Prominent Rhode Island politician Martin Howard might have thought twice about publicly supporting the Stamp Act of 1765.
It was the British government’s first direct tax on the American colonies, and it was wildly unpopular.
From late summer 1765 to early 1766, the Stamp Act provoked large riots against Loyalists in Boston, Providence, New Haven, Portsmouth, N.H., New London, Conn., Charleston, Savannah, Annapolis, New York, Albany and Philadelphia.
The riots followed the same pattern; so much so, that Todd Andrlik, in the Journal of the American Revolution, compiled a Stamp Act Riot To-Do List. (Read it here.)
Newport followed the pattern to a T, with Day Two particularly painful for Martin Howard.
Typically on Day One, the patriots would hang effigies of Loyalists and stamp masters in the middle of town and burn them. On Day Two they’d sack the houses of hated Loyalists and force the stamp master to resign. On Day Three they’d gather to watch the stamp master resign and wait for the Loyalists to sail to England.
Taxation Without Representation
Colonists hated the stamp tax because revenue from it went directly to England. It was supposed to recoup the cost of the Seven Years’ War and to pay for the troops still in the colonies. The Act required all printed material to use stamped paper with a revenue stamp.
Colonists called it “taxation without representation.”
In Newport, Martin Howard made the mistake of publishing a pamphlet defending the Stamp Act.
On Aug. 26, 1765, as colonists in Boston sacked Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s house, Newport patriots erected a gallows. They carted through the streets effigies of Martin Howard, along with another Loyalist, Dr. Thomas Moffatt, and the stamp master, Augustus Johnson.
The Newport Mercury reported, “Various Labels were affixed to their Breasts, Arms, &c, denoting the Cause of these indignant Representations, and the Persons who were the Subjects of Derision.”
The effigies were then hanged on the gallows, cut down and burned.
Quiet prevailed the next day until evening, when someone accosted the Customs collector. They found him walking down Queen Street with three other men, including Martin Howard. They “manifested some Resentment on his behalf,” according to the Sept. 5, 1765 Supplement to the Boston News-Letter.
A Mob Collected
The News-Letter reported what happened next:
An account of this Affair immediately spread among the People, a Mob collected, and marched directly to Mr. Howard’s, and not finding the Gentlemen there, they shattered some of the Windows and went off.
Not satisfied with the mischief they’d done, the News-Letter reported, they returned with redoubled fury. They then
…broke the Windows and Doors all to pieces, damaged the Partitions of the House, and ruined such Furniture as was left in it, the best part being happily removed out between the attacks.
The mob then went to the house Doctor Moffatt rented and “committed outrages equally terrible, in tearing the House to pieces.”
They then went in search of Martin Howard, who had boarded the man-of-war Cygnet near the back of the fort. They proceeded on to the stamp master’s house, but he promised to resign so they left him alone.
Martin Howard fled to England. His house was then put up for sale on September 9.
Ultimately, all the stamp masters had to resign and the tax never took effect. Parliament repealed it in 1766.
Martin Howard got the last laugh – sort of. He received an appointment as chief justice of North Carolina in 1767. When the Revolution broke out, though, he returned to England.
Photos: ‘Judge Martin Howard, by John Singleton Copley,’ from the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza; ‘Proof sheet of one penny stamps Stamp Act 1765,’ by Board of Stamps; Attack on the Governor’s House, engraver unknown. With thanks to Journal of the American Revolution. This story was updated in 2023.