effective rule of the colonies passed from the organs of government to voluntary organizations: to the Sons of Liberty and their popular allies.
Such a shift of rule and of majority obedience from state organs to voluntary organizations is certainly a hallmark of a situation of near anarchism. The conditions differed, however, from those of the earlier anarchism in late-seventeenth-century Pennsylvania in two ways: one, local governments in this case remained in existence; two, the anarchism was not, as before, totally pacifist and devoid of all institutions of defensive force against criminal invasions of person or property.
As in all revolutionary situations, the breakaway of popular allegiance to constituted government implied a breakdown of that government into voluntary self-governing actions by each individual. It was indeed voluntary cooper- ative action among the people without benefit of official sanction — or of compulsory revenue from taxation — that brought rule to such private organiza- tions as the Sons of Liberty.
The philosophical meaning of this process has been brilliantly elucidated by the late-nineteenth-century libertarian constitutional lawyer from Boston, Lysander Spooner. Spooner’s analysis, dealing with the American Revolution, in a sense applied far more aptly to the Stamp Act crisis, in which no new governmental forms intervened to alter the course or the meaning of that crisis. Spooner wrote:
The . . . Revolution was declared and accomplished by the people, acting separately as individuals, and exercising each his natural rights, and not by their governments in the exercise of their constitutional powers. . . .
Each declared, for himself, that his own will, pleasure, and discretion were the only authorities he had any occasion to consult, in determining whether he would any longer support the government under which he had always lived. And if this action of each individual were valid and rightful when he had so many other individuals to keep him company, it would have been, in the view of natural justice and right, equally valid and rightful, if he had taken the step alone. He had the same natural right to take up arms alone to defend his own property against a single tax-gatherer, that he had to take up arms in company with three million of others, to defend the property of all against an army of tax-gatherers.
Thus, the whole Revolution turned upon, asserted, and, in theory, established, the right of each and every man, at his discretion, to release himself from the support of the government under which he had lived. . . .*
From this spontaneous repudiation of the authority of the government under which the people lived, emerged voluntary organizations to lead the popular struggle, and throughout the colonies they took the name Sons of Liberty. The Sons directed strategy, led the pressure of the crowd when intimidation became necessary, and prepared also for armed defense should the British government try to enforce its laws with force majeure. For, as the governors saw their authority crumble, it became clear that the British government was now faced with a fundamental choice: to abandon enforcement of the stamp tax or to send an army to suppress colonial resistance.
Open rebellion against the royal governors was very near, and they realized that they could not rely on the militia, which sided with the popular resistance. Seeing the Sons of Liberty in control of Boston, Governor Bernard was on the point of fleeing Massachusetts. Governor Penn revealed in mid-December that Pennsylvania was “not more than one degree from open rebellion.” And New York’s Governor Colden hardly dared stir outside Fort George. If Colden had refused to turn over the stamps to the crowd, open war would have broken out.
The prudent British troops knew that if the Fort had fired on the people, the Sons of Liberty could have assembled an overwhelming force of fifty-thousand men from New York and New Jersey alone. The royal governors, then, kept very quiet about the stamp tax. As Governor William Franklin of New Jersey wrote his father, Benjamin, “For any man to set himself up as an advocate of the Stamp Act in the colonies is a mere piece of quixotism.” The governors were not disposed to being quixotic.
But what of the British? Would they use an army to enforce the tax? It was clear that the scattered army in America, not yet up to authorized strength, would have to be supplemented by a new army sent from England. But English threats of cramming the stamps down American throats made Americans aware that they must be prepared to face such a challenge. Accordingly, the Sons of Liberty held meetings throughout the colonies during the winter of 1765—66 to proclaim the defiance of the citizens.
The meetings of the Sons of Liberty proclaimed views that were far more revolutionary than those of the colonial assemblies. The lead was taken by the Sons of Liberty of Windham at New London, Connecticut. This meeting, “of a large assembly of the respectable populace” of New London on December 10, frankly proclaimed an uncompromisingly revolutionary natural- rights position, namely,
That every form of government rightfully founded, originates from the consent of the people. . . .
That whenever those bounds [on government, set by the people] are exceeded, the people have a right to reassume the exercise of that authority, which by nature they had, before they delegated it to individuals. . , .
That every tax imposed upon English subjects without consent, is against the natural rights and the bounds prescribed by the English constitution.
The meeting concluded that it is the duty of every colonist to oppose execution of these invalid acts, and if necessary “to reassume their natural rights, and the authority the laws of nature and of God have vested them with.” The New London meeting threatened every officer neglecting the peoples’ trust with the peoples’ resentment, and hoped for no ministerial preaching of any doctrine of passive obedience.
