The Stamp Act and the Creation of Order in the American Colonies

Was the Stamp Act rebellion a defiance of a once orderly society, as the British claimed? Or did it constitute a creation of order within the American colonies at a time when regulation strained them? This paper will address these questions in the following pages. I believe that despite the turbulent events that took place in the American colonies during the years of the Stamp Act crisis, they helped to impose autonomous order in America. In the years prior to the passage of the Stamp Act, the English government had increased restrictions and progressively imposed new taxes on the colonies. The actions of the American colonists helped reassert control over their lives and proclaim their ability to govern themselves.

Origins

If the American Revolution were compared to a raging fire in the colonies, then the Stamp Act would be the lighter fluid that ignited it. Beneath the riots and the mayhem that ensued over the Stamp Act was a yearning for equality, liberty and freedom. Many Americans ultimately wanted was for their voices to be heard and treated fairly by Parliament. When Parliament passed the Stamp Act, it proved to be the beginning of the end of English rule over the American colonies.

When England first established the colonies in America, it had little reason to fear that its authority over this new territory would be challenged. But just as children eventually grow from adolescence to adulthood and rely less on their parents, the American colonies grew more self-sufficient and began questioning the acts and intentions of its motherland. By the 1760s, the political infrastructure among the colonies had stabilized. The management of the individual colonies had become strong and the economy was progressing. In contrast, financial problems existed in some colonies following the French and Indian war, which the appointment of George Grenville as Prime Minister would exacerbate.

England incurred a large debt following the French and Indian war. As a former Lord of the Treasury, Grenville was very knowledgeable about finance. He examined England’s financial situation and discovered the colonies were not as profitable to England as he thought they should be. He also noticed that some colonies illegally traded with England’s rivals and had “doubts about colonial commitment to British trade interests.”[1] He imposed legislation, including the Currency Act and the Sugar Act, which taxed the colonies for the purposes of reducing England’s war debt.

These actions were not well received in the colonies. The sentiment in Connecticut was that t Parliament was pressuring the colonists, almost as if to punish them for their trade with French and Spanish islands. The agricultural market in Connecticut also suffered due to the depression following the French and Indian war. Colonists were also losing their land as a result of their debt. Newspaper accounts from the Connecticut Courant documented complaints from the colonists that too much of their money was being used to pay England’s war debts. Overall, colonist’s were “pessimistic and bitter”[2] about their predicament, but it would get even worse.

Taxation

By 1764, many colonists believed that England was exploiting their economic hardships to its benefit. But despite the increased tension that the colonists felt, they endured these new taxes. Although it was not then widely known in the colonies, Grenville “indicated his intention to impose a stamp tax upon the colonies, but he deferred his action for a year.”[3] Although Parliament passed the Stamp Act in March 1765, it did not go into effect until the following November. The Stamp Act would have a tremendous impact on economic and political status in the colonies. It would impose a small tax on virtually all printed-paper in America including permits, business contracts, newspapers, and pamphlets. In a letter to Boston merchants, John Huske claimed that Grenville’s decision to impose the Stamp Act stemmed from “indiscreet conversation, of some Americans, who deny the right of Kings, Lords, and Commons to impose such a tax on America.”[4] Upon hearing the news of the forthcoming tax, colonial governors predicted, “parliamentary taxation would cause a great alarm and meet with much opposition in most parts of America.”[5]

Taxation soon became a major problem for the colonists. While many Americans tolerated Parliament’s taxation though the passage of the Currency and Sugar Acts, they felt that England crossed the line with the passage of the Stamp Act. Previous taxes served other purposes such as supporting trade with other nations, but the Stamp Act constituted the first direct tax of the American colonies. Colonial opposition to a direct tax was almost universal. Richard Jackson of Pennsylvania told Benjamin Franklin that he opposed the “direct tax becauseâÂ?¦it would cause a bad precedent.”[6] John Dickinson, a strong opponent of the Stamp Act, echoed Jackson’s concerns. He claimed that because the actual amount of the tax was quite small, then it could “easily be found acceptable by the incautious, with the result that a precedent would be established.”[7]

It could be argued that due to the increase in colonial pamphlets opposing the Stamp Act, it was an early indication of the American nationalism that would intensify in the coming decade as the colonies declared their formal independence from England. As David Fischer contends, the concept of order in New England stresses the “importance of unity”[8] and constitutes an enforcement of the social order of American society during the revolutionary era.

