What was the Stamp Act

In the spring of 1764, Grenville read, in the House of Commons, a series of resolutions declaring the intention of the government to raise a tax in America by a duty on stamped paper. A stamp duty had been proposed in 1732, during Walpole's administration, but that sagacious minister said: "I will leave the taxation of America to some of my successors, who have more courage than I have." Sir William Keith, governor of Pennsylvania, proposed such a tax in 1739. Franklin thought it just, when in the convention at Albany in 1754. But when it was proposed to Pitt in 1759, he said: "I will never burn my fingers with an American stamp act." Early in 1764, Mr. Huske, a native of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, then residing in England, and holding a seat in Parliament, desirous of showing his excessive loyalty, arose in his place, alluded to Franklin's opinion in the Albany convention, and delighted the House of Commons with the assurance that the Americans were able to pay a liberal tax. He recommended that one should be levied that would amount annually to two and a half million dollars. Encouraged by these precedents and this assurance, Grenville, a few weeks afterward (March 9, 1764), presented his Stamp Act scheme, asking for a million dollars. On his own motion the consideration of it was postponed, and it slept for almost a year. For the part which he played in the matter, John Huske incurred the hot resentment of his countrymen, and he was hung in effigy on "Liberty Tree" in Boston, with the following inscription on his breast:

"Question. What, Brother Huske? Why this is bad ! Answer. Ah, indeed ! but I'm a wicked lad; My mother always thought me wild; `The gallows is thy portion, child,' She often said; behold, 'tis true, And now the dog must have his due; For idle gewgaws, wretched pelf, I sold my country, d--d myself; And for my great, unequalled crime, The d--I takes H--e before his time. But if some brethren I could name, Who shared the crime should share the shame, This glorious tree, though big and tall, Indeed would never hold 'em all."

The agents of the colonies in England remonstrated with Grenville concerning the proposed stamp tax, when he told them that if they could devise a better scheme for raising a revenue, he would be satisfied. The revenue must be raised, and he knew of no better method than the one proposed. In the House of Commons he made similar remarks, and stated that the consideration of the subject had been postponed, because there were some doubts about the right of Parliament to levy such a tax. He asserted the right, and called upon the Opposition to deny it if they thought it fitting. No one spoke but Mr. Beckford, who said: "As we are strong, I hope we shall be merciful." As the right was not denied, the matter resolved itself into a question of method.

The subject excited great feeling in the colonies. Public and private discussions ran high. Great questions that lie at the foundations of civil and natural rights were pondered thoughtfully. The people became divided in opinion, and the party names, afterward so familiar, of Whigs, Patriots, and Sons of Liberty on one side, and Loyalists and Tories on the other, now first came into vogue. Men and women, in every social condition, were found on each side in the division, and all professed loyalty to the crown and adherence to the British constitution. Thoughtful men saw in the measure prophecies of great changes in America. "If the colonist is taxed without his consent, he will, perhaps, seek a change," said Holt's New York Gazette, in May, 1764. "It is a menace of the rights of man; a challenge to a conflict for inalienable rights," said a writer in the Virginia Gazette. "The ways of Heaven are inscrutable. This step of the mother country, though intended to secure dependence, may produce fatal resentment and be subversive of that end," wrote Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, who, twelve years afterward, offered in the Continental Congress the resolution that the colonies were "free and independent States." The agent of Connecticut (Mr. Dyer), then in England, wrote: "If the colonies do not now unite, they may bid farewell to liberty, burn their charters, and make the best of thraldom." In Massachusetts, the voice of that stern Puritan and conscientious Christian gentleman, Samuel Adams, who was then a little more than forty years of age, was lifted up, with words of logic and defiance, against the measure; and he wrote the address of the citizens of Boston to the Massachusetts legislature, saying:

"There is no room for delay. Those unexpected proceedings may be preparatory to more extensive taxation; for if our trade may be taxed, why not our lands and everything we possess? If taxes are laid upon us in any shape, without our having a legal representation where they are laid, are we not reduced from the character of free subjects to the miserable state of tributary slaves? This annihilates our charter right to govern and tax our-selves. We claim British rights, not by charter only; we are born to them. Use your endeavors that the weight of the other North American colonies may be added to that of this province, that by united application all may happily obtain redress."

