On the Right to Tax America Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“It is my opinion, that this kingdom has no right to lay a tax upon the colonies.”

Summary Overview

The British law commonly known as the Stamp Act was passed by Parliament to pay the expenses of British troops in North America. Parliament believed that the colonists would accept this tax, the first ever to be paid by colonists because they would recognize the importance of the protection afforded by British troops after the French and Indian War. However, the colonists revolted against the tax, sometimes resorting to violence. They accused the British government of taking their money without giving them direct representation in the House of Commons, the parliamentary body in which members were elected to represent the British people, much like the House of Representatives in the United States.

During the time of the debate leading up to the passage of this bill, William Pitt, the first earl of Chatham and a member of the House of Commons, had been ill and unable to express his disapproval of the act. A very able speaker, Pitt took the opportunity when he returned in early 1766 to denounce the law. Pitt argued that taxation without representation was unjust. He was not against British rule of the colonies nor the right of Parliament to pass laws to govern them. However, he did not accept the idea that the colonies had what he called “virtual representation” in the House of Commons. He did not approve of the way the colonists had responded to the law, but he strongly believed that it was passed as a result of an incorrect assessment of governmental powers.

Defining Moment

The Duties in American Colonies Act, better known as the Stamp Act, was passed in 1765 by the British parliament. It was the first attempt to tax the colonies directly to raise money for the defense of the colonies. The law stated that certain papers (e.g., legal documents, advertisements, and newspapers) had to bear an official government stamp in order to be distributed. There were different fees for the stamps based on the type of document. Some fees were substantial, while others were less onerous. However, the price of the stamps was not the focus of the colonists’ protests. Their main rallying cry, No Taxation without Representation, reflected the anger the colonists felt for paying taxes to a government in which they had no representation.

Prior to the adoption of the law, colonial representatives in London had lobbied members of Parliament not to pass the bill. Once passed, the reaction in the colonies was even stronger than either the colonial representatives or anyone in London had expected. From New Hampshire to Georgia, the American colonists rejected the Stamp Act and organized in opposition. The loudest protests were heard from merchants, businessmen, lawyers, and other powerful people within the colonies. They organized the Stamp Act Congress, which brought together delegates from most of the colonies to create the “Declaration of Rights and Grievances.” This document asserted that the colonists could not be taxed without their direct consent, which was impossible, since they had no representation in Parliament. William Pitt wholeheartedly agreed with those sentiments.

What Pitt did not agree with were the violent protests and the boycotts of English goods sold in the colonies. Stamp distributors were the target of the colonists’ violence, and many stamps were destroyed. By the time the Stamp Act was to take effect, most, if not all, British tax collectors had resigned. Because of colonial protests, very little money was raised from this tax, with virtually none of it coming from the thirteen colonies that would become the United States.

With all the turmoil in the colonies, the new prime minister of Great Britain, the Marquess of Rockingham, began working to the repeal of the Stamp Act in the latter part of 1765. It was at this point that Pitt returned to Parliament and supported those efforts. As can be seen from his speech, he was not against the tax because he supported colonial independence or believed that the British should not govern the colonies. Rather, he opposed the Stamp Act because he believed that taxation without representation was not the proper way to govern in the British system. In this, he was in agreement with the colonists and with the philosophical approach of colonial leaders. The result of the parliamentary deliberations was a repeal of the act in February 1766, although Parliament did pass a companion piece of legislation, opposed by Pitt, stating that they could govern the colonies as they desired. In North America, the efforts opposing the Stamp Act enforced colonists’ growing conviction that they should have a say in the governing of their lives. The organizations opposing the tax, such as the Sons of Liberty and the Stamp Act Congress, gave a solid foundation on which to build any opposition to future transgressions.

Author Biography

The second son of Robert Pitt and Lady Harriet Villiers, William Pitt lived from November 15, 1708, to May 11, 1778. His grandfather, Thomas Pitt, made his fortune with the East India Company in Madras, India, where he managed to secure one of the world’s largest diamonds. Wealthy and titled, William grew up privileged but plagued by illness. While attending Eton, he had his first major flare-up of gout, a disease that would incapacitate him for long periods of time for the rest of his life. He studied the classics at Trinity College, Oxford, although his ongoing struggle with gout caused him to discontinue his studies.

Since his elder brother, Thomas, had inherited the family estate when their father died in 1727, William Pitt chose a military career. In January, 1731, he was commissioned and joined his regiment. At the end of 1734, his elder brother controlled two seats in Parliament and, in 1735, gave one to William. He served effectively in the House of Commons. In 1766, in order to serve as the lord privy seal, he accepted the title of earl of Chatham, serving in the House of Lords until his death.

