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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
How the Stamp Act was Received in America
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[Although the British Parliament had passed, and refused to repeal, highly oppressive acts regarding commerce and manufactures, it had never hitherto attempted to levy direct taxes. The nearest approach to this was in the rates for postage; but in these the pay was voluntary and for services rendered, and it provoked no opposition. The proposition, therefore, to lay a direct tax on the colonies was received by them all with disapproval, though the degrees of outspoken dissent widely differed. In Boston, which had always been the centre of democratic sentiment in America, the protest was made in no uncertain tone. The House of Representatives resolved, "That the imposition of duties and taxes by the Parliament of Great Britain, upon a people not represented in the House of Commons, is absolutely irreconcilable with their rights." The pamphlet issued by James Otis, mentioned in the preceding article, vigorously asserted this principle, and declared, "If we are not represented, we are slaves." He maintained, as one of the "natural rights of man," that taxes could not be levied upon the people "but by their consent in person or by deputation." The energetic protests published greatly intensified the feeling of resistance to the Parliamentary scheme. The passage of the Stamp Act, therefore, was regarded throughout America as a high-handed violation of the liberties of the people. At the same time a clause had been inserted into the Mutiny Act, authorizing as many troops to be sent to America as the ministers saw fit. The colonies in which these might be stationed were required to furnish them with quarters, fire-wood, bedding, drink, soap, and candles. The story of the events which followed the passage of these dictatorial acts we select from Richard Hildreth's "History of the United States of America," a work which, while lacking vivacity of manner, is justly valued for its merit as a trustworthy history.]

News of the passage of these acts reached Virginia while the Assembly was sitting. The aristocratic leaders in that body hesitated. The session approached its close, and not one word seemed likely to be said. But the rights of the colonies did not fail of an advocate. Patrick Henry had already attracted the attention of the House by his successful opposition to Robinson's proposed paper money loan. Finding the older and more weighty members unlikely to move, he assumed the responsibility of introducing a series of resolutions which claimed for the inhabitants of Virginia all the rights of born British subjects; denied any authority anywhere, except in the provincial Assembly, to impose taxes upon them; and denounced the attempt to vest that authority elsewhere, as inconsistent with the ancient Constitution, and subversive of British as well as of American liberty. Upon the introduction of these resolutions a hot debate ensued. "Caesar had his Brutus," said Henry, "Charles I. his Cromwell, and George III.--" "Treason! treason!" shouted the Speaker, and the cry was re- echoed from the House. "George III.," said Henry, firmly, "may profit by their example. If that be treason, make the most of it!" In spite of the opposition of all the old leaders, the resolutions passed, the fifth and most emphatic by a majority of only one vote. The next day, in Henry's absence, the resolutions were reconsidered, softened, and the fifth struck out. But a manuscript copy had already been sent to Philadelphia; and, circulating through the colonies in their original form, these resolutions gave everywhere a strong impulse to the popular feeling.

[In Massachusetts a committee recommended that a convention or congress, composed of deputies from the several colonies, should meet at New York in the following October, to consider what action the colonies should take in regard to the recent acts.]

Before the stamps reached America, symptoms of a violent ferment appeared. A great elm in Boston, at the corner of the present Washington and Essex Streets, under which the opponents of the Stamp Act were accustomed to assemble, soon became famous as "liberty tree." Those persons supposed to favor the ministry were hung in effigy on the branches of this elm. A mob attacked the house of Oliver, secretary of the colony, who had been appointed stamp-distributor for Massachusetts, broke his windows, destroyed his furniture, pulled down a small building supposed to be intended for a stamp office, and frightened Oliver into a resignation. Jonathan Mayhew, the able minister of the West Church in Boston, . . . preached a warm sermon against the Stamp Act, taking for his text, "I would they were even cut off which trouble you!" The Monday evening after this sermon the riots were renewed. The mob attacked the house of Story, registrar of the Admiralty, and destroyed not only the public files and records, but his private papers also. Next they entered and plundered the house of the controller of the customs; and, maddened with liquor and excitement, proceeded to the mansion of Hutchinson, in North Square. The lieutenant-governor and his family fled for their lives. The house was completely gutted, and the contents burned in bonfires kindled in the square. Along with Hutchinson's furniture and private papers perished many invaluable manuscripts relating to the history of the province, which Hutchinson had been thirty years in collecting, and which it was impossible to replace.

[These acts were disclaimed by the more respectable citizens. Yet the rioters, though well known, went unpunished, and had undoubtedly the secret sympathy of the community.]

Throughout the Northern colonies, associations on the basis of forcible resistance to the Stamp Act, under the name of "Sons of Liberty," sprang suddenly into existence. Persons of influence and consideration, though they might favor the object, kept aloof, however, from so dangerous a combination, which consisted of the young, the ardent, those who loved excitement and had nothing to lose. The history of these "Sons of Liberty" is very obscure; but they seem to have spread rapidly from Connecticut and New York into Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, and to have taken up as their special business the intimidation of the stamp officers. In all the colonies these officers were persuaded or compelled to resign; and such stamps as arrived either remained unpacked, or else were seized and burned. The Assembly of Pennsylvania unanimously adopted a series of resolutions denouncing the Stamp Act as "unconstitutional, and subversive of their dearest rights." Public meetings to protest against it were held throughout the colonies. The holding of such meetings was quite a new incident, and formed a new era in colonial history.

[On the day appointed by Massachusetts for the meeting of the First Colonial Congress, committees from nine colonies met in New York. Various reasons prevented the others from joining.]

