1765: Andrew Oliver lynched in effigy to the Liberty Tree

Add comment August 14th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1765, Boston patriots lynched the merchant designated as the imperial taxman. They only did so in effigy, but the “execution” scared him permanently off the job while also making a gallows-tree into one of the earliest symbols of American independence.

One of the key pre-revolution irritants for the future United States, the 1765 Stamp Act imposed taxes in the form of stamp duties on a variety of printed products, for the purpose of funding the British army deployed to North America. It was a levy long familiar to London lawmakers but it sent the colonies right around the bend, and since the colonies sat no Member of Parliament who could flip an official wig it also popularized the classic revolutionary slogan about “taxation without representation.”*

Enacted in the spring of 1765 and due to take effect in November, the Stamp Act drew immediate outrage in the colonies and especially in that hotbed of subversion, Boston.

There, Andrew Oliver, scion of a shipping magnate clan, was tapped to collect the levy. It figured to be just the latest in a series of lucrative state appointments. How was he to know in advance that this particular legislation would unleash the crazies? Perhaps he should have given more heed to the publication of ominous warnings over the roster of tax collector names.


Boston Post-Boy, August 5, 1765

On the morning of Wednesday, August 14, a crowd of irate Bostonians mobbed the corner of Essex Street and Orange Street (present-day Washington Street) and upon a large elm tree strung up an effigy of Oliver alongside a boot — the footwear comprising a second, punny, effigy of the Stamp Act’s sponsor the Earl of Bute.

“What greater Joy can NEW-ENGLAND see,” ran the menacing note pinned to the mannequin, “Than STAMPMEN hanging on a Tree!” As is clear from the following newspaper account, versions of which circulated widely in New England, these were no mere theatrics but a very proximate physical threat; even the elm’s property owner dared not take down the provocative display for fear that the crowd would pull down his house. Likewise taking the better part of valor, Oliver pledged to anti-tax colonists that he would not take the office, and he kept his word.**


Providence Gazette, August 24, 1765

After this triumphant debut, the elm in question became a common rallying-point for the hotheaded set, a frequent stage for speechifying, rabble-rousing, and fresh instances of popular justice all further to the patriot cause until, as Nathaniel Hawthorne put it, “after a while, it seemed as if the liberty of the country was connected with Liberty Tree.” Of course, it’s all a question of whose liberty; a Tory gloss on this deciduous republican made it “an Idol for the Mob to Worship; it was properly the Tree ordeal, where those, whom the Rioters pitched upon as State delinquents, were carried to for Trial, or brought to as the Test of political Orthodoxy.” When besieged in Boston in 1775-1776, British Tories cut the damned thing down, so for subsequent generations it was only the Liberty Stump.


“The Colonists Under Liberty Tree,” illustration from Cassell’s Illustrated History of England, Volume 5, page 109 (1865)

The Liberty Tree is commemorated today at its former site, and forever in verse by revolutionary firebrand Thomas Paine.

In a chariot of light from the regions of day,
The Goddess of Liberty came;
Ten thousand celestials directed the way,
And hither conducted the dame.

A fair budding branch from the gardens above,
Where millions with millions agree,
She brought in her hand as a pledge of her love,
And the plant she named Liberty Tree.

The celestial exotic struck deep in the ground,
Like a native it flourished and bore;
The fame of its fruit drew the nations around,
To seek out this peaceable shore.

Unmindful of names or distinctions they came,
For freemen like brothers agree;
With one spirit endued, they one friendship pursued,
And their temple was Liberty Tree.

Beneath this fair tree, like the patriarchs of old,
Their bread in contentment they ate
Unvexed with the troubles of silver and gold,
The cares of the grand and the great.

With timber and tar they Old England supplied,
And supported her power on the sea;
Her battles they fought, without getting a groat,
For the honor of Liberty Tree.

But hear, O ye swains, ’tis a tale most profane,
How all the tyrannical powers,
Kings, Commons and Lords, are uniting amain,
To cut down this guardian of ours;

From the east to the west blow the trumpet to arms,
Through the land let the sound of it flee,
Let the far and the near, all unite with a cheer,
In defence of our Liberty Tree.

* Visitors to the U.S. capital of Washington D.C., whose 700,000 residents cast no votes in the Congress they live cheek by jowl with, can find this familiar grievance right on the city’s license plates.

** How far this surly bunch was prepared to go on August 14, 1765, one can only guess at; however, in later years, there would be several instances of Bostonians tarring and feathering various tax collectors. These guys did not do civility politics.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Businessmen,England,Executed in Effigy,Execution,Hanged,History,Lynching,Massachusetts,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pelf,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Summary Executions,USA

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1510: Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley, tax collectors

4 comments August 17th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1510, the new king Henry VIII had his dad’s most hated tax collectors beheaded on Tower Hill.

Better days: Empson (on the left) and Dudley (on the right) pal around with Henry VII.

When Henry Tudor conquered Bosworth Field to emerge from the War of the Roses as King Henry VII, he brought the baggage of being the son of some Welsh squire.

His shaky legitimacy exposed the newborn Tudor dynasty to existential threats from every quarter; even putative allies proved liable to turn against him.

