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An Exhibition by the Parliamentary Archives
Title page of The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved by James Otis Esq. In this volume, James Otis (1725-1783) makes the case against British Parliamentary taxation of the American colonies, something which he was widely praised for by his countrymen at the time and which was part of a growing political consciousness in America. Parliamentary Archives HL/PO/JO/10/7/204.
240 years ago Parliament passed an Act which was, perhaps, the single most important piece of Parliamentary legislation to have affected British-American relations. The Stamp Act of 1765 is so significant in this context that many see it as the spark that lit the touch paper leading to the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War only ten years later in 1775, and ultimately to the recognition of American independence.
The North American colonies had long been a vital source of trade for Britain, but during the 1760s relations between them and the mother country became strained. Britain's victory in the Seven Years War of 1756-1763 was soon muted by the realisation of an immense increase in the national debt, leading to strong anxieties about bankruptcy.
The financial crisis provoked fears at the rising costs of supporting the American colonies, particularly any additional cost incurred by their possible expansion. Such expansion would have led the colonists into confrontation with the native population, precipitating expensive conflicts which would only serve to deepen the serious fiscal situation in Britain; fears which were fuelled by the short-lived Cherokee War of 1759-1761, and a brief Indian War in 1763.
As the atmosphere of relative prosperity during the Seven Years War gave way to a post-war period of increased economic depression, the mood in the American colonies towards Britain quickly began to change and a greater political consciousness became more evident amongst the colonists.
It was against this background that, on 13th February 1765, the Chancellor of the Exchequer presented a Bill to the House of Commons at the instigation of the then Prime Minster George Grenville (1712-1770), entitled 'a Bill for granting certain Stamp Duties, and other Duties, in the British Colonies and Plantations in America; and for applying the Same towards further defraying the Expenses of defending, protecting, and securing such Colonies and Plantations.'
The American Stamp Duties Bill was devised as a measure not only to raise revenue in both the North American colonies and the West Indian plantations towards the cost of defending these areas during the War, but also to make them more directly responsible for bearing the burden of the overall increased cost of supporting them.
An American Revenue Stamp. A rare example of a stamp issued for use under the 1765 Stamp Act, to the value of two shillings and six pence. By courtesy of ushistory.org.
The provisions of the Bill required certain goods to bear a revenue stamp, similar to those already used in Great Britain, and for which a fee was payable to the government for such 'stamping'. It sought to impose duties on all legal and official papers, such as deeds, wills and ship's papers, as well as on pamphlets, newspapers, and even on dice and playing cards. The measures were expected to raise somewhere between £40,000 and £100,000.
The Bill met with little real opposition in the House of Commons, and although several petitions were received against its provisions, these were swiftly rejected. The Commons passed the Bill with some minor amendments on 27th February 1765, and the following day it was sent up to the House of Lords, where it prompted even less debate. The Lords agreed to the Bill without amendment on 8th March, and it ultimately received Royal Assent by commission, as George III was ill and unable to attend Parliament, on 22nd March 1765.
1765 American Stamp Act: 5 George III, c. 12. '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; and for amending such Parts of the several Acts of Parliament relating to the Trade and Revenues of the said Colonies and Plantations, as direct the Manner of determining and recovering the Penalties and Forfeitures therein mentioned.' When the Act received Royal Assent, the standard formula of words used for granting assent to Supply Bills was written across the top in Anglo-Norman French: 'Le Roy remercie ses bons Sujets, accepte leur Benevolence, et ainsi le veult' (The King thanks his good subjects, accepts their benevolence, and wishes it thus). Parliamentary Archives HL/PO/PU/1/1765/5G3n11.
Front Page of The New-York Gazette; or The Weekly Post-Boy, Thursday, December 19, 1765, Numb 1198. This newspaper is one of several presented to Parliament as evidence of the widespread discontent with the Stamp Act. Under the heading Liberty and Property, and No Stamps it records the Printer's determination to ignore the provisions of the Act and to continue his weekly Publications, as usual, upon unstamped paper. Parliamentary Archives HL/PO/JO/10/7/210A.
