Benjamin Wilson's satirical commentary on the Stamp Act, from 1766, shows a funeral. In the coffin are the remains of the Act. Mourners include Lord Grenville (who is carrying the coffin) and other Parliamentary sponsors of the Act. The print also shows the cargoes, destined for America, which were unsent because of the colonists' embargo of British goods. The ships in the background, ready now to carry the cargoes to the American colonies, are named after the Parliamentary figures who led the campaign for repeal. Source: Joan D. Dolmetsch, Rebellion and Reconciliation: Satirical Prints on the Revolution at Williamsburg (Williamsburg, Va., 1976), pp. 38-39.
Introduction: According to 18th-century British constitutional theory, it was the "balance" of powers in government which safeguarded liberty. There was a monarchial element (the Crown), an aristocratic element (the hereditary House of Lords), and a "republican" or "popular" element (the House of Commons). Only measures passed by both houses and signed by the king or queen had the force of law. Two of the three elements in this "mixed" form of government exemplified the principle of hereditary rule. The monarch inherited his or her throne, and the members of the House of Lords also inherited their titles and offices. No one could claim a seat in the House of Commons by hereditary right. However, unlike our modern notions of election, the actual processes by which members of Parliament were chosen were diverse, sometimes almost incomprehensible. In theory they represented all the "common" people of the realm. In reality, members of the House of Commons were themselves usually members of the aristocracy. Most British citizens did not vote. In some districts, called "pocket" boroughs or "rotten" boroughs, only a single individual was entitled to vote. Large areas of the country, including whole cities, had no representatives in Parliament.
Government in the royal colonies in North America was modeled on the British system, the royal governor standing in for the Crown, a royally-appointed council taking the place of the aristocratic House of Lords, and the elected assembly representing "the people." All of these should in theory have "balanced" one another, "the people" holding a share, but only a share, of the power. In practice, however, the royal governors -- even when supported by their councils -- found themselves confronted by lower houses which aggressively sought to limit governors' powers and enhance their own. In the colonies most males could vote. Further, as population shifts occured, new seats in the lower houses were created so that the assemblies fairly accurately represented the entire population.
In 1765, in the wake of its great victory in the Seven YearŐs War (known as the French and Indian War in the American colonies), Great Britain set about putting its imperial house in order. Retiring the debt was a major priority, and the Stamp Act was one of several revenue measures designed to get the colonies to pay a greater share of the costs of empire. Colonists refused to pay the new stamp tax. Instead they organized a boycott of British goods and proclaimed that Parliament lacked the power to tax them, something only their own colonial legislatures could legitimately do.
- How did Americans forge their own unique notions of representation?
1756-1763: Seven Year's War between France and Great Britain and their respective allies; Great Britain conquered Canada, extended its influence in India, and gained territory in the West Indies
1764: Sugar Act; first law specifically aimed at raising tax revenues in the colonies, it increased tariffs on non-British goods
1764: Currency Act prohibited American colonies from issuing their own currency
1765: Quartering Act required colonies to provide housings and supplies to British troops
1765: Stamp Act taxed newspapers, and other documents, dice, and playing cards.
1765: The Stamp Act Congress passed "Declaration of Rights and Grievances"
1766: Stamp Act Repeal
1766: Declaratory Act, adopted the same day the Stamp Act was repealed, asserted Parliament's authority over the American colonies "in all cases whatsoever"
The Seven Years' War ended in 1763 with Great Britain triumphant. It had seized Canada from France, had secured effective control over much of India, and had achieved naval supremacy all over the globe. It also faced a mountain of debt. Parliament moved quickly to reorganize and systematize Britain's imperial holdings and to reduce its debt. This meant that the Mother Country would seek to play a more active role in the governance of its colonies and that it would seek to raise additional revenues from them.
In the decades before this great victory royal governors had routinely warned the king, through his Board of Trade, that the colonies were developing dangerous innovations in government. They particularly objected to the colonists' arguments that all power, including all revenue measures, should pass through the lower house because its members alone were popularly elected. An example is North Carolina Governor Gabriel Johnson's protest of that colony's biennial act. The measure required the legislature to meet at least once in every two years. The governor's objection was that it undermined the principle of deferrence. Subjects should defer to his Majesty's wishes in such matters as calling for elections or creating new electoral districts. Colonists should defer to their "betters" in choosing men to represent them. He wrote:
The greatest objection is that there must be a new election every two years which is too short a time to settle a Country which has been so long in confusion, and men of sense who sincerely mean the Publick good are so much afraid of the next Elections that they are obliged to go in with the majority whose Ignorance and want of education makes them obstruct everything for the good of the Country even so much as the Building of Churches or erecting of schools or endeavouring to maintain a direct Trade to Great Britain.
