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Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

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  Andrew Oliver
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Unit 1: From Revolution to Constitution

Suggested Activities

Andrew Oliver

Era 3: Revolution and the New Nation

  1. This portrait of Andrew Oliver shows a successful Boston merchant who was active in Massachusetts public service in the mid-1700s. Oliver was loyal to the British Crown and was appointed distributor of tax stamps for Massachusetts after the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765. What was the Stamp Act and why was it levied on American colonists? Why were the colonists so vehemently opposed to this new tax? How was the Stamp Act conflict with England ultimately resolved?
    [Standard 5—historical issues-analysis and decision-making]

After the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, the British government felt the need to raise revenues to pay for the cost of the war and to finance the continuing expense of defending the American frontier. The Stamp Act was a method of raising money for this purpose. It created an excise tax on every piece of printed paper used by American colonists, including newspapers, legal documents, ship's papers, licenses, and playing cards.

Colonists were opposed to the Stamp Act because it was an attempt by England to raise money in the colonies without the approval of the colonial legislatures. Colonists taxed themselves through their own local assemblies and did not think it was fair to be taxed by the British government without having direct representation in Parliament. In response to the Stamp Act, the Virginia House of Burgesses adopted the Stamp Act Resolves, proposed by Patrick Henry, which stated that American colonists possessed the same rights as English citizens, including the right to be taxed only by their own representatives.

Demonstrations against the Stamp Act occurred throughout the colonies, including refusal to use the stamps, stamp burning, public protests, and intimidation of stamp distributors. In 1765, representatives from nine colonies met in New York at the Stamp Act Congress, where it was decided that the British Parliament lacked the authority to impose taxes on the colonies. As the Stamp Act became increasingly unenforceable, Parliament revoked it in 1766.

It is interesting to note that John Singleton Copley, the artist who painted the portrait of Andrew Oliver, was himself torn between loyalties to America and England.

Andrew Oliver (1706–1774)
John Singleton Copley (1738–1815)
Oil on copper, circa 1758

  1. In 1770, while Andrew Oliver was serving as secretary of Massachusetts, he wrote an account of the Boston Massacre that was considered biased toward the British. Research the Boston Massacre and record the basic facts of the conflict. A loyalist like Oliver would most likely have a different perspective of the massacre than the majority of colonists would. Write an article for a colonial paper describing the event from the viewpoint of either a loyalist or a revolutionist. Compare your account with one written from the opposing perspective and discuss with your classmates how different versions of the same event are possible.
    [Standard 3—historical analysis and interpretation]

Due to frequent defiance of British customs agents at New England ports such as Boston, Britain increased the number of soldiers stationed in these areas. On the night of March 5, 1770, insults were exchanged between a British soldier guarding the Boston Customs House and a local merchant. The conflict became physical, and the soldier struck the merchant with the end of his rifle. People who witnessed the incident responded with name-calling and rock and snowball throwing, which led to the gathering of an additional small squad of British soldiers under the command of Captain Thomas Preston. The size of the crowd increased, and the violence escalated—a soldier was struck by a club and fired into the crowd in response. Several other soldiers fired their guns, ultimately resulting in the death of five men and the wounding of six others.

This tragic incident was deftly used as propaganda against the British. The British soldiers were tried for their actions and were acquitted. For a transcript of Thomas Preston's trial, visit

  1. The Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, and other clashes between British soldiers and American colonists caused the British Parliament to impose punitive measures. These so-called Intolerable Acts realized colonial fears that England was attempting to limit their right to self-government. In response to these threats, the First Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia in 1774, which was followed a year later by the meeting of the Second Continental Congress. What was the basic mission of the Congress? Outline the significant accomplishments of the first and second meetings of the delegates.
    [Standard 3—historical analysis and interpretation]

The mission of the First Continental Congress was to address and peacefully resolve the colonists' grievances with the British government, which chiefly revolved around the right of the American colonies to self-government. In response to the Intolerable Acts, the delegates of the First Continental Congress crafted a plan of progressively harsh economic pressures to protest British attempts to limit their freedom. The majority of delegates left their first meeting hoping that the British would respond to these measures and that a Second Continental Congress would be unnecessary.

The problems with England had not been resolved by the following year when the Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia. Although most delegates still did not want a war with Great Britain, news of clashes between the Massachusetts militia and British troops at Lexington and Concord forced the Congress to prepare for war. As public support for independence from England swelled in 1776, Congress appointed a committee to draft a declaration of independence. The document was written by Thomas Jefferson but was revised in committee, and it was adopted on July 4, 1776, two days after Congress formally voted for independence. In response to the tasks related to war preparation, the delegates faced the challenge of defining the legal relationship between the Congress and the colonies. The Articles of Confederation, a plan of government organization, were put into practice by Congress in 1777.