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US History E-Text > The Revolution: Opening Causes and Events > The Stamp Act
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No crisis had yet been reached. Otis and Henry had each made more than a local reputation at the expense of British authority, and they had both won. The writs of assistance had fallen stillborn, and the king had yielded in the Parson's Cause. A shadow was thus cast over the royal prerogative, but it was not threatening; American loyalty was too deep-seated to be seriously shaken by such trifles. But greater events were soon to follow.

Every source of English revenue was drained on account of the great war debt, and it was proposed to lay a tax on the colonies, not to pay the interest on the national debt, nor to be expended in England in any way, but solely for the protection and defense of the colonies. It was thought necessary to maintain a standing army in the colonies to preserve order and to prevent Indian outbreaks, and this belief was confirmed by the great conspiracy of Pontiac. The colonists, however, strenuously denied the need of British troops on American soil in time of peace. They believed that the true reason was to hold them in awe. Franklin, who was then in London, stated to a committee of Parliament that there was no occasion whatever to inaugurate such a movement, that the colonists when but a handful had defended themselves against the Indians, and that they were more competent to do so now. But all protest was unavailing, and the government decided to quarter an army of ten thousand men among the Americans, and to tax the latter for its partial support. Lord Grenville sought how to raise the revenue by the easiest method without offending the colonists. There is little doubt that he was sincere and that he did not mean to offend them. A stamp tax suggested itself; but the idea was not original with Grenville. As early as 1728 Governor Keith of Pennsylvania had proposed a stamp tax for America. Governors Shirley and Dinwiddie had again proposed it about 1755, but the oncoining war had deferred the matter.1

Grenville proposed the stamp duties in the spring of 1764, a year before the act was to be passed. His object, as he said, was to consult the colonial agents and even the colonial assemblies, requesting them to propose some better method, if possible, for raising the necessary revenue. No doubt Grenville, like most British statesmen, felt piqued at the evasion of the navigation laws in America and at the failure of the writs of assistance; but there is no proof that he desired to humble the colonists with an army and with stamps. He doubtless meant it all for the best, but with all his sincerity, he was narrow-minded, and never perhaps dreamed of the storm he was about to raise. The year passed, and a majority of the colonial assemblies spoke against the proposed law, none offering an alternative; the universal voice from America was against it. But this warning was not heeded; and in March, 1765, the Stamp Act became a law and was to go into operation on the first of the following November. The colonies were not without friends in the Commons during the debate that preceded the passage of the law, the foremost of whom was Colonel Barre,2 who had fought by the side of Wolfe at Louisburg and Quebec. In a sudden burst of eloquence, in answer to the statement that the colonies were "children planted by our care, nourished by our indulgence, and protected by our arms," Barre made his famous reply: "They planted by your care! No; your oppression planted them in America. Nourished by your indulgence! They grew up by your neglect of them. They protected by your arms! Those sons of liberty have nobly taken up arms in your defense."3

The stamps, ranging in value from a few pence to several pounds, were to be placed on newspapers, marriage licenses, deeds, shipping bills, and many kinds of legal papers -- fifty-four kinds of documents in all.

The promoters of this law in Parliament doubtless expected some protest from America, but they were not prepared for the violence of the opposition that was awakened. A few weeks after the news of the act reached the colonies the storm broke forth in all its fury. The Virginia legislature was then in session, and Patrick Henry, who was now a member, offered a series of resolutions in which he declared that the people of that colony were entitled to all the privileges of natural-born subjects of England; that they, through their assembly, had the exclusive right to tax the colony; that they were not bound to yield obedience to any law, except of their own making, designed to impose any taxation whatsoever upon them; and that any person or persons who assert or maintain such right "shall he deemed an enemy to his Majesty's colony." In supporting his resolutions Henry made one of his great speeches, in which the well-known passage occurs, "Caesar had his Brutus, Charles I his Cromwell, and George III" -- "Treason," shouted the speaker, and the cry was echoed from the chamber. "George III," continued Henry firmly, "may profit by their example. If that be treason, make the most of it." The old conservative members opposed the resolutions, but Henry's impetuous eloquence carried them through by a narrow margin.4 These ringing resolutions were sent over the land to the North and to the South, and by midsummer they had been published in all the leading newspapers in America.