During his early years in Parliament, William Pitt was part of the opposition to the government. (In 1736, he lost his military commission due to his criticism of the government.) As an opposition leader, Pitt became widely respected. In 1756, he became the leader of the House of Commons, a position he maintained until 1761(with the exception of a short time in late 1756). When he came to power, the Seven Years’ War (the French and Indian War in North America) had been going poorly for Britain. Pitt ordered a change in strategy, and by the end of 1759, the tide had turned and Britain reigned supreme on battlefields around the world. After the repeal of the Stamp Act, Pitt returned to Parliament as prime minister from July 1766 until October 1768, although he led a somewhat dysfunctional coalition. As the colonies were moving toward revolution, he tried to encourage Parliament to change policies to bring greater unity. Just prior to the war starting, he correctly proclaimed that Great Britain would never win.

In 1754, Pitt married Lady Hester Grenville, and they had five children. His second son was also named William and became a leading politician of his day. In order to clarify which William Pitt they are discussing, historians now refer to the father as Pitt the Elder and his son as Pitt the Younger.

Document Analysis

William Pitt, or as he was called by many, the Great Commoner, did not have an opportunity to address the Stamp Act when it had been proposed by the government of his brother-in-law, George Grenville. Pitt, who was often seen as the member of Parliament who best understood the colonists in North America, returned to Parliament after an extended illness and the floor to speak for repeal of the Stamp Act. Pitt’s full speech on the subject was an eloquent attempt to address the current situation and express his understanding of the philosophy upon which the British government was founded, as well. Thus, he affirmed the colonists’ position that they should not be taxed without direct representation in Parliament. Going beyond this, Pitt asserted that “taxes are a voluntary gift” and cannot be levied on those who had not given their consent, only those who are directly represented by a government and who had given their consent through their representatives.

Parliament’s session opened on January 14, beginning with the king’s speech, as was tradition. King George III outlined the repeal of the Stamp Act as a priority for the government. This was followed by an opposition speaker who strongly advocated enforcement of the Stamp Act and who spoke of the “extreme ingratitude of the colonies.” It was then Pitt’s turn to speak on the subject. He delivered the first part of his speech, but when he paused, another member of the house raised objections to what he had said. After considerable back-and-forth between Pitt and the protestor, it was ruled that Pitt still had the floor; thus, he was allowed to resume his speech.

Only portions from each section of the two-part speech are contained in the Historical Document section of this article. The extract picks up a few minutes into Pitt’s speech. Most of the earlier paragraphs are the usual opening statements, framing the intent of Pitt’s speech. However, one opening statement does stand out. In reference to the American policies enacted by former Prime Minister Grenville’s government, Pitt says, “Every capital matter they have taken has been entirely wrong!” After a few more comments regarding those attending Parliament that day and some procedural issues for ministers of the government, Pitt moves into the section at the beginning of the document. He apologizes for the infirmity that had kept him from the original debate. Regarding the Stamp Act, Pitt asks permission to “speak of it with freedom,” which indicates the strength of the protest he is about to make.

Pitt recognizes the unique situation that had developed in America. The large number of British and other European immigrants to North America had overwhelmed the indigenous population and created a new part of the British Empire thousands of miles away on the western side of the Atlantic. This was a unique event, in Pitt’s understanding of world history. Thus, he felt that it was important for British leaders to deal with this emerging situation in order to keep Great Britain and the colonies united. Given the differences that Pitt saw emerging between the two, special acts by Parliament were needed to address the sudden rift in the relationship. Even though he felt much more needed to be done, Pitt restricts himself to the current crisis over the Stamp Act.

The Gift of Taxes

In the third paragraph and in several later paragraphs, Pitt gets into the heart of the matter. Parliament, including the House of Commons, had “no right to lay a tax upon the colonies.”

During the recent French and Indian War, the colonies had assisted the British government in two ways. First, the colonial assemblies gave money to the British government for the defense of the colonies. Second, some colonies paid their own militia to supplement the regular British army, reducing the need for British troops. However, with victory in the French and Indian War, the colonies no longer felt the need for extensive protection. As a result, their payments to British troops as well as their own militias were disappearing. Prime Minister Grenville decided that a direct tax on the colonies was needed to make up for lost funds. (He also faced dissatisfaction over taxes in Britain and sought new revenue in order to cut taxes there.) A stamp act had been put in place within Great Britain with little backlash and a high revenue-to-collection expense ratio. As a simple tax to administer, this was presented in Parliament as the solution to at least part of the government’s financial problems. The colonial agents, who were in London at the time, warned Parliament that this tax would not be acceptable to the colonists, but since Grenville did not believe the colonial assemblies would give Great Britain the same amount of money from funds the colonies raised, he went ahead with the tax.

