Research
World Civilizations

PERSPECTIVES
AMERICA: A Narrative History

From Empire to Independence
Chapter Five

SUBHEADINGS

GRENVILLE AND THE STAMP ACT

GRENVILLE'S COLONIAL POLICY
Just as the Proclamation of 1763 was being drafted, a new ministry had begun to grapple with the problems of imperial finances. The new chief minister, George Grenville, first lord of the Treasury, was much like the king: industrious, honest, meticulous, and obtuse. Grenville took for granted the need for redcoats to defend the frontier, although the colonies had been left mostly to their own devices before 1754. He also wanted to keep a large army in America to avoid a rapid demobilization that would retire a large number of influential officers and thereby provoke political criticism at home. But he faced sharply rising costs for American defense, on top of an already staggering debt. He had already tried to find new revenues at home, one result being a cider tax so unpopular that it helped to drive him briefly out of office. It would not be the last time that British or American officials would learn that taxes on drink, fortified or otherwise, stirred deadly passions.

Because there was a large tax burden at home and a much lighter one in the colonies, Grenville reasoned that the Americans were obligated to share the cost of their own defense. He also learned that the American customs service was grossly inefficient. Evasion and corruption were rampant, and the service needed tightening. Grenville directed absentee customs agents to pack themselves off to American and cease hiring deputies. He issued stern orders to colonial officials and set the navy to patrolling the coasts. In Parliament he secured an Act for the Encouragement of Officers Making Seizures (1763), which set up a new maritime or vice-admiralty court in Halifax with jurisdiction over all the colonies, a court that had no juries of colonists sympathetic to smugglers. The old habits of salutary neglect in the enforcement of the Navigation Acts were coming to an end, causing no little annoyance to American shippers.

Strict enforcement of the old Molasses Act of 1733 posed a serious threat to New England's mercantile prosperity, which in turn created markets for British goods. The sixpence-per-gallon duty had been set prohibitively high, not for purposes of revenue but to prevent trade with the French sugar islands. Yet the rum distilleries consumed more molasses than the British West Indies provided, and as the governor of Massachusetts wrote to the king: "Even illegal trade, where the balance is in favor of British subjects, makes its final return to Great Britain." Grenville recognized that the sixpence duty, if enforced, would be ruinous to a major colonial enterprise. So he put through a new Revenue Act of 1764, commonly know as the Sugar Act, which cut the duty in half, from sixpence to three pence per gallon. This, he believed, would reduce the temptation to smuggle or to bribe the customs officers. In addition the Sugar Act levied new duties on imports of foreign textiles, wines, coffee, indigo, and sugar. The act, Grenville estimated, would bring in about £45,000 a year that would go "toward defraying the necessary expenses of defending, protecting, and securing, the said colonies and plantations." For the first time Parliament had adopted duties frankly designed to raise revenues in the colonies and not merely intended to regulate trade.

Another of Grenville's new regulatory measures had an important impact on the colonies: The Currency Act of 1764. The colonies faced a chronic shortage of hard money, which kept going out to pay debts in England. To meet the shortage, they resorted to issuing their own paper money. British creditors, however, feared payment in such a depreciated currency. To alleviate their fears, Parliament in 1751 had forbidden the New England colonies to make their currency legal tender. Now Grenville extended the prohibition to all the colonies. The result was a decline in the value of existing paper money, since nobody was obligated to accept it in payment of debts, even in the colonies. The deflationary impact of the Currency Act, combined with new duties and stricter enforcement, delivered a severe shock to a colonial economy already suffering a postwar business decline.

THE STAMP ACT But Grenville's new plan to make Americans pay for British expenses remained incomplete. The Sugar Act would defray only a fraction of the cost of maintaining the 10,000 soldiers to be stationed along the western frontier. He had in mind still another measure to raise money in America, a stamp tax. Early in 1765 he presented his plan to agents of the colonies in London. They protested unanimously, but had no response to his request for an alternative. And neither he nor they seemed to have any inkling of the storm it would arouse. Benjamin Franklin, representing four colonies, even proposed one of his friends as a stamp agent.

On February 13, 1765, Grenville laid his proposal before Parliament. It aroused little interest or debate. Only three speeches were delivered in opposition, but one of them included a fateful phrase. Colonel Isaac Barré, who had served with Wolfe at Quéebec, said that British agents sent out to the colonies had "caused the blood of these sons of liberty to recoil within them." Nevertheless the act passed the Commons easily. The act created revenue stamps and required that they be fixed to printed matter and legal documents of all kinds: newspapers, pamphlets, broadsides, almanacs, bonds, leases, deeds, licenses, insurance policies, ship clearances, college diplomas, even dice and playing cards. The requirement would go into effect on November 1, 1765.

