Brunswick Town holds the distinction in American history of being the site of one of the first armed resistances to British colonial policies, including taxation and other legislation that the American colonists felt infringed upon their freedoms as British citizens. One such hated legislation was the Stamp Act in 1765, which required that stamps be purchased from the Crown and attached “to all legal documents, newspapers, gambling papers, ships’ clearance papers, and books or pamphlets.”1
The act was so offensive to the people of Brunswick Town that when the ship Diligence carrying these stamps for sale docked at their port, a number of citizens met the ship carrying muskets, frightening the captain so that he did not unload the stamps. This put royal governor Tryon in a bind. He felt bound to uphold the new law, but was sympathetic toward the feelings of the citizens. He even offered to personally pay for stamps on a number of documents and for wine licenses for certain towns. However, his generous offer was turned down.2 By refusing to unload his stamps in such a hostile environment, the captain of the Diligence assured that trade in Brunswick Town and the whole Cape Fear region essentially ground to a halt. “Barrels of naval stores were soon overflowing the warehouses and were being stacked along the streets. . . . Court could not be held, newspapers were unavailable, and staple items were needed. Wills could not be proven and there were no marriage licenses issued.”3 It seemed as if life itself, at least all of the legal aspects thereof, had stopped completely.
In the summer of 1765, Judge Maurice Moore, son of the founder of Brunswick Town, and by this time an associate justice of the superior court of Salisbury wrote The Justice and Policy of Taxing the American Colonies in Great Britain Considered to protest the Stamp Act. In the pamphlet, Moore denounced the Stamp Act and argued that Parliament had no right to impose the tax on the colonies. He also rejected the idea of American virtual representation in Parliament and noted that direct representation of the colonies in Parliament was impractical and they could not “with the least degree of justice be taxed by the British Parliament.” Moore labeled all British taxation in his colony as unjust, and demanded that it cease. He also suggested that only the North Carolina government possessed sovereign authority to tax North Carolinians.
Wherein is shewed, That the Colonists are not a conquered People:—That they are constitutionally intituled to be taxed only by their own Consent:—And that the Imposing a Stamp Duty on the Colonists is as impolitic as it is inconsistent with their Rights.
Things really came to a head when, in February 1766, two merchant ships, the Dobbs and the Patience, docked at Brunswick’s port. Because their ships’ clearances were not stamped, they were not allowed to unload. Then the North Carolina attorney general announced that the unstamped ships would need to travel all the way to Nova Scotia for their trial. Angry colonists formed an organization called the Sons of Liberty. Several hundred men, at least 500 armed, marched to Governor Tryon’s residence at Russellborough and demanded the release of the ships. Tryon refused. Thinking the citizens would continue their protests elsewhere, he ordered nearby Fort Johnston to spike their cannons so they could not be used to fire upon British ships in the area. The Sons of Liberty returned to Tryon’s residence the following night and demanded the resignation of Brunswick stamp master Pennington, who was rumored to be hiding in Tryon’s house. Pennington, William Dry III (port collector), and a number of other officials were forced to resign their posts and sign documents stating that stamps would no longer be sold or required in the Lower Cape Fear region.4
Afterward, the Patience and Dobbs were allowed to leave and trade began once more. Only a few months later, the English Parliament recognized the negative effect that the Stamp Act had on trade throughout the empire, and so the act was repealed. However, this would not be the last atrocities inflicted on the American colonists by the British government leading up to the Revolutionary War.
Contemporary newspapers recognized the feat of the Brunswick citizens. In 1766 the North Carolina Gazette said
In no other colony was the resistance by force so well organized and executed. Governor Tyron knew each of his opponents in this struggle; not one made any attempt to disguise himself or to conceal his identity in any way. Acting in a forthright manner, without fear, these men succeeded in preventing the operation of the Stamp Act in North Carolina. In so doing, they gave clear evidence of their support of the belief that Parliament had no right to levy such a tax in America.5
In the same year, the Virginia Gazette noted that
It is well worthy of observation that few instances can be produced of such a number of men being together so long, and behaving so well; not the least noise or disturbance, nor any person seen disguised with liquor, during the whole time of their stay in Brunswick; neither was there any injury to any person, but the whole affair conducted with decency and spirit, worthy the imitation of all the Sons of Liberty throughout the Continent.6
Clearly, Brunswick Town was an example of the early patriotic fervor that signaled the inevitable break with Britain and American independence.
1. Pedlow, The Story of Brunswick Town, 45.
2. Pedlow, The Story of Brunswick Town, 45.
3. Pedlow, The Story of Brunswick Town, 45.
4. Pedlow, The Story of Brunswick Town, 46.
5. North Carolina Gazette, 1766, in Pedlow, The Story of Brunswick Town, 47.
6. Virginia Gazette, 1766, in Pedlow, The Story of Brunswick Town, 47.