Representation

In addition to the financial impact that the Stamp Act would have on America, colonists felt that it threatened their freedom because they were “not represented in Parliament and therefore [should] not be taxed by it.”[9] The issue of representation became another problem that colonists addressed during the Stamp Act crisis. This problem more than any other fueled the colonist’s anger towards England and united them.

There was widespread opposition to the Stamp Act, but the northern colonies, and New England in particular, were home to some of the Stamp Act’s most outspoken critics. The Massachusetts House of Representatives Committee wrote that the Stamp Act would “deprive the colonists of some of their most essential rights as British subjects, and as man.”[10] The Pennsylvania General Assembly made a similar argument in September 1765 contending that “the inhabitants of this province are entitled to all the rights and privileges of his majesty’s subjects in Great Britain.”[11]

In Connecticut, the General Assembly published a petition opposing the Stamp Act given that they were not represented in Parliament and it “violated rights granted to Connecticut by the charter.”[12] The House of Commons disregarded the petition because their rules dictated that arguments “against money bills were inadmissible.”[13]

In a popular pamphlet, Stephen Hopkins of Connecticut compared the taxation of colonists to slavery. “Those who are governed at the will of anotherâÂ?¦and whose property may be taken from them by taxes, or otherwise, without their consent, and against their will, are in the miserable conditions of slaves.”[14] Hopkins contrasted the rights of those in England and to those of the colonists and says that they do not have the same liberties “but possess them as an inherent defeatable right, as they and their ancestorsâÂ?¦justly and naturally instituted to all the rights and advantages of the British constitution.”[15]

George Grenville knew that the Stamp Act would be unpopular, but he did not anticipate the level of resistance that it elicited. By the beginning of 1765, revolution and independence from England were not on the agenda for the political elite in the colonies because colonist’s rights were ambiguous, but the Stamp Act caused loud alarm bells to sound throughout America. The Stamp Act was “universally rejected by reason [colonists] call into question the right of Parliament.”[16]

Thomas Whately, a British Treasury official, argued that the colonists were ‘virtually represented’ in Parliament.[17] The argument for virtual representation dictated that because the subjects in England did not directly elect members to the House of Commons, then neither did the British subjects in America. The power behind England’s ‘virtual representation’ argument “was the assumption that that the English peopleâÂ?¦were essentially a unitary homogenous order with a fundamental common interest.”[18] Americans did not agree with this proclamation.

Americans felt that England did not embody the will of the colonists. Daniel Dulaney, of Maryland, wrote one of the most influential pamphlets during the Stamp Act crisis. He opposed direct taxation and made one of the strongest cases against England’s argument that colonists were virtually represented in Parliament. In his pamphlet entitled Considerations on the Propriety of Imposing Taxes, Dulaney acknowledge Parliament’s authority but argues in opposition to England’s boundaries for Parliamentary taxation.[19] He claims that unlike the Americans, the “merchants of London, the proprietors of public fundsâÂ?¦[did not] choose their representatives, and yet are they all represented in Parliament.”[20]

England adamantly supported the Stamp Act and assumed that as the ‘mother country’, Parliament had the right to impose a direct tax on the colonies. George Grenville was appalled at the inconsiderate actions of the American colonies. He claimed that England’s sovereignty over the colonies “cannot be denied” and that America must obey. He claimed that England has “run itself into immense debtâÂ?¦and now when they are called upon to contribute a small sum toward the public expenseâÂ?¦they renounce [Parliament’s] authority, insult [British] officers and break out, I might almost say, into open rebellion.”[21]

Opposition and Loyalists

Despite the near universal opposition to the Stamp Act, Parliament did have some supporters in America – scholars have estimated that approximately fifteen to twenty percent of adult males in the colonies were Loyalists. Martin Howard, of Rhode Island, wrote a pamphlet responding to Hopkins’ Rights of Colonists Examined and opposed the claim that “the colonists have rights, independent of, and not controllable by, the authority of Parliament”[22] Howard claims that “every connection in life has its reciprocal duties.”[23] He highlights the parent/child and master/servant relationship but claims that there is no evidence between the “natural relationship between a master state and its colonies, and therefore cannot reason with so much certainty upon the power of one, or the duty of another.”[24]

Howard’s inference that England and the colonies have ‘reciprocal duties’ is closely aligned with Grenville’s argument that the colonists are unwilling to contribute to a tax that would benefit them as subjects of England. British subjects clearly saw the master state/colony relationship as an abstract concept, one that did not have clear boundaries other than a natural expectation that the subjects maintain their loyalty to the “master state”. The Americans felt that their argument against the concept of virtual representation repudiated England’s claim of superiority and thus validated their opposition to Parliament’s actions. The second paragraph of the Stamp Act claims that its purpose is to generate income to “protect and secure the British colonies and plantation in America,”[25] but the colonists did not believe that the tax directly benefited them. Thus, an argument could be made that Americans believed Parliament would be “a unified body for some affairs but not for others.”[26]

Parliamentary taxation of the Americans invoked doubts about their freedom. In a letter to Francis Dandridge, George Washington called the law “a direful attack upon their liberties.”[27] Others questioned Parliament’s right to tax the Americans. In Virginia, the Justices of Culpepper County wrote to Lt. Gov. Fauquier and described the Stamp Act as “unconstitutional and a high infringement of our most valuable privileges as British subjects who we humbly apprehend cannot Constitutionally be taxed” and “if carried into executionâÂ?¦we shall no longer be free but merely the property of those whom we formerly looked upon only as our fellow subjects.”[28]

As the opposition intensified in the colonies, some governors hesitated to oppose the crown. Most were royal governors with strong loyalties to England while others believed that the opposition would eventually lose its steam. In Massachusetts, Gov. Bernard had some ambivalence about the Stamp Act. He expressed his reservations about the Stamp Act to Lord Barrington in England. Bernard wanted to place the responsibility of protecting the stamps on England because “then the province becomes formally answerable for them, and if the people should destroy them, they must pay for them.”[29] Bernard also appealed to Lord Barrington by expressing the colonists concerns, although not clearly stating any opposition to the Stamp Act. He claimed that the colonists of Virginia disputed the timing of the tax and suggested that they may have accepted it if it were introduced at another time. Despite Bernard’s subtle implications that the Stamp Act would not be well received in his colony, he ultimately attempted to enforce the law.

Other colonies, especially in New England, the opposition to the Stamp Act was so intense that it unified the colonists as never before. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania realized the significance of the Stamp Act; he predicted that the colonists’ action during this period “decides the future fortunes of yourselves, and of your property.”[30] Eventually groups formed to oppose this legislation and advocate freedom, most prominently – the Sons of Liberty. The Sons of Liberty organized in every colony and, because they opposed any moderate politician who tolerated the Stamp Act, were considered a radical organization. By the middle of 1765, they posed a very real threat to “the political career of any colonial official who supported the tax.”[31] The Sons of Liberty won the support among a large portion of the populace looking for leadership in the organized rebellion.

Revolt

By the summer of 1765, the hostility became violent. Mob violence and aggressive tactics were undertaken to force the resignation of the Stamp Distributors throughout the colonies. In Boston, Gov. Bernard documented how mobs of people destroyed the homes of government officials. Houses were raided and furniture burned. Initially, he hesitated but asked General Thomas Gage for assistance in putting down the violence because he did not know when the hostility would end.

In Virginia, a highly documented account of the mob violence involved the resignation of George Mercer. Mercer was a Lieutenant in the Virginia militia in 1753. General Washington thought very highly of the young man and facilitated his rise through the ranks. He became Lt. Colonel of the Virginia Regiment by 1757 and was appointed Stamp Master of Virginia in 1763.

Mercer was not familiar with the level of opposition to the Stamp Act. He was confronted by a mob of protesters when he arrived in Williamsburg a few days before the Stamp Act was to go into affect. In an intimidating manner, they asked about his intentions. Not used to enduring such threatening circumstances, he said that he wanted to consult the governor before making his decision. As the growls of angry colonists demanded his resignation, he proceeded to speak with Governor Fauquier and other officials before he addressed the crowd of protestors and ostensibly resigned his post when he told the crowd that “I will notâÂ?¦proceed in the execution of the [Stamp] Act until I receive further orders from England, and not then without the assent of the General Assembly of this colony.”[32]

By October 1765, the colonists had organized a meeting known as the Stamp Act Congress, where nine of the thirteen colonies were represented where they outlined their grievances to England in a fourteen-point declaration. Despite the absence of representatives from four colonies – New Hampshire, North Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia – all colonies supported the Stamp Act Congress. The establishment of the Stamp Act Congress symbolized the high level of self-sufficiency that the colonists possessed and led them to question England’s sovereignty over the American colonies. They claimed that the lack of colonial representation in Parliament made the tax unfair.

These changes represent early support for popular sovereignty. Under this concept, “they set outâÂ?¦to locate pragmatically, a line of separation between the powers of Parliament that were valid when exercised in America and those that were not.”[33] From riots and rebellion to order and organization, within these tumultuous times organized efforts such as the Sons of Liberty and the Stamp Act Congress emerged to oppose England’s insidious law.

Repeal

By December 1765, Parliament began to concentrate both on the trouble across the Atlantic and ways to subdue it. By this time, William Pitt, a member of the House of Commons, was King George III’s choice to replace George Grenville. George III intended to make this change because he wanted an able politician who would not challenge his authority. Pitt was known as a man who “everyone turned to in time of crisis, but notâÂ?¦in a time of peace.”[34] By this logic, Pitt was a good choice considering the crisis then occurring in America, but it was also a risky choice because he did not communicate his opinion about the Stamp Act. Pitt’s support in Parliament was not strong. If he entered the Ministry he needed the cooperation of the Marquis of Rockingham and Secretary of State, Henry Seymour Conway.

Merchants also supported Rockingham because their trade with America had declined due to the slow economy in American following the French and Indian war. Merchants felt that supporting an opposition group to the Stamp Act would be certain to increase their profits. Merchants began to “deluge Parliament with petitions for repeal”[35] arguing that the Act would promote economic disaster. Parliament needed to address the problem without appearing to relinquish its authority and succumb to the pressure from America.

When Parliament met in 1766, William Pitt presented one of the most famous speeches of the Stamp Act crisis. During his speech, Pitt snubbed George Grenville and claimed that his decision to tax the colonies was wrong. He also commended the Americans for revolting against this unfair tax and called for its repeal. Following Pitt’s speech, it was inevitable that Parliament would repeal the Stamp Act. The only question that remained was how to do it and still assert their authority to tax the colonies. The solution was that the Stamp Act would be repealed in February 1766 and a Declaratory Act would be passed that asserted the “legislative authority of parliament” and claims that Parliament has the right “to have, full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever.”[36]

Conclusion

According to David Fischer’s study of order and freedom in early America,[37] examples and definitions of order varied depending on the geographic region and culture. If taxation and representation were mutual points of conflict for England and America, then the resolution of this conflict constituted a sense of order within the American colonies. The passage of the Stamp Act did result in tumultuous events, but the brief period of disarray served a greater purpose. It served to assert American sovereignty over English rule. They no longer depended on England for the management of their respective colonies. The leaders that emerged from the colonies proved that they were capable of being independent from a government that they saw as tyrannical and oppressive.

The Americans and the English were both on their way to reforming their respective ideals within the concepts of taxation and representation. When England ultimately capitulated and repealed the Stamp Act, it validated the colonist’s efforts to regain control, impose authority and maintain order over their territory. From this political victory stemmed even more powerful concepts that Americans would embrace as they went to war for their independence. Their struggle for freedom and liberty through their embrace of popular sovereignty culminated in their independence from England and the ratification of the United States Constitution.

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[1] Carol Berkin, et al., eds. Making America: A History of the United States (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995), 102.
[2] Oscar Zeichner, Connecticut’s Years of Controversy, 1750-1776 (Williamsburg: The University of North Carolina Press, 1949), 46.
[3] Leonard W. Labaree, ed. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin Vol. 2. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 236.
[4] Ibid., 444.
[5] Edward Channing and Archibald Coolidge, eds. The Barrington-Bernard Correspondence and Illustrative Matter, 1760-1770 ( London: Oxford University Press, 1912), 94.
[6] Leonard W. Labaree, ed. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin Vol. 2. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 35.
[7] Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967) 101.
[8]David Hackett Fischer, Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (London: Oxford University Press, 1989), 190.
[9] Edward Channing and Archibald Coolidge, eds. The Barrington-Bernard Correspondence and Illustrative Matter, 1760-1770 ( London: Oxford University Press, 1912), 96-97.
[10] Leonard W. Labaree, ed. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin Vol. 2. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), 242.
[11] “Resolutions Agreed to by the House Assembly of the Providence of Pennsylvania.” (The American Museum, May 1788), 471.
[12] Oscar Zeichner, Connecticut’s Years of Controversy, 1750-1776 (Williamsburg: The University of North Carolina Press, 1949), 49.
[13] Ibid., 263.
[14] Stephen Hopkins, Rights of Colonies Examined (Providence, 1765), 4.

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