Other royal governors echoed Johnson's complaints. Governor Glen of South Carolina lamented that the lower house of the legislature there had succeeded in monopolizing the power of appointment. He was unable even to name the clergy of the Church of England. Adding insult to injury, the clergy then refused to add his name to the list of those congregations prayed for every Sunday. [Governor James Glen to the Board of Trade, October 10, 1748] Governor Clinton of New York added his voice to the chorus:
That your Lordships [i.e., the members of the Board of Trade] may better comprehend the Methods which the Assembly have taken to draw unto themselves the executive powers of Government I must observe to Your Lordships.
1stly That the Assembly refuse to admit of any admendment to any money bill; so that the Bill must pass as it comes from Assembly, or all the Supplies granted for the support of the Government, & the most urgent services must be lost.
2ndly It appears that they take the Payment of the [military] Forces, passing of Muster Rolls into their own hands by naming the Commissaries [suppliers] for those purposes in the Act.
3rdly They by granting the Saleries [sic] to the Officers personaly [sic] by name & not to the Officer for the time being, intimate that if any person be appointed to any Office his Salery must depend upon their approbation of the Appointment.
4thly They issue the greatest part of the Money granted to his Majesty without Warrant, though by His Majesty's Commission [i.e., instructions] to me it is directed that all Monies raised by Act of the Assembly, shall be issued from the Treasury by my Warrant & not otherwise.
5thly They have appointed an Agent [lobbyist] for the Colony who is to take his Directions from a Committee of Assembly (exclusive of the Council & of the Governor) and to be paid by Warrant from the Speaker of the Assembly.
6thly In order to lay me under the necessity of passing the Bill for payment of the Officers Saleries & Services in the manner the Assembly had formed it [see item #1], they tackt [sic] to it the payment of the Forces posted on the Frontier for the Defence thereof [New York bordered on Canada, then New France], so that I must either pass [sign] the Bill, or leave the Colony defenceless, & open to the Enemies [sic] incursions.
-- Governor George Clinton to the Board of Trade, October 20, 1748
Johnson succeeded in getting the Board of Trade to nullify the Biennial law, but the Board ignored his other complaints about the rise of popular government. Governors Glen and Clinton fared even worse. The Board of Trade had little time for the North American colonies, a situation some historians refer to as "benign neglect." What they mean is that the colonies prospered and grew without much direct British supervision. They also developed the habit of controlling their own affairs in their own ways. Governor Glen warned:
. . . the election of members [of the Assembly] is by ballot, which they vainly say, is an improvement upon the Mother Country; it is indeed different from the method in their Mother Country, and therefore, I think, they should not be indulged in it, for the closer they confine themselves to the Customes at Home the safer they will be. . . . But indeed I am far from thinking it an improvement, and therefore out of tenderness to the People, I wish, it were altered to defeat the very end they propose by it, the freedome of elections. . . .
Neglect, benign or other, ended with the defeat of France in the Seven Years' War. When Parliament in 1765 tried to impose taxes on newspapers, playing cards, and legal documents, the elected assemblies in each colony led a broadly-based and increasingly unified resistance movement. At right is a contemporary woodcut depicting the tarring and feathering of a tax agent. So fierce was local resistance that most agents resigned their commisions, and no one made a serious effort to collect the tax. In addition, colonies adopted non-importation agreements which were, in effect, boycotts of British goods until the Act was repealed.
What made colonists' resistance historically significant, beyond their success in gaining repeal, is the new view of the nature of representation and consent colonists voiced in justifying their opposition. Patrick Henry led the campaign in Virginia:
The following resolutions, introduced by Patrick Henry, were adopted by the House of Burgesses on May 30, 1765:
Resolved, that the first adventurers and settlers of His Majesty's colony and dominion of Virginia brought with them and transmitted to their posterity, and all other [of] His Majesty's subjects since inhabiting in this His Majesty's said colony, all the liberties, privileges, franchises, and immunities that have at any time been held, enjoyed, and possessed by the people of Great Britain.
Resolved, that by two royal charters, granted by King James I, the colonists aforesaid are declared entitled to all liberties, privileges, and immunities of denizens and natural subjects to all intents and purposes as if they had been abiding and born within the Realm of England.
Resolved, that the taxation of the people by themselves, or by persons chosen by themselves to represent them, who can only know what taxes the people are able to bear, or the easiest method of raising them, and must themselves be affected by every tax laid on the people, is the only security against a burdensome taxation, and the distinguishing characteristic of British freedom, without which the ancient constitution cannot exist.