However, now that Pitt was back as an active member of the House of Commons, he emphasized several times, that in his opinion, “taxes are a voluntary gift” and people cannot be forced to give these “gifts.” Pitt makes a clear distinction between a tax and the legislation that may create the mechanism for implementing a tax. Regarding the colonists, Pitt agrees that “they are the subjects of this kingdom . . . equally bound by its laws.” Thus, any legislation passed by the two houses of Parliament and signed by the king would apply to the colonists. However, as radical as it may have sounded to those who heard his speech, Pitt claims, “Taxation is no part of the governing or legislative power.” In Pitt’s political philosophy, the “natural rights of mankind and the peculiar privileges of Englishmen” do not give the government the right to tax.

Pitt reminds Parliament that previously the Crown, nobles, and church owned almost everything. In that period, Pitt asserts, the nobles and clergy gave financial support to “the Crown” from what they owned. Therefore, when the House of Commons passed a tax, they were arranging a system for their own giving, not for others. With the discovery of the Americas and the creation of the colonies, common people had acquired property in those distance lands. Pitt reminds them that virtually all of the land and resources in the colonies were owned by farmers, merchants, and other members of the lower classes, with very little under the direct control of the monarchy, nobility, or church. Since American colonists had control of their own lands, yet did not have representatives in the House of Commons, Pitt claims any tax passed by the Commons would not be appropriate. He states, “The distinction between legislation and taxation is essentially necessary to liberty.”

The legislative process is part of the system of government. However, if the government were really a democratic government for a nation of free citizens, then Pitt asserts that taking resources from the citizens is proper only if the citizens, as a whole, agree to this process. The House of Commons, as the authorized representatives of the people of Great Britain, can initiate legislation that takes resources from commoners in the form of taxes. Pitt believed it would not be proper, as a democracy, for the House of Lords or the monarch to impose such a tax upon commoners. By extension, without representation, any tax on Americans was not legitimate.

Opposing Perspectives

Opposition to Pitt’s speech was abundant, of course. One argument against Pitt’s position was that the colonists were represented in Parliament by those representing the British towns from which colonists came. Others would say that since the American colonists were the same as their counterparts in Britain, the members of the House of Commons would have virtually the same concerns and, as such, could be virtual representatives for the colonists. Pitt then asks rhetorically which members of the House of Commons truly represented the Americans. He questions whether colonists born in America, who had never set foot in Britain, could truly be represented by someone who never had been to the American colonies. He concludes that “the idea of a virtual representation of America in this House is the most contemptible idea that ever entered into the head of a man.” Not printed in this extract, Pitt concludes the first section of his speech with the example of the colonial assemblies in America. They were able to tax their own people and provide what each locality needed. This, he continues to assert, was because they were free. Pitt states that the colonial assemblies accepted the fact that Great Britain set the rules for many aspects of life, such as international trade, but not for taxation, as the taxes imposed by the British government did not directly benefit the colonies from whence they came.

Following the first section of Pitt’s speech, there was some debate on the floor regarding what Pitt had just said. Critics raised some issues and Pitt responded. A point of order was raised as to whether Pitt and his critics were really speaking to the order of the day, which was the king’s speech, and whether they were speaking twice on the same subject, in violation of Parliament’s rules. It was ruled by the Speaker of the House that everyone had been speaking about points contained in the king’s speech, so it was permissible. As to whether Pitt was speaking twice on the same subject, the Speaker ruled that he had never formally ended his speech, so he could continue. As he began the second part of his speech, Pitt addressed the accusation that, in essence, he was giving aid to the enemy.

The violent reaction to the Stamp Act in the colonies was seen by many as one step short of rebellion. Pitt nonetheless continued to defend the colonies, applauding them for standing up for their rights. He points out that Wales had never been taxed by England until it was formally incorporated into the English system of government. He saw no difference between Wales’s political case and that of the American colonies.

Beginning with the text in the extract, Pitt continued to look to the past. He reminded the legislators that none of the governments under previous prime ministers had taxed colonists. Pitt states that, when he was a leading member of the House of Commons during the Seven Years’/French and Indian War, some had urged him to implement the stamp tax to help meet the desperate financial needs of the country. At that time, Pitt thought, it would have been accepted by the colonists because they would have had little choice if they wanted assistance to defeat the French and their American Indian allies. But, Pitt strongly asserts, it would have been wrong, as “it would have been taking an ungenerous, an unjust advantage.” As for charging the Americans for the assistance of the British troops during the war, Pitt responds that the “bounties” were “for the benefit of the kingdom,” meaning that the spoils of the wars earned by the British victory should be enough to satisfy the debts of the war incurred by all subjects of the kingdom.

