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Mike Duncan (00:01):
Hello, and welcome to Revolutions. Episode 18, The Stamp Act As I said at the end of last week’s show, the story of the American Revolution begins with the end of the French and Indian War in 1763. Now that does not mean that it was all downhill from there, and there were a number of different points along the way that everyone could have safely peeled off, but in the end it was British imperial policy after the war and the escalating cycles of American resistance they provoked that were the ground from which the Revolution sprang. So though nothing is inevitable, the road to independence clearly begins in 1763.
Now one thing I will add before we move on is that any truly comprehensive account of the American Revolution would require thirteen different chapters for every major turning point in history, from the Sugar Act to the ratification of the Constitution, because local concerns, interests, and personalities unique to each colony defined how those turning points unfolded. But unfortunately, we don’t really have the time to provide that kind of comprehensiveness, so for the most part we will be following the leading edge of radicalism, or the most influential supporters of that radicalism, which means that we will be talking an awful lot about events in Massachusetts, and Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and much less about Connecticut, and Delaware, and North Carolina. But let me state unequivocally that the Revolution was provoked, debated, and waged in every colony, and I would hate for anyone to walk away thinking that my silence on, let’s say, events in Maryland means that nothing was going on in Maryland, things were going on in Maryland, things were going on all over the place. But we have to pick and choose our battles.
Now as I mentioned last week, one of the central features of American colonial life before 1763 was that British administration was pretty hands-off. There is a great paragraph from Edmund Morgan’s Birth of the Republic that not only makes this point, but also provides a succinct description of the colonial administrative framework, so I’m just going to copy and paste it.
Information of the colonies was left to the king, who turned it over to his Secretary of State for Southern Affairs, whose principal business was England’s relations with southern Europe. The secretary left it pretty much to the Board of Trade and Plantations, a sort of chamber of commerce with purely advisory powers. The Board of Trade told the secretary what to do, he told the royal governors, the governors told the colonists, and the colonists did what they pleased. The point here is that whatever direct control the British ministry had tried to wield in the colonies was usually stymied by the skimpy imperial apparatus actually on the scene in North America. That is what they are about to try to change.
To further unpack Morgan’s quote though, I should probably mention that by the king, we are now talking about 25-year-old George III. King George had ascended to the throne in 1760, right in the middle of the war with France. He was the third Hanoverian king, a dynasty that had been imported from Germany in 1714 after Parliament declared that no Roman Catholic could ascend to the throne.
During the first few years of his reign, the young king’s ministry was dominated by his old Scottish tutor Lord Bute. But just as the treaty with the French was being signed, Bute succumbed to pressure from domestic enemies and retired, and George Grenville, First Lord of the Treasury, stepped up to serve as what we are going to call Prime Minister, even though at this point the term Prime Minister was merely an unofficial title and Grenville himself never used it. But English historians seem content to recognize the office starting with Sir Robert Walpole back in the 1720s, and so for convenience sake I am going to use the term to describe the run of Prime Ministers who will rise and fall over the next decade as Britain struggles to make sense of its colonial policy.
The problems facing Grenville in North America as he took office in April 1763 were threefold. How to ensure the security of Britain’s holdings? How to manage and or contain the colonial’s hunger for land? And then, the big one, how do we pay for everything?
The question of security had been answered by Lord Bute on his way out the door, and it was decided that a line of forts stretching from Canada to Florida would be permanently garrisoned by regular troops to defend against possible Spanish encroachment from the south, unruly new French-Canadian citizens in the north, and American Indians everywhere in between. Now this may seem a perfectly reasonable decision, but to the men and women of the 13 colony something rang ominous about it.
For as long as anyone could remember, the French had been the main military threat to the colonies, and the ministry had never seen fit to station a standing army in North America. But now that that threat has been removed, now you’re going to station troops? The belief that standing armies always wind up being tools of despotism had a long and rich tradition, so for the colonists, the decision to garrison the western frontiers set off an early warning bell.
The question of land-hungry colonists was answered in part by the experience the British had with Pontiac’s uprising, a rebellion by a coalition of American Indian tribes that erupted in May 1763. Though the uprising ultimately failed, it did convince the ministry that balancing American Indian interests against American colonial interests would make for sound policy. So in October, George III issued the Proclamation Line of 1763, which basically drew a line along the Appalachian Mountains. The colonists were to stay east of the line and leave the west, including the much-coveted Ohio Valley, to the Indians.