So the Bostonians denied the right of Parliament to tax the colonies, and looked to the power of union for a redress of grievances. The patriots in other colonies were in accord with those of Massachusetts, and there was an universal expression of the sentiment: "If we are taxed without our consent--if we are not represented in the body that taxes us, and we submit, we are slaves." The resolution to resist took deep root in the hearts of multitudes of men and women in the colonies; and when the subject of a stamp tax was again presented to Parliament, there was very little difference of opinion in America concerning its unrighteousness. The words of Otis had again gone forth to electrify the American people, and put leading men in England into a thoughtful mood. With wonderful power and clearness of language he enunciated great principles, declared the loyalty of the colonies, and defined natural rights. The following sentences from the extraordinary pamphlet that contains them, will give an idea of its character:

"There can be no prescription old enough to supersede the law of nature and the grant of God Almighty, who has given all men the right to be free. If every prince since Nimrod had been a tyrant, it would not prove a right to tyrannize. The administrators of legislative authority, when they verge towards tyranny, are to be resisted; if they prove incorrigible, they are to be deposed. Nor do the political and civil rights of the British colonists rest on a charter from the crown. Old Magna Charta was not the beginning of all things; nor did it rise on the borders of chaos out of the unformed mass. A time may come when Parliament shall declare every American charter void; but the natural, inherent, and inseparable rights of the colonists as men and as citizens would remain, and, whatever became of charters, can never be abolished till the general conflagration. The world is at the eve of the highest scene of earthly power and grandeur that has ever been displayed to the view of mankind. Who will win the prize is with God. But human nature must and will be rescued from the general slavery that has so long triumphed over the species."

THE Boston resolves and Otis's pamphlet, entitled "Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved," stirred the American people most profoundly, and created a burning zeal for freedom. A committee of correspondence, appointed by the Massachusetts Assembly, had sent a circular letter to the assemblies of other colonies on the subject of resistance to taxation. A like committee in Rhode Island sent a letter to the Pennsylvania Assembly, in which it was urged that if all of the colonies would unite in an expression of views, and present them to Parliament through their agents, the end sought for might be obtained. The Pennsylvania Assembly, delighted with the suggestion, took action accordingly. So also did those of several other provinces; and petitions and remonstrances against the proposed stamp tax were soon on their way to England, bearing wise thoughts and bold assertions. They were a series of able state papers sent from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina. That from New York was the boldest of all. "An exemption from ungranted and involuntary taxation," said that Assembly, "must be the grand principle of every free state. Without such a right vested in themselves, exclusive of all others, there can be no liberty, no happiness, no security, nor even the idea of property. Life itself would be intolerable. We proceed with propriety and boldness to inform the Commons of Great Britain, who, to their infinite honor, in all ages asserted the liberties of mankind, that the people of this colony nobly disdain the thought of claiming that exemption as a privilege. They found it on a basis more honorable, solid and stable; they challenge it, and glory in it, as a right."

Late in October (1764) the Pennsylvania Assembly chose Dr. Franklin (then fifty-eight years of age) agent of that province in England. He was then involved, as a leader of the popular party against the Proprietary government of Pennsylvania, in a bitter political dispute, and his appointment was vehemently opposed by his antagonists. It was made in spite of their remonstrances and protests, and he sailed on a mission the result of which powerfully affected the destinies of nations. The agents of some of the other colonies appearing lukewarm on the subject of a stamp tax, their powers were transferred to Franklin, and he became a sort of national representative of the British colonial empire in America. All had confidence in his integrity, ability, statesmanship and knowledge of the character, temper and views of the American people, and much was expected from the influence of his well-known name in England. "His appointment," afterward wrote Dr. Smith, provost of the College of Philadelphia, "appears to have been a measure provided by the councils of Heaven."

Soon after Franklin's arrival in England, he was waited upon by Grenville and other politicians, and consulted about the stamp tax. Pitt, in retirement at Hayes, sent for the philosopher, and also consulted him on the subject. Franklin told everybody that it was an unwise measure; that the Americans would never submit to be taxed without their consent; and that such an act, if attempted to be enforced, would endanger the unity of the empire. But the wise counsels of Franklin, and the voices from the colonists in America protesting against being sheared by "The Gentle Shepherd," were of no avail. Grenville was determined to have a revenue from America. Unwilling to incur the whole odium of the measure, he adroitly placed it upon the general grounds of whig policy, and so committed the party to the scheme.

