“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.”
The Stamp Act, passed by the British Parliament in early 1765, required that all official documents—including contracts, newspapers, wills, pamphlets, and even playing cards—carry a stamp showing that a tax had been paid. This was a departure from the prior system of British taxation in the colonies, which levied duties upon import or export of goods rather than direct transfer of goods to the consumer. The reaction of the colonists took the British government by surprise, as widespread discontent led representatives of nine of the colonies to meet in October 1765 in what became known as the Stamp Act Congress. Spearheaded by Samuel Adams and James Otis of Massachusetts, the Stamp Act Congress saw the act as nothing short of an abrogation of the rights the colonists enjoyed as British subjects. The Resolutions of the Stamp Act Congress were a reassertion and enumeration of those rights, intended to be presented to Parliament and King George III in hopes that the prior system of mercantile-based taxes could be reinstated.
The Stamp Act Congress, convened in October 1765 after the British Parliament imposed the Stamp Act, was made up of representatives from nine of the British North American colonies, attended by such luminaries as James Otis of Massachusetts, Philip Livingston of New York, and John Dickinson of Pennsylvania. Although British subjects in Great Britain had paid stamp duties since 1694, such a duty had never been imposed on the colonists, who had no representative in Parliament and thus could not consent to being taxed—a requirement stipulated by the British Constitution. When British prime minister George Grenville proposed the duty as a way to make the colonists pay what the British saw as their fair share of the costs associated with the recently concluded French and Indian War, he did not anticipate the sharp reaction. In the colonies, the Stamp Act was regarded as only the latest and most egregious of a series of acts passed by Parliament, including: the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which limited the western expansion of the British colonies; the Sugar Act of 1764, which reinforced the earlier Molasses Act of 1733, forcing colonists to buy molasses that had passed through British ports and had been taxed by the British; the Currency Act of 1764, which gave Parliament direct control of the colonial economic system, banning the colonies from issuing paper currency as legal tender; and the Quartering Act of 1765, which required colonial assemblies to pay for the housing and feeding of British troops. Protests were widespread, and for the first time, plans were made to coordinate actions between the colonies.
Meeting to coordinate a response to both the British Parliament and King George III, the delegates drafted a set of requests that addressed the Stamp Act itself but also went further, articulating what the colonists saw as the proper role of the British government in the colonies, the appropriate use of taxes, and, most importantly, the idea that the British government did not have the right to tax the colonists when the colonists had no representative in Parliament, the body imposing the tax. However, the resolutions agreed upon by the Stamp Act Congress would travel beyond the leaders of Parliament or King George; they would resonate across the colonies, bringing people together in a common struggle against what they saw as the unreasonable and unjust expansion of taxation and restriction of their rights.
The Stamp Act Congress consisted of only twenty-seven men, but the words and principles that the group articulated, though they may not have had a direct impact on the fate of the Stamp Act itself, demonstrated for the first time that there was a political consciousness growing across the colonies. No single colony on its own would be able to send an effective message to King George III or Parliament that the colonists would not accept the new taxation specified in the Stamp Act. Only acting in accord with one another, in groups that spanned the entirety of the colonies, would give the protesters the public support they needed to articulate their discontent at what the Stamp Act represented: the usurpation of their rights as British subjects.
The Stamp Act Congress was called for by two members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, James Otis and Samuel Adams, the former of whom would be among the delegates who traveled to New York in October 1765. Their goal was to have representatives from all thirteen colonies, but Georgia, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Virginia did not send delegates, in most cases because the colonies’ royally appointed governors prevented them from doing so. Virginia’s absence was significant, because the colony was home to Patrick Henry, who had led Virginia’s House of Burgesses in articulating the first official opposition to the Stamp Act with the passage of the Stamp Act Resolutions on May 30, 1765.
Although the Stamp Act Congress’s resolutions show a remarkable cohesiveness, the congress itself was divided between moderate and radical thinkers. Moderates wanted to show conciliation and due deference to the Crown and Parliament and confine the resolutions to the issue of the Stamp Act itself, while radicals wanted to use their discontent with the act to articulate a broader critique of the British-colonial relationship and argue that Parliament had no right to levy any taxes whatsoever on American colonists. The conflict between the two camps caused one of the New Jersey representatives to walk out of the congress and one of the Massachusetts representatives to refuse to sign the resolutions. By the time the resolutions reached the colonial assemblies, however, all but one voted to approve the document, agreeing with the main idea it set forth—namely, that taxation without representation was inherently unjust—and the lone holdout, Virginia, had already registered its official protest against the Stamp Act. This unanimity of thought across the colonies, more than the repeal of the act itself, demonstrated that the audience on which the resolutions would have the greatest impact was neither the king nor Parliament but the colonial populace itself.