It was a nice idea, but it would turn out to be impossible to enforce in practice, and in the end did little but add to colonial frustrations with the mother country. The question of money could not, of course, be answered by the colonists alone. The cost of the recent war had been enormous, and as First Lord of the Treasury, Grenville woke up every morning staring at 122 million pounds of debt that had been accumulated by his predecessors.
Grenville made no attempt to try to balance the budget on the backs of the colonists, nor did he even at this point think about trying to make the colonies fully fund colonial administration. But he did think they should chip in, especially now that the permanent troops were going to need food and supplies. So as the proclamation line was being issued, Grenville drew up step one of his new revenue plan, the Sugar Act.
The Sugar Act was not really a bad idea at all. For years, colonists had dealt with a six-penny-per-gallon tax on foreign molasses by simply evading it. The manufacture of rum was big business in America, and British supplies of molasses were not nearly enough to meet demand. Meanwhile, the customs agents in charge of enforcing the duty on molasses were underpaid, unenthusiastic, and a long way from home. So it became standard procedure to give the customs agent a penny and a half per gallon to look the other way as foreign molasses was offloaded. Grenville’s idea was to cut the molasses duty in half to induce the colonists to return to legal channels, and thus raise more revenue.
The law was passed in April 1764 by a parliament who had no idea the colonists would even look sideways at it. It was, after all, a tax cut, not a tax increase, right? But of course the tax cut was packaged with enforcement mechanisms that no one in British North America had ever dealt with before.
Corrupt and or absentee customs inspectors were replaced by more diligent agents. Legal challenges were bumped over to admiralty courts, which worked on the basis of guilty until proven innocent. And naturally, the new law brought with it a mountain of new paperwork. The Sugar Act also had the misfortune of being launched just as a post-war economic depression was setting in. Colonial overseas trade operated to a great extent on the barter system, leaving rum as one of the few reliable means of actually bringing in the kind of specie, that is, hard money, that had to circulate to keep the internal colonial economy functioning and creditors back in England off their backs.
The problem of the decreasing money supply was compounded by the Currency Act of September 1764, which ended the practice of individual colonies being able to issue their own paper money. The Currency Act was driven by British merchants and creditors who worried that colonial paper, subject to no regulation or standardization, would eventually prove damaging to their investments. But what it really did was further slow an already sluggish American economy.
In response to the Sugar Act, colonial merchants started getting together, comparing grievances, and sending petitions back to England asking the Ministry to reconsider their decisions. Most of these petitions made purely economic arguments, but a few made the further point that Parliament did not really have the right to tax the colonies because the colonists were not represented in Parliament and no Englishman was required to give up his property involuntarily. Now we should pause here a second to consider this idea of property and taxation.
The thing we need to keep in mind is that jealously guarding your property from unjust taxation was not just about being greedy, well maybe it was a little bit about being greedy, but mostly it was about the belief that property represented more than just economic wealth. It was also the fundamental guarantee of political liberty. Where property rights existed, freedom reigned. Where property rights did not exist, tyranny reigned. This, as you’ll recall, was one of the central questions that helped spark the English Civil Wars. Could Charles I simply assert his right to the property of his subjects without their consent? The answer turned out to be no.
This was something Englishmen took really really seriously, and the colonists were nothing if not proud Englishmen. But once it had been established that only Parliament could levy taxes, a hidden question lingered. A question that went to the heart of the rising tension between the colonists and the mother country. Did parliamentary control of taxation mean that literally only Parliament could levy taxes? Or was Parliament’s control of taxation simply a manifestation of the broader point that you were only subject to taxes levied by a body within which you are duly represented?
Because it’s not like the colonists didn’t pay taxes, they did. But those taxes were levied by the local colonial assembly, which represented the property interests of each colony. The problem, of course, is that Parliament and the ministry believed that this had been a practical expedient that had now run its course, and it was time for the real authority, Parliament to step in, while the colonists believed that this was all rooted in their long established rights as Englishmen. The divergence of opinion about who had the right to tax who in the American colonies would become the central question in the run up to the revolution. To wit, no taxation without representation.