Pitt, once again, responds to charges that he is pro-American and anti-British. “I am no courtier of America,” he says. (This was part of his rhetorical style, to keep mixing points of common agreement with points of contention.) He reminds his fellow members of Parliament that he does agree that it is proper for Britain to rule over the colonies. As previously discussed, Pitt reminds them of the differences between legislation designed to shape international policy (trade via the Molasses Act) versus legislation designed to raise revenue (a tax such as the Stamp Act). He raises the issue of what it means to be a free citizen of Great Britain and the colonies. He did not support the total independence of the colonies, but he did support their rights under the British government.

As to the monetary concerns some had about the American colonies, Pitt asserts that the colonies were very profitable for the British. He estimates that commercial enterprises contributed at least two million pounds a year to Britain. In addition, he reminds those present that the value of land and other physical holdings in America had greatly increased. Pitt believed that this increase in British income and wealth was “the price America pays you for her protection.” He asserts that the amount raised by the Stamp Act would be miniscule compared to the revenue generated by trade and land, especially as it could result in the loss of income resulting from an American boycott of British goods. Pitt believed in free trade and stated that if changes were made in the economic restrictions on the colonies, even greater prosperity would result to the benefit of everyone. He understood that the North American continent had the potential to offer greater possibilities than most had yet imagined.

Pitt then briefly addresses the fact that Parliament and the prime minister (“the gentleman”) may not have heard such opposition to the Stamp Act before. Pitt recalls that during the war, there had been many negative comments outside of Parliament, but when he asked for any opposing statements during the formal sessions, only one person had the courage to speak. Thus, Pitt did not think it unusual for no one to have spoken against the Stamp Act, even if they disapproved of it.

Pitt assures his audience that he was not against the Stamp Act because he is worried about “the strength of America.” He understands Great Britain could easily put down any revolt by the colonies. In a passage not in the extract, Pitt then warned Parliament that they should keep their forces strong to fight the French and Spanish, not to kill fellow Englishmen. (It may be noted that in 1775 when he was once again trying to restore American-British relations, he stated that Britain could not defeat the Americans if they rebelled.) Pitt is against the Stamp Act because it was “a crying injustice,” not out of fear of the colonists.

Moving to the conclusion of his speech, Pitt agrees that the “Americans have not acted in all things with prudence and temper.” He asserts that they revolted because of Parliament’s error in establishing the Stamp Act, and so, he counsels the British government to act “with prudence and temper,” in the hopes of beginning a chain of events that would bring a successful resolution to the conflict. Pitt once again insists that “the Stamp Act be repealed absolutely, totally, and immediately.” He reaffirms that Great Britain is the final authority in all things, except in the taxation of the American colonies, which he equates to “taking money from their pockets without consent.”

Essential Themes

William Pitt subscribed the school of thought that believed government is a social contract between the governors and the governed. The government, representing its citizens, provides certain services for individuals, and in return, individuals present a “voluntary gift” of taxes to the government. This was, in his view, part of the “natural rights of mankind.” The “peculiar privileges of Englishmen” included the right to democratically select members of Parliament, which was authorized to establish the amount and types of taxes for members it directly represented. Therefore, taxes could not be mandated through legislation for a population not directly represented by the government.

Pitt has been honored in Great Britain as the person who solidified the British Empire. The strategy he developed for the Seven Years’ War defeated European rivals in North America, the Caribbean, and India. However, in terms of American history, he can be seen as the British politician who had the keenest insight into the American psyche during the 1760s and 1770s. Always an adamant supporter of unity between the two, nonetheless, he was a strong believer in the rights of the colonists to govern themselves on matters of taxation. Because of this, William Pitt was seen by contemporary Americans as their champion against British intervention in the colonies’ domestic affairs.

Bibliography
  • Ayling, Stanley. The Elder Pitt, Earl of Chatham. New York: McKay, 1976. Print.
  • Pitt, William. Political Debates. Paris: Imprimeur, 1766. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Cook, Dan. The Long Fuse: How England Lost the American Colonies 1760–1785. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 1995. Print.
  • Copeland, David A. Debating the Issues in Colonial Newspapers: Primary Documents on Events of the Period. Westport: Greenwood, 2000. Print.
  • Draper, Theodore. A Struggle for Power: The American Revolution. New York: Times-Random, 1997. Print.
  • “Past Prime Ministers: William Pitt 1st Earl of Chatham.” Number 10 Downing Street. Crown, 2012. Web. 14 May 2012.
  • Pearce, Edward. Pitt the Elder: Man of War. London: Pimlico-Random, 2010. Print.

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