By the latter part of the eighteenth-century the American colonies had begun to develop their own political identities, and many colonists had absorbed radical political ideas. Whilst they were familiar with the exacting of customs duties by the British Parliament they were unaccustomed to it introducing any form of internal taxation.
The passing of the Stamp Act, therefore, galvanised American public opinion against Britain, stimulating inter-colonial political awareness and co-operation. Indeed it met with an open and unexpectedly determined opposition, with many arguing that it was not only unconstitutional but an infringement on their liberty, and calling for greater political freedom under the slogan of 'no taxation without representation'. The ensuing intense political debate focused initially on the issue of Parliamentary representation, but soon expanded into wider questions of sovereignty.
A series of American revolutionary groups, known as the 'True Sons of Liberty', sprang up in New York and Massachusetts as a direct response to the Act. These groups soon began to actively organise opposition to it, in the form of propaganda and boycotts of British goods, as well as being responsible for several serious riots, in both colonies; all of which soon spread to neighbouring territories and made the tax impossible to collect.
One of the most serious riots took place in New York on the night of 1st November 1765, when a mob of about 2,000 protestors marched through the streets of the city to Fort George. There they threw stones and bricks over the walls before promptly burning an effigy of the Lieutenant-Governor, together with his carriage which they had earlier stolen, whilst he and his solders looked on from the walls of the fort.
Picture of a Stamp Act Riot in New York. This image of American colonialists rioting in protest against the unpopular Stamp Act shows them carrying a banner bearing the words 'The Folly of England and the Ruin of America'. It is taken from The Story of a Great Nation by John Gilmary Shea, which was published in 1886. By courtesy of the Florida Center for Instructional Technology (FCIT) at USF.
These 'Riots and Tumults' were a matter of grave concern for the Government, and George III alluded to the seriousness of the situation in his speech to Parliament at the beginning of the next Session when he made reference to 'Matters of Importance [which] have lately occurred in some of My Colonies in America'. The King accordingly ordered copies of several papers relating to the 'Informations and Advices received from America' to be delivered to both Houses for their consideration. On returning from the Christmas recess the King again addressed Parliament and expressed his concern at what was happening in the colonies, hoping that it would make 'such sound and prudent Resolutions, as may tend at once to preserve those Constitutional Rights over the Colonies, and to restore then that Harmony and tranquillity, which have lately been interrupted by Riots and Disorders of the most dangerous Nature.'
Left: Copy of a paper posted up on New York street corners. The inflammatory tone of the poster is clear, warning those involved in implementing the provisions of the Stamp Act that their persons and their property may be endangered. It is boldly signed ‘Vox Populi’ (The Voice of the People), and ends with the ominous words ‘We dare’! The paper was received with a letter sent from Lieutenant-Governor Cadwallader Colden to Secretary of State Henry Seymour Conway, dated 26th October 1765. Parliamentary Archives HL/PO/JO/10/7/207.
Below: Copy of an undated letter from James McEvers, the appointed Distributor of Stamps in New York, to Lieutenant-Governor Cadwallader Colden. In his letter, McEvers notes the recent riots in Boston, and says that the citizens of New York are so incensed against him as the Distributor of Stamps that he is in fear of his safety. He says that it is now impossible for him to exercise the duties of his office, and that he does not wish to suffer 'the same cruel fate Mr Oliver met with at Boston', and goes onto say he has written to the Commissioners for Stamps to resign the position. McEvers claims he would have carried out his duties if such could have been done in safety, but that in the current atmosphere to do so would have no doubt resulted in his house being 'pillag'd' and his person 'abused'. Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/7/206.
