The examination of Benjamin Franklin before the House of commons

[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.]

The source of the following comes from the journal of the House of Commons. 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, during the time just before the revolution.

1. Q. What is your name, and place of abode? A. Franklin, of Philadelphia. 2. Q. Do the Americans pay any considerable taxes among themselves? A. Certainly many, and very heavy taxes. 3. Q. What are the present taxes in Pennsylvania, laid by the laws of the colony? 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. 4. 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.. 7. 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.. 22. 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. 23. Q. What may be the amount of one year's imports into Pennsylvania from Britain? A. I have been informed that our merchants compute the imports from Britain to be above five hundred thousand pounds. 24. Q. What may be the amount of the produce of your province exported to Britain? A. It must be small, as we produce little that is wanted in Britain. I suppose it cannot exceed forty thousand pounds.. 27. 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. 28. 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. 29. 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.. 36. Q. What was the temper of America towards Great Britain before the year 1763? 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. 37. Q. And what is their temper now? A. Oh, very much altered.. 40. Q. In what light did the people of America use to consider the Parliament of Great Britain? 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. 41. Q. And have they not still the same respect for Parliament? A. No; it is greatly lessened. 42. 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. 43. 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 moment? A. No, they will never submit to it.. 59. 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. 60. 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. 61. 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. 62. 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.. 82. Q. Can anything less than a military force carry the Stamp Act into execution? A. I do not see how a military force can be applied to that purpose. 83. 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. 84.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. 85. 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. 86. Q. Is it in their power to do without them? A. I think they may very well do without them. 87. 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 and rejected.

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.

121. 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. 122. 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 so ever, 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.

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.

127. 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.. 132. 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. 133. 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.. 135. 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.. 152. 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. 153. 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. 154. 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.. 166. 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. 167. 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 arms. 168. Q. Is there a power on earth that can force them to erase them? A. No power, how great so ever, can force men to change their opinions. 169. 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.. 173. Q. What used to be the pride of the Americans? A. To indulge in the fashions and manufactures of Great Britain. 174. Q. What is now their pride? A. To wear their old clothes over again till they can make new ones.

Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 2)