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History of the United States by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard
» PART II. CONFLICT AND INDEPENDENCE
» CHAPTER V

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Colonial Resistance Forces Repeal

Popular Opposition.—The Stamp Act was greeted in America by an outburst of denunciation. The merchants of the seaboard cities took the lead in making a dignified but unmistakable protest, agreeing not to import British goods while the hated law stood upon the books. Lawyers, some of them incensed at the heavy taxes on their operations and others intimidated by patriots who refused to permit them to use stamped papers, joined with the merchants. Aristocratic colonial Whigs, who had long grumbled at the administration of royal governors, protested against taxation without their consent, as the Whigs had done in old England. There were Tories, however, in the colonies as in England—many of them of the official class—who denounced the merchants, lawyers, and Whig aristocrats as “seditious, factious and republican.” Yet the opposition to the Stamp Act and its accompanying measure, the Quartering Act, grew steadily all through the summer of 1765.

In a little while it was taken up in the streets and along the countryside. All through the North and in some of the Southern colonies, there sprang up, as if by magic, committees and societies pledged to resist the Stamp Act to the bitter end. These popular societies were known as Sons of Liberty and Daughters of Liberty: the former including artisans, mechanics, and laborers; and the latter, patriotic women. Both groups were alike in that they had as yet taken little part in public affairs. Many artisans, as well as all the women, were excluded from the right to vote for colonial assemblymen.

While the merchants and Whig gentlemen confined their efforts chiefly to drafting well-phrased protests against British measures, the Sons of Liberty operated in the streets and chose rougher measures. They stirred up riots in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston when attempts were made to sell the stamps. They sacked and burned the residences of high royal officers. They organized committees of inquisition who by threats and intimidation curtailed the sale of British goods and the use of stamped papers. In fact, the Sons of Liberty carried their operations to such excesses that many mild opponents of the stamp tax were frightened and drew back in astonishment at the forces they had unloosed. The Daughters of Liberty in a quieter way were making a very effective resistance to the sale of the hated goods by spurring on domestic industries, their own particular province being the manufacture of clothing, and devising substitutes for taxed foods. They helped to feed and clothe their families without buying British goods.

Patrick Henry
Patrick Henry

Legislative Action against the Stamp Act.—Leaders in the colonial assemblies, accustomed to battle against British policies, supported the popular protest. The Stamp Act was signed on March 22, 1765. On May 30, the Virginia House of Burgesses passed a set of resolutions declaring that the General Assembly of the colony alone had the right to lay taxes upon the inhabitants and that attempts to impose them otherwise were “illegal, unconstitutional, and unjust.” It was in support of these resolutions that Patrick Henry uttered the immortal challenge: “Cæsar had his Brutus, Charles I his Cromwell, and George III....” Cries of “Treason” were calmly met by the orator who finished: “George III may profit by their example. If that be treason, make the most of it.”

The Stamp Act Congress.—The Massachusetts Assembly answered the call of Virginia by inviting the colonies to elect delegates to a Congress to be held in New York to discuss the situation. Nine colonies responded and sent representatives. The delegates, while professing the warmest affection for the king’s person and government, firmly spread on record a series of resolutions that admitted of no double meaning. They declared that taxes could not be imposed without their consent, given through their respective colonial assemblies; that the Stamp Act showed a tendency to subvert their rights and liberties; that the recent trade acts were burdensome and grievous; and that the right to petition the king and Parliament was their heritage. They thereupon made “humble supplication” for the repeal of the Stamp Act.

The Stamp Act Congress was more than an assembly of protest. It marked the rise of a new agency of government to express the will of America. It was the germ of a government which in time was to supersede the government of George III in the colonies. It foreshadowed the Congress of the United States under the Constitution. It was a successful attempt at union. “There ought to be no New England men,” declared Christopher Gadsden, in the Stamp Act Congress, “no New Yorkers known on the Continent, but all of us Americans.”

The Repeal of the Stamp Act and the Sugar Act.—The effect of American resistance on opinion in England was telling. Commerce with the colonies had been effectively boycotted by the Americans; ships lay idly swinging at the wharves; bankruptcy threatened hundreds of merchants in London, Bristol, and Liverpool. Workingmen in the manufacturing towns of England were thrown out of employment. The government had sown folly and was reaping, in place of the coveted revenue, rebellion.

Perplexed by the storm they had raised, the ministers summoned to the bar of the House of Commons, Benjamin Franklin, the agent for Pennsylvania, who was in London. “Do you think it right,” asked Grenville, “that America should be protected by this country and pay no part of the expenses?” The answer was brief: “That is not the case; the colonies raised, clothed, and paid during the last war twenty-five thousand men and spent many millions.” Then came an inquiry whether the colonists would accept a modified stamp act. “No, never,” replied Franklin, “never! They will never submit to it!” It was next suggested that military force might compel obedience to law. Franklin had a ready answer. “They cannot force a man to take stamps.... They may not find a rebellion; they may, indeed, make one.”

The repeal of the Stamp Act was moved in the House of Commons a few days later. The sponsor for the repeal spoke of commerce interrupted, debts due British merchants placed in jeopardy, Manchester industries closed, workingmen unemployed, oppression instituted, and the loss of the colonies threatened. Pitt and Edmund Burke, the former near the close of his career, the latter just beginning his, argued cogently in favor of retracing the steps taken the year before. Grenville refused. “America must learn,” he wailed, “that prayers are not to be brought to Cæsar through riot and sedition.” His protests were idle. The Commons agreed to the repeal on February 22, 1766, amid the cheers of the victorious majority. It was carried through the Lords in the face of strong opposition and, on March 18, reluctantly signed by the king, now restored to his right mind.

In rescinding the Stamp Act, Parliament did not admit the contention of the Americans that it was without power to tax them. On the contrary, it accompanied the repeal with a Declaratory Act. It announced that the colonies were subordinate to the crown and Parliament of Great Britain; that the king and Parliament therefore had undoubted authority to make laws binding the colonies in all cases whatsoever; and that the resolutions and proceedings of the colonists denying such authority were null and void.

The repeal was greeted by the colonists with great popular demonstrations. Bells were rung; toasts to the king were drunk; and trade resumed its normal course. The Declaratory Act, as a mere paper resolution, did not disturb the good humor of those who again cheered the name of King George. Their confidence was soon strengthened by the news that even the Sugar Act had been repealed, thus practically restoring the condition of affairs before Grenville and Townshend inaugurated their policy of “thoroughness.”


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