Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)
Brett H Rushforth
"Influencing Empire" examines the period of imperial crisis and community disruption which followed the passage of the Stamp Act by Parliament in 1765 to repeal in 1766. Amid fears of a rising national debt, the revenue measure imposed a small tax in the twenty-six British American colonies to defray the expense of postwar military installations in the mainland interior. In response, crowds violently threatened royal officials and their property prompting resignations and the removal of tax documents into protective custody. With the stamped papers removed from circulation by the legislated collection date, the protests largely prevented the payment of the tax. Without stamped documents the courts and customs houses could not legally operate, preventing critical business of the British Empire. This dissertation traces how and why colonists from Nova Scotia to St. Kitts engaged in a series of unprecedented street protests, examining the process of imperial coalition-building. To achieve their goal of repeal, colonists recognized the importance of convincing imperial powerbrokers to act. The design of protests and strategies of dissent appropriated British cultural traditions, contemporary politics, and economic pressure points. Described by past historians as the "prologue to Revolution" and "the first act on the road to independence," this dissertation explores the imperial political and cultural contexts, restores the diverse choices and actions of individuals and communities, and emphasizes contingency to understanding the "perplexing situation" following the Stamp Act. At the forefront of this effort were the activities of British subjects far beyond the thirteen mainland colonies. This dissertation refocuses our understanding of the Stamp Act crisis by restoring the imperial dimensions of the repeal efforts uniting historiography of crowd studies with scholarship on the Caribbean, the British Empire, the American Revolution and the African Diaspora. Countering the tendency to write towards American independence, this study explores contemporaneous sources to demonstrate the rapidly shifting strategies of imperial influence, as well as the variety of political and economic arguments emerging during this brief period. Broadening the study of protest to an imperial scale embeds the emergence of crowd action amid a broader campaign of influence involving communities in the West Indies, England, Scotland, and Ireland as well as the mainland colonies. Far from a break with empire, this dissertation demonstrates the diversity of opinions and experiences both within a crowd and across the British Empire suggesting new avenues for understanding colonial protest strategies and the contours of the subsequent revolutionary coalition. Protest was exceptional and controversial. Critically, the dissertation argues that protest cannot be understood without closely examining the actions and choices of the majority of the population in colonial ports. Free and enslaved people of color, dockside laborers, and itinerant sailors inhabited these port communities dramatically influencing and shaping imperial politics. This dissertation demonstrates how these populations participated in this moment of community disruption, shaping strategies of dissent and influence. Their presence on the streets occurred in a variety of ways both supporting and opposing street protest. The surviving evidence suggests how their actions were manipulated as part of an imperial debate on protest which reveal imperial discourses on class and race. The dissertation argues that these early actions on the streets in the colonial period demonstrate a long-term struggle to define the British body politic. At no point was repeal assured, and contingency plays a central role in this dissertation. This dissertation demonstrates how rapidly shifting political coalitions within England, pressure from colonial agents and interests, as well as members of the crowd all played central roles in the repeal effort. A sympathetic print media spread supportive accounts of crowd action, while royal officials and stamp officers reported a competing narrative of violent mobs. This work overlays these traditional accounts of protest with shipping logs, marine intelligence, government documents, imperial correspondence, and private diaries to shed new light on core dynamics of the protest movement. Using a variety of contemporaneous evidence, the work demonstrates the flow of knowledge and rumor which shaped individual and community decision-making. Ultimately, this archival research prompts a fresh look at the "Stamp Act Crisis" as a critical test of the structure and functioning of the British Empire, revealing how a small tax enabled a period of panic, negotiation, innovation, and creativity.
© The Author
Perry, Molly FitzGerald, "Influencing Empire: Protest And Persuasion In The Stamp Act Period" (2019). Dissertations, Theses, and Masters Projects. William & Mary. Paper 1593091610.
Available for download on Saturday, January 17, 2026