All Rights Reserved.
Site last updated
13 January, 2012
The Great Republic by the Master Historians|
A Parliamentary Examination
by Bancroft, Hubert H.
|[As a very interesting feature of the literature relating to the passage and
repeal of the Stamp Act, we select from the works of Franklin some of the more
striking features of his examination before the House of Commons, referred to in
the preceding article. This selection we credit to Franklin (though its actual
source is the Journal of the House of Commons), since all in it beyond the brief
questions is due to Franklin himself. As a whole it presents an important
picture of the condition and sentiments of the Americans, as reflected in the
mind of their ablest advocate.]
[Here follow a series of questions relating to the operation of the post-office,
the duties on tobacco and sugar, the condition of the American people, etc.]
- Q. What is your name, and place of abode?
A. Franklin, of Philadelphia.
- Q. Do the Americans pay any considerable taxes among themselves?
A. Certainly many, and very heavy taxes.
- Q. What are the present taxes in Pennsylvania, laid by the laws of the
A. There are taxes on all estates real and personal; a poll-tax; a tax on all
offices, professions, trades, and businesses, according to their profits; an
excise on all wine, rum, and other spirits; and a duty of ten pounds per head on
all negroes imported, with some other duties.
- Q. For what purposes are those taxes laid?
A. For the support of the civil and military establishments of the country, and
to discharge the heavy debt contracted in the last war.
- Q. Are not all the people very able to pay those taxes?
A. No. The frontier counties, all along the continent, having been frequently
ravaged by the enemy and greatly impoverished, are able to pay very little tax.
And therefore, in consideration of their distresses, our late tax laws do
expressly favor those counties, excusing the sufferers; and I suppose the same
is done in other governments.
- Q. How many white men do you suppose there are in North America?
A. About three hundred thousand, from sixteen to sixty years of age.
- Q. What may be the amount of one year's imports into Pennsylvania from
A. I have been informed that our merchants compute the imports from Britain to
be above five hundred thousand pounds.
- Q. What may be the amount of the produce of your province exported to
A. It must be small, as we produce little that is wanted in Britain. I suppose
it cannot exceed forty thousand pounds.
- Q. Do you think it right that America should be protected by this country
and pay no part of the expense?
A. That is not the case. The colonies raised, clothed, and paid, during the last
war, near twenty-five thousand men, and spent many millions.
- Q. Were you not reimbursed by Parliament?
A. We were only reimbursed what, in your opinion, we had advanced beyond our
proportion, or beyond what might reasonably be expected from us; and it was a
very small part of what we spent. Pennsylvania, in particular, disbursed about
five hundred thousand pounds, and the reimbursements, in the whole, did not
exceed sixty thousand pounds.
- Q. You have said that you pay heavy taxes in Pennsylvania; what do they
amount to in the pound?
A. The tax on all estates, real and personal, is eighteen pence in the pound,
fully rated; and the tax on the profits of trades and professions, with other
taxes, do, I suppose, make full half a crown in the pound.
- Q. What was the temper of America towards Great Britain before the year
A. The best in the world. They submitted willingly to the government of the
crown, and paid, in their courts, obedience to the acts of Parliament. Numerous
as the people are in the several old provinces, they cost you nothing in forts,
citadels, garrisons, or armies, to keep them in subjection. They were governed
by this country at the expense only of a little pen, ink, and paper; they were
led by a thread. They had not only a respect, but an affection for Great
Britain; for its laws, its customs and manners, and even a fondness for its
fashions, that greatly increased the commerce. Natives of Britain were always
treated with particular regard; to be an Old-England man was of itself a
character of some respect, and gave a kind of rank among us.
- Q. And what is their temper now?
A. Oh, very much altered.
- Q. In what light did the people of America use to consider the Parliament of
A. They considered the Parliament as the great bulwark and security of their
liberties and privileges, and always spoke of it with the utmost respect and
veneration. Arbitrary ministers, they thought, might possibly, at times, attempt
to oppress them; but they relied on it that the Parliament, on application,
would always give redress. They remembered, with gratitude, a strong instance of
this, when a bill was brought into Parliament, with a clause to make royal
instructions laws in the colonies, which the House of Commons would not pass,
and it was thrown out.