In March 1765 Grenville completed his new system of colonial regulations when he put through the Quartering Act. In effect it was still another tax. This act required the colonies to supply British troops with provisions and to provide them with barracks or submit to their use of inns and vacant buildings. It applied to all colonies, but affected mainly New York, headquarters of the British forces.

THE IDEOLOGICAL RESPONSE The cumulative effect of Grenville's measures raised colonial suspicions to a fever. Unwittingly, this plodding minister of a plodding king had stirred up a storm of protest and set in motion a profound exploration of English traditions and imperial relations. The radical ideas of the minority "Real Whigs" slowly began to take hold in the colonies. These ideas derived from various sources but above all from John Locke's justification of the Glorious Revolution, his Two Treatises on Government (1690), Locke and other "Real Whigs" viewed English history as a struggle by Parliament to preserve life, liberty, and property against royal tyranny.

Their religious heritage and what Patrick Henry called "the lamp of experience" also convinced them that human nature is corruptible and lusts after power. The safeguard against abuses, in the view of those in England who called themselves "Real Whigs," was not to rely on human goodness but to check power so as to preserve individual liberty. And the British constitution had embodied these principles in a mixed government of kings, lords, and commons, each serving as a check on the others. Even on the continent of Europe enlightened philosophers looked with admiration upon English liberties. A character in a Mozart opera announced: "I am an Englishwoman, born to freedom." The French writer Montesquieu, in his Spirit of the Laws, mingled the idea of a mixed government (kings, lords, commons) with his own notion of the separation of powers (executive, legislative, judicial). The colonists, like Montesquieu, embraced the Enlightenment philosophy of natural law and natural rights. But if the Enlightenment had found a place in their minds, the Real Whig interpretation of history and human nature was built into their bones. In the end it saved them from the facile optimism and the pursuit of utopia that would lure the French Revolutionaries into the horrors of the Terror.

But in 1764 and 1765 the colonists felt that Grenville had loosed upon them the very engines of tyranny from which Parliament had rescued England in the seventeenth century, and by imposition of that very Parliament. A standing army was the historic ally of despots, and now with the French gone and Pontiac subdued, several thousand British soldiers remained in the colonies. For what purpose--to protect the colonists or to subdue them? It was beginning to seem clear that it was the latter. Among the fundamental rights of English people were trial by jury and the presumption of innocence, but the new vice-admiralty courts excluded juries and put the burden of proof on the defendant. Most important, Englishmen had the right to be taxed only by their elected representatives. Parliament claimed that privilege in England and the colonial assemblies had long exercised it in America. Now Parliament was usurping the assemblies' power of the purse strings.

THE QUESTION OF REPRESENTATION In a flood of colonial pamphlets, speeches, and resolutions, debate on the Stamp Act turned mainly on the point expressed in a slogan familiar to all Americans: "no taxation without representation," a cry that had been raised years before in response to the Molasses Act of 1733. In 1764 James Otis, now a popular leader in the Massachusetts assembly, set forth the argument in a pamphlet, The Rights of the British Colonists Asserted and Proved. Grenville had one of his subordinates prepare an answer, which developed the ingenious theory of "virtual representation." If the colonies had no vote in Parliament, neither did most Englishmen who lived in boroughs that had developed since the last apportionment. Large cities had grown up that had no right to elect a member, while old boroughs with little or no population still returned members. Nevertheless, each member of Parliament represented the interests of the whole country and indeed the whole empire. Charleston, South Carolina, for instance had fully as much representation as Manchester, England.

Many colonial critics considered virtual representation nonsense, justified neither by logic nor by their own experience. In America, to be sure, the apportionment of assemblies failed to keep pace with the westward movement of population, but it was based more nearly on population and --in contrast to British practice-- each member was expected to live in the district he represented. In a pamphlet widely circulated during 1765, Daniel Dulany, a young lawyer of Maryland, suggested that even in if the theory had any validity for England, where the interests of electors might be closely tied to those of nonelectors, it had none for the colonists 3,000 miles away, whose interests differed and whose distance made it impossible for them to influence members of Parliament.

PROTEST IN THE COLONIES Soon after the passage of the Stamp Act Benjamin Franklin wrote from London to a radical friend in Philadelphia: "We might as well have hindered the sun's setting. But since 'tis down . . . let us make as good a night of it as we can." In reply, his friend predicted "the works of darkness" in the night. The Stamp Act became the chief target of colonial protest. Unlike the Sugar Act, which affected mainly New England, the Stamp Act imposed a burden on all the colonists who did any kind of business. And it affected most of all the articulate elements in the community: merchants, planters, lawyers, printer-editors--all strategically placed to influence opinion.