Henry consequently looked for every opportunity to centralize power away from institutions that could check or threaten him and into his own hands — nowhere more notoriously so than in the realm of taxation.* Aggressive tax collection would not only regenerate the crown’s blasted treasury; it would widen his own scope of action.

Whether Henry’s historical repute for cupidity is well-deserved is a topic beyond the scope of this site, but the fact that he does have such a reputation can be attributed in no small degree to this date’s featured players.

These two persons, being lawyers in science, and privy councillors in authority, as the corruption of the best things is the worst, turned law and justice into wormwood and rapine. … Neither did they, toward the end, observe so much as the half-face of justice, in proceeding by indictment; but sent forth their precepts to attach men and convent them before themselves, and some others, at their private houses, in a court of commission; and there used to shuffle up a summary proceeding by examination, without trial of jury; assuming to themselves there to deal both in pleas of the crown and in controversies civil. Then did they also use to inthral and charge the subjects’ lands with tenure in capite, by finding false offices, and thereby to work upon them for wardships, liveries, premier seisin, and alienations … When men were outlawed in personal actions, they would not permit them to purchase their charters of pardon, except they paid great and intolerable sums; standing upon the strict point of law, which upon outlawries giveth forfeiture of goods; nay, contrary to all law and colour, they maintained the king ought to have the half of men’s lands and rents, during the space of full two years, for a pain in case of outlawry. They would also raffle with jurors, and enforce them to find as they would direct, and if they did not, convent [summon] them, imprison them, and fine them. These and many other courses, fitter to be buried than repeated, they had of preyig upon the people; both like tame hawks for their master, and like wild hawks for themselves; insomuch as they grew to great riches and substance.

Francis Bacon‘s History of the Reign of King Henry the Seventh

Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley were two powerful parliamentarians of less than lordly stature who had been elevated to this bad-cop role for their loyalty and aptitude. There, they became lightning rods for public resentment. It’s a path that had once taken a French counterpart from the common stock to the robes of state to (once his patron monarch died) the scaffold. Empson and Dudley trod it exactly.

Even in Henry’s lifetime, his newly intrusive taxes risked fearful public reaction.

The pretender Perkin Warbeck knocked Henry for the “robberies, extortions, the daily pilling of the people by dismes [tithes], taskes [contributions], tallages [tolls], benevolences, and other unlawful impositions and grievous exactions” he imposed, “agreeable to the meanness of his birth.” Tax backlash helped generate at least some of Warbeck’s popular support.

By the twilight of Henry’s rule in the first decade of the 1500’s, he had mastered these threats and could take advantage of political tranquility to really focus on his accounting. And he’d figured out that by ratcheting up enforcement of already-existing levies, he could avoid the dangerous confrontations that might result from summoning Parliament to ask it for money. It’s from this period most of all that he gets his historical Ebenezer Scrooge image, and the tool he employed for it, the Council Learned in the Law, got its extreme unpopularity.

Henry died in April of 1509 at the age of 52, leaving his son Henry VIII an overflowing treasury and countless grievances against the tax collectors who made it happen.

As the Council Learned’s leading lights, Empson and Dudley — “the king’s long arms with which … he took what was his” — immediately became targets once their royal protector was in the ground. They were hailed before the greenhorn king and the Privy Council to justify themselves within days of Henry VII’s death.

Interestingly, because a royal pardon amnestied all crimes except “felony, murder, and treason,” the malfeasance of these two councilors — whose real offense was unimpeachable loyalty to the last sovereign — had to be exaggerated into rather fantastical charges of treason in order to satisfy petitioners against them while avoiding undue embarrassment for the late king or the other aides who had served him.

In the year or so he lay in the dungeon awaiting his fate, “a pson most ignorant, and being in wordlie vexacon and trowble, also wth the sorrowfull and bitter remembrance of death,” Edmund Dudley wrote a treatise on the right arrangement of a society dedicated to the young new master who held Dudley’s life in his hands. The Tree of Commonwealth can be read here.

Yale professor Keith Wrightson introduces an interesting lecture — “Early Modern England: Politics, Religion, and Society under the Tudors and Stuarts” — with Dudley’s Tree of Commonwealth social schema.

Remember both, since now each thrive,
on perquisite ill gotten,
Empson & Dudleys case survives,
when they’re hang’d, dead, & rotten;

-From an 18th century colonial Virginia ballad titled “Remonstrance”, comparing this date’s centuries-old executed to a contemporary politician (Richard Beale Davis, “The Colonial Virginia Satirist: Mid-Eighteenth-Century Commentaries on Politics, Religion, and Society,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 57, No. 1 (1967))

Update: The History of England podcast covers these two blokes here.

* The phrase “Morton’s fork” comes from Henry’s extractive machinations. Named for his Lord Chancellor John Morton, the original dilemma was a “fork” the crown used to stick taxpayers: those living high on the hog were made to pay up, since they obviously had enough to spare … and those living modestly were also made to pay, since they perforce must have saved enough to spare.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Language,Lawyers,Nobility,Pelf,Political Expedience,Politicians,Power,Treason

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