Resolved, that His Majesty's liege people of this his most ancient and loyal colony have without interruption enjoyed the inestimable right of being governed by such laws, respecting their internal policy and taxation, as are derived from their own consent, with the approbation of their sovereign, or his substitute; and that the same has never been forfeited or yielded up, but has been constantly recognized by the kings and people of Great Britain.
Source: John Pendleton Kennedy, ed., Journals of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, 1761-1765 (Richmond, Va., 1907).
Colonial condemnations of the Stamp Act not only affirmed the principles put forth by John Locke -- and universally accepted in Britain -- that taxation must rest upon consent, but went on to insist that the colonists were not represented in the House of Commons, and thus could not be taxed by Parliament. Colonial assemblies sent representatives to a Stamp Act Congress which proclaimed:
- That it is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that no taxes be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives.
- That the people of these colonies are not, and from their local circumstances cannot be, represented in the House of Commons in Great-Britain.
- That the only representatives of the people of these colonies, are persons chosen therein by themselves, and that no taxes ever have been, or can be constitutionally imposed on them, but by their respective legislatures. (See The Declaration of the Stamp Act Congress)
Stop and Consider:
- Was Governor Glen correct? Had the colonies deviated so far from the "Customes at Home" that they had upset the "balance" crucial to the British constitution?
- How did the Stamp Act Congress justify its claim that colonists were not represented in Parliament?
- In what specific ways did the governors' complaints foreshadow colonial resistance to the Stamp Act?
In the process of developing principled reasons for their refusal to obey the Stamp Act, Americans largely ignored the notion of "balance" in government as the bedrock of liberty in favor of what they called "actual" representation. Thomas Whately, a member of Parliament and one of the authors of the Stamp Act, took up their arguments. It was entirely irrelevent, he claimed, whether colonists voted for any member of Parliament or not. Most residents of England did not vote either. Yet they and the colonists both enjoyed the blessings of a government based upon their consent. The key to this, to Americans, paradoxical assertion, lay in what Whately called "virtual" representation:
. . . the Fact is, that the Inhabitants of the Colonies are represented in Parliament: they do not indeed chuse the Members of that Assembly; neither are Nine Tenths of the People of Britain Electors; for the Right of Election is annexed to certain Species of Property, to peculiar Franchises, and to Inhabitancy in some particular Places; but these Descriptions comprehend only a very small Part of the Land, the Property, and the People of this Island: all Copyhold, all Leasehold Estates, under the Crown, under the Church, or under private Persons, those for Terms ever so long; all landed Property in short, that is not Freehold, and all monied Property whatsoever are excluded: the Possessors of these have no Votes in the Election of Members of Parliament; Women and Persons under Age be their Property ever so large, and all of it Freehold, have none. The Merchants of London, a numerous and respectable Body of Men, whose Opulence exceeds all that America could collect; the Proprietors of that vast Accumulation of Wealth, the public Funds [i.e., holders of British government bonds]; the Inhabitants of Leeds, of Halifax, of Birmingham, and of Manchester, Towns that are each of them larger than the Largest in the Plantations; many of less Note that are yet incorporated; and that great Corporation the East India Company, whose Rights over the Countries they possess, fall little short of Sovereignty, and whose Trade and whose Fleets are sufficient to constitute them a maritime Power, are all in the same Circumstances; none of them chuse their Representatives; and yet are they not represented in Parliament? Is their vast Property subject to Taxes without their Consent? Are they all arbitrarily bound by Laws to which they have not agreed? The Colonies are in exactly the same Situation: All British Subjects are really in the same; none are actually, all are virtually represented in Parliament; for every Member of Parliament sits in the House, not as Representative of his own Constituents, but as one of that august Assembly by which all the Commons of Great Britain are represented. -- Thomas Whately, The Regulations Lately Made
Whately thus took direct issue with the colonists' assertion that, as Patrick Henry had phrased it:
. . . the taxation of the people by themselves, or by persons chosen by themselves to represent them, who can only know what taxes the people are able to bear, or the easiest method of raising them, and must themselves be affected by every tax laid on the people, is the only security against a burdensome taxation, and the distinguishing characteristic of British freedom, without which the ancient constitution cannot exist.
