A Closer Look at the Stamp Act and the American response.
Your oppressions planted them in America. They fled from your tyranny to a then uncultivated and unhospitable country … And yet, actuated by principles of true English liberty, they met all these hardships with pleasure, compared with what they suffered in their own country, from the hands of those who should have been their friends.
— Isaac Barre, English Member of Parliament, 1765
It is ironic how history turns on the mundane. In 1765, the British Parliament enacted the Stamp Act, a small tax on legal transactions and paper, that was to apply to the colonies. The same tax had been applied to the citizens of Great Britain with little controversy since 1694. Yet before the vote was made in Parliament, an obscure Member of Parliament (MP) stood on the back bench to express an objection. It was late at night, and the objection was so noted and the vote went forward. Yet what was stated would forever establish the mythology of the Sons of Liberty. As the Stamp Act was introduced in the colonies, it seemed it would proceed with little concern until a young member of the House of Burgesses in Virginia stood to express his objection before a largely empty chamber. The effect was to bring to the forefront one of the cornerstone arguments of the Revolutionaries – no taxation without representation. By 1766, the Stamp Act would be a smoldering ruin. Alas, another irony. If only the opposition party in Parliament had not been a minority, how much different history may have evolved.
Nourished by Their Indulgence
In February 1765, Charles Townshend stood up in the House of Commons of the British Parliament to speak in defense of the Stamp Act. The British Empire had just come out of what many would argue was World War Zero. The costs, as in the other World Wars, was beyond measure. The British citizenry were expected to pay taxes to pay the debts. No different should be expected of the colonies. “If America looks to Great Britain for protection, she must enable [us] to protect her. If she expects our fleets, she must assist our revenue.” Townshend added his perspective of the colonies, “planted with so much tenderness, governed with so much affection, and established with so much care and attention.”
It was late in the evening. The members were tired and wanted to get on with the vote. A collective groan ascended when a gentlemen stood for the opposition, a veteran of the Battle of Quebec in 1759.
They planted by your care? No! Your oppressions planted them in America. They fled from your tyranny to a then uncultivated and unhospitable country … And yet, actuated by principles of true English liberty, they met all these hardships with pleasure, compared with what they suffered in their own country, from the hands of those who should have been their friends.
They nourished by your indulgence? They grew by your neglect of them; as soon as as you began to care about them, that care was exercised by sending persons to rule over them, … to spy out their liberty, to misrepresent their actions and to prey upon them; men whose behaviour on many occasions has caused the blood of those Sons of Liberty to recoil within them….
They protected by your arms? They have nobly taken up arms in your defence, have exerted a valour amidst their constant and laborious industry for the defence of a country, whose frontier, while drenched in blood, its interior parts have yielded all its little savings to your emolument. And believe me, remember I this day told you so, that same spirit of freedom which actuated that people at first, will accompany them still … God knows 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 reputable body of this House may be, yet 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 … will vindicate them, if ever they should be violated [.]
For a moment, the listeners sat in silent amazement. But it was just a moment. Back to business, the opposition proposed that action on the measure be delayed. It was voted down 245 to 49. After a tedious reading of the 54 resolutions, the Stamp Act was approved by voice vote. 1
Sitting in the gallery witnessing this debate was Jared Ingersoll, the agent representing Connecticut. Everything the gentlemen had stated resonated with him. The MP’s name was Isaac Barre. And it may be he who gave birth to the phrase “Sons of Liberty.” It is rather ironic that the colonists he claimed to know so well were Canadians.
Lessons for Our Time
It is stated by the 1619 Project (please refer to note below) that this nation was founded on slavery with the intent of advancing the institution. It flies in the face of mountains of historical evidence. It is most peculiar that in 1765, deep within the bowels of Parliament, that there were men who understood the colonists. They came to the wilderness continent to flee oppression, they flourished by overcoming the challenges they faced on their own, and governed themselves. The British administrators were arrogant and condescending and that the colonists were fully familiar with the concept of liberty.
So What is the Big Deal?
