Documents from the Parliamentary Archives for President Obama’s tour

The Stamp Act © Parliamentary copyright

President Obama received a personal tour through the Royal Gallery where he was shown a display of documents illustrating the change in relations between Britain and America between 1765 and 1778. The display was mounted by the Parliamentary Archives. 

Three documents were selected illustrating the change in relations between Britain and America between 1765 and 1778. 

An Act for granting and applying certain Stamp Duties, and other Duties, in the British Colonies and Plantations in America, towards further defraying the Expences of defending, protecting and securing the same (the Stamp Act), 5 George III, c. 12, 1765

The Act passed by Parliament in 1765, commonly known as the Stamp Act, imposed taxes on goods and services, including legal documents and appointments to public offices, in the British colonies in America, in order to pay for military expenses there.  It caused widespread protest and questioning of Parliament’s right to tax the colonies which were not represented at Westminster.  In March 1766 following opposition on both sides of the Atlantic the Act was repealed, but it proved to be a watershed in relations between Britain and America.

The Act is a parchment roll – one of some 60,000 Acts kept in the Victoria Tower.  It has been described as ‘the most important single piece of parliamentary legislation affecting British-American relations’ and received Royal assent on 22 March 1765 during the administration (1763-65) of George Grenville.  Its repeal by the short lived Rockingham Ministry (1765-66) was accompanied by the passing of the Declaratory Act, which asserted British legislative supremacy over the colonies.

The Stamp Act included provision for duties on playing cards and dice.

Petition against the Intolerable Acts, 11 May 1774

Following the Boston Tea Party of 16 December 1773 Parliament passed a series of Acts in 1774 designed to impose British authority on Massachusetts.  The Acts, which became known as the Intolerable Acts, were perceived as an assault on American rights and freedoms.  This petition to the House of Lords of 11 May 1774 against two of the Acts was signed by, among others, Benjamin Franklin, the radical colonial politician (left hand column, 4th signature).  It is recorded in the Journal of the House.

This petition appears to have originated from amongst a group of American colonists then resident in London. Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) lived in London between 1764 and 1775 and served as agent for the colonial assemblies of Pennsylvania, Georgia, New Jersey and Massachusetts. He vigorously opposed the Stamp Act in 1765.

Immediately after the reading of the petition in the House of Lords on 11 May 1774 the Bill to regulate the government of Massachusetts was read a third time, debated and passed with amendments.

Copy of the American Declaration of Independence of 4 July 1776, laid before the House of Lords on 20 January 1778

Less than 12 months after the passing of the Intolerable Acts the relationship between Britain and the American colonies broke down and the two sides clashed at Lexington.  On 4 July the following year Congress declared that the colonies were ‘absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved’.  A copy of the declaration was included in a letter sent from America in 1776 to the Secretary of State for the American colonies by the commissioners for restoring peace and was laid before the House of Lords in January 1778.

Many documents of this kind – copies of documents which illustrated the situation in the colonies – were laid before Parliament and are consequently held by the Parliamentary Archives.

The second paragraph on the first page opens with the sentence: ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’.

The original Declaration of Independence which was drafted by Thomas Jefferson is held by the National Archives in Washington. The copy does not, with the exception of John Hancock, include the names of the signatories which are on the original.

Further information

The Parliamentary Archives holds and provides access to the several million historical records relating to Parliament, dating from 1497.

Image: The Stamp Act. Parliamentary copyright