- Q. And have they not still the same respect for Parliament?
A. No; it is greatly lessened.
- Q. To what cause is that owing?
A. To a concurrence of causes: the restraints lately laid on their trade, by
which the bringing of foreign gold and silver into the colonies was prevented;
the prohibition of making paper money among themselves, and then demanding a new
and heavy tax by stamps, taking away, at the same time, trials by juries, and
refusing to receive and hear their humble petitions.
- Q. Don't you think they would submit to the Stamp Act, if it was modified,
the obnoxious parts taken out, and the duty reduced to some particulars of small
A. No, they will never submit to it.
- Q. You say the colonies have always submitted to external taxes, and object
to the right of Parliament only in laying internal taxes: now can you show that
there is any kind of difference between the two taxes to the colony on which
they may be laid?
A. I think the difference is very great. An external tax is a duty laid on
commodities imported; that duty is added to the first cost and other charges on
the commodity, and, when it is offered to sale, makes a part of the price. If
the people do not like it at that price, they refuse it; they are not obliged to
pay it. But an internal tax is forced from the people without their consent, if
not laid by their own representatives. The Stamp Act says, we shall have no
commerce, make no exchange of property with each other, neither purchase, nor
grant, nor recover debts, we shall neither marry nor make our wills, unless we
pay such and such sums; and thus it is intended to extort our money from us, or
ruin us by the consequences of refusing to pay it.
- Q. But supposing the external tax or duty to be laid on the necessaries of
life, imported into your colony, will not that be the same thing in its effects
as an internal tax?
A. I do not know a single article imported into the northern colonies, but what
they can either do without, or make themselves.
- Q. Don't you think cloth from England absolutely necessary to them?
A. No, by no means absolutely necessary; with industry and good management, they
may very well supply themselves with all they want.
- Q. Will it not take a long time to establish that manufacture among them?
and must they not in the mean while suffer greatly?
A. I think not. They have made a surprising progress already. And I am of
opinion, that before their old clothes are worn out, they will have new ones of
their own making.
- Q. Can anything less than a military force carry the Stamp Act into
A. I do not see how a military force can be applied to that purpose.
- Q. Why may it not?
A. Suppose a military force sent into America, they will find nobody in arms;
what are they then to do? They cannot force a man to take stamps who chooses to
do without them. They will not find a rebellion; they may indeed make one.
- Q. If the act is not repealed, what do you think will be the consequences?
A. A total loss of the respect and affection the people of America bear to this
country, and of all the commerce that depends on that respect and affection.
- Q. How can the commerce be affected?
A. You will find, that if the act is not repealed, they will take a very little
of your manufactures in a short time.
- Q. Is it in their power to do without them?
A. I think they may very well do without them.
- Q. Is it their interest not to take them?
A. The goods they take from Britain are either necessaries, mere conveniences,
or superfluities. The first, as cloth, etc., with a little industry they can
make at home; the second they can do without, till they are able to provide them
among themselves; and the last, which are much the greatest part, they will
strike off immediately. They are mere articles of fashion, purchased and
consumed because the fashion in a respected country; but will now be detested
[Franklin proceeded to express the opinion that the late war had been conducted
by England for her own interests, and that it was not, in a proper sense, a war
for the good of the colonies.]
- Q. If the act should be repealed, and the legislature should show its
resentment to the opposers of the Stamp Act, would the colonies acquiesce in the
authority of the legislature? What is your opinion they would do?
A. I don't doubt at all, that if the legislature repeal the Stamp Act, the
colonies will acquiesce in the authority.
- Q. But if the legislature should think fit to ascertain its right to lay
taxes, by any act laying a small tax, contrary to their opinion, would they
submit to pay the tax?
