The Stamp Tax and the American Colonies
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
[Ed. I know this section is long, but bear with it - the subject works better as a single article, with an explanation of the background to the Stamp Tax and the aftermath in America!]
The