For years prior to the French and Indian War (1754–63), the British Parliament allowed the colonists to govern themselves—a system the eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish political theorist Edmund Burke called “salutary neglect”—but the fundamental shape of this relationship would change with the end of the conflict. After the Proclamation of 1763, which established limits on the westward expansion of the colonies, the British government changed its policy for dealing with the American colonies from passive to direct control of matters of government. Whereas tariffs before the war were largely avoidable due to salutary neglect, the increased presence of British troops in North America, combined with increased legislation, made antismuggling acts more enforceable. In the minds of the colonists, these policies were infringements on their rights as British subjects. Parliament started to take direct control of colonial matters by implementing policies designed to shift power from the colonial legislators back to Parliament.
In purely economic terms, Parliament held the opinion that the colonies should begin to pay their fair share of defense costs, to be assessed in the form of taxes and other duties. In the colonists’ view, Parliament went from only placing tariffs on external trade to taxing internal commerce. The colonists believed that internal taxes should be controlled by colonial legislatures for local purposes, not to support the distant British government. While most colonists accepted British trade tariffs and restrictions, the shift to taxation of internal commerce generated a wave of protests that the British government officials did not foresee.
When the Stamp Act was announced, it met with what one letter in the Pennsylvania Gazette called “silent consternation.” However, public discourse over the act turned consternation into active opposition by the colonial populations. What made this different from previous scenes of discontent was the connection drawn between this single policy and the abstract idea of liberty, which largely accounts for the organized form taken by the resistance to the Stamp Act. The colonists perceived a fundamental distinction between the idea of regulating trade—which the British had done, although sometimes not very effectively, for years—and a direct tax on the colonial population. Further, this was a tax that would not be used to fund local needs but rather would go across the Atlantic to Britain. The resistance of the colonies against being taxed has its roots in the British constitutional principle and eventual slogan “no taxation without representation.” Since the colonists had no representation in Parliament, they argued, Parliament had no right to tax them, which according to constitutional law could only be done with their consent. The Crown countered that Parliament did in fact represent the colonists according to the theory of virtual representation, which presumed that members of Parliament spoke on behalf of all British subjects, even those who had not selected them.
One of the most ardent opponents to the idea of taxation without representation was Boston’s Samuel Adams. Adams had been involved in politics since the late 1740s, when he and some friends established a political newspaper called the Independent Advertiser, largely written by Adams himself. Ironically, for nine years, Adams had been a tax collector for the city of Boston; however, his frequent failure to collect from those unable to pay their taxes, though he was personally liable for any shortfalls, made him popular among the people. The year before the Stamp Act, Adams became known as an advocate against British taxation when Parliament passed the Sugar Act, a 1764 amendment to the 1733 Molasses Act. The Sugar Act had a threefold motivation: to eliminate smuggling, to control trade by legislating that all colonial products bound for foreign ports must first pass through a British port and be subject to British taxes, and—like the Stamp Act a year later—to raise tariff money from the colonies to pay for the British troops now permanently stationed there, as Britain was financially strapped after the French and Indian War.
The colonists objected to the Sugar Act because it so obviously sacrificed their own economic interests for the interests of the government and merchants back in London, but as it was a continuation of a tariff on external trade, it did not raise a large uproar from the general public. However, among the colonial political class, these acts were greatly resented, and they led to some of the first formal grievances expressed to the British government, along with popular unrest that would expand after Parliament passed the Quartering Act and the Stamp Act in early 1765. What the Stamp Act actually did was obligate the colonists to use a specially stamped paper for any legal documents or newspapers, but this was inconsequential compared to what it represented in their minds: an unprecedented expansion of British taxation of the colonists and an assault on their rights as British subjects.
Although colonists had earlier shown their willingness to express their displeasure when they felt the British government had infringed on their rights, the scope and magnitude of their reactions to the Stamp Act started to change these small rebellions into a cohesive movement. Although protests took place throughout the colonies, the epicenter for the movement was Boston, the first place to see organized resistance. In August, a large group of protesters focused their attention on the Crown official appointed to distribute the stamps, Andrew Oliver. They marched throughout Boston, burning him in effigy, until they arrived at Oliver’s house, whereupon they threw rocks at the windows. Similar protests occurred in all other regions of the colonies. In various cities and ports, most notably New York, the protests also included boycotts of British goods.
