The Repealing of the Stamp Act of 1765



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day appointed which soon brought forward an agreement to import no more goods from Great Britain till the Stamp Act was repealed,--the commencement of a system of retaliation on the mother-country repeatedly resorted to in the course of the struggle.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.





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