Ryan Bass and Pat Barron, Sergeant
Lawrence Everhart Chapter
Sons of the American Revolution
SAR Magazine, Fall 2015
The repudiation of the infamous Stamp Act of 1765 by the Frederick County Court sparked the fame of liberty in Maryland a decade before the events “by the rude bridge that arched the food” at Lexington.
I. A PRELUDE TO REVOLUTION
The American Colonies are considered the first experiment in British imperialism, and they would also be the first to declare, and fight for, their independence from the Crown. One colony, Maryland, would play a unique role in transforming English subjects to independent states and finally to a new nation. Some of the first steps were taken in Frederick County, which encompassed the entire western part of Maryland at the time. The legal repudiation of the much-hated Stamp Act of 1765 by the 12 magistrates of the county’s court helped lay the foundation for momentous events that would unfold less than a decade later.
Maryland was founded by the Calvert family, who were Catholic. George Calvert, first Lord Baltimore, was the driving force behind the creation of the Maryland Colony. His desire was to establish a place where people of different faiths, especially Catholics, could coexist, and he negotiated this into the founding document. He died while the documentation was being finalized so the Charter of Maryland, confirmed by King Charles I on June 20, 1632, was issued to his son, Cecilius Calvert, second Lord Baltimore. The Charter made Maryland the first of the proprietary Colonies, and the second Lord Baltimore was recognized lord proprietor.
Article XX of the Charter set Maryland apart from the other North American Colonies. It stated in part, “Baron of Baltimore, His Heirs and Assigns, that We, our Heirs, and Successors, at no Time hereafter, will impose, or make or cause to be imposed, any Impositions, Customs, or other Taxations, Quotas, or Contributions whatsoever, in or upon the Residents or Inhabitants of the Province aforesaid for their Goods, Lands, or Tenements within the same Province, or upon any Tenements, Lands, Goods or Chattels within the Province aforesaid, or in or upon any Goods or Merchandizes within the Province aforesaid, or within the Ports or Harbors of the said Province.” This “tax-exempt status” became a selling point for enticing Colonists to Maryland. To those who strove to settle there, the meaning was quite clear. It was this original charter that would become the “fy in the ointment” when, more than a century later, King and Parliament would attempt to impose the onerous Stamp Act on Maryland citizens in 1765.
Maryland was in a geopolitical position, with Quaker Pennsylvania to the north and Loyalist Virginia to the south. Juxtaposed between religious tolerance and tobacco-growing capitalism, Maryland tried to be both, generally with success. During the French and Indian War (1754-1763) the Colony was in a unique strategic situation. The western part of Maryland was close to French interests in the Ohio Valley, in particular the forks of “La Belle Riviere” at present-day Pittsburgh. Fort Cumberland, on the Potomac, was just 100 miles to the southeast. The “forks” would be contested for several years. Virginia militia and Native American allies under the command of Lt. Col. George Washington had helped to spark the war when an attempt was made to establish a British toehold at the forks in 1754. British troops and Colonial militias traversed Maryland throughout the French and Indian War moving men and materials to counter the French and their Indian allies.
Though there were many instances of violent encounters between Indians and white settlers in the western areas of Maryland, the Colony, in general, was not a major theater of large-scale combat operations. In 1757 at Fort Frederick, on the upper reaches of the Potomac River, Maryland officials successfully secured a treaty with the Cherokee, who in turn, helped to patrol the western reaches of the Colony, serving as a buffer against the French and their Indian allies.
The various Acts of Trade and Navigation, first enacted in 1651, prohibited Colonists from manufacturing goods for export. England wanted the Colonists to buy goods produced in England. This created a scarcity of hard currency with which to conduct internal transactions. If Colonists needed to purchase an essential commodity or a luxury item, they had to barter for it (tobacco being the primary good of trade) or sign a debt note. During the second half of the French and Indian War (1759-1763), Maryland planters accrued a long-term trade deficit with the mother country, borrowing more than they could ever pay back. This led to unhappy “money lenders” in England. As 1765 approached, many inhabitants of Maryland found themselves in difficult financial straits.
To help defray the costs of the French and Indian War, and to finance a permanent troop presence in the Colonies, Parliament decided to impose a special tax on them. The British deemed this more than fair, as they had just expended considerable blood and treasure defending the Colonies. Great Britain had doubled its national debt during the Seven Years’ War, and its own people were not going to tolerate additional taxes. Prime Minister George Grenville was the original architect of the plan for the Colonies to ante up. He was followed by the more infamous Charles Townshend.