Massachusetts again joined hands with Virginia in upholding colonial liberty. The legislature, led by Otis, issued a circular letter to all the colonies, calling for a general congress to meet the following autumn. The Stamp Act Congress, in response to this call, met in the city of New York. Nine of the colonies were represented, while the remaining four sent their expressions of good will. This congress sat but three weeks. Otis was its leading spirit, ably seconded by Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina.5 It framed a Declaration of Rights, and respectfully petitioned the king and both houses of Parliament. Gadsden, in a notable speech used the significant words, "There ought to be no New England men, no New Yorkers, known on the continent, but all of us Americans." This congress was important in that it fostered concerted action and established a precedent for union.

Meantime, during the summer, the opposition to the Stamp Law grew in intensity. The Sons of Liberty organized in every colony, determined to prevent the operation of the law. Most of the colonial legislatures took action against it, and as the time drew near, riots occurred in various sections, and mass meetings were held to denounce the odious law. As the first installments of stamps began to arrive and the names of the distributors were made known, the rioting increased and reached its culmination in Boston, where the usual meeting place, Faneuil Hall, became known as the Cradle of Liberty. Boxes of stamps were seized and destroyed by the mob; distributors were burned in effigy. The fine residence of Chief Justice Hutchinson of Massachusetts was sacked and his valuable library destroyed. In New York Lieutenant Governor Colden attempted to enforce the act, but the people were furious. He threatened to fire on the crowd, and was informed that if he did so he would speedily be hanged to a lamp-post.6 Colden's best chariot was seized, dragged through the streets with the images of himself and of the devil sitting side by side in it, and burned in the open square in view of his own house. Merchants and business men banded together and agreed not to import goods from England until the law was repealed; newspapers came out with a death's-head and crossbones where the stamps were required to be. In short, the opposition was so determined and widespread that it was evident that the law could not be enforced except at the point of the bayonet.

Viewing the matter calmly from this distance, it must be confessed that no better or more equitable method of taxing the colonies could have been found than by means of stamps, if it be conceded that England had the right to tax them at all. But this was exactly what the colonists denied. "Taxation without representation is tyranny," became their battle cry. Lord Mansfield and others explained that the colonies were represented in Parliament, as every member of the Commons represents in a broad sense the whole British Empire, and that the colonists were as truly represented as were eight ninths of the inhabitants of England, who had no vote for members of Parliament and yet were taxed by them. The Americans answered that there was a great difference between the Englishman who had no vote and the colonist; as the former was a part of the British public to which the member of Parliament was responsible, while the latter, three thousand miles away, could not appeal to his interests or his fears.7 If we agree that America was not represented in Parliament, it cannot be denied that the colonists were clearly in the right. It is a badge of slavery to be taxed by a foreign power. The men that lay a tax should be a part of the people that pay the tax. Thus they are taxing themselves as well as their fellows, and the danger of abuse is reduced to a minimum.

The British Parliament heard the wild clamor from the American wilderness. Under a new ministry, with the Marquis of Rockingham at its head, the subject of repealing the Stamp Act became the principal business. William Pitt, now Earl of Chatham, rose from a sick bed to make one of his great speeches in favor of the colonists, rejoicing, as he said, that America had resisted. Pitt took the moderate ground that while Parliament had a right to lay external taxes, as in the navigation laws, she had no right to lay internal taxes.

The other side was presented by Grenville with candor and ability, but Pitt carried the day, and the law was repealed in February, 1766. With the repeal was passed the "Declaratory Act," a declaration that Parliament had the right to tax the colonies "in all cases whatsoever."

The Americans gave little heed to the Declaratory Act. They rejoiced in the repeal of the Stamp Act, and were ready to return to their former allegiance. But the very next year Parliament, with a foolhardy rashness that admits of no explanation, wantonly probed into the half-healed wound. The Rockingham ministry soon fell, and the Great Commoner was called again to take the helm. He became nominal premier, but his health was broken and he retired to the country. The ministry was composed of men of various shades of political doctrine, and each became practically the master of his own department. Against the wishes of Pitt, Charles Townshend became the chancellor of the exchequer, and held in his hands the matter of taxing the colonies. He was a man of brilliant talents, but without the conservatism and foresight necessary to statesmanship. He was a firm believer in the right of Parliament to tax the colonies, nor was he willing that the Declaratory Act be left on the statutes a dead letter. No; he would tax the colonists again without delay and show them who was their master. It was Townshend, above all men except his sovereign, who was responsible for the Revolution. Through his guidance Parliament laid an import duty on tea, glass, paper, lead, and a few other articles imported into the colonies. The revenue thus raised was to be used in paying the royal governors and the other officials appointed by the Crown. This form of taxation, known as "external," as contrasted with the "internal" taxation of the Stamp Act, had been acknowledged to be legal by the colonists. But they could not escape the belief that the act was meant to annoy and humble them. The same Parliament had pronounced the writs of assistance legal, and had suspended the functions of the New York legislature for refusing to make certain required appropriations. This was a blow at the independence of colonial assemblies. Moreover, the colonists had always insisted on paying the salaries of their own governors, and thus making them feel responsible to the respective assemblies; and to have this privilege taken out of their hands without their consent was not conducive to harmony. All this was irritating in the extreme, and the colonists, who had discovered their strength in opposing the Stamp Act, were in no condition to be thus dealt with. Their fury rose again, and for the third time within six years colonial America, from the mountains to the sea, was aflame with indignation against the mother country.