In Boston, the groups protesting the tax comprised different segments of society, from professionals who were members of Adams’s political organization, the Boston Caucus Club, to unskilled laborers; led by Adams, these groups of dissidents changed tactics from periodic disorganized violence to focused, organized protests. The merging of such diverse constituencies in a common cause resulted in the founding of an organization that would remain a force throughout the late colonial and revolutionary periods: the Sons of Liberty, a loose affiliation of patriot groups, the first such formal intercolonial organization. Though the earliest group calling itself the Sons of Liberty formed in Boston, the movement to initiate correspondence with groups in other colonies began in New York City in November 1765. Most officers and committee members of the Sons of Liberty were middle or upper class, but they worked to attract poor and working-class members as well. Although British authorities widely suspected them of plotting to overthrow the government, officially the Sons’ aim was to organize resistance to the Stamp Act, and they coordinated protests in all major colonial cities. By joining the Sons of Liberty, members of all strata of the colonial population, from landed gentry to new, non-English-speaking immigrants, found a common cause.
That common cause led the Massachusetts House of Representatives to call for a meeting of delegates from all of the colonies, to be held in New York, in order to draft a common reaction to the Stamp and Sugar Acts. In October 1765, at what became known as the Stamp Act Congress, representatives from nine of the thirteen colonies drafted a document that articulated both their discontent with the actions of Parliament and their loyalty to the king. In their view, while Parliament had the right to pass legislation affecting the colonies, it did not have the right to tax them. In the end, however, the representatives did not articulate the former right in the resolutions for fear it would be taken as an endorsement of the latter.
The twenty-seven delegates met between October 7 and October 25, 1765. The resolutions that were the outcome of the meeting, though brief, presented a clear case for the repeal of the acts. The delegates certainly saw themselves as heirs of the British Constitution and fully under its provisions, which comes through in the very first resolution, where they stipulate that they “owe the same allegiance to the Crown of Great-Britain, that is owing from his subjects born within the realm, and all due subordination to that august body the Parliament of Great Britain.” At the same time, however, they were also heavily influenced by the logic of Virginia’s Patrick Henry and Enlightenment thinker John Locke, which can be seen later in the document. In the third resolution, the delegates present the crux of their argument: that “it is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people . . . that no taxes be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives.” Contained in that simple argument is the profound Enlightenment idea of government only by the consent of the governed. Taxes, which the delegates saw as one of the most invasive ways in which the government interacts with the lives of the people, should only be levied by representatives elected by the people themselves and responsible to them, who ultimately will have to account for their actions at the ballot box.
That basic assertion, which underlies the whole of the argument, leads naturally to the fourth resolution, which states that “the people of these colonies are not, and from their local circumstances cannot be, represented in the House of Commons in Great-Britain.” The sheer distance between the American colonies and London, and the two-month ship voyage necessary to bring news from one location to the other, made it impractical to govern the colonies directly from London. From there had developed the idea of salutary neglect on the part of Britain, which the colonists took for granted by 1765. Indeed, ever since the founding of Virginia’s House of Burgesses in 1619 and the General Court of Plymouth Colony in 1620, the American colonists had taken their government, including the right of taxation, into their own hands. That being the case, they believed that “no taxes ever have been, or can be constitutionally imposed on [the colonists], but by their respective legislatures,” as stated in the fifth resolution. Certainly the representatives considered themselves British subjects, and they were more than willing to do their part to ensure the success of the British colonial effort against the French, having spilled much of their own blood during the just-concluded French and Indian War. But what they gave to the British Crown was voluntary, not coerced, and according to the concept of personal property ingrained in the British Constitution, the people of Great Britain, through their representative Parliament, had no right to coerce the colonists to give up their property.
The seventh resolution outlines an ancillary, though no less important, concept contained within the British Constitution: the right to trial by jury. Part of the Sugar Act had allowed for smugglers to be tried in admiralty courts, in which cases were decided by a Crown-appointed judge rather than a jury of the accused person’s peers. Further, a trial in an admiralty court would most likely be held in Halifax, Nova Scotia, far from most of the American colonies, rather than in the local jurisdiction. To address this, the seventh resolution states that “trial by jury is the inherent and invaluable right of every British subject in these colonies.” People back in Britain would not have been subject to admiralty courts, so it made no sense to the delegates that American colonists would be.
