The Stamp Act Congress of 1765
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From the Book:
A History of the United States Constitution
The debt the British Parliament acquired during the Seven Years War led to them imposing the Stamp Act on the colonies. This would prove more expensive to them in the long run, as it created the dissatisfaction to British Rule that led to the Declaration of Independence eleven years later.
A parliament unwilling to retire politically connected military officers raised colonial ire by imposing an unconstitutional tax to pay for a military presence most colonials did not need or want. The costs of the Seven Years War, French and Indian War in North America, had increased Britain’s public debt. Parliament imposed an unprecedented direct tax on the colonists to help defray the debt and stationed over ten thousand soldiers in the colonies. The colonists considered the tax unconstitutional, as the British Constitution had forbidden imposition of taxes on the people without their consent. They also questioned the motives of Parliament over the size of the British occupying force.
The French and Indian War was the North American version of a much larger conflict between France and England. This war in Europe is called the Seven Years War. This war raged from 1756 through 1763. At the conclusion of the war the British had succeeded in vanquishing the French presence in North America. Canada now lay in Britain’s hands. The Ohio River Valley region, once the scene of British and French conflict, was quiet. The Amerindian threat, except for the brief Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763, had diminished.
The British Parliament had a problem at the conclusion of the war. During the conflict they had built up a huge army. Many of the officers in this army were politically connected and wanted to keep their commissions. The British did not like maintaining a large standing army in their own country. Stationing the troops in the North American Colonies seemed to provide the answer to the problem. Parliament decided to station 10,000 troops in the colonies at a cost of about 250,000 pounds sterling per year. Parliament passed the Stamp Act to raise about 60,000 pounds sterling to help defray this cost.
The Act required a stamp placed on every printed document. This included newspapers and other published works, all legal documents and playing cards. The tax proved a financial hardship for many newspapers, and many stopped publishing. Parliament passed the Act with no votes against it.
Opposition to Act began almost as soon as the news of its passage reached the colonies. The colonists protested, saying that the troops were not necessary in the colonies. The French had been vanquished and the individual colonies had always dealt with the native threat with their local militias. Opponents of the tax also pointed out that the British Constitution forbade taxation without representation. Since the colonies were not represented in Parliament, that body had no right to impose taxes. Only the colonial legislatures had that power, they contended.
The British have no written, specific document called a constitution. Instead, a vast network of documents, statutes, court judgments and treaties comprise the British Constitution. This body of law defines the relationship between the British citizen and the government. It also outlines how the courts, Parliament and executive branch function. The legal precedents set forth in this British legal tradition had forbidden imposition of taxes without the consent of the governed.
The repercussions set off the passage of the act are important. the opposition to the Act solidified the growing unrest over British rule in the colonies. Parliament’s heavy-handed handling of the resistance to this and later taxes provided the spark to the fire that led to the American Revolution.
The imposition of the tax sparked the first concerted effort by the colonies to act in a united manner when they convened the Stamp Act Congress in October 1765.
Historians generally regard the Stamp Act Congress as the first organized political actions of the American Revolutionary period. The assemblies of the colonies chose delegates using many different procedures, some of which were unusual. The governors of Virginia and Georgia had prevented their assemblies from choosing delegates, thus these two colonies did not attend. Other colonies had either declined or did not have assemblies to invite. Nine out of a total of twenty-one British colonies sent delegates. Delegates began to gather in New York in late September and early October. The first session took place on October 6, 1765, in Federal Hall, then called New York Hall. Due to the extra-legal nature of the meeting, the meetings took place in private sessions. Few records of the discussions have survived, so little is known of the debates that took place. On the first day, the delegates chose the officers. Massachusetts delegate Timothy Ruggles served as chairman and John Cotton as Secretary, also from Massachusetts. Many British officials considered the gathering as illegal. The meeting also alarmed the British Board of Trade, which was in charge of colonial affairs; however, the meeting was already in progress when these officials learned of it in England. Colonies that sent delegates included:
Colonies Prevented from Sending Delegates
Colonies that Declined to Send Delegates
Colonies That Did Not Have Assemblies
Prince Edward Island
The Pennsylvania Assembly chose John Dickenson to represent them in the Stamp Act Congress in spite of his losing his seat in the assembly because of a political spat with Benjamin Franklin. Dickenson had become one of the leaders in the fight against the Stamp Act and had written a pamphlet called The Late Regulations Respecting the British Colonies… Considered, earlier in the year. The pamphlet urged the colonists to use economic pressure against Britain to make them repeal the Act. The booklet was widely read, leading the Assembly to appoint Dickenson to attend the Stamp Act Congress in New York. He became the de facto leader of the assembly and largely drafted the Declaration of Rights and Grievances.