On the assembling of Parliament after the Christmas holidays (January 10, 1765), the king, in his speech, presented the American question as one of "obedience to the laws and respect for the legislative assembly of the kingdom." The stamp tax was to be the test. He seemed to be insensible to the danger to his realm of the storm then gathering in America. He recommended the carrying out of Grenville's scheme, and assured the Parliament that he should use every endeavor to enforce obedience in the colonies. So assured, Grenville, on the 7th of February, introduced his famous motion for a stamp act, composed of fifty-five resolutions. It provided that every skin or piece of vellum, or parchment, or sheet or piece of paper, used for legal purposes, such as bills, bonds, notes, leases, policies of insurance, marriage licenses, and a great many other documents, in order to be held valid in courts of law, was to be stamped, and sold by public officers appointed for the purpose, at prices which levied a stated tax on every such document. The bill made all offences against its provisions cognizable in the courts of admiralty. To the odiousness of the tax itself was added the provision for its collection by arbitrary power under the decrees of British judges, without any trial by jury.

When the stamp act, framed in proper order by a commissioner, came up for debate, Charles Townshend, the most eloquent man in the House in the absence of Pitt, made a speech in defence of it, which was concluded in the following words: "And now, these Americans, children planted by our care, nourished up by our indulgence until they have grown to a degree of strength and opulence, and protected by our armies, will they grudge to contribute their mite to relieve us from the heavy weight of that burden which we lie under?"

Colonel Barre, who had shared with Wolfe the dangers and fatigues of the campaign against Quebec, and who, having lived in America, knew the people well, instantly sprang to his feet, and with eyes flashing with indignation, and with outstretched arms, delivered an unpremeditated phillippic of extraordinary power, in which most wholesome truths were uttered. He exclaimed with scorn: "They planted by your care! No, your oppressions planted them in America. They fled from your tyranny to a then uncultivated and inhospitable country, where they exposed themselves to almost all the hardships to which human nature is liable, and among others to the cruelties of a savage foe the most subtle, and I will take upon me to say the most formidable, of any people on the face of God's earth; yet, actuated by principles of true English liberty, they met all hardships with pleasure compared with those they suffered in their own country from the hands of those who should have been their friends. They nourished up by your indulgence! They grew by your neglect of them. As soon as you began to care about them, that care was exercised in sending persons to rule over them in one department and another, who were, perhaps, the deputies of deputies of some member of this House, sent to spy out their liberties, to misrepresent their actions, and to prey upon them-men whose behavior on many occasions has caused the blood of those Sons of Liberty to recoil within them-men promoted to the highest seats of justice; some who, to my knowledge, were glad, by going to a foreign country, to escape being brought to the bar of justice in their own. They protected by your arms! They have nobly taken up arms in your defence; have exerted a valor amid their constant and laborious industry, for the defence of a country whose frontier was drenched in blood, while its interior parts yielded all its little savings to your emoluments. And believe me-remember I this day told you so-that the same spirit of freedom, which actuated that people at first, will accompany them still; but prudence forbids me to explain myself further. God knows that I do not at this time speak from motives of party heat; what I deliver are the genuine sentiments of my heart. However superior to me in general knowledge and experience, the respectable body of this House may be, I claim to know more of America than most of you, having seen and been conversant in that country. The people, I believe, are as truly loyal as any subjects the king has; but a people jealous of their liberties, and who will vindicate them if ever they should be violated. But the subject is too delicate. I will say no more."

The House remained in silent amazement for a few moments after this impassioned utterance of truths. The members were generally too ignorant of America and its people to comprehend Barre's speech. The intelligent Horace Walpole confessed that he knew almost nothing about the colonists. The members of the House knew that Great Britain was strong and believed the colonies were weak; and without being "merciful," as Beckford had suggested, they passed the obnoxious bill on the 27th of February by a vote of two hundred and fifty against fifty. In the Lords it received very little opposition, and on the 22nd of March, the king made it a law by signing it. A few days afterward the monarch was crazy. It was the first of four attacks of the dreadful malady of insanity which afflicted him during his long life, and finally deprived him of the power to rule.

So was produced the principal wedge which cleaved asunder the British empire. The infatuated ministry openly declared that it was "intended to establish the power of Great Britain to tax the colonies." On the night of the passage of the act, Dr. Franklin wrote to Charles Thompson, afterward the Secretary of the Continental Congress: "The sun of liberty is set; the Americans must light the lamps of industry and economy."

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