But if the colonists were hoping for a redress of their grievances in 1765, they were badly mistaken. Also badly mistaken was Grenville’s ministry, who thought that they would be able to continue decreeing new taxes without further pushback. Both sides would be rudely awoken with the arrival of step two in Grenville’s revenue plan, the Stamp Act. To put it simply, the Stamp Act was a tax on paper. All paper. Paper used for contracts, customs receipts, handbills, newspapers, everything.
This stamped paper would come from England and be distributed in America by a certified agent. Now of course, a version of the Stamp Act already existed in Britain, but it was a novelty in the colonies, and one that threatened to worm its way into every aspect of life. No one would be able to avoid it. Rumors had been spreading all through 1764 that something like the Stamp Act was on the way, and when word of its passage came in the spring of 1765, the colonists were ready to fight it tooth and nail. American indignation over the Stamp Act found its first and most eloquent expression in the Virginia House of Burgesses, probably the most august of all the colonial assemblies.
At the end of May, on what happened to be his 29th birthday, a young attorney and freshman member of the House named Patrick Henry gave a rather inflammatory speech asserting that colonial assemblies had the exclusive right of taxation.
Henry finished off this inflammatory speech with the dramatic line, Caesar had his Brutus, Charles I his Cromwell, and George III, at which point he was cut off by cries of treason by conservative members who thought they knew where this was headed, but the dramatic Henry, wryly concluded, George III, may he profit by their example. He then supposedly wrapped this up by saying if this be treason, make the most of it, but it is likely that the final bit is apocryphal. The next day, Henry and a cadre of young and more radically inclined burgesses pushed the Virginia Resolves through a sparsely attended session.
The Resolves were a set of five resolutions that staked a defiant colonial position. They went like this. First, when the colonists emigrated to America, they brought with them all their rights as Englishmen. Second, the Virginia Colonial Charter, granted by King James, explicitly stated that colonists would be treated as if they lived in England. Third, that the right to self-taxation is the distinguishing characteristic of British freedom. Fourth, that this is exactly how things have operated in Virginia since the founding of the colony.
So, and I’ll quote the big finale in full, Resolved, therefore, that the general assembly of this colony have the only and 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.
Now, although the fifth Resolve followed logically from the first four, it was too radical for the House of Burgesses, and a conservative opposition rallied back the next day and overturned it. But the first four Resolved remained officially on the books, and the fifth one leaked out to the rest of the colonies by unofficial reports and correspondence. The Virginia Resolves circulated through the colonies over the summer, and most of the other colonial assemblies began to pass similar declarations. Meanwhile, up in Massachusetts, events took a far more extreme turn, and we will find our first injection of mob violence into the dispute.
As I said, the way the Stamp Act Crisis unfolded in each colony was often driven by political divisions unique to each colony, and this was clearly the case in Massachusetts, where the flames were fanned by a longstanding rivalry between Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson and the Onagon-Offagon Political Alliance of erratic attorney James Otis Jr. and soon-to-be professional agitator Samuel Adams. Beginning back in 1764, Adams and his friends began to form committees of correspondence throughout Massachusetts, whose job it would be to share information and ideas and responses amongst the various towns.
Adjacent to and overlapping with these committees were semi-clandestine organizations of artisans, shopkeepers, and traders that soon consolidated into the famous Sons of Liberty. So when official news of the Stamp Act hit, along with the news that the hated Hutchinson’s brother-in-law, Andrew Oliver, had been named stamp distributor, the burgeoning populist machine went to work. They were not going to take this lying down. By the middle of August 1765, the time for plotting was over, and the time for action was at hand.
Marshalling the loosely organized mobs of Boston to provide the shock troops, the radical opponents of the Stamp Act hung an effigy of Andrew Oliver in Boston on August 14th. When the sheriff came to take it down, he took one look at the size and disposition of the mob and said, forget it, I’m outta here.
As darkness fell, the mob moved to some offices located on a dock that they believed Oliver was planning to use as the stamp distribution hub, and they smashed the offices to bits. Then they moved on to Oliver’s home. When they got there, they beheaded the effigy, ritually stamped it into the ground, get it? Stamp Act? These guys were not without a sense of humor.
And then they pushed their way into Oliver’s home and smashed the place up. Oliver himself, of course, had been warned to stay away. The mob did its work and then retired. The next day, a small delegation met with Oliver and suggested that he resign his commission, and Oliver agreed that yes, I think that would be for the best.