Whately also cited a wealth of precedents, previous examples of taxes levied on the colonies by Parliament:
. . . an internal Tax also was laid on the Colonies by the Establishment of a Post Office there; which however it may be represented, will, upon a Perusal of 9 Anne c.10. appear to be essentially a Tax, and that of the most authoritative Kind; for it is enforced by Provisions, more peculiarly prohibitory and compulsive, than others are usually attended with: The Conveyance of Letters thru any other Channel is forbidden, by which Restrictions, the Advantage which might be made by public Carriers and others of this Branch of their Business is taken away; and the Passage of Ferries is declared to be free for the Post, the Ferrymen being compellable immediately on Demand to give their Labour without pay, and the Proprietors being obliged to furnish the Means of Passage to the Post without Recompence. These Provisions are indeed very proper, and even necessary; but certainly Money levied by such Methods, the Effect of which is intended to be a Monopoly of the Carriage of Letters to the Officers of this Revenue, and by Means of which the People are forced to pay the Rates imposed upon all their Correspondence, is a public Tax to which they must submit, and not meerly a Price required of them for a private Accommodation. . . . If all these Circumstances do not constitute a Tax, I do not know what do: the Stamp Duties are not marked with stronger Characters, to entitle them to that Denomination. . . . -- Thomas Whately, The Regulations Lately Made
Despite Whately's efforts, however, a strong Parliamentary opposition to the Stamp Act arose, led by former Prime Minister William Pitt, pictured at right. He took sharp issue with Whately's claim that the colonists were, in fact, represented in Parliament:
The gentleman tells us of many who are taxed, and are not represented. The India Company, merchants, stock-holders, manufacturers. Surely many of these are represented in other capacities, as owners of land, or as freemen of boroughs. It is a misfortune that more are not equally represented: but they are all inhibitants, and as such, are they not virtually represented?. . . they have connections with those that elect, and they have influence over them.
Colonists were, for the most part, excluded from these ruling circles. Pitt then turned to the Stamp Act itself:
. . . not that there were wanting some, when I had the honour to serve his majesty [as Prime Minister during the Seven Years War], to propose to me to burn my fingers with an American stamp-act. With the enemy at their back, with our bayonets at their breasts, in the day of their distress, perhaps the Americans would have submitted to the imposition: but it would have been taking an ungenerous and unjust advantage. -- William Pitt, Speech on the Stamp Act
In addition, Pitt went on, the value of the colonies to the Mother Country had nothing to do with the amount of taxes raised:
The gentleman asks, when were the colonies emancipated? But I desire to know, when were they made slaves. But I dwell not upon words. When I had the honour of serving his Majesty, I availed myself of the means of information which I derived from my office: I speak, therefore, from knowledge. My materials were good; I was at pains to collect, to digest, to consider them; and I will be bold to affirm, that the profits to Great Britain from the trade of the colonies, through all its branches, is two millions a year. This is the fund that carried you triumphantly through the last war. . . . You owe this to America: this is the price America pays you for her protection. And shall a miserable financier come with a boast, that he can bring a pepper-corn into the exchequer, to the loss of millions to the nation? -- William Pitt, Speech on the Stamp Act
Summary: Pitt's position prevailed. Parliament voted to rescind the Stamp Act. It also adopted Pitt's other recommendation, that it affirm its own authority over the colonies. This was the Declaratory Act, passed the same day as the repeal of the Stamp Act. The Stamp Act initiated a pattern that held until the Tea Party provoked Parliament into passing the Coercive Acts. Starting with the Stamp Act, Parliament would pass a revenue measure. Colonists would both resist it by means of boycotts and civil disobedience and by proclamations of their own rights as "Englishmen." Parliament would give way, in the face of pressure from British merchants eager to resume the colonial trade, and would simultaneously affirm its authority in "all cases whatsoever." Meanwhile the colonists developed a principled justification for practices they had developed over decades of "benign" neglect.
Reflect and Respond:
- What did Whately mean when he claimed "every Member of Parliament sits in the House, not as Representative of his own Constituents, but as one of that august Assembly by which all the Commons of Great Britain are represented"?
- What specific experiences of American colonists in their battles with royal governors underlay their insistence upon "actual representation"?
- William Pitt proposed that "the sovereign authority of this country [Great Britain] over the colonies be asserted in as strong terms as can be devised, and be made to extend every point of legislation whatsoever: that we may bind their trade, confine their manufactures, and exercise every power whatsoever - except that of taking money out of their pockets without their consent." Would Patrick Henry or the delegates to the Stamp Act Congress have accepted his formulation? Support your answer with specific references to the Virginia and Stamp Act Resolves.
- How consistent was Pitt's claim of Parliamentary authority, other than with regard to revenues, with his argument over "virtual" representation? Would not binding trade or confining (limiting or prohibiting) manufactures also constitute ways "of taking money out of their pockets without their consent"?