The Stamp Act was new to the colonies, but not to the British. In the eyes of the Crown and Parliament, it was the right of the sovereign to tax the subjects, both on the British isles and in the colonies. The implementation of the Stamp Act appeared to be uneventful. There were objections spreading about the colonies, but assemblies throughout the land seemed to accept this onerous tax.
It was May 20th, 1765. Two thirds of the members of the House of Burgesses in Virginia had returned to their plantations. It was, after all, growing season. For those that remained, it was with a wearied groan that they found the proceedings interrupted by a newcomer who sat in the back bench. The young man was only 29 years old. The audacity and naivete of the newcomer speaking in this manner ran contrary to the tradition of remaining silent for two sessions, as well as presenting an affront to the expected conclusion of the spring session.
He had the nerve of first confronting the speaker of the House, John Robinson, by boldly outlining the logic of their need to approve the Stamp Act. It was all about money. They needed money from London to clear the colony’s debts from the French and Indian War. Yet they added a provision that would allow the planters to borrow money from the colony’s treasury. This was necessary because money was scarce. But it was also quite apparent who would benefit from this arrangement.
Yet reading from notes he had written on a blank leaf of an old law book, he would propose the following resolutions:
- Virginia’s founders had brought with them English liberties in the seventeenth century
- Royal charters confirmed those rights
- Taxation by the consent of the elected representatives was central to the survival of those liberties
- That this right had ‘never been forfeited or yielded up, but had been constantly recognized by the Kings and People of Great Britain.’
Up to this point, most in the room were quite familiar with those sentiments. It was the fifth resolution that would forever mark Patrick Henry as anything but ordinary.
“Resolved Therefore that the General Assembly of this Colony have the only and sole exclusive Right and Power to lay Taxes and Impositions upon the Inhabitants of this Colony and that every Attempt to vest such Power in any Person or Persons whatsoever other than the General Assembly aforesaid has a manifest Tendency to destroy British as well as American Freedom.”
Unbelievably, all the resolutions passed albeit by a handful of votes, the final resolution by only one vote. The supporters of the Stamp Act in the room panicked. Alas, one man kept his head who happened to be highly experienced in parliamentary rules. He arranged to extend the session to May 31st. In the meantime, runners were sent to fetch some of the members who had previously left. Henry left Williamsburg on May 30th, the House of Burgesses met on May 31st and removed the final resolution.
Outside the chamber, listening in the hallway, was another young man, a student at the College of William and Mary. He would not recall all that Patrick Henry had stated, but he would remember the heated debate and the fury expressed by the House leadership. He saw it for what it was – moral theater. It wasn’t whether Henry won or lost – it was that his proposal was now public. He had planted a seed. Within the next few months, Henry’s resolutions spread through the colonies like a wildfire. It would be the catalyst of several months of protests, riots, intimidation and harassment of agents of the Stamp Tax, burning of properties, looting and a sudden calcification of resistance in the legislative assemblies. All of these disturbances caused by “the Sons of Liberty.”2
Lessons for Our Time
Once again, on the other side of the Atlantic, the words of Barre are echoed in Patrick Henry. The settlers of Virginia came to this continent with an understanding of certain English liberties, one of which was the approval of the people who are to be taxed. Secondly, politics was as complicated then as it is now. The approval of the Stamp Act in Virginia was a tangled web of necessity and corruption. Henry had really stirred up a hornets nest. It is no different today.
But a final lesson is how people behave. As we see our streets stirred by the marches of Black Lives Matter and the riots and violence that spun off of those protests, is it anything new? Mobs were a serious problem in 1765. Government officials had their houses burned. Government agents were beaten, threatened and harassed. You can say it was worse back then! And the term “mobs” was used by the British and the colonial leadership. Nobody wanted it then as much as we don’t want it now.
Yet we also see in Patrick Henry a template of what makes democracy work. It is not always about “winning.” Henry lost the vote, but he launched what was most likely the first spark of the resistance to British rule in the colonies. It was the power of an idea, an idea that the colonists had practiced since 1620 – self-governance. It was a subtle thing. To the British, the people were “subjects.” To the colonists, the people were “citizens.”