Connecticut saw the earliest and most fiery public meetings held by the Sons of Liberty, which was quickly emerging from its initially secret status. A meeting at Pomf ret soon followed, and the citizens of Wallingford on January 13 promised to oppose the Stamp Act “to the last extremity, even to take the field,” Sons of Liberty in other colonies were soon inspired to follow suit and similar meetings ensued during early 1766 in Providence; New York City, Oyster Bay, and Huntington in New York; New Brunswick, New Jersey; Cecil County, Maryland; Leedstown and Norfolk, Virginia; and Wilmington, North Carolina — all pledging resistance to the uttermost and “with our lives and fortunes.”
The eminent liberal Congregationalist devine, the Reverend Charles Chauncy, thundered that regardless of cost the colonists will continue the fight from the interior against any British army of repression until the invaders have been driven into the sea. “Daughters of Liberty” arose, who swore to marry no one who was not willing to resist the Stamp Act “to the last extremity.” Marylanders swore to “fight to the last drop of their blood,” and armed resistance was deemed inevitable even in Quaker Philadelphia.
Advanced strategists among the Sons of Liberty realized that revolutionary armed conflict against a British force would require coordination among the rebels in all the colonies. To this end, they moved toward a union of the various Sons of Liberty organizations.
Mock funeral processions for liberty appeared on November 1, 1765, in Sons of Liberty demonstrations in Portsmouth, Newport, Baltimore, and Wilmington, perhaps by coordination. But the first formal step toward unity took place in a December 25 meeting at New London, Connecticut. There two delegates of the New York Sons met with the Connecticut Sons and ratified an agreement of mutual military aid against any British armed attack. They also pledged attempts to seek similar agreements from the Sons of Liberty in all of the colonies.
For the next few months, correspondence flew back and forth between Sons organizations throughout the colonies, pledging mutual assistance and proposing boycotts against any colony that might submit to the Stamp Act. Colonel John Durkee and Colonel Israel Putnam of the Connecticut militia promised the aid of ten thousand well-armed men should New York be attacked by the British. Massachusetts and New Hampshire were also able to command an armed force totaling forty thousand.
The two New York agents, in the meanwhile, proceeded to Boston, where they procured the allegiance of the Boston Sons to the mutual aid association. Boston soon wrote to Portsmouth and all the towns in Massachusetts urging them to join the Sons of Liberty association. The Providence Sons of Liberty sent out circular letters to other Sons pledging aid to any other harassed colonies. The Providence Sons pledged three thousand men to the cause and eagerly approved a union of the various Sons organizations throughout the colonies.
In early February, the New York Sons appointed a committee headed by John Lamb to correspond with all other Sons of Liberty for mutual aid, and with a view to wielding united action against a possible British attack. The Lamb committee corresponded with Sons organizations as far away as South Carolina. The South Carolina Sons, furthermore, pledged five hundred men to assist Georgians if necessary to get rid of their stamped paper. Connecticut soon organized a unified colony-wide Sons of Liberty in a convention at Hartford on March 25, which called for an intercolonial association.
This was followed by unified colony-wide Sons organizations in Maryland and New Jersey. The New Jersey organization of a unified Sons of Liberty was the most elaborate. Each town was to elect delegates to a county convention, which would in turn select delegates for a convention of the colony. On both county and provincial levels, the Sons appointed committees of correspondence.
Sons of Liberty organizations also expanded throughout New York, especially in Albany, Huntington (which appointed a correspondence committee), Oyster Bay, and Fishkill. By March, the New York City Sons were in command of a sizable armed militia. Local organizations were also stimulated in all the other colonies by active and urgent correspondence from the New York, Boston, and Connecticut Sons.
Only in Pennsylvania were the Sons of Liberty relatively weak, with no correspondence committee established and no firm response to the growing intercolonial revolutionary movement. Governor Penn reported in late March that though attempts by the British to enforce the Stamp Act would probably meet with united armed resistance from all the Sons of Liberty, traveling agents of the Sons had met little response in Pennsylvania. The cause of this weakness was admittedly the strength of the Franklin-Galloway Tory faction in Philadelphia and environs.
From committees of correspondence and mutual associations of aid, the next obvious step was a unified central Sons of Liberty organization for all the colonies. The first concrete proposal for such a union came from the New York City Sons, which on April 2 urged a “Congress” of the Sons “to form a general plan to be pursued by the whole. . . .” But there was no chance to weld such a unity, for soon the happy news arrived of the repeal of the Stamp Act.
Britain’s choice to repeal staved off what undoubtedly would have been an American revolution in 1766. It is idle to speculate on what the result of such a revolution would have been, but it is very likely that the colonies would have been more united against the universally hated Stamp Act than they would be a decade later. On the other hand, since the focus was on just a single tax grievance, it would be far easier, as events later proved, for Britain to end the revolutionary resistance by simply repealing the tax.
*Lysander Spooner, No Treason, No, 1 (Boston: privately printed, 1867), pp. 12-13.