This cartoon depicts the repeal of the Stamp Act as a funeral, with Grenville carrying a child’s coffin marked “born 1765, died 1766”. The caption reads, “The Repeal, or the Funeral Procession, of Miss America Stamp.” The coffin is carried by George Grenville, who is followed by Bute, the Duke of Bedford, Temple, Halifax, Sandwich, and two bishops. / Library of Congress, Public Domain
Introduction: The Albany Congress of 1754
Albany Congress of 1754, from the Architect of the Capitol / In 1754 the British government asked colonial representatives to meet in Albany, New York, to develop a treaty with Native Americans and plan the defense of the colonies against France. Exceeding these limited objectives, the assembly adopted a plan developed by Benjamin Franklin for government of the colonies by a central executive and a council of delegates. Although rejected by England and the colonies, the Albany Plan became a useful guide in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. The mural depicts some of the delegates (from left to right): William Franklin and his father, Benjamin (Pennsylvania); Governor Thomas Hutchinson (Massachusetts); Governor William Delancey (New York); Sir William Johnson (Massachusetts); Colonel Benjamin Tasker (Maryland).
On to the Albany Congress of 1754. Colonial unity was definitely not a foregone conclusion in this time period — and I mentioned a total of three attempts at colonial unity last week. One of them was the Dominion of New England, which was not prompted by actions that the colonists took, but the other two were prompted by the colonists and they were both prompted by fears and a sense of a need for self-defense. And the first that I mentioned was the United Colonies of New England, which first met in 1643 and was largely centered on fears of Dutch expansion and fears about hostile Native Americans, and then I ended by talking about the Albany Congress which met in 1754, also in part because of fears about Native Americans — again self-defense.
So let’s just look for a few minutes at what happened in that Albany Congress before we move on to the events that end up surrounding the Stamp Act. I think I mentioned at the very end of the lecture that nine colonies were invited to the Albany Congress: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. I’ll read that again for you guys: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. Colonies further to the south weren’t invited because they were viewed as being too far away from the probable cause of conflict to invite, and New Jersey and Virginia decided not to come because it seemed too expensive to send delegates, which again tells you how even at a time where people thought there was some kind of a crisis — even that in some cases didn’t inspire people to join in on this sort of joint colonial effort.
Now the different delegates to the Albany Congress had different instructions from their various colonies about what they were supposed to be doing, and this ends up being a really common problem with joint colonial meetings, this problem of having different colonies even agree fundamentally on what’s supposed to be happening at the congresses when they meet. And we’re for sure going to see this happen again at the Constitutional Convention — where, as we’ll see, you end up with a lot of different instructions about what’s supposed to be happening there, and people sort of have to figure out what direction to go based on interpreting each different set of instructions.
So of the colonies that were at the Albany Congress, only Massachusetts authorized its delegates to go beyond Indian affairs and intercolonial defense to at least discuss the possibility of entering into what they called “Articles of Union and Confederation” with the other colonies that were represented, for purposes, as they put it — this was in their instructions — “for the general defense of his Majesty’s subjects and interests in North America, as well in time of peace, as of war.” So Massachusetts is the only colony that includes that, but it’s not as though that ideas at least about the possibility of the union had never occurred to anybody before that poin,t and particularly among several people.
Statue of Benjamin Franklin by Hiram Powers / Wikimedia Commons
Benjamin Franklin — several years before actually, as early as 1751 — Franklin had been one of a number of people who had thought maybe it makes sense to at least think about some way of unifying the colonies, and he had come up with his own plan. He envisioned some kind of a governor-general that would sort of preside over this sort of layer of government that would exist over the colonies, and the governor-general he thought would be paid for by the crown, and then he also saw a kind of general council that would represent all the colonies and it would be — have delegates in it chosen by colonial assemblies. So Franklin invents this thing, 1751, that he’s — you could see he’s kind of trying to balance royal authority and colonial power. And that’s his idea.
So now a few years later, 1754, the Albany Congress at least investigates the idea of some kind of a union of colonies, and they actually appointed a committee to prepare basically a memorandum outlining what might be a proposed union. And the memorandum has a really eighteenth-century kind of title attached to it; the memorandum is titled Short Hints Towards a Scheme for a General Union of the British Colonies on the Continent – actually, that title is short compared with some eighteenth-century pamphlet titles that go on; when you’re making footnotes you have these titles that go on for five lines. But we’ll call it “Short Hints,” which will be much easier.
So “Short Hints” is this memorandum drawn up by this committee, and “Short Hints” starts out by setting forth the basic problem of thinking about what to do to even consider some kind of form of colonial union. What they say at the beginning of this document is, “In such a scheme (in a scheme of colonial union) the just prerogative of the Crown must be preserved or it will not be approved and confirmed in England, and the just liberties of the people must be secured or the several colonies will disapprove of it and oppose it.” Okay. It’s a pretty tricky balancing act that we’re talking about.
So to accomplish both of these things, “Short Hints” proposed preserving individual colonial charters and, sort of along the lines of what Franklin had envisioned, erecting a sort of new structure of government above the colonial charters. So it does propose a Grand Council which would have two members from each colony, and these members would be chosen by colonial assemblies — so they’re basing power in the colonies — and these members of the Grand Council would serve for three years. And, there would be a President General that would be appointed by the Crown, paid for by the British government, who could veto or approve acts of the Grand Council, and would have the duty to carry them out. And the authority and power of both the President and this Council would extend to Indian affairs, the purchase and settlement of lands that are outside the boundaries of an existing colony, and common defense. And each colony would contribute to financing this new level of government based on some kind of a quota that they would all agree on. So basically there — the “Short Hints” is suggesting something along the lines of what Franklin imagined. It’s balancing royal authority and the power of the colonial legislatures, trying to sort of pay homage to both, making a limited sphere in which this level of government can operate.
And Franklin, not surprisingly, ultimately was asked to finalize a plan of union based on what’s laid out in “Short Hints.” And the Albany Congress actually approved of this plan in July of 1754 and the Congress then sent a copy to the colonial assemblies for their consideration. So, they come up with a plan; they pass the plan; and they actually pass it along the colonies, which was a significant step. And this came to be known as the Albany Plan of Union, which makes sense — Albany Congress, Albany Plan of Union.
The Albany Plan of Union was the most detailed proposal to create a union among the American colonies ever attempted before the Revolution. However, the ending of this will not be surprising. Colonial legislatures were not too excited by this idea for two reasons. Some colonial legislators denounced it as an attack on the authority of the King. Others were afraid that it would undermine colonial charters, so although it tried to address both halves of this equation, people protested for both reasons. It’s going to undermine the Crown; it’s going to undermine the colonies, the colonial legislatures. So not surprisingly, it failed, and as Benjamin Franklin put it at the time — He was extremely frustrated. Right? He had the idea. He actually watched the Albany Congress kind of move in the direction, passes it, goes out to the colonies. Franklin’s probably thinking ‘oh, I had this idea. It seemed like a good idea. It might actually go into effect.’ No. So as he put it at the time, “Everyone cries a union is necessary but when they come to the manner and form of the union their weak noodles are perfectly distracted.” That’s a very Franklinesque kind of comment. “Weak noodles” is also not a phrase you see in that many sort of [laughs] documents from the time period. So Albany Plan of Union, for one reason or another, fails like other attempts at colonial unity that sort of faded away.
British Budget Post-French and Indian War, and the Sugar Act
Portrait of British Prime Minister George Grenville, by William Hoare, oil on canvas / Christ Church, University of Oxford
As we’re going to see in lectures coming up and even partly in today’s lecture, it would end up taking a crisis that threatened not just colonial well-being, but also what colonists perceived to be their rights, to inspire the colonists to really band together in shared purpose as British-American colonists. And that brings us to the real topic of today’s lecture, which is the Stamp Act crisis.
Now as I mentioned before — I think it’s one or two lectures ago — before this crisis, with the close of the French and Indian War, colonial love and respect for things English was at a real high because during that war the colonists had fought alongside English soldiers against England’s long-time enemy, the French, and had won. So the colonists after the French and Indian War are at a moment of high patriotism, but of course what they couldn’t foresee was the chain of events that were going to be set off by the French and Indian War. The Crown had spent vast amounts of money on the war — money that somehow was going to have to be regained — and this sort of basic economic reality was going to end up launching a debate about colonial rights and privileges that obviously down the road is going to have some pretty big consequences.
And now we’re going to basically look at what happens in response to this budgetary crisis about all the money spent in fighting the French and Indian War, and it begins with the opening of the 1764 budget debate in the House of Commons and so — It always begins — It begins with a budget. It begins with a budget problem, and George Grenville, who is the King’s Prime Minister, is the cause. And Grenville is given the task of figuring out how to fund this enormous war debt.
So first, before 1764, before the moment we’re talking about here, Grenville actually had taxed people in England to help pay for this enormous debt. So he established new taxes on stamps; he taxed windows — and actually those of you who have been to England and you’ve probably seen some buildings where the windows were bricked in; that was to avoid the window tax. Right? [laughs] ‘I don’t want to pay a tax on my window, so I will eliminate my window by covering it over.’ So Grenville established a number of taxes in England. He established some duties on domestic goods. And even the King reduced his household expenses. Right? Oh, [laughs] even the King decided not to buy the really expensive kind of whatever it is he was buying. ‘I’ll go down one grade.’ I don’t know how much he reduced his expenses but he tried, so the moral of this is — England is taxed first.
But next, logically enough, Grenville turned to the colonies. Now he didn’t think and he didn’t argue that the colonies should be paying for, generally speaking, the English national debt. However, there was a standing army of ten thousand men that had been left behind in the colonies after the war to protect the colonies from the French that were still there, to protect them from Native Americans, maybe to protect them from the Spanish that were also somewhere there on the continent. And Grenville did feel that the colonies should help pay for that — for that army left behind. He also thought that colonial taxes were relatively low, and he knew that smuggling with the French during the war with the French had been a little bit rampant in the colonies during the French and Indian War. It’s not a good thing.
So basically he put all of that together and he decided it would be both fair and necessary to clamp down on colonial trade. So Grenville decided — and you could see the logic behind what he’s doing here — that he would try to get some revenue from the colonies to support the standing army that’s in the colonies. And the first thing that he did, a sort of a logical thing to do based on what I just told you, he decided he was going to try to stamp out smuggling. He was going to try and at least stop something that shouldn’t be happening — and money was leaking out through smuggling. But once he began to focus on this problem, it became easy to see why smuggling was so widespread.
Colonial customs collectors, who were supposed to be in the colonies attending to their duties, collecting customs, often left the colonies and went back to England and left their deputies in charge back in the colonies. I mentioned before that not everybody was really excited to be based in the colonies, and so here there were some people at least who went back to England and sort of left things in their deputies’ control. So not surprisingly, what this meant in part was, some of the people left in charge were probably less than focused on their duties. There were some of these deputies who actually collected bribes. There were some of them that just allowed the smuggling to happen, rather than collecting customs fees. So you have a leaky system.
So Grenville — looking at what’s going on here, discovers the source of the smuggling problem — orders the collectors to get back to the colonies. ‘Please. This is your job. You must go back to the colonies. I’m really sorry but you must go back and do your job.’ And he told colonial governors to watch over what’s happening and to report to him any smuggling that they might see. Now clearly, to the colonists, the British now seemed to be paying attention to colonial affairs a little bit more than they were used to, and taking action in ways that perhaps they had not taken action before.
Now these are pretty mild steps. Right? ‘Smuggling isn’t supposed to be happening so I am going to act against smuggling.’ It’s not an enormous strike by Grenville, but still, it certainly would have indicated to the colonists that this period of salutary neglect of colonial trade might be shifting into something else. Customs collectors had to do their job; smuggling needed to be suppressed; and people who were caught violating trade laws had to travel for their trial to a Vice-Admiralty court in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Okay. That was highly unpopular, not that Nova Scotia is — anything wrong with Nova Scotia. However, if you are a person who is now being caught for doing something you’ve always been doing, smuggling, and some official decides he’s going to sort of come after you and make you pay for that, you needed to have a trial in Nova Scotia. You needed to post bond yourself for the cost of the trial, and at these trials, a Vice-Admiralty court does not have a jury. We’re going to come back to that, but obviously for all of these reasons this would not be a popular thing. Clearly, Grenville was serious about clamping down on smuggling.
Now, Grenville also established some duties on foreign goods shipped in to the colonies, like sugar. Foreign rum, French wine: both were prohibited from import in to the colonies. Items like iron and animal hides were added to the general list of goods that had a duty attached to them. There were new higher duties placed on coffee, on indigo, on certain kinds of wine — all of these things largely non-British goods. And goods that had to pass through England on their way to the colonies had their duty doubled.
The one little ray of sunshine here amidst all of these duties is that the duty on foreign molasses was reduced by half — and molasses was really central to New England distilleries producing rum, so I think Grenville probably thought well, that might be a good thing. Right? Yeah. ‘There’s a lot of duties on foreign imports but I’m reducing the duty on foreign molasses, so those New Englanders at least should be pleased. It’ll be a little cheaper for them to produce rum.’
So lump together all of those things: all of those duties, all of the new duties, the changes in the cost of imported goods and the things that no longer were going to be allowed to be imported in to the colonies. That all gets known under the sort of big name, the Sugar Act of 1764. The Sugar Act of 1764. In England it was also known logically enough as the American Revenue Act. [laughs] It’s a good way to remember exactly what it was supposed to be doing. And, as I said, Grenville thought ‘well, that whole molasses thing means it’s not going to be that objectionable to the colonists because I’m actually offering them something as I’m charging them more on some other things.’
Now a side note here. We’re going to see more of this later, but I’m going to mention it here. What we’re seeing here is a hint of a pattern that’s going to reveal itself, that clearly the British and in this case Grenville is trying to anticipate the colonial reaction to his actions, to what he’s doing to British policy. But here, as we’ll see — there are later examples as well — he’s wrong about the colonial understanding of the British imperial system, and of the colonists’ understanding of their place in it. So what we’re going to see again and again and again in one way or another is: the British assume that the colonists are going to do one particular thing or that they’re going to think in a particular way, and the colonists end up doing or thinking something different. Which in a sense makes sense because you have royal officials in England; they’re an ocean away. They don’t necessarily understand the evolving colonial mindset. It’s not like the colonists themselves have been standing back and saying, ‘We are evolving a different mindset.’ Right? Things are sort of percolating along and now, the events that we’re beginning to talk about today are going to begin to reveal differences in opinions and ideas. So, an ocean away they’re assuming that the colonists are going to act in a certain way, the colonists don’t necessarily, and it’s part of the point — part of the problem to the colonists. These people are an ocean away, and as we’ll see, don’t necessarily understand what’s going on in the colonies — or certainly, what the colonists are thinking about what’s going on. I’m going to come back to that again in today’s lecture.
So Grenville thinks ‘oh, okay, probably this act all in all might balance itself out; it won’t be so bad.’ But the colonists only saw that the English suddenly seemed to be putting teeth into the imperial system to really enforce rules and regulations. And in enforcing these rules and regulations, they were demanding that violators travel to Nova Scotia at their own cost, posting bond for their own trials even if they were innocent, and as I mentioned before this Vice-Admiralty court in Nova Scotia, which basically is a court for crimes at sea, did not have a jury.
At about the same time in 1764, Grenville also decided he’s going to clamp down on colonial currency, because during the war several colonies and especially Virginia had issued vast amounts of paper money. And Grenville basically — He’s trying to assert control over the monetary system too. So in 1764, he passes the Currency Act, and the Currency Act says the colonies can’t issue money; that any act passed by a colonial legislature that violates this act is null and void; and that any colonial governor who consented to such an act on the part of the colonies — any colonial governor that allows his colony to produce currency — would be fined a thousand pounds, which is a huge amount of money at that point, would be dismissed from office, and would be ineligible from any public office in future. Okay. That’s obviously a serious — ‘We really, really, really mean this about the whole currency issue. We’re putting some serious punishments on the line here.’
Colonial Responses to the Early Acts, and the Stamp Act
1765 Newspaper posting of the Stamp Act from the British Parliament and King George III / Library of Congress
So taken altogether, Americans — colonists — drew several not-so-happy conclusions from all of these actions. So first, obviously they’re alarmed at the sudden clamping down on what in their eyes at least had been a working system. Right? ‘Everything has been okay. The system’s working. We’re profiting from what we’re doing. The Crown, the empire, is profiting too. It’s working perfectly well.’ Now all of a sudden things are being changed and teeth are being put in where there weren’t teeth before. Second, informed that they had to go to Nova Scotia if they smuggled and that there’d be no jury during their trial, they began to feel like second-class citizens being denied a basic fundamental British right of a trial by jury. Third, they were alarmed at the implications of the Currency Act because the implications are, if you think about it, Grenville basically saying he can nullify an act passed by a colonial assembly. That’s — in the minds of the colonists — a pretty alarming precedent. And then finally, fourth, colonists were also alarmed that these new duties and these new acts that are being enforced were largely intended to fund a standing army in the colonies, a standing army that Parliament saw as being protective, but you can also see how the colonists might have seen this as a threat. Right? ‘Well, if we don’t listen to all of this stuff, there is a standing army here that we’re actually funding.’ So the colonists could have seen that armed force as a sign of tyranny, as a threat to enforce colonial cooperation.
So for all of these reasons, these acts are problematic, threatening, frightening and get people thinking. As Massachusetts radical James Otis said, “The passage of the Sugar Act set people a thinking, in six months, more than they had done in their whole lives before.” Right? It’s like, ‘wow, that was a lot, and suddenly we really are evaluating how things are working here.’ And obviously what people are thinking about is their basic rights as English subjects.
Now logically enough, there was a colonial response to Grenville’s actions and — as we’ll see, and also a pattern — Massachusetts led the way. So one example: There was a Boston town meeting that met and decided to inform the Massachusetts Colonial Assembly that they objected to Grenville’s actions and that they proposed united action in the colonies to protest. Now this is just a town meeting saying, ‘well, we the town of Whatever don’t like what’s going on and we think the colonies should unite and protest.’ So it’s not necessarily a proposition that’s going to get acted on. Nothing really happens to this, but it does represent a pretty radical suggestion and, as I’ve already discussed, it’s a radical suggestion that is being launched for what feels like reasons of self-defense.
So — but even though this doesn’t get passed, the language of this petition that comes from this town meeting really reveals a lot about some of the fundamental fears of the colonists, and I’m going to just quote a sentence or two from it. “But what still heightens our apprehensions is that those unexpected proceedings may be preparatory to new taxations upon us. This we apprehend annihilates our charter right to govern and tax ourselves. It strikes at our British privileges which as we have never forfeited them we hold in common with our fellow subjects who are natives of Britain.” That’s a pretty strong statement.
Clearly, the main problem here isn’t just financial. We don’t have a lot of people who are just irked that they have to pay more money. More important, it’s the meaning of what’s going on that’s upsetting the colonists. It’s the ways in which their rights, as that petition put it, as natives of Britain, seemingly are being violated as well as the sense on the part of these colonists that they can’t figure out yet quite how to voice their grievances. They don’t have a direct representative in Parliament, they’re upset, they’re trying to figure out what to do about it — but I think that little hole in the system was also revealing itself at this point.
Now the British government didn’t really listen to colonial protest as it was, they didn’t really sort of pick up on the tone of things going on in the colonies. And in fact Grenville continued along with his revenue plan, and in March of 1765 he proposed and Parliament passed the Stamp Act. The Stamp Act said that stamped paper had to be used for all kinds of documents, for legal documents, for college diplomas, for land deeds, for contracts, for bills of sale, for liquor licenses, for playing cards, pamphlets, newspapers, almanacs, broadsides. All kinds of paper products now needed to be using this special stamped paper — and this special stamped paper cost more. So basically, the Stamp Act is placing a tax on all of these items by making people buy stamped paper for them, and stamped paper is more expensive.
So what’s significant about the Stamp Act: It’s the first direct tax levied by Parliament directly upon the colonists. It’s not a duty on shipping. It’s a tax levied by Parliament directly upon the colonists and what they’re purchasing in the colonies. So basically, if you needed a legal document, if you were printing newspapers, you had to buy stamped paper from special stamp agents who were appointed by the Crown.
Now I can’t resist adding here only because — I probably mentioned something like this before. As an early American historian, you don’t get to sort of live your history that often. Right? It’s pretty far away. I look for opportunities to live my history but it doesn’t happen that often. I’ve actually shot off a dueling pistol. I tried to learn to ride. I tried basically to be an eighteenth-century gentleman. Right? I took fencing lessons — I took riding lessons — I shot off dueling pistols — and I determined that I would have died a thousand times in the eighteenth century. [laughter] I was just bad on all counts.
But in this case I wasn’t trying to be an eighteenth-century gentleman. I actually was doing research and I went down to the island of Nevis in the Caribbean, which is where Alexander Hamilton is from. I was doing research on Hamilton and I wanted to get in to this courthouse on the island which is where they had the papers that related to the history of the island. And I was told when I went to do this — I showed up at the courthouse and they said, ‘Well, you need to go see the stamp man before you can come here because you need to buy a stamp and then you need to put it in a book and you need to swear an oath,’ and there was a whole bunch of stuff I needed to do. Nevis used to be a British island, so I needed to find the stamp man. Okay, but — And oddly enough, I didn’t yet connect with what I was going to be experiencing yet. I’m just like: must find stamp man. [laughter]
So the stamp man I was told, I think, was in the — logically enough in the post office. However, the stamp man’s hours were unclear to me. I couldn’t figure out when he was there. It took me a long time to find the stamp man and to buy the stamp, and then I had to go back to the courthouse and I did. I had to paste it in a book and I had to swear an oath of some kind. And there was this whole sort of colonial experience I was having. But in the middle of this, when I couldn’t find the stamp man — and I was dying to do this research — it was not until I actually said out loud, “Curse that stamp man” that it was like: okay, I’m living the Revolution. [laughter] Hate that stamp tax. It took me a long time to realize I was having my own little personal revolutionary moment. And I should say that I don’t want Nevis to look bad. Actually, it was a wonderful place to visit and the people were wonderful on that island to me. It was just — I couldn’t find the stamp man and it — I just had a Revolution flashback. And I ultimately did the whole ritual and got to use the records and they were great, but I had my own little personal stamp tax moment which kind of blew my mind at the time, not — it would not be the first thing I think I would get to experience here in — I guess at the time — in the twentieth century. Okay. So Stamp Act — I understood the rage of the Stamp Act.
Limited Liberties in Virtual Representation and the Stamp Act
Prime Minister John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, in cartoon, aims a blunderbuss at an American gentleman with a club while Britannia falls into “the Pit Prepared for Others.” In the background, Roman Catholic Quebec sits serenely on the hill while “the English Protestant Town of Boston” is in flames. 1775 / American Collection, Boston Public Library
Now back to Grenville, Mr. Stamp Act. Clearly, all these things I’m talking to you about — He’s passing multiple acts trying to get some control over colonial finance. And from his point of view, he’s doing this to pay for the protection of the colonies themselves. So the money being raised from all of these things actually would have gone into a fund for defense of the colonies — and even when you take all of these fundraising activities together, all of the money from all of these duties and taxes added up to only about a third of the cost of maintaining that colonial military establishment. But to the colonists, they were being taxed without their consent, and their rights to some basic fundamental British rights were being abridged; their basic rights as English subjects were being attacked.
And this is important to note because I think we all have ‘no taxation without representation’ sort of running through our head. Right? That’s what the Revolution is about — as though the Revolution is all about people who are angry about paying taxes. But obviously it’s about much more than that. We’re talking about fundamental rights being violated, people feeling that there’s something more than just, ‘I don’t like paying taxes’ — but it’s what that means, what this whole way of operating suggests and implies about fundamental rights about the position of the colonists within the empire.
Now, the British response to colonial grumbling about these measures was to argue that colonists were virtually represented in Parliament — virtual representation — that in Parliament there were members who represented the entire British realm, and so the colonists were virtually represented. And the argument would have been: there were also people in England proper who did not get to directly vote for their own representatives in Parliament, so colonial rights of representation aren’t under attack. What’s happening in the colonies isn’t that different from what happened to some people who would have been in England proper.
But in the colonies, where colonial representatives often got direct instructions from town meetings — where you’re really seeing some really direct representation — virtual representation was not always a convincing argument. And actually, as one Maryland petition at the time put it, virtual representation is, quote, “fantastical and frivolous.” Right? I love the alliteration there, fantastical and frivolous. This whole virtual representation thing, they weren’t necessarily buying.
As someone argued at the time, in England such an assertion about virtual representation might be true because a member of Parliament probably had similar interests to other inhabitants of England, but what would a member of Parliament know of colonial interests? And even worse, as some colonists reasoned, maybe members of Parliament might actually have interests that were opposed to the colonists’. Maybe they’d actually want to tax the colonies more, so that they themselves would have to pay less.
So basically at the heart of these colonial grievances were assumptions about British rights and British liberties. Liberties were rooted in property. At the time, a slave would have been defined as someone who depended entirely on the will of others, so to be free and to be independent you needed to be in control of your own property. Directly taxing without consent seemed to threaten colonial property rights and — again — to fundamentally attack basic English liberties.
Okay. So now we have a whole list of grievances here bundled up under the idea of threatened liberties and rights. Right? We have the first direct tax from parliament on colonists, and it might be the precedent for more such things. We have violation of colonial rights to a trial by jury. We have a seeming attack on the colonial economy, where things are suddenly being regulated in some way that they haven’t seemed to be before. We have the threat of directly overriding colonial legislation and legislatures.
So you can see why all of these things would have been pretty alarming, but there were also two important unintended outcomes of the Stamp Act, in addition to all of those raised fears. Unintended outcome number one: Because the Stamp Act attacked all of the colonies equally, it actually helped to join them together in shared cause. And second, unintended outcome number two: by attacking people who used paper particularly — right? — lawyers using legal documents, newspaper writers and printers, merchants, ship owners — the act also attacked, specifically, the most vocal and prestigious colonists, in addition to everybody else. So it was attacking people who had the means to protest, to say what they were upset about legally — in writing — so it was easy for people — they were logically the people who would make the loudest protest.
