Two hundred and forty-five years ago this week, celebrations of a political nature were held throughout the American colonies. The occasion, in 1767, was the first anniversary of the repeal of the hated Stamp Act. While not unique as a reason for celebration or as a piece of enduring American politics, it was likely this was the first time Americans celebrated such a thing together -- as Americans, in other words, celebrating a purely American victory.
The Stamp Act itself wasn't even all that unique, as Americans had to cope with a number of attempts by the British Parliament to tax the colonies to retire their war debt from the French and Indian Wars. The Stamp Act wasn't even the first of these attempts -- the Molasses Act (or Sugar Act) passed in 1764, a year before the Stamp Act. The Stamp Act, however, was a new tax (a molasses tax had been around for over thirty years), which taxed pretty much everything printed on paper, including newspapers, pamphlets, university diplomas, deeds, passports, and every other printed matter you can imagine, including even "every pack of playing cards, and all dice."
Historians today mark the Stamp Act as the spark which lit the fire of the American Revolution. But if the British Parliament had just ended their attempts at levying taxes on their colonies with the Stamp Act's repeal on March 18, 1766, the Revolution might never have gotten off the ground -- and we might today still celebrate the Stamp Act repeal while at the same time honoring the Queen of England's Diamond Jubilee as loyal subjects of the Commonwealth. However, Parliament continued to pass harsher and harsher laws to deal with the upstart colonies, and Act after Act (Townshend, Intolerable, Tea...) mostly served to enrage Americans even further.
The heart of the growing rebellion was, without doubt, Boston. The patriots in Boston were continually pushing the envelope of how far the rest of the American colonies were prepared to go. And since one of the best ways to do so -- in an age where a weekly newspaper was pretty much it when it came to mass communications -- was to stage an event or party, to allow the populace to hear fiery speeches and consume lots of alcohol to put everyone in the proper revolutionary mood.
Boston held anniversary parties for the founding date of the Sons of Liberty, for instance, but this didn't spread much beyond New England. The Stamp Act repeal, however, was celebrated much further afield. The first anniversary was celebrated in New York City with "Joy and Festivity" (as reported by the Pennsylvania Chronicle), "and a Number of Fireworks were exhibited, to the general Satisfaction of all the Inhabitants."
[Note: All quotes are from original sources, but regrettably I can provide no links to online versions. Also, capitalization, punctuation, and spelling are all from the originals, with the sole exception that I updated all the odd "s" characters ("f") to make the quotes readable to a modern audience.]
By the second anniversary, the celebration got bigger. One has to wonder at the many protestations about how well-behaved the participants were, especially when one considers the number of toasts offered up (printing all the toasts at gatherings was a common thing for newspapers to do, back then). From the Boston Gazette of March 21, 1768:
Friday the 18th Instant being the Anniversary of the Repeal of the Stamp-Act, the same was celebrated with the greatest Demonstrations of Joy and Satisfaction, by People of all Ranks. Flaggs were hoisted, and Cannon fired in most of the capital Streets in the Town. The Houses of a Number of Gentlemen most remarkable for their Attention to the Welfare of the Community, were decorated with Streamers, and crouded with the noble Friends of Liberty, who testified their Satisfaction on this Occasion, by a temperate, but joyous Indulgence -- a select Company of truly respectable Gentlemen, upwards of Fifty in Number, assembled at the British Coffee-House, and devoted the happy Day to Mirth and Festivity, where a liberal Entertainment was provided. The whole Conduct of the Day was a compleat Exhibition of decent and rational Joy; and the Evening concluded without Riot or RUMPUS.
There follows a list of 18 toasts, including this footnote to a toast to St. Patrick: "The preceding Day being St. Patrick's, and a Number of Irish Gentlemen present, this Toast was cheerfully drank."
New York City saw a number of different celebrations, including this one reported by the New York Journal on March 24, 1768 (these were weekly papers, hence the lag in dates):
On Friday last the 18th Instant, being the Anniversary of the Repeal of the Stamp-Act, a numerous Company of the principal Merchants and other respectable Inhabitants of this City, Friends to Constitutional Liberty and Trade, assembled at Mr. Jones's and Mr. Bardin's Taverns, which are nearly adjoining, where Union Flags were displayed and elegant Entertainments provided. When the Company had Dined, by common Consent the Remains of the Entertainment were sent to the poor Prisoners in the Gaol, with a suitable Quantity of Liquor, and some of the Company voluntarily attended, to see it properly distributed. After Dinner the following loyal and patriotic Healths were drank...
A list of 21 toasts follows, including "Prosperity to Ireland" (but not actually to St. Pat). Again, this ends with a certain flavor of "doth protest too much" statements:
A Band of Musick was provided, and in the Evening some curious Fireworks played off for the Entertainment of the Company. Every Thing was conducted with proper Decorum, Ease, and good Humor, and the Evening was spent in Harmony, Cheerfulness, and a pleasing Flow of social Affections.
With 21 toasts "drank," social affections weren't the only things flowing in a pleasing manner. To put it another way, I don't think they sent too large a percentage of their "Quantity of Liquor" over to the prisoners. Maybe "Cheerfulness" was the polite way of saying (in a more modern fashion) "drinking ourselves silly," it's hard to tell at this remove. By 1770, the number of toasts reported in the Journal had risen to 34, and this was a time when the truest of patriots quaffed a full 45 toasts, in honor of John Wilkes.
Prodigious quantities of liquor aside, however, the revelry on Stamp Act Repeal Day was notable for one reason: it was the first truly "national" political holiday Americans celebrated together, on a widespread scale (the word "national" must remain in quotes, for the American nation did not in fact exist yet).
Washington's Birthday wouldn't be celebrated until after the Revolutionary War was won. Independence Day wouldn't be celebrated until after it happened in 1776. Even the Stamp Act Repeal Day celebrations did not survive for long. For a short period of time after the Stamp Act was repealed, it looked like Parliament had come to their senses and reconciliation was possible. As the years went on, though, this seemed less and less likely -- diminishing the importance of the Stamp Act's repeal. But the real reason Stamp Act Repeal Day was quickly forgotten as a holiday to celebrate is that soon much more provocative events were happening which deserved a different sort of celebration. A few weeks before the fourth anniversary of the repeal of the Stamp Act, the Boston Massacre occurred, which was used in subsequent years as a rallying date. Later, the Boston Tea Party would also be an occasion to remember. Finally, on July 4, 1776, our true national political holiday would emerge, and earlier commemorative dates would be eclipsed forever.
Stamp Act Repeal Day wasn't celebrated everywhere in the colonies. But it was celebrated in every single colony. Some towns even declared it an official holiday, and footed the bill for the celebrations.
The American colonies, ten years before the Declaration of Independence, were only very loosely aligned. People thought of themselves as a "citizen of New York" or a "Virginian" rather than as first and foremost an "American." Even after the war was won, our first attempt at self-government failed miserably because the states would not give up enough power to a federal government. But, on March 18, 1766, for the very first time America celebrated a political event together -- and they continued to do so for years afterwards. Together. As Americans -- celebrating a purely American national political holiday.
And so I close with a belated "Happy 246th Stamp Act Repeal Day!" to everyone.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant