"A few nights later the riots recommenced with redoubled fury. The houses of two of the leading officials connected with the Admiralty Court and with the Custom-house were attacked and rifled, and the files and records of the Admiralty Court were burned. The mob, intoxicated with the liquors which they had found in one of the cellars they had plundered, next turned to the house of Hutchinson"
Lord Grenville, Prime Minister of Great Britain, just couldn't understand why the colonials didn't want to pay their fair share. The Stamp Act was seen as fair and reasonable by the ruling class in Britain, and they were not prepared for the outburst of violent protest that ensued.
Taken from, Byrne, PJ. "Patriotism in Washington's Time" Baltimore: John Murphy Printers, 1917. Edited by Gary M. Bohannon.
THE STAMP ACT, when its ultimate consequences are considered, must be deemed one of the most momentous legislative acts in the history of mankind; but in England it passed almost completely unnoticed. It is scarcely mentioned in the contemporary correspondence of Horace Walpole, of Grenville, or of Pitt. Burke, who was not yet a member of the House of Commons, afterward declared that he had followed the debate from the gallery, and that he had never heard a more languid one in the House; that not more than two or three gentlemen spoke against the bill; that there was but one division in the whole course of the discussion, and that the minority in that division was not more than thirty-nine or forty. In the House of Lords he could not remember that there had been either a debate or division, and he was certain that there was no protest.
The measure unquestionably infringed upon a principle which the English race both at home and abroad have always regarded with a peculiar jealousy. The doctrine that taxation and representation are in free nations inseparably connected, that constitutional government is closely connected with the rights of property, and that no people can be legitimately taxed except by themselves or their representatives, lay at the very root of the English conception of political liberty. The same principle that had led the English people to provide so carefully in the Great Charter and in the Bill of Rights, that no taxation should be drawn from them except by the English Parliament; the same principle which had gradually invested the representative branch of the Legislature with the special and peculiar function of granting supplies, led the colonists to maintain that their liberty would be destroyed if they were taxed by a Legislature in which they had no representatives, and which sat three thousand miles from their shore.
The Stamp Act received the royal assent on March 22, 1765, and it was to come into operation on the first of November following. The long delay which had been granted in the hope that it might lead to some proposal of compromise from America, had instead been sedulously employed by skillful agitators in stimulating resentment; and when the news arrived that the Stamp Act had been carried, the train was fully laid, and the indignation of the colonies rose at once into a flame.
A congress of representatives of nine States was held at New York, and in an extremely able State paper they drew up the case of the colonies. They acknowledged that they owed allegiance to the crown, and "all due subordination to that august body, the Parliament of Great Britain," but they maintained that they were entitled to all the inherent rights and liberties of natural-born subjects; "that it is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people and the undoubted right of Englishmen that no taxes be imposed on them but with their own consent, given personally or by their representatives;" that the colonists "are not, and from their local circumstances cannot be, represented in the House of Commons of Great Britain;" that the only representatives of the colonies and, therefore, the only persons constitutionally competent to tax them were the members chosen in the colonies by themselves; and that all supplies of the crown being free gifts from the people, it is unreasonable and inconsistent with the principles and spirit of the British Constitution for the people of Great Britain to grant to his Majesty the property of the colonies. A petition to the King and memorials to both Houses of Parliament were drawn up embodying these views.
It was not, however, only by such legal measures that opposition was shown. A furious outburst of popular violence speedily showed that it would be Impossible to enforce the Act. In Boston, Oliver, the secretary of the Province, who had accepted the office of stamp distributor, was hung in effigy on a tree in the main street of the town. The building which had been erected as a stamp office was leveled; the house of Oliver was attacked, plundered and wrecked, and he was compelled by the mob to resign his office and to swear beneath the tree on which his effigy had been so ignominiously hung that he never would resume it. A few nights later the riots recommenced with redoubled fury. The houses of two of the leading officials connected with the Admiralty Court and with the Custom-house were attacked and rifled, and the files and records of the Admiralty Court were burned. The mob, intoxicated with the liquors which they had found in one of the cellars they had plundered, next turned to the house of Hutchinson, the Lieutenant-Governor and Chief Justice of the Province.
Although Hutchinson was personally opposed to the policy of the Stamp Act, the determination with which he acted as Chief Justice in supporting the law soon made him obnoxious to the mob. He had barely time to escape with his family when his house, which was the finest in Boston, was attacked and destroyed. His plate, his furniture, his pictures, the public documents in his possession, and his library were plundered and burned.
The flame rapidly spread. In the newly annexed provinces, indeed, and in most of the West India Islands, the Act was received without difficulty, but in nearly every American colony those who had consented to be stamp distributors were hung and burned in effigy, and compelled by mob violence to resign their posts. The houses of many who were known to be supporters of the Act or sympathizers with the government, were attacked and plundered. Some were compelled to flee from the colonies, and the authority of the Home Government was exposed to every kind of insult. In New York the effigy of the Governor was paraded with that of the devil round town and then publicly burned, and threatening letters were circulated menacing the lives of those who distributed stamps.
When the first of November arrived the bells were tolled as for the funeral of a nation. The flags were hung half-mast high. The shops were shut, and the Stamp Act was hawked about with the inscription, "The folly of England and the ruin of America." The newspapers were obliged by the new law to bear the stamp, which probably contributed much to the extreme virulence of their opposition, and many of them now appeared with a death's head in the place where the stamp should have been. It was found not only impossible to distribute stamps, but even impossible to keep them in the colonies, for the mob seized on every box which was brought from England committed it to the flames. Stamps were required for the validity of every legal document, yet in most of the colonies not a single sheet of paper could be found. The law courts were for a time closed, and almost all business was suspended. At last the Governors, considering the impossibility of carrying on public business or protecting property under these conditions, took the law into their own hands and issued letters authorizing noncompliance with the Act on the ground that it was absolutely impossible to procure the requisite stamps in the colony.