In October 1765 Charles Watson Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham (1723-1792), assumed the authority of Prime Minister. Initially he was concerned with trying to enforce the Stamp Act, but this quickly gave way to an attitude of compromise. However, Rockingham maintained a strong belief in the right of the British Parliament to tax her colonies. Over the coming months both the House of Commons and the House of Lords examined numerous papers concerning the unrest in America and resistance to the Act. Amongst the many called to give evidence was Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), who gave oral testimony to the Commons in January 1766.
Franklin's examination before a Committee of the Whole House in the Commons lasted four hours, where he answered a staggering 174 questions. Like many other witnesses before Parliament, he said that a mere modification of the Stamp Act would not suffice, and that only a repeal would satisfy the American public. Indeed repeal would still be preferred even if it was accompanied by a declaration of Parliament's sovereignty, providing such a declaration was exercised like the similar claim over Ireland. He stated that a failure to repeal the Act would ultimately lead to alienation of the colonies and could have a serious effect on trade; he also denied that if the Act was repealed, the colonists would think it had been their violent actions which forced Parliament to do so. The History, Debates and Proceedings of Both Houses of Parliament of Great Britain, from the year 1743 to the year 1774, Volume IV 1761-1768 (London, 1792), pp. 323-345.
Portrait of Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). © National Portrait Gallery, London. By courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.
Through his connection with leading merchants Rockingham favoured the repeal of the Act on grounds of commercial interests. A Bill for its repeal was soon brought before Parliament, being presented in the House of Commons on 26th February 1766. But even with Rockingham's support its passage was fiercely opposed in the Commons, particularly as George III was known to prefer a modification of the Stamp Act to its outright repeal. Nevertheless, the new Bill finally passed the House of Commons on 4th March, by 250 votes to 122, and was sent to the Lords for their consideration. Whilst in the Upper House pressure for repeal continued, particularly from British manufacturers and merchants trading with America who actively petitioned for the passing of the repeal Bill.
Extract from the testimony of Benjamin Franklin before the House of Commons.
Petition from the Merchants of Bristol in favour of the Bill to repeal the American Stamp Act. This petition, being 'The humble Petition of the Master, Wardens, and Commonalty of the Society of Merchants Venturers of the City of Bristol, under their Common Seal', highlights the importance of the trade with America and advises of the dire effects that such trade has recently suffered. It gives the cause of this 'calamity' as the passing of the Stamp Act, and states how the colonists are not only unable to pay their debts but have ceased to place orders for goods. It goes on to warn that 'thousands of our Industrious Poor will soon want employ', and, as the Bill for repealing the Act had already passed through the Commons, the petitioners pray that the Bill may likewise be passed by the Lords. Parliamentary Archives HL/PO/JO/10/3/256/48.
The Stamp Act Repeal Act received Royal Assent only a year later after the passing of the original Act, on 18th March 1766. The gesture was, however, tempered somewhat by the passing of the Declaratory Act the same day, which specifically reasserted the sovereignty of the British Parliament over the American colonies and its right to impose taxes upon them.
But by passing this second Act Rockingham's attempt at ensuring the subversion of the colonies merely kindled the flame of discontent further; as did the passing of the Townshend Act of 1767, which introduced customs duties on a whole range of imported goods hitherto not taxed. One such commodity was Tea, which continued to have a duty levied on it after the repeal of most of the provisions of the Act in 1770, and which lay behind the infamous Boston Tea Party.
Today, it is clear that after the passing of the Stamp Act in March 1765, relations between Britain and her American colonies could never be the same again.
1766 Stamp Act Repeal Act: 6 George III, c. 11. An Act to repeal an Act made in the last Session of Parliament, intituled, 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; and for amending such Parts of the several Acts of Parliament relating to the Trade and Revenues of the said Colonies and Plantations, as direct the Manner of determining and recovering the Penalties and Forfeitures therein mentioned. Parliamentary Archives HL/PO/PU/1/1766/6G3n14.