Tax Day in Maine; circa 1765

Well, Federal and state taxes are due in just a few days, and of course, being the folklorist I am I had to do a piece regarding the Stamp Act of 1765. This of course was a British law that imposed a tax on the British colonies, and especially upon the American colonists. The gist of the law was to help pay for the British soldiers stationed in the colonies. Since the colonists benefitted most from their presence, Parliament felt it only appropriate that we should pay part of the bill. You have to remember that the great Indian wars were just recently ended at this time in history.

However, as we all know, neither the law nor the tax was received in a very cordial manner from the colonists. We are all familiar with the Boston Tea Party, but how many of you knew there was a tax revolt right here in Portland Maine way back in January of 1766. Of course, at that time Portland was called Falmouth, and Maine was part of Massachusetts, thanks to some tricky legal maneuvers on the part of certain people.

This following piece is from The Story of Old Falmouth, and was published in 1901:


The news of the passage of the Stamp Act aroused the greatest indignation in Falmouth, as it did in other settlements throughout the colonies; and on January 8th, of the year 1766, when a brig arrived from Halifax with the stamped papers for Cumberland County, a mob surrounded the custom house, demanding that the paper be given up to them.

The people had assembled in such numbers that the officers could do no less than comply with their demands; and when the stamped paper had been delivered over to the leaders of the mob, it was carried through the town at the top of a pole, to a bonfire especially prepared for the occasion, where it was publicly burned.

On the 16th of May in the same year, when the news came that the Stamp Act had been repealed, it was as if the people of Falmouth had suddenly grown wild with joy. The Boston Evening Post of June 2d, 1766, in giving an account of what occurred at Falmouth at this time, states: “The morning following the arrival of the express was ushered in with every demonstration of loyalty and joy; such as ringing of bells, firing of cannon at the fort and on board the shipping in the harbor. In the evening the houses of the town were beautifully illuminated, fireworks played off, bonfires erected, etc., — the whole conducted with so much ordering and decorum that it did great honor to the town.”

Mr. Gould gives the following account of how the good people of Falmouth evaded the sugar act: —

“On the 7th of August, 1767, the collector of Falmouth seized a quantity of rum and sugar, belonging to Enoch Illsley, for breach of the revenue act. In the evening, a mob attacked the house of the comptroller, Arthur Savage, where the Casco Bank now is. The collector, Francis Webb, was in the house at the time, and him they prevented from leaving the house until another party broke into the custom house on India Street, and removed the goods to secret places of safety.

“Governor Bernard issued a proclamation offering a reward of fifty pounds for the discovery of any person engaged in the removal of the goods from the custom-house.”

The ire felt by the colonists over this new law was so great that in a way it could be said that this tax was the match that lit the fuse on the cannon of revolution. There was much more at issue beyond the taxes, of course, so this would be a rather simplistic view by saying the war was over taxes. This next bit is from Falmouth Neck in the Revolution, by Nathan Gould, published in 1897.

The prominent events of the Revolution can be said to have begun on the Neck soon after the passage of the stamp act, for a mob marched to the customhouse, in January, 1766, and demanded the stamps, which were carried through the streets on a long pole to a bonfire, probably on the parade-ground, where they were burned in the presence of a concourse of approving people. The news of the repeal of the act was received here May sixteenth, and there was great rejoicing. Parson Smith says: — “Our people are mad with drink and joy : bells ringing, drums beating, colors flying, the court-house illuminated and some others, and a bonfire, and a deluge of drunkenness.” The parson lighted up his house.

In August, 1767, a mob removed Enoch Ilsley’s rum and sugar from the custom-house, which had been seized for breach of the revenue act, and a mob, in July, 1768, rescued from the jail two men, John Huston and John Sanborn, who had been convicted for being concerned in the riot. November 13, 1771, Arthur Savage, the controller, was mobbed. This was an outbreak of popular feeling and three men named Sandford, Stone and Armstrong were committed for trial on the charge of participating in it. The enforcement of the revenue laws, which had been practically a dead letter, was obnoxious to the colonists. The cause of the mob is a question, although William Tyng’s schooner was seized for smuggling only a fortnight before, which may have had connection with it.

In February, 1774, the committee here wrote to that of Boston that ” neither the Parliament of Great Britain, nor any other power on earth, has any right to lay tax on us except by our consent or the consent of those whom we choose to represent us.” Also, ” Our cause is just and we doubt not fully consonant to the will of God. In Him, therefore, let us put our trust, let our hearts be obedient to the dictates of His sovereign will and let our hands and hearts be always ready to unite in zeal for the common good and transmit to our children that sacred freedom which our fathers have transmitted to us and which they purchased with their purest blood.”

As you can see, there was much more to the history of the revolutionary war than most people know about. In large part, taxation without representation was the mitigating factor, but the lack of representation was probably the bigger part of the entire key to the war. It is funny how things can change so much, and yet they stay the same, isn’t it? After all, we talk about the lack of representation of the colonists in the 1700’s, but what do we have today for representation? Think about that as you rush to get your 1040’s in by the deadline. Speaking of 1040’s and tax time, did you know that your donations to many historical societies and museums can be taken as deductions if you itemize your deductions? Never too late to get those contributions and member pledges into your local historical society!

Categories: Education, history, Maine, stories, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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