King George III and the repeal of the Stamp Act

Meanwhile public sentiment had been deeply stirred in England by events in America in 1765, while strange apathy marked the conduct of the King George III and Parliament. In his speech, when the latter assembled at the middle of December, and when the conduct of the Americans and their petitions and remonstrances were made known, the monarch barely alluded to unpleasant occurrences in the colonies that might demand the attention of the legislature. That body seemed quite as indifferent to the news from beyond the sea as the king, and almost immediately adjourned. But when they reassembled in January, 1766, the ministry were fully alive to the necessity of prompt and vigorous action. The king, after alluding to the disturbances in the colonies, assured the legislature that no time had been lost in issuing orders to his governors in America, and to the commander of his military forces there, "for the exertion of all the powers of government in suppressing riots and tumults, and in the effectual support of lawful authority." The rest he left to the wisdom of Parliament.

The debate on American affairs opened with a discussion of the speech of the king, which, by Grenville and others, was considered altogether too lenient toward the rebellious Americans. Pitt, who was in his place in the House, with his legs swathed in flannels, arose, and leaning upon his crutches, made one of the most remarkable speeches ever heard in the House of Commons. After a brief review of his own career as premier, he animadverted upon the tardiness of the ministry in laying an account of the disturbances in America before Parliament, and declared that, in his opinion, the government of Great Britain had no right to tax the colonists. "They are subjects of this kingdom," he said, "equally entitled with yourselves to all the natural rights of mankind and the peculiar privileges of Englishmen; equally bound by its laws, and equally participating in the constitution of this free country. The Americans are the sons, not the bastards of England. Taxation is no part of the governing or legislative powers. Taxes are the voluntary gift or grant of the Commons alone. When, therefore, in this House, we give and grant, we give and grant what is our own. But in an American tax, what do we do? We, your majesty's Commons for Great Britain, give and grant to your majesty, what? Our own property? No; we give and grant to your majesty the property of your majesty's Commons of America. It is an absurdity in terms.". "There is," he continued, "an idea that the colonies are virtually represented in this House. I would fain know by whom an American is represented here. Is he represented here by any knight of the shire in any county of this kingdom? Would to God that respectable representation was augmented to a greater number! Or will you tell him that he is represented by any representation of a borough-a borough which, perhaps, its own representative never saw?" Then, with a prophetic glance at future parliamentary reform, he said: "This is what is called the rotten part of the constitution. It cannot continue a century; if it does not drop, it must be amputated."

When Pitt sat down, the House, awed into silence by his brilliant declamation, remained so for a few minutes, when General Conway, of the cabinet, arose and declared that his sentiments were consonant with those of the orator. Grenville took the floor and defended his measure as right in itself. He complained of the delay of ministers in giving notice of the disturbances in America. "They began," he said, "in July, and now we are in the middle of January. Lately they were only `occurrences,' they are now grown to `disturbances,' to `tumults,' and to `riots.' I doubt they border on open rebellion; and if the doctrines of this day be confirmed, that name will be lost in revolution." Then fixing his eyes sharply on Pitt, he exclaimed with emphasis: "The seditious spirit of the colonies owes its birth in this House. Gentlemen are careless of the consequences of what they say, provided it answer the purpose of opposition."

This thrust from his brother-in-law brought Pitt and others to their feet. There was a cry, "Mr. Pitt! Mr. Pitt!" when all but the great orator sat down. He then fell upon Grenville, and told him that since he had challenged him to the field, he would fight him on every foot of it. "He tells us that America is obstinate--America is in open rebellion," said Pitt. "I rejoice that America has resisted. Three millions of people so dead to all the feelings of liberty as to voluntarily submit to be slaves, would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest." Alluding to the alleged strength of Great Britain and the weakness of America, he said: "It is true that in a good cause, on a good ground, the force of this country could crush America to atoms; but on this ground, on this stamp act, many here will think it a crying injustice, and I am one who will lift up my hands against it. In such a cause your success would be hazardous. America, if she fall, would fall like the strong man; she would embrace the pillars of the state, and pull down the constitution along with her."

Pitt then proposed an absolute, total and immediate repeal of the stamp act, at the same time declaring the absolute sovereignty of Great Britain over the colonies. His proposition was warmly seconded, and Edmund Burke, then thirty-six years of age and who was sitting in Parliament for the first time, made two remarkable speeches in favor of repeal. They were so logical and brilliant in expression, that he immediately took a front rank among the orators of the House of Commons. A repeal bill was introduced, and on the 18th of March it was passed by the House by a large majority. It was accompanied by Pitt's declaratory act, so called, which affirmed the right of Parliament "to bind the colonies in all cases whatsoever"--an act intended by the great statesman to soothe the feelings of some who might, by their votes, defeat the repeal bill. In the House of Lords it was stoutly opposed as a relinquishment of the sovereign power of the government. Lord Camden was favorable to repeal, but he was opposed to the declaratory act. Planting himself firmly on the maxim that taxation without representation is tyranny, "I will maintain it to the last," he said. "The position is founded in the law of nature. It is more; it is, itself, an eternal law of nature." On the day of its enactment (March 18), the repeal act became a law by receiving the reluctantly-given signature of the king.

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