The Maryland Colonists saw this from a different point of view. They also had made sacrifices toward the victory over Louis XV and his allies. They had helped guard the border and borne the brunt of attacks against their citizenry by the Indian allies of the French. Lacking direct representation in British Parliament, they had no voice in the matter of their taxation. The Colonists considered this a violation of the 1689 Bill of Rights. The Colonials, who believed themselves to be tax-exempt based on the Maryland Charter, had no real representation in government and a huge financial debt from the war, plus the threat of taxes imposed by a distant Parliament. All these factors were setting up Maryland to become a political powder keg.
As March 22, 1765 dawned in Frederick County, Md., few, Repudiation of the Stamp Act The repudiation of the infamous Stamp Act of 1765 by the Frederick County Court sparked the fame of liberty in Maryland a decade before the events “by the rude bridge that arched the food” at Lexington if any, of its citizens foresaw the consequences of legislation that was being passed by the British Parliament. None could predict the events the Act would unleash and the impact they would have throughout the North American Colonies. News of the happenings in London typically took from two to eight weeks to reach the Colonies. Frederick County did not have any seaports, so news would take several more days to reach the people there. The Colonials were still angry with King and Parliament over the Sugar Act in 1764. In reality, the Sugar Act was just a revision of the Molasses Act of 1733 that had expired in 1763. The objective was to lower the tax on imported molasses in the hope of getting better compliance and thus more revenue. It actually did little other than expand smuggling. In implementing the Sugar Act, Grenville (1712-1770) made it clear he also planned to enact a “stamp tax” in the Colonies similar one being paid by the citizens of Great Britain; all this was an effort to reduce the financial burden of protecting the Colonies. Instead, he was about to ignite a firestorm. The Sugar Act was followed shortly thereafter by the Currency Act. Both pieces of legislation enabled Colonists to realize they had no representation in Parliament and, without it, were quickly losing control of their own futures. British subjects, by law, could not be taxed without representation. The Colonists felt they had a sound argument against any taxation other than taxes they levied on themselves. The mantra of “no taxation without representation” soon would become a rallying cry in the North American Colonies. The Stamp Act was passed on March 22, 1765, overwhelmingly in the House of Commons and unanimously by the Lords. Specifically written for the Colonies, the Stamp Act levied a fee or tax on the paper used for practically every document used to conduct business, legal or commercial. These fees ranged from a penny per sheet of paper for a newspaper up to 10 pounds for an attorney’s license. Land grants, court papers, playing cards and dice all bore a tax. The law specified fees be paid in hard currency. Trade laws had vacuumed much of the hard currency out of the Colonies, leaving in place a system of barter, provincial or proclamation paper money issued by the Colonies, and debt both in America and with their creditors in England. The Act intended for part of the revenues to be spent in the Colonies, thereby keeping some hard currency in circulation. The implementation date was set for Nov. 1, 1765. The Colonial response was going to be felt long before that day arrived.
II. RESISTANCE AND REPUDIATION
The announcement of the Stamp Act was finally received in the Maryland Colony toward the beginning of May 1765, when Jonas Green published the full text of the Stamp Act in his Maryland Gazette newspaper. The response was immediate and intense. Besides the new tax burden, a major concern was a provision of the law specifying enforcement through the Admiralty Courts. This inflamed the Colonials, who feared the British government was attempting to take away their rights to trial by jury. Committees of Correspondence were formed in each of the Colonies to coordinate the political response, and the Sons of Liberty soon emerged to provide a more intimidating response. But the reaction that surprised both British and Colonial officials the most was the swelling of protest from ordinary people.
Within weeks, a call went out for a Stamp Act Congress to be held in New York City in the fall. Only nine Colonies were able to send delegates. On Oct. 19, 1765, the Congress prepared a list of resolutions to be presented to the King. Wishing to protect their own necks, they declared their loyalty to the Crown in the first article. This was followed by 13 reasons the Stamp Act was considered a violation of their rights and specifically requested the Act be repealed.
Parallel with the Colonists’ political efforts, the strong-arm tactics of the Sons of Liberty were having a more immediate impact. Over the next few months, every Stamp Act fee collector would be forced to resign, and often to fee, for his personal safety. Ships carrying the documents were prevented from unloading the cargo, in part, because the officials authorized to receive the goods were not available to take possession of the shipments.
Zachariah Hood, an Annapolis merchant and the Crown-appointed stamp distributor for Maryland, managed to escape to New York in September ahead of a mob who proceeded to destroy his business in Annapolis. The local Sons of Liberty hunted down Hood and forced him to resign his position on Nov. 28, 1765.
By October 1765, the protests in Maryland reached a point where Gov. Horatio Sharpe was becoming concerned about the arrival of the stamped paper. He believed that the populace was not going to allow it to be offloaded, and if it was, they would destroy it. He requested the stamped paper remain on board ship until the situation calmed down. The effective date of the Stamp Act, Nov. 1, 1765, arrived and the stamped paper necessary to conduct almost all business in the Colony was still unavailable.