In the course of a three weeks' session, a Declaration of the Rights and Grievances of the Colonies was agreed to. All the privileges of Englishmen were claimed by this declaration as the birthright of the colonists,--among the rest, the right of being taxed only by their own consent. Since distance and local circumstances made a representation in the British Parliament impossible, these representatives, it was maintained, could be no other than the several colonial Legislatures. Thus was given a flat negative to a scheme lately broached in England by Pownall and others for allowing to the colonies a representation in Parliament, a project to which both Otis and Franklin seem at first to have leaned.

A petition to the king and memorials to each House of Parliament were also prepared, in which the cause of the colonies was eloquently pleaded. . . . The several colonial Assemblies, at their earliest sessions, gave to the proceedings a cordial approval. .

The first day of November, appointed for the Stamp Act to go into operation, came and went, but not a stamp was anywhere to be seen. Two companies of rioters paraded that evening the streets of New York, demanding the delivery of the stamps, which Colden, on the resignation of the stamp-distributor and his refusal to receive them, had taken into the fort. Colden was hung in effigy. His carriage was seized, and made a bonfire of under the muzzles of the guns; after which the mob proceeded to a house in the outskirts, then occupied by Major James, of the Royal Artillery, who had made himself obnoxious by his free comments on the conduct of the colonists. James's furniture and property were destroyed, as Hutchinson's had been. General Gage, the commander-in-chief of the British forces in America, was at New York, but the regular garrison in the fort was very small. Alarmed for the safety of the city, and not willing to take any responsibility, as Sir Henry Moore, the recently-appointed governor, was every day expected, Colden agreed, by Gage's advice, the captain of a British ship of war in the harbor having refused to receive them, to give up the stamps to the mayor and corporation. They were accordingly deposited in the City Hall, under a receipt given by the mayor.

[A committee was next day appointed which] soon brought forward an agreement to import no more goods from Great Britain till the Stamp Act was repealed,--the commencement of a system of retaliation on the mother-country repeatedly resorted to in the course of the struggle. This non-importation agreement, to which a non-consumption agreement was presently added, besides being extensively signed in New York, was adopted also in Philadelphia and Boston. At the same time, and as part of the same plan, a combination was entered into for the support of American manufactures, the wearing of American cloths, and the increase of sheep by ceasing to eat lamb or mutton.

Business, suspended for a while, was presently resumed. Stamped papers were required in judicial proceedings, but by continuing the cases before them, or going on without notice of the deficiency, even the judges, after some hesitation, concurred in nullifying the act.

[A change in the English ministry, news of which now reached America, encouraged the colonists in their policy of resistance. Grenville, the promoter of the Stamp Act, had been succeeded by the Marquis of Rockingham.]

In the address from the throne at the opening of the session, the new ministry brought the state of colonial affairs before Parliament. They produced the correspondence of the colonial governors and other papers relating to the late disturbance. Numerous petitions from British merchants for the repeal of the Stamp Act were also presented to the two Houses.

Pitt, for some time past withdrawn by sickness from public affairs, was unconnected, at this moment, with either Grenville's or Rockingham's party. He now appeared in his place in the House of Commons, and delivered his opinion "that the kingdom had no right to levy a tax on the colonies." "The Commons in America, represented in their several Assemblies, have invariably exercised the constitutional right of giving and granting their own money; they would have been slaves if they had not; at the same time, this kingdom has ever possessed the power of legislative and commercial control. The colonies acknowledge your authority in all things, with the sole exception that you shall not take their money out of their pockets without their consent."

This decisive avowal by Pitt made a profound impression on the House. After a long pause, Grenville rose to vindicate the Stamp Act. The tumults in America bordered, he averred, on open rebellion; but if the doctrines now promulgated were upheld, they would soon lose that name, and become a revolution. Taxation was a branch of the sovereign power, constantly exercised by Parliament over the unrepresented. Resorting, then, to a method of intimidation common with politicians, "the seditious spirit of the colonies," he said, "Owes its birth to the faction in this House." This invidious assault was met by Pitt with characteristic intrepidity. "A charge is brought against gentlemen sitting in this House of giving birth to sedition in America. The freedom with which they have spoken their sentiments against this unhappy act is imputed to them as a crime. But the imputation shall not discourage me." "We are told America is obstinate--America is almost in open rebellion. Sir, I rejoice that America has resisted. Three millions of people so dead to all the feelings of liberty as voluntarily to submit to be slaves, would have been fit instruments to make slaves of all the rest." "The Americans have been wronged! They have been driven to madness by injustice! Will you punish them for the madness you have occasioned? No! Let this country be the first to resume its prudence and temper; I will pledge myself for the colonies, that on their part animosity and resentment will cease."

The new ministry were under no obligation to support the policy of their predecessors. Anxious to escape the difficulty by the readiest means, they brought in a bill for repealing the Stamp Act. Franklin, summoned to the bar of the House as a witness, testified that the act could never be enforced. His prompt and pointed answers gained him great credit for information, acuteness, and presence of mind. In favor of repeal, Burke, introduced into Parliament by Rockingham, to whom he had been private secretary, and for one of whose rotten boroughs he sat, gave his eloquent support. In spite of a very strenuous opposition on the part of the supporters of the late ministry, the bill of repeal was carried in the Commons by a vote of two hundred and seventy-five to one hundred and sixty-seven.

But the ministers by no means went the length of Pitt. They placed the repeal on the ground of expediency merely, and they softened the opposition by another bill previously passed, which asserted the power and right of Parliament "to bind the colonies in all cases whatsoever." Lord Camden, formerly Chief-Justice Pratt, made a vigorous opposition to this bill in the House of Lords. "My position in this--I repeat it; I will maintain it to the last hour--taxation and representation are inseparable. The position is founded in the law of nature. It is more; it is itself an eternal law of nature." Lord Mansfield, on the other hand, maintained the sovereign power of Parliament as including the right to tax,--an idea quite too flattering to the pride of authority to be easily relinquished.

Richard Hildreth

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