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Also of note is that these pavestone throwers were not knee-jerk antitaxers whose anger might purposefully be misdirected by a politician. They had long since acknowledged the need for taxes to fund such activities as keeping Native Americans at bay and constructing better roads. Their beef was with Great Britain for its attempt to once again levy taxes on Americans without American consent and despite American objections, for they believed that they had settled this matter by their 1765 protests against the Stamp Act, which had resulted in its rescinding.

Back in 1765 the Boston-based protesters of the Stamp Act could have more accurately been called a mob, as they burned a few mansions of the wealthy and threatened to torch fifteen more. Even then, however, their rage had not been inchoate but based on their realization that the purpose of the Stamp Act was not the regulation of commerce, the ostensible aim of all previous Navigation Acts. They saw the Stamp Act as an attempt to force the colonies to pay retroactively for the British having provided military protection during the French and Indian War.

It is a characteristic of the arrogant—and in that era the British were routinely in-your-face arrogant—to believe that anyone opposing them is dumb, incompetent, or has a short memory. The American colonists who actively opposed the Stamp Act and the Townshend Acts, named for Charles Townshend, the chancellor of the exchequer, who fashioned them for Parliament, were neither dumb nor ignorant, and they did not need very long memories to recognize that their difficulties had begun with the accession to the throne of George III in 1760. The end of the French and Indian War in 1763 had exacerbated those problems, as had the British government's realization that it had expended a great deal of money on that war and needed to recoup £2.5 million. Americans had already laid out plenty in property and poll taxes to fund American militias' operations, taxes that had been kept in force after the war to defray their allotted share of Great Britain's prior military expenses. By 1765, Americans had paid in so routinely and in so stalwart a manner that they had already retired £1,765,000 and were on schedule to retire the remainder of the £2.5 million. A British MP had even cited their terrific repayment record to justify enacting the Stamp Act, arguing that the payment record was evidence of Americans being prosperous enough to bear additional taxes.

Prosperous enough? Today we do not generally think of our colonial forebears as having been prosperous, certainly not when their lives are juxtaposed to our own luxury-filled lives, but in the 1760s, and in comparison with most of Europe, they were. Nor do we think of them as willing to be taxed—but the slogan "No taxation without representation" did not mean that the protesters were antitax; rather, it meant that they wanted a say in what taxes were levied. Massachusetts' colonists, for instance, paid property taxes that were several multiples more than comparable ones in Great Britain, which were themselves higher than all others in Europe.

It is when the arrogant think they are being the shrewdest that they are the most oblivious to reality. The British MPs believed they had been very canny in structuring the Stamp Act so as to avoid an American backlash against their port officials, the usual collectors of taxes: The Stamp Act would be administered by the colonists themselves—they would need to buy stamps to make legal all their commercial documents, including newspapers. The MPs omitted from their calculations that the need for colonial cooperation in administering the Stamp Act gave the colonists leverage to resist it.

John Hancock's understanding of that vulnerability changed his life, commencing his transformation from an ordinary, if quite wealthy, colonial merchant into a leader of the resistance. News of the act's impending imposition came to him while he was still in mourning for his uncle and mentor, who had died just a year earlier. His response was immediate, and it went against his economic interests: "I have come to a Serious Resolution not to send one Ship more to Sea, nor to have any kind of Connection to Business under a Stamp," he wrote to his firm's London supplier. "I am Determin' Sell my Stock in Trade & Shut up my Warehous Doors & never Import another Shilling from Great Britain.... I am free & Determined to be so & will not willingly & quietly Subject myself to Slavery." He appended a note to a copy: "This Letter I propose to remain in my Letter Book as a Standing monument to posterity & my children in particular"—just then, he had no children—"that I by no means Consented to a Submission to this Cruel Act, & that my best Representations were not wanting in the matter." His ensuing actions spoke as forcefully: He made common cause with the leaders of the resistance—lawyer James Otis, brewer and former tax collector Samuel Adams, and physician Joseph Warren, men whom most Boston merchants considered below them socially.

But then, those other wealthy merchants were almost all Tories, as were most of the wealthy throughout the colonies in 1765. In every age the wealthy tend to be fundamentally conservative, in the sense of opposing any alteration of the pattern that has made and is sustaining their fortunes. In Boston this fundamental truth became apparent as some of the merchants warned the would-be resisters against making the sort of over-the-top protests of the Stamp Act that London might deem too rebellious.

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