A new light now arose in the Massachusetts assembly in the person of Samuel Adams, who became the most powerful political leader during the early years of the Revolution. John Dickinson, of the Pennsylvania assembly, in a series of able "Letters from a Farmer," attacked the British position with great force, while George Washington led the planters of Virginia to resistance. Led by such men, the colonists determined to purchase no English goods on which the import duties had been laid.

Important events now followed rapidly upon one another. The Mssachusetts assembly sent a circular letter to the other colonies, setting forth the rights of the colonists as Englishmen and urging a united petition to the king. The English government demanded that the letter be withdrawn, though it had expressly disavowed a desire for independence; the assembly refused, and was dissolved by Governor Bernard. The Virginia burgesses issued a still bolder circular, calling for union. This circular, the "Virginia Resolutions," 1769, condemned the Townshend acts, and declared that the people of Virginia could be taxed only by their own representatives. The governor then dissolved the assembly; but the members met again, in the Raleigh tavern, and pledged themselves to the non-importation policy.

Regiments of British troops had been sent to Boston to enforce the Townshend acts, and a few of their number, in answer to the taunts and jeers of the people, fired on the latter, several of whom were killed.8 This became known as the "Boston Massacre." The people were maddened by the massacre; a great meeting was held in Old South Church, and through Samuel Adams they demanded that the troops be instantly removed from the town. The lieutenant governor, acting for the absent governor, saw that the temper of the people was such that he dare not refuse, and the soldiers were removed to Castle William, on a little island in the harbor. In 1771 Governor Tryon of North Carolina, with fifteen hundred troops, fired upon the people who had organized as "regulators" to maintain public order.

The coast of Rhode Island had been menaced by an armed British schooner, the Gaspee, whose captain, in pretense of enforcing the revenue laws, committed many outrages upon the people, until, in June, 1772, it was burned to the water's edge by a band of infuriated citizens. The ministry then ordered that the offenders be sent to England for trial, but the Rhode Island authorities declined to obey the order.

This rapid succession of events showed plainly that the breach was widening, and that the signs of the times pointed to still more serious differences between England and America. Meanwhile Parliament had receded a little; it had repealed the Townshend duties,9 but one, the duty on tea, and that was retained in order to maintain the principle at stake -- the right to tax the colonies. This duty was retained at the instance of one man, the man who had now become the real as well as the nominal master of the British realm.


Footnotes

1Pitt was not in favor of it. "I will never burn my fingers with an American stamp tax," said he. As early as 1732, when a stamp tax for America was proposed to Premier Sir Robert Walpole, he answered, "I will leave the taxation of America to some of my successors who have more courage than I have." See Lossing's Cyclopedia of United States History," p.1334. [return]

2Pitt was absent with the gout. [return]

3The expression "Sons of Liberty" was soon caught up in America, and made the party name of a patriotic society that spread through all the colonies. [return]

4Next day, in the absence of Henry, the resolutions were reconsidered, and modified, and the most violent one was struck out. But they had been given to the public in their original form, and in this form they were published broadcast over the land. [return]

5In the Stamp Act Congress we find Livingston of New York, Dickinson of Pennsylvania, Rodney of Delaware, and Rutledge of South Carolina, who was chosen president; all were leading men of the Revolution. [return]

6Fiske's "American Revolution," Vol. I, p.24. [return]

7See Channing's United States of America," p. 30. [return]

8The offending soldiers were tried in a Boston court and acquitted. They were defended by John Adams and Josiah Quincy. [return]

9The Townshend duties had produced but 295, owing to the non-importation agreement, while the expenses incident to their attempted enforcement reached 170,000. Channing's "United States," p. 60. [return]

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.




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