This Day in History – March 18th

1766 – American colonists successfully influence British Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act – “No Taxation Without Representation!” was one of the rallying cries of American colonists during the 1750s and 60s. It was inspired by the tax measures passed by the British Parliament in those days to help get the country out of the huge debt it went into fighting France in the Seven Year’s War. Despite their victory in the war, which ended in 1763, Britain’s debt nearly tripled to an equivalent of about £16 billion today. The Stamp Act came into effect Nov. 1, 1765, and made it so all official documents, including attorney licenses, land grants, court papers and even playing cards had to be printed on special paper produced in London and bearing an official stamp. This paper could only be purchased with British coin, not the more plentiful colonial paper money. Since colonists were not directly represented in British Parliament, and the tax was imposed without their consent, they considered it a violation of their rights as Englishmen. English politicians were burned in effigy by angry mobs, and gradually it became clear there was far more bitterness and resentment built up than just over the Stamp Act. Influential American men ranging from lawyers to merchants to land-owning farmers held the Stamp Act Congress in New York City in October 1765, with 27 delegates from nine colonies drafting petitions to Britain against the tax. Most had served in some form of elected office, and all but three were born in the colonies. Nine of them later attended the Continental Congresses that paved the way for American Independence, and four of them went on to sign the Declaration of Independence. The Stamp Act was repealed on this date in 1766. Less than 10 years later, on April 19, 1775, the first shots of the American Revolutionary War were fired in Concord, Massachusetts.

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1834 – Six English farm labourers are sentenced to be sent to Australia for forming a trade union – By the 1830s, trade unions were no longer illegal in England, having been made lawful by the Combination Acts in 1824/1825. But that didn’t stop a busy-body landowner and magistrate named James Frampton from trying to crack down on a union formed by farm workers in 1834. Two years earlier, in 1832, six men from Tolpuddle in Dorset, England founded the “Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers” to protest against the gradual lowering of agricultural wages. The industrial revolution and mechanization was, for the first time, impacting agricultural work, and weekly wages had recently decreased from 10 shillings per week to seven. The men refused to work for less than 10. In order to join the society, members had to swear a secret oath while blindfolded. Now, back to that busy-body Frampton – he wrote letters complaining about the union and learned about an obscure law from the previous century banning secret oaths. As a result, on this date in 1834, the six men, whose surnames were Loveless, Standfield, Hammett and Brine, were found guilty and sentenced to be deported to Australia for seven years. By September they had all arrived, with five living in Sydney and another on Tasmania in Hobart. Meanwhile, back in England, the men, who became known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, were folk heroes, and a petition collected 800,000 signatures for their release. Their supporters organized a protest march, and the six men were pardoned, on condition of good conduct, in March 1836. The men returned separately, but had all reached England once more by August 1839. One of the men chose to remain in England, but the other five relocated to London, Ontario. One of these men, James Brine, moved to Blanshard Township in 1868. He died in 1902 at the age of 90, and is buried in St. Marys Cemetery. In Tolpuddle, England, a museum has been built in their honour, featuring displays and interactive exhibits about the Martyrs and their impact on trade unionism.

1837 – Grover Cleveland, the 22nd and 24th President of the United States, is born – On this date in 1837, Stephen Grover Cleveland was born in New Jersey, the fifth of nine children. His father died when he was still a teenager, and he moved to Buffalo to be with his uncle, where he began studying law. In 1871, he became sheriff of Erie County, where he carried out several hangings himself. In 1882, he was elected Mayor of Buffalo, where he developed a reputation as an honest leader who worked hard to fight corruption. Later that year, he was elected governor of New York State, winning by such a large margin that it set a state election record. In 1884, James G. Blaine, a former Speaker of the House who was widely seen as corrupt and immoral, was named the Republican nominee for President. Democratic leaders, who had been out of power since before the Civil War, saw a chance to finally beat their opponents, and selected Cleveland. During the campaign, the Republicans seized on a paternity scandal from Cleveland’s past, and made up the chant, “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?” It was a close election, decided by New York State, which Cleveland won by fewer than 1,100 votes. After the election, his supporters would retort “Gone to the White House! Ha! Ha! Ha!” His win broke the longest losing streak – six presidential elections – for any major party in American political history. Cleveland, who was a bachelor, became the second president to be wed while in office and is the only one to have been married at the White House. In the 1888 election, Cleveland again received the popular vote, but was narrowly defeated by Benjamin Harrison. On the day she left, Cleveland’s wife Frances told a White House staff member to take care of the furniture, as they would be “coming back four years from today.” She was right, as her husband remained popular by criticizing Harrison’s decisions on tariffs and the use of silver to back the dollar, and achieved a landslide victory in 1892. This made him the only President in American history to serve non-consecutive terms in office. He died of a heart attack June 24, 1908 at the age of 71.

1992 – South Africa votes to end apartheid – On this date in 1992, responding to years of international outcry, white South Africans voted overwhelmingly in favour of political reforms to end the systematic racist policies of apartheid and create a power-sharing multi-racial government. All four of the country’s provinces, and all but one of 15 “referendum regions” voted “Yes” to the change. Change won 68.6 percent of the vote in what was a record turn-out, with over 96 percent of voters heading to the polls in some districts. There were majority “Yes” results even in more conservative areas such as the Kroonstad region of the Orange Free State, where five of the seven Parliamentary seats were held by members of the conservative party who had campaigned in favour of the “No” side of the referendum. Only Pietersburg in Northern Transvaal, a rural right-wing stronghold, returned a “No” vote. Andries Treurnicht, nicknamed “Doctor No” as leader of the opposition campaign, had his parliamentary constituent in that region. The administrative capital Pretoria voted 57 percent “Yes,” the judicial capital of Bloemfontein voted 58.5 percent “Yes,” and the legislative capital Cape Town voted 85 percent “Yes.” Treurnicht said he would never work with the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, which was focused on installing a multi-racial government, vowing that apartheid would return to South Africa; he died just over a year later in April 1993 during a heart operation. Nelson Mandela, then president of the African National Congress (ANC), who was jailed for 27 years because of his fight against black segregation, said he was “very happy indeed” at the results. In 1994, the ANC won South Africa’s first non-racial elections and Mandela became president. This brought with it a lifting of sanctions, restored membership to the Commonwealth, and South Africa retaking its seat in the UN General Assembly after an absence of 20 years.

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