On October 19, 1765, the delegates had reviewed the first document that they would pass, the Declaration of Rights and Grievances. Written largely by Pennsylvania delegate John Dickenson, the document asserted the loyalty of the colonies to Great Britain and declared their right to only be taxed by their elected representatives in the various colonial assemblies.
The text of the Declaration states:
The Resolutions of the Stamp Act Congress October 19, 1765
The members of this Congress, sincerely devoted, with the warmest sentiments of affection and duty to His Majesty’s Person and Government, inviolably attached to the present happy establishment of the Protestant succession, and with minds deeply impressed by a sense of the present and impending misfortunes of the British colonies on this continent; having considered as maturely as time will permit the circumstances of the said colonies, esteem it our indispensable duty to make the following declarations of our humble opinion, respecting the most essential rights and liberties Of the colonists, and of the grievances under which they labor, by reason of several late Acts of Parliament.
That His Majesty’s subjects in these colonies, 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.
That His Majesty’s liege subjects in these colonies are entitled to all the inherent rights and liberties of his natural born subjects within the kingdom of Great Britain.
That it is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that no taxes be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives.
That the people of these colonies are not, and from their local circumstances cannot be, represented in the House of Commons in Great Britain.
That the only representatives of the people of these colonies, are persons chosen therein by them, and that no taxes ever have been, or can be constitutionally imposed on them, but by their respective legislatures.
That all supplies to the Crown, being free gifts of the people, it is unreasonable and inconsistent with the principles and spirit of the British Constitution, for the people of Great Britain to grant to His Majesty the property of the colonists.
That trial by jury is the inherent and invaluable right of every British subject in these colonies.
That the late Act of Parliament, entitled, An Act for granting and applying certain Stamp Duties, and other Duties, in the British colonies and plantations in America, etc., 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.
That the duties imposed by several late Acts of Parliament, from the peculiar circumstances of these colonies, will be extremely burthensome and grievous; and from the scarcity of specie, the payment of them absolutely impracticable.
That as the profits of the trade of these colonies ultimately center in Great Britain, to pay for the manufactures which they are obliged to take from thence, they eventually contribute very largely to all supplies granted there to the Crown.
That the restrictions imposed by several late Acts of Parliament, on the trade of these colonies, will render them unable to purchase the manufactures of Great Britain.
That 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
That it is the right of the British subjects in these colonies, to petition the King, Or House of Parliament.
Lastly, That it is the indispensable duty of these colonies, to the best of sovereigns, to the mother country, and to themselves, to endeavor by a loyal and dutiful address to his Majesty, and humble applications to both Houses of Parliament, to procure the repeal of the Act for granting and applying certain stamp duties, of all clauses of any other Acts of Parliament, whereby the jurisdiction of the Admiralty is extended as aforesaid, and of the other late Acts for the restriction of American commerce.
In the days following the adoption of the Declaration of Rights and Privileges, committees began drafting three more documents. These included a petition to Parliament’s House of Commons, an address to the King and a Memorial to the House of Lords. Divisions among the delegations of the different colonies erupted when the committees presented these documents to the full Congress. Several delegates refused to sign them, citing limitations on their authority placed by their respective assemblies. Others refused on principal. In the end, delegates from six colonies signed the documents on October 25, 1765, and the Congress adjourned. Copies were made of the various documents and sent to the colonial assemblies that did not participate. In the end, every colonial assembly but one approved the Declaration of Rights and Privileges.
The House of Commons rejected the petition, mainly on the grounds that the Congress was an illegal gathering. Colonial boycotts of British goods and resistance to the Stamp Act contributed more to its eventual repeal than the deliberations of the Stamp Act Congress. However, the gathering was the first concerted gathering of delegates from several different colonies helped to plant the seeds to greater cooperation that led to the Continental Congress in 1774.
I have used portions of two of my books, Colonial American History Stories – 1753 – 1763 and a History of the United States Constitution in this story.
Readers can find both of these books on my website, http://www.mossyfeetbooks.com. You can also contact me at email@example.com
Thank you for listening.
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