A. The proceedings of the people in America have been considered too much
together. The proceedings of the Assemblies have been very different from those
of the mobs, and should be distinguished, as having no connection with each
other. The Assemblies have only peaceably resolved what they take to be their
rights; they have taken no measures for opposition by force, they have not built
a fort, raised a man, or provided a grain of ammunition, in order to such
opposition. The ringleaders of riots, they think, ought to be punished; they
would punish them themselves, if they could. Every sober, sensible man would
wish to see rioters punished, as, otherwise, peaceable people have no security
of person or estate; but as to an internal tax, how small soever, laid by the
legislature here on the people there, while they have no representatives in this
legislature, I think it will never be submitted to; they will oppose it to the
last; they do not consider it as at all necessary for you to raise money on them
by your taxes; because they are, and always have been, ready to raise money by
taxes among themselves, and to grant large sums, equal to their abilities, upon
requisition from the crown.
- Q. Is it not necessary to send troops to America to defend the Americans
against the Indians?
A. No, by no means; it never was necessary. They defended themselves when they
were but a handful, and the Indians much more numerous. They continually gained
ground, and have driven the Indians over the mountains, without any troops sent
to their assistance from this country. And can it be thought necessary now to
send troops for their defence from those diminished Indian tribes, when the
colonies have become so populous and so strong? There is not the least occasion
for it; they are very able to defend themselves.
- Q. If the Stamp Act should be repealed, and an act should pass, ordering
the Assemblies of the colonies to indemnify the sufferers by the riots, would
they obey it?
A. That is a question I cannot answer.
- Q. Suppose the king should require the colonies to grant a revenue, and the
Parliament should be against their doing it, do they think they can grant a
revenue to the king, without the consent of the Parliament of Great Britain?
A. That is a deep question. As to my own opinion, I should think myself at
liberty to do it, and should do it, if I liked the occasion.
- Q. If the act should pass requiring the American Assemblies to make
compensation to the sufferers, and they should disobey it, and then the
Parliament should, by another act, lay an internal tax, would they then obey it?
A. The people will pay no internal tax; and I think an act to oblige the
Assemblies to make compensation is unnecessary; for I am of opinion that as soon
as the present heats are abated they will take the matter into consideration,
and, if it is right to be done, they will do it of themselves.
- Q. Don't you know that there is in the Pennsylvania charter an express
reservation of the right of Parliament to lay taxes there?
A. I know there is a clause in the charter by which the king grants that he will
levy no taxes on the inhabitants, unless it be with the consent of the Assembly,
or by act of Parliament.
- Q. How, then, could the Assembly of Pennsylvania assert that laying a tax
on them by the Stamp Act was an infringement of their rights?
A. They understand it thus; by the same charter, and otherwise, they are
entitled to all the privileges and liberties of Englishmen; they find in the
Great Charters, and the Petition and Declaration of Rights, that one of the
privileges of English subjects is that they are not to be taxed but by their
common consent; they have therefore relied upon it, from the first settlement of
the province, that the Parliament never would, nor could, by color of that
clause in the charter, assume a right of taxing them, till it had qualified
itself to exercise such right, by admitting representatives from the people to
be taxed, who ought to make a part of that common consent.
- Q. Are there any words in the charter that justify that construction?
A. "The common rights of Englishmen," as declared by Magna Charta, and the
Petition of Right, all justify it.
- Q. If the Stamp Act should be repealed, would it induce the Assemblies of
America to acknowledge the rights of Parliament to tax them, and would they
erase their resolutions?
A. No, never.
- Q. Are there no means of obliging them to erase those resolutions?
A. None that I know of; they will never do it, unless compelled by force of
- Q. Is there a power on earth that can force them to erase them?
A. No power, how great soever, can force men to change their opinions.
- Q. Do they consider the post-office as a tax, or as a regulation?
A. Not as a tax, but as a regulation and conveniency; every Assembly encouraged
it, and supported it in its infancy, by grants of money, which they would not
otherwise have done; and the people have always paid the postage.
- Q. What used to be the pride of the Americans?
A. To indulge in the fashions and manufactures of Great Britain.
- Q. What is now their pride?
A. To wear their old clothes over again till they can make new ones.