The eighth resolution returns to the issue of taxation, summing up the entirety of the colonial argument with the assertion that that the Stamp Act, “by imposing taxes on the inhabitants of these colonies, and the said Act, and several other Acts, by extending the jurisdiction of the courts of Admiralty beyond its ancient limits, have a manifest tendency to subvert the rights and liberties of the colonists.” Further, the duties required by the Stamp Act would prove burdensome to the colonists, as locally produced paper money, not backed by gold, was the common currency in the colonies. The specie, or gold-backed British pounds, with which the duties would need to be paid, was in short supply in the colonies, thus making the duty impractical, as stated in the ninth resolution.
The delegates also argued that the duties were not in the best interest of the British manufacturers themselves. The duties would make the colonists less able to purchase British manufactured goods, reducing the trade between the colonies and the mother country, which was one of the main economic reasons for the colonies’ existence. This reduction in trade would benefit neither the colonies nor the British, as “the increase, prosperity, and happiness of these colonies, depend on the full and free enjoyment of their rights and liberties, and an intercourse with Great-Britain mutually affectionate and advantageous.” But the most important aspect of the Stamp Act Congress was the codification of rights enshrined in the British Constitution and elaborated in Enlightenment thought, and which would come to be regarded as the basic political rights of all mankind.
When word of the Stamp Act Congress’s resolutions and the protests of the American colonists against the act reached Britain, King George III remained silent on the issue. There is no evidence that he ever read the resolutions, and even if he did, he took no action. However, there were voices in Britain that defended the ideas contained in the resolutions. Former prime minister William Pitt (the Elder), in a speech given in Parliament on January 14, 1766—shortly after the resolutions would have reached Britain—stated, “I rejoice that America has resisted. Three million of people so dead to all feelings of liberty, as voluntarily to submit to be slaves, would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest.” It was largely because of Pitt’s stature as a statesman, along with his impassioned defense of the principles contained in the Resolutions of the Stamp Act Congress, that the act was finally repealed on February 21, 1766, and George III gave his assent on March 17, 1766. News of the repeal was officially reported in the Virginia Gazette on May 2, 1766.
The last decade before the onset of the American Revolution in 1775 was characterized by a gradually increasing tension resulting from American discontent with the British Parliament and Crown officials assuming direct control of governing responsibilities, including taxation. The Stamp Act is the incident that many historians point to as the tipping point of the conflict, and the Resolutions of the Stamp Act Congress were seen as one of the first articulations of a widespread colonial dissatisfaction that would take the form of coordinated action across the borders of the colonies. The Stamp Act Congress was but one of the ways in which protest against unjust taxation took shape in colonial America.
By the time the resolutions were issued in late October and made their way through the colonies to the different colonial assemblies and to the population at large, the die had been cast. When the Stamp Act officially took effect on November 1, 1765, the protests were so effective that not a single Crown representative was on duty to collect the stamp tax. But the most important effect, which would resonate over the following decade, was the unanimity of the colonial response to perceived injustice at the hands of the British government. Opposition groups across colonies, most notably the Sons of Liberty, were formed, and although these groups largely disbanded after the initial crisis had passed, they were quickly reconstituted once the next colonial taxation crisis dawned: the passage of the Tea Act in 1773.
Even before the Tea Act, however, the atmosphere of tension between Britain and its colonies persisted. Not wanting the repeal of the Stamp Act to become a precedent for future actions against its dictates, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act, which officially affirmed that the colonists were subject to any act passed by Parliament with no recourse. The next year, Parliament suspended the colonial assembly of New York for declining to implement the Quartering Act. The revived enforcement of the Navigation Acts, originally passed between 1651 and 1696 but easily circumvented prior to 1763, further aggravated the colonists, as the acts’ prohibition against direct trade with foreign nations ensured that goods passed through British ports and were subject to British taxation, thus raising the price colonists had to pay for manufactured goods.
But as Parliament continued to pass acts that the colonists saw as unjust, the precedent set by the protests against the Stamp Act set the tone for future colonial actions. The revival of the Sons of Liberty and the coordination of protests across the colonies trace a direct line of causation between the Resolutions of the Stamp Act Congress and the onset of the American Revolution a decade later.
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