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Tossing Lines: American unity, born in a New London tavern

Squeezed between the revolutionary hotbeds of New York and Boston, New London and Groton in the 1700s may have been small ports, but we played on the big stage, helping to bring the segregated colonies together in unity, strengthening the country in preparation for war.

After Parliament enacted the reviled Stamp Act in 1765, the wild Sons of Liberty held two December meetings in a New London tavern, the first actions in organizing all the colonies in the buildup to revolution. We were already up in arms over the Sugar Act and the Currency Act, and now we were becoming national players, dangerously hosting and abetting anarchy.

It’s easy to envision that lively downtown tavern on a cold December night, like a sensuous Lloyd Garrison painting, warm light and the din of voices emanating from its windows onto the street, colonial-garbed men descending upon New London, filling the pub as rum and beer fueled inflammatory, openly treasonous debate.

With British trade restrictions already hurting the colonies, especially commercial provinces like Connecticut, the Stamp Act, with its tax on newspapers and documents of all kinds, threatened to put merchants, lawyers, and printers out of business.

Our very existence was in peril, for we were largely merchants and West Indies traders. Trading and shipbuilding were the bedrock of the local economy in the mid-1700s, providing livelihoods for mariners, shopkeepers, shipwrights, coopers, sawmills, sail makers, rope smiths, blacksmiths, and others. We had a lot to lose.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the 15th resolution of the Stamp Act was a blatant declaration of Parliament’s right to tax America, an offensive statement here in feisty New England. One source claimed of Connecticut: “…Men of Eighty are ready to gird the sword…the very Boys as well as the hardy Rustic are full of fire and at half a Word ready to fight.”

Anticipating a fight with the British army, the Sons of Liberty from Boston began planning meetings throughout the colonies to organize continental resistance.

The Sons held the first meeting in the country on Dec. 10, 1765 in a New London tavern, comprised “of a large assembly of the respectable populace.” This no doubt included merchants William and Ebenezer Ledyard of Groton Bank, along with their neighbor, merchant Thomas Mumford, whom New London historian Frances Caulkins described as “one of the most efficient of the Sons of Liberty.”

Surely in attendance was also prominent New London merchant Nathaniel Shaw, noted by Ernest E. Rogers at the unveiling of the Shaw Mansion’s commemorative tablet in 1933 as an “active member of the Sons of Freedom,” another name for the Sons of Liberty.

Merchants were initially behind the powerful and violent Sons of Liberty, born in Boston the previous August with riots, property destruction, and the hanging and burning of effigies. The Sons issued boycotts against British goods, tarring and feathering violators, and damaging, if not tearing down, the houses of officials. Customs officers and stamp distributors were forced to resign under threat of violence and many refused to perform their duties for fear of their safety.

The first New London meeting concluded that it was the duty of every colonist to oppose execution of the punitive acts of Great Britain. They agreed to torment any official who supported the Stamp Act, and they recognized “the natural right of a people to set bounds upon their government and their duty, if lawful methods failed, ‘to reassume their natural Rights, and the Authority the Laws of Nature and of God have vested them with.’”

The second meeting was held on Christmas Day of 1765, the first definitive move to organize colonial resistance on a continental basis. Delegates from the New York Sons attended and agreed to a mutual aid pact with Connecticut.

They promised each other “to march with the utmost dispatch, at their own proper costs and expence (sic)…to the relief of those that shall, are, or may be in danger from the stamp-act, or its promoters and abettors…”

They also pledged to “endeavor to bring about, accomplish, and perfect the like association with all the colonies on the continent…”

As quoted in Edmund and Helen Morgan’s “The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution,” colonies throughout America answered the call from New London: “The intercolonial union begun at New London continued to grow as the Act was repealed. The colonies were showing signs of united strength, something they would never forget. And would capitalize on when the next trade restrictions were enacted.”

Those meetings, held right here in a downtown tavern, on a cold December night initiated the unification of America, without which we would not have stood a chance against the most powerful country on Earth.

We may have been small, but our support and sacrifices in the fight for liberty made us players on the big stage. After the burning of New London and the massacre at Fort Griswold, some say cries of “Remember New London!” could be heard at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, a decisive American victory, and the last major battle of the war we finally won.

John Steward lives in Waterford. He can be reached at tossinglines@gmail.com.

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