But that was not the end of it. On August the 26th, the mobs reconvened with the intention of smashing up the homes of other alleged supporters of the Stamp Act. One of those houses was actually only being rented by the intended target, and when the mob arrived, they found the much-distressed owner begging them to leave the house alone. As a show of good faith, he provided free beer for everyone. So now good and drunk, the mob moved on to the big finale, the home of the hated Thomas Hutchinson, a home that by all accounts was the largest and grandest in Massachusetts.
The mob broke in and methodically destroyed everything. But though this all seems like the work of out-of-control drunks, it was in fact highly organized, and all things considered highly disciplined, and the destruction did not spread beyond the specified targets. So here we have two of the most important colonies, Virginia and Massachusetts, taking the lead in strenuously opposing a law that wasn’t even technically to go in effect until November the 1st. Clearly, there had been some kind of political miscalculation back in England.
But if anyone wanted to blame Grenville, it was already too late, because in July he was forced out of the ministry not so much because of his colonial policies, but because of infighting within and around the royal family. He was succeeded by Lord Rockingham, who entered office in July 1765 and immediately started looking for ways to get out from under his predecessor’s colonial policies. But it was not going to be as easy as simply repealing the Stamp Act, especially after reports of the riots in Boston started filtering in, because you can’t simply let a mob dictate policy. And you certainly can’t let the colonists walk away thinking Parliament has no right to tax them.
As Rockingham’s weak and divided ministry groped for a solution, colonial anger continued, as high-minded rhetorical appeals were joined by, let’s call them less high-minded mob demonstrations. It all culminated in October with what we now call the Stamp Act Congress.
The Massachusetts legislature had sent out a circular letter calling for a pan-colonial assembly to discuss a coordinated response to both the Sugar and Stamp Acts. In the end, nine colonies sent delegates to meet in New York City, from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and South Carolina.
Virginia and Georgia would have almost certainly been among them, but their colonial governors had refused to allow their respective assemblies to convene in order to select delegates. The Stamp Act Congress met on October the 7th, and over the course of their deliberations they started discussing an idea that will help define the next round of the fight between Britain and her colonies – the distinction between internal and external taxation. The theory was that Parliament had no right to levy direct taxes for the purposes of raising revenue. Levying those sorts of internal taxes were the sole right of the colonial assemblies.
But the delegates were willing to grant that Parliament have the right to levy external taxes for the purposes of regulating trade. Both the Sugar Act and Stamp Act would be classified as internal taxes because both were explicitly designed to raise revenue, not regulate trade. This distinction was a nice formulation that would work for the present crisis, but as we will see next week when Charles Townshend devises a way to test the theory, it proved to be a distinction that no one really recognized.
The Stamp Act Congress concluded by drafting a 14-point Declaration of Rights and Grievances, which opened by stating that the colonists owed Parliament all due subordination, but that they possessed the same rights as any Englishman, and that direct taxes could only be levied by the colonial assemblies. It was a remarkable bit of unity from a group of colonies that under normal circumstances would have agreed only that they disagreed about everything. The Stamp Act Congress broke up on October 25, 1765, just as the Stamp Act itself was about to take effect.
Meanwhile, just down the street, a group of merchants in New York City got together and agreed to a limited non-importation agreement that was to endure as long as the Stamp Act was in effect. This idea soon spread to other colonies, and merchant groups in the major cities agreed not to bring in any British goods until the Stamp Act was repealed. But by this point, the non-importation movement was probably unnecessary, as the ministry was already looking for ways to get out from under the Stamp Act. But it did provide a first round of practical experience for the merchants, because as we will see down the road, non-importation will become a major component of colonial resistance.
So by the time November 1 finally came around, the Stamp Act was dead on arrival. Practically every single stamp distributor had been confronted and either resigned or agreed not to distribute the stamp paper.
When Parliament reconvened in December, it was already of a mind to do away with this troublesome act, but the big question remained unanswered. How do you repeal the Stamp Act without letting the colonists think that they can avoid parliamentary control simply by throwing a collective temper tantrum? Because while most MPs agreed that the Stamp Act itself was counterproductive, they uniformly believed that Parliament had the right to run the colonies however they saw fit, and on that principle, they would not be moved.