The British Response
The Stamp Act was not going to be implemented in the colonies – that much was clear. What the Parliament had deliberately ignored was that for 140 years the colonies had taxed themselves. It was now in their blood. It was not that the colonists necessarily opposed a tax. They simply expected to have the right to debate and approve the tax themselves. The Crown was startled by the resistance and the leadership in Parliament at least had the courage to reconsider. Grenville had been replaced by Rockingham and the new administration was struggling to get its feet on the ground. It would take a stirring speech by William Pitt to provide the catalyst for repealing the Stamp Act. In response to Grenville, Pitt stated,
“The gentleman tells us, America is obstinate; America is almost in open rebellion. 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 instrument to make slaves of the rest. ….
When two countries are connected together, like England and her colonies, without being incorporated, the one must necessarily govern; the greater must rule the less; but so rule it, as not to contradict the fundamental principles that are common to both. …
And the gentlemen asks, when were the colonies emancipated? But I desire to know when they were made slaves … “3
Lessons for Our Time
So now the subject of slavery comes up in the British Parliament as regards the American colonies. Except, ironically, it is not that the colonists sole purpose is to make slaves of others, but that they were concerned with being enslaved. William Pitt’s question regarding submission reverberates to our present time. The question is asked over and over again when we debate parking fees at the local assembly or paying Social Security taxes. Taxes take what is ours and places it in the hand of our governing authorities. Pitt asserted that we had the right to approve that process. If we did not debate the merits of taxes, we would just be lying down and letting whoever was in charge take our wealth from us at will. Pitt saw that as highly unrealistic. So it remains today.
We take it for granted today: self-governance. But in 1765, it was a sudden realization amongst the colonists that ordinary people could govern themselves. They did not require a king or a Parliament in Britain. As noted by Isaac Barre, the colonists in 1765 did not object to a king or to a role for Parliament in governance. But the revolution for Britain, if not the world, was that commoners could determine their fate.
Absent from this series of events is any reference to defending the institution of slavery. Once again the 1619 Project is challenged to deny the evidence. And for all us, it is a challenge to wrap our heads around what triggered such passionate resistance to a tax on legal documents! It makes for a grand discussion in our parlors today. People struggled to survive in those days. Taxes were not minor concerns. People in the colonies had grown accustomed to having a say over taxes. Then Parliament suddenly mandates a tax, a mandate which disrupted 140 years of self-governing tradition in the colonies. What is remarkable about the response to the Stamp Act was that it was almost universally opposed with 11 of the 13 colonies sending to the crown objections to the mandate.
We also need to remember that only 140 years separated the colonists of 1765 from their ancestors who fled England. When I consider the stories that survived my grandparents’ immigration from Germany 100 years ago, I can conjecture how similar memories abided in colonial families. While a few who settled America were land owners in Britain, most were commoners. Their memory of Britain was a land where they had no rights and few held title to land. Instead, they paid rent to a nobleman and their quality of life depended on their benevolence. Their memory of Britain was where every turn in the road was paid for by their sweat and blood. It was no surprise that both the colonists and many in Parliament understood that the colonists would jealously guard their liberties.
I would encourage you to check out Crucible of War. While the focus of the book is the Seven Years’ War (what we know as the French and Indian War), it contains a fascinating narrative about the years prior to the American Revolution. Mr. Anderson does a commendable job of bringing together numerous elements that add to the complexity of the challenges facing the colonists and their English brethren.
Source: Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766, Fred Anderson, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2000.
1Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766, Fred Anderson, Alfred A Knopf, New York, 2000, pp. 643,644.
2Ibid., pp. 660-663
3Ibid., pp. 700,701
Addendum in regards to the 1619 Project
In my pursuit of authenticating the claims of the 1619 Project I have encountered what is now the modern conundrum of Internet-based information. The controversial project was posted through the New York Times. I have included the link; but, alas, you must be a subscriber to read it. So it is a bit ironic that this controversial work is inaccessible to most Americans. About the best article I have read on the subject is in the Atlantic: “The Fight Over the 1619 Project Is Not About the Facts,” by Adam Serwer.
There is also an actual Project 1619 that commenced in 1994. It’s objective was to provide information on the early introduction of slavery in Virginia and you will find absent from the site any crazy theories regarding the founding of this nation.
© Copyright 2021 to Eric Niewoehner