In Frederick County, the reaction to the Stamp Act mirrored what was happening in all the Colonies. In August 1765, the stamp distributor was burned in effigy in Frederick Town. Armed companies of men began to gather in Frederick Town and talked of marching on Annapolis. However, a most unique defiance of Parliament and King, triggered by a simple civil suit, was about to take place in this county situated on the Colonial frontier.
Twelve judges or magistrates presided over the legal business in Frederick County’s districts. The County Court had ordered a man released on bail and the entry to be noted in the court record book. The court clerk, John Darnall, felt obliged to abide by the Stamp Act, knowing seditious acts could find a person on the wrong end of a rope. Darnall decided the county clerk’s office would not conduct any official business until the proper paper was received from England. Darnall’s decision brought the commercial and legal commerce of Frederick County to a halt.
The clerk’s defiance of the justices and refusal to conduct the court’s business triggered a quick reaction from the justices. They ordered him to proceed with his duties without the stamped paper. Darnall, who apparently feared the King’s wrath more than the court’s, refused. On Nov. 18, 1765, the justices ordered Darnall arrested. He was to be “committed to the custody of this County” until he complied with the court’s order. As it turned out, a night in Sheriff George Murdock’s “care” was enough to convince Darnall to accept the Court’s ruling. He paid his charges and was released.
On Nov. 23, 1765, the full court issued its formal, unanimous ruling. Using a cleverly nuanced approach to the issue, the justices stated “that all proceedings shall be valid without the use of stamps” because, firstly, a “legal publication” of “any Act of Parliament” had not been made and secondly, there was no stamped paper in “this Province and the Inhabitants have no means of Procuring any.” The much-despised Stamp Act had “received a mortal wound at the hands of justice.”
The Frederick County judges, later honored as the “Twelve Immortals,” had just repudiated an Act of Parliament. Their courageous action has often been memorialized in Maryland. The “Genius of Liberty” displayed by these 12 men epitomized the feelings of independence and patriotism beginning to rise in the hearts of many Americans.
There is evidence to suggest the decision of the justices was not a spontaneous event. Darnall had served in that capacity as court clerk since the founding of the county in 1748. One of the sitting magistrates for the November 1765 Court Term was James Dickson, who was Darnall’s son-in-law. As Millard M. Rice points out in his book This Was the Life, a careful reading of the court proceedings prior to Nov. 18, 1765 shows no evidence of anyone at the Frederick County Court having a concern about conducting legal business without the Stamp Act paper. The justices selected one seemingly insignificant case on which to make their ruling. The justices refer to “this Province,” implying an expansion beyond the boundaries of Frederick County, and an indication there may have been others, at a higher level of government, involved in formulating the decision. One can speculate the justices, besides seeking an opportunity to snub the Stamp Act, also were providing Darnall some political cover by “forcing” him to accept the court’s ruling.
Whatever their underlying motivation, the judges’ ruling set off rejoicing by the residents of Frederick Town, whose celebration was highlighted by an elaborate funeral procession. Led by the “Colours of the Towns Company” and drummers, the townspeople carried a large banner followed by a coffin covered in anti- Stamp Act slogans. This was followed by an effigy of Zachariah Hood, “the sole mourner,” and the Sons of Liberty “two and two.” The Frederick Town citizenry symbolically laid to rest the corpse of the Stamp Act—age 22 days.
Another attempt was made to deliver the stamped paper in December when the brig, HM Hawke, under Captain John Brown, anchored at Annapolis. Again, with no one authorized to receive it, Gov. Sharpe opted to leave the goods on board the ship. Sharpe understood he did not have the military force necessary to prevent an insurrection. Stamped “paper, parchment or vellum,” as defined by the Stamp Act of 1765, was never used in Maryland.
The violent and widespread Colonial reaction to the Stamp Act surprised most members of Parliament. However, the detrimental impact the Stamp Act was having in England eventually forced Parliament to reconsider the despised legislation. Boycotts of British goods, originally instituted in response to the previous year’s Sugar Act, were beginning to have a significant financial impact on British businesses.
Parliament was now besieged from both sides of the Atlantic to repeal the Stamp Act. On Feb. 21, 1766, Parliament acceded to the growing demands and George III gave his formal acceptance on March 18, 1766. Parliament, displaying an indifference to events abroad, continued efforts to impose its will on the Colonies. In conjunction with the repeal of the Stamp Act, Parliament enacted the Declaratory Act. The act stated that Parliament could institute whatever laws it saw fit in the Colonies. In 1767, it passed the Townshend Acts, a series of laws designed to set a precedent for taxing the Colonials. Protests again erupted. British troops were garrisoned in some cities in an attempt to quell disturbances but the series of events that would unfold from this point forward would lead the Americans to declare, and fight for, complete independence.