As Parliament debated the question, the Americans suddenly won a powerful ally in the Commons – former Prime Minister William Pitt. Though he was on the back end of his life and career, the charismatic Pitt still had a spark, and he launched a fierce denunciation of the ministry and openly praised colonial resistance. This led to a famous exchange with George Grenville, who still sat as an MP. The incredulous Grenville asked Pitt when was it exactly that the colonists had been emancipated from parliamentary control, to which Pitt replied, well when is it exactly that we made them slaves?
In the midst of this debate, Parliament called an influential American agent to testify as to the mood of his countrymen with regard to the Stamp Act – none other than Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was easily the most famous and most respected American pretty much ever, and he was basically the first colonial that Europeans took seriously. He has often been called the first American, and I sometimes like to call him the founding grandfather, as he was a generation older than the men who will become known as the founding fathers.
Born in 1706, Franklin skipped out on a printing apprenticeship to an elder brother at the age of 17, started over from scratch in Philadelphia, and through wit, guile, and hard work, soon established himself as the leading printer in the city, achieving his greatest success with the annual publication of Poor Richard’s Almanac, which debuted in 1733.
But Franklin was merely a printer by trade. By passion, he was an intensely curious polymath who was interested in everything – a passion that eventually led him to famously dabble in electricity. He soon not only proved that lightning was in fact made of electricity, but ever driven by his practical sensibilities, he invented the lightning rod to protect houses from strikes. It was his scientific work that earned him the attention of Europe.
Now, it would take 20 episodes to run through the endlessly fascinating life of the good Dr. Franklin, but for our purposes, we should skip ahead to 1757, when Pennsylvania appointed him to serve as their agent in London. At that point, Franklin moved to England and pretty much lived there continuously until the outbreak of the Revolution.
By the time of the Stamp Act crisis, Franklin was also officially representing both Georgia and Massachusetts, and when he was called before Parliament, he reiterated the distinction between internal and external taxation, neatly dancing around the few probing MPs who tried to trip him up. But for the most part, his testimony was arranged by friends in Parliament, who very much wanted to ditch the Stamp Act and were looking for an excuse to do so.
Through February, the debate raged on until finally a solution was hit upon. The Stamp Act would be repealed, but along with it, Parliament would issue what has become known as the Declaratory Act, which stated that Parliament had the power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America in all cases whatsoever. In other words, we’re giving in to your immediate demands, but we are not conceding the broader point, not even a little bit, in all cases whatsoever.
But though the more savvy colonial leaders could see the dangers posed by the Declaratory Act, when news hit the colonies in May that the Stamp Act had been repealed, it kicked off a wave of celebrations, bonfires, merrymaking, and heavy drinking from New Hampshire to Georgia. In the first round of the fight, the colonists had won, but that Declaratory Act clearly signaled that Parliament would soon be back for more.
The fight over the Stamp Act very nearly broke the revolutionary wave a decade earlier than it finally did. The pattern of colonial assemblies issuing strong resolutions, organized mobs targeting enemies of liberty, merchants forming non-importation pacts, all culminating with a pan-colonial alliance to organize collective resistance, well this is all going to get replayed in the 1770s. Though by that point, the British will be done backing down, and the Revolutionary War will finally break out.
But that is still a ways down the road, and as I also noted, it was not at all inevitable that that Revolutionary War should break out. But next week, we will get into round two of the fight, as Lord of the Treasury Charles Townshend will test the proposition that the colonists did not object to taxes merely designed to regulate trade. Spoiler alert, it turns out they were just saying that.
- Patrick Henry
- Charles Townshend
- Benjamin Franklin
- Charles I of England
- Edmund Morgan (historian)
- George III
- Robert Walpole
- George Grenville
- Samuel Adams
- Thomas Hutchinson (governor)
- James Otis Jr.
- Andrew Oliver
- William Pitt the Younger
- Poor Richard’s Almanack by Benjamin Franklin: https://amzn.to/3FRXEhK
- The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89, Fourth Edition (The Chicago History of American Civilization) by Edmund S. Morgan: https://amzn.to/3WePyVU
After the French and Indian War, the British Ministry started levying new taxes on the colonies. The colonists were not amused.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:
- Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution: https://amzn.to/3VNqViT
- The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic: https://amzn.to/3h26YpW
- The History of Rome: The Republic: https://amzn.to/3UAvImK
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