Patrick Henry on the Stamp Act and Conclusion
Portrait of Patrick Henry, by Georgy Bagby Matthew, c.1891, oil on canvas / Wikimedia Commons
So now in this climate of increasing anxiety on the part of the colonists, we arrive at a Revolutionary War moment that most Americans know: Patrick Henry. Patrick Henry’s dramatic declarations in the Virginia House of Burgesses on May 30th and 31st of 1765. And what he’s doing at the time — We all know “Give me liberty or give me death,” but we don’t really focus on why he says that. He actually was protesting against the implications of the Stamp Act.
Now, I’m sure we all have pictures in our head, images in our head. There are a lot of bad Revolutionary War movies but probably even some of the bad Revolutionary War movies have scenes of Patrick Henry. Well, it’s another one of the founders doing this. [poses] Patrick Henry; that’s what he does. ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’ So we have a lot of images in our head about what happened there — and then of course we have people crying “Treason, treason,” and Henry doing a variety of brave things and saying a variety of brave things as he makes his bold statement.
Now it’s true that actually Henry was a dramatic speaker. He actually was. Even Thomas Jefferson thought so, and Thomas Jefferson did not like Patrick Henry. He thought Henry was lazy. He didn’t think Henry was interested in reading books, which to Jefferson would be a very bad sin. He thought Henry was a little reckless — and Henry was a little bit of a sort of rough and ready character — but even Jefferson had to admit that Henry had a huge impact on his audience, that he really — when he spoke, he swayed people’s emotions. And Jefferson also, it must be said, was a notoriously bad public speaker. Right? He had this quiet voice, he mumbled, he was nervous, he hated speaking in front of groups, so probably he was also a little bit jealous of Henry. That didn’t help him in his attitude towards Patrick Henry.
So Henry was actually a great speaker, but rather than stick with legend and the great orator with the finger in the air, I’m going to offer you here an eyewitness account of Henry’s speech from an unnamed French traveler who actually was standing in the lobby of the Virginia House of Burgesses — and Jefferson was there too — watching the proceeding. So this is how this French traveler describes what he saw. “Arrived at Williamsburg at 12 where I saw three Negroes hanging at the gallows for having robbed Mr. Waltho of 300 pounds’ sterling.” So that’s the first sight that greets him.
“I went immediately to the Assembly which was seating, where I was entertained with very strong debates concerning duties that the Parliament wants to lay on the American colonies, which they call of style stamp duties. Shortly after I came in, one of the members stood up and said he had read that in former times Tarquin and Julius had their Brutus, Charles had his Cromwell, and he did not doubt that some good American would stand up in favor of his country; but says he in a more moderate manner, and was going to continue, when the Speaker of the House rose, and said, ‘The last that stood up had spoke treason’ and he was sorry to see that not one of the members of the House was loyal enough to stop him before he had gone so far. Upon which the same member stood up again” and it says in parenthesis “(I think his name is Henry) and said that if he had affronted the Speaker of the House he was ready to ask pardon and he would show his loyalty to His Majesty King George the Third at the expense of the last drop of his blood, but what he had said must be attributed to the interest of his country’s dying liberty which he had at heart. And the heat of passion might have led him to say something more that he intended; but, again, if he said anything wrong he begged the speaker and the House’s pardon. And some other members stood up and backed him on which the affair was dropped.”
Okay. So that’s the eyewitness account, which is not quite like the legend, but the fact is actually Henry did speak pretty boldly and he did talk about his country’s dying liberty, which says a lot about what we’re talking about right now, that — the colonial perception of lost English liberties. And ultimately in May of 1765, the Virginia House of Burgesses did end up passing some resolutions that are ultimately known as the Virginia Resolutions.
And the Virginia Resolutions said that the colonists had come to Virginia with equal rights to all British subjects and that they still retained them; that Virginians alone had the right to directly tax Virginians; and that only those who would be affected by taxes had the right to pass them. I’ll repeat that one more time. Virginia Resolutions, May 1765 — the colonists had come to Virginia with equal rights to all British subjects; they still retained them; Virginians alone had the right to directly tax Virginians; and only those who would be affected by taxes had the right to pass them.