Through the spring and summer of 1765 popular resentment found outlet in mass meetings, parades, bonfires, and other demonstrations. To be sure, only a minority engaged in such public protests. They included farmers, artisans, laborers, businessmen, dock workers, and seamen alarmed at the disruption of business. Lawyers, editors, and merchants such as Christopher Gadsen of Charleston and John Hancock of Boston took the lead or lent support. North Carolina's governor reported the mobs to be composed of "gentlemen and planters." The militants began to assume a name adopted from Colonel Barré's speech: Sons of Liberty. They met underneath "Liberty Trees" -- in Boston a great elm on Hanover Square, in Charleston a live oak. One day in mid-August, nearly three months before the effective date of the Stamp Act, an effigy of Boston's stamp agent swung from the Liberty Tree. In the evening a mob carried it through the streets, destroyed the stamp office, and used the wood to burn the effigy. Somewhat later, another mob sacked the homes of Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Hutchinson and the local customs officer. Thoroughly shaken, the Boston stamp agent resigned his commission and stamp agents throughout the colonies were hounded out of office. Loyalists deplored such riotous violence, arguing that the American rebels were behaving more tyrannically than the British.

By November 1, its effective date, the Stamp Act was a dead letter. Business went on without the stamps. Newspapers appeared with a skull and crossbones in the corner where the stamp belonged. After passage of the Sugar Act a movement had begun to boycott British goods. Now colonists adopted non-importation agreements to exert pressure on British merchants. Americans knew that they had become a major market for British products. By shutting off imports, they could exercise real leverage. Homegrown sage and sassafras took the place of British tea. Homespun garments became the fashion as symbols of colonial defiance. In this regard, the non-importation movement offered landmark opportunities for women to participate in political agitation.

The widespread protests encouraged the idea of colonial unity, and colonists discovered that they had more in common with each other than with London. In May, long before the mobs went into action, the Virginia House of Burgesses had struck the first blow against the Stamp Act in the Virginia Resolves, a series of resolutions inspired by young Patrick Henry's "torrents of sublime eloquence." Virginians, the burgesses declared, were entitled to the rights of Englishmen, and Englishmen could be taxed only by their own representatives. Virginians moreover, had always been governed by laws passed with her own consent. Newspapers spread the resolutions throughout the colonies, along with even more radical statements that were kept out of the final version, and other assemblies hastened to copy Virginia's example. In June 1765, the Massachusetts House of Representatives issued a circular letter inviting the various assemblies to send delegates to confer in New York on appeals for relief from the king and Parliament.

Nine responded, and from October 7 to 25 the Stamp Act Congress of twenty-seven delegates conferred and issued expressions of colonial sentiment: A Declaration of the Rights and Grievances of the colonies, a petition to the king for relief, and a petition to Parliament for repeal of the Stamp Act. The delegates acknowledged that the colonies owed "due subordination" to Parliament and recognized its right to regulate colonial trade, but they questioned parliament's right to levy taxes, which were a free gift granted by the people through their representatives.

REPEAL OF THE ACT The storm had scarcely broken before Grenville's ministry was out of office, dismissed not because of the colonial turmoil but because they had fallen out with the king over the appointment of offices. In July 1765 the king installed a new minister, the marquis of Rockingham, leader of the "Rockingham Whigs," the "Old Whig" faction, which included people who sympathized with the colonists' views. Pressure from British merchants who feared the economic consequences of the non-importation movement bolstered Rockingham's resolve to repeal the Stamp Act, but he needed to move carefully in order to win a majority. Simple repeal was politically impossible without some affirmation of parliamentary authority. When Parliament assembled early in the year, William Pitt demanded that the Stamp Act be repealed "absolutely, totally, and immediately," but urged that Britain's authority over the colonies "be asserted in as strong terms as possible," except on the point of taxation. Rockingham steered a cautious course and seized upon the widespread but false impression that Pitt accepted the principle of "external" taxes on trade but rejected "internal" taxes within the colonies. Benjamin Franklin, summoned before Parliament for interrogation in what was probably a rehearsed performance, helped to further the false impression that this was the colonists' view as well, an impression easily refuted by reference to the colonial resolutions of the previous year.

In March 1766 Parliament repealed the Stamp Tax, but at the same time passed the Declatory Act, which asserted the full power of Parliament to make laws binding the colonies "in all cases whatsoever." It was a cunning evasion that made no concession with regard to taxes, but made no mention of them either. It left intact in the minds of many members the impression that a distinction had been drawn between "external" taxes on trade and "internal" taxes within the colonies, and that impression would have fateful consequences for the future. For the moment, however, the Declatory Act seemed little if anything more than a gesture to save face. Amid the rejoicing and relief on both sides of the Atlantic there were no omens that the quarrel would be reopened within a year. To be sure, the Sugar Act remained on the books, but Rockingham reduced the molasses tax from three pence to a penny a gallon.

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World Civilizations

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