Parliament met on December 17, 1765, and the attitude of the different parties was speedily disclosed. A powerful opposition, led by Grenville and Bedford, strenuously urged that no relaxation or indulgence should be granted to the colonists. In two successive sessions the policy of taxing America had been deliberately affirmed, and if Parliament now suffered itself to be defied or intimidated, its authority would be forever at an end. The method of reasoning by which the Americans maintained that they could not be taxed by a Parliament in which they were not represented, might be applied with equal plausibility to the Navigation Act, and to every other branch of imperial legislation for the colonies, and it led directly to the disintegration of the Empire. The supreme authority of Parliament chiefly held the different parts of that Empire together. The right of taxation was an essential part of the sovereign power. The colonial constitutions were created by royal charter, and it could not be admitted that the King, while retaining his own sovereignty over certain portions of his dominions, could by a mere exercise of his prerogative withdraw them wholly or in part from the authority of the British Parliament.
The King's ministers and supporters believed it was the right of the Imperial Legislature to determine in what proportions the different parts of the Empire should contribute to the defense of the whole, and to see that no one part evaded its obligations and unjustly transferred its share to the others. The conduct of the colonies, in the eyes of these politicians, admitted of no excuse or palliation. They felt the disputed right of taxation was established by a long series of legal authorities, and there was no real distinction between internal and external taxation. But now the Americans described themselves as apostles of liberty, and denounced England as an oppressor. In the minds of those supporting the Act, it was a simple truth that England governed her colonies more liberally than any other country in the world; they were the only existing colonies which enjoyed real political liberty; their commercial system was more liberal than that of any other colony.
They felt the colonists had attained, under British rule, a degree of prosperity which was surpassed in no quarter of the globe. Had not England loaded herself with debt in order to remove the one great danger to their future; had she not cheerfully bore the whole burden of their protection by sea? The Act's supporters felt that at the Peace of Paris Britain had made the colonists' interests the very first object of policy, and Britain only asked them in return to bear a portion of the cost of their own defense.
Somewhat more than eight millions of Englishmen were burdened with a national debt of 140,000,000 pounds. The united debt of about two millions of Americans was now less than 800,000 pounds. The annual sum the colonists were asked to contribute in the form of stamp duties was less than 100,000 pounds, with an express provision that no part of that sum should be devoted to any other purpose than the defense and protection of the colonies. No demand could be more moderate and equitable than that of England, the ministers felt; and amid all the high-sounding declarations that were wafted across the Atlantic, they perceived that the true motive of the resistance must be of the vulgarest kind: a desire to pay as little as possible, to throw as much as possible upon the mother country.
The ministers argued that the mode of resistance no more respectable than the arguments — the plunder of private houses and custom-houses, mob violence connived at by all classes and perfectly unpunished, agreements of merchants to refuse to pay their private debts in order to attain political ends. If this was the attitude of America within two years of the Peace of Paris, if these were first fruits of the new sense of security which British triumphs in Canada had given, could it be doubted that concessions would only be the prelude to new demands? Already the custom-house officers were attacked by the mobs almost as fiercely as the stamp distributors.
Pitt, one of the Act’s opponents, on the other hand, rose from his sick bed, and in speeches of extraordinary eloquence, which produced an amazing effect on both sides of the Atlantic, he justified the resistance of the colonists. He stood apart from all parties, and, while he declared that ''every capital measure" of the late ministry was wrong, he ostentatiously refused to give his confidence to their successors. He maintained in the strongest terms the doctrine that self-taxation is the essential and discriminating circumstance of political freedom.
The task of the ministers in dealing with this question was extremely difficult. The great majority of them desired ardently the repeal of the Stamp Act, but the wishes of the King, the abstention of Pitt and the divided condition of parties had compelled Rockingham to include in his Government Charles Townshend, Barrington and Northington, who were all strong advocates of the taxation of America, and Northington took an early opportunity of delivering an invective against the colonies which seemed specially intended to prolong the exasperation.
The Stamp Act had already produced evils far outweighing any benefits that could flow from it. To enforce it over a vast and thinly populated country and in the face of the universal and vehement opposition of the people, had proved hitherto impossible, and would always be difficult, dangerous and disastrous. It might produce rebellion. It would certainly produce permanent and general disaffection, great derangement of commercial relations, a smothered resistance which could only be overcome by a costly and extensive system of coercion. It could not be wise to convert the Americans into a nation of rebels who were only waiting for a European war to throw off their allegiance. Yet this would be the almost inevitable consequences of persisting in the policy of Grenville.
The debates on this theme were among the fiercest and longest ever known in Parliament. The former ministers opposed the repeal at every stage, and most of those who were under the influence of the King plotted busily against it. Nearly a dozen members of the King's household, nearly all the bishops, nearly all the Scotch, nearly all the Tories voted against the ministry, and in the very agony of the contest Lord Strange spread abroad the report that he had heard from the King's own lips that the King was opposed to the repeal.
Rockingham acted with great decision. He insisted on accompanying Lord Strange into the King's presence and in obtaining the King's written paper stating that he was in favor of the repeal rather than the enforcement of the Act, though he would have preferred its modification to either course. The great and manifest desire of the commercial classes throughout England had much weight; the repeal was carried through the House of Commons, brought up by no less than 200 members to the Lords, and finally carried amid the strongest expressions of public joy. Burke described it as "an event that caused more joy throughout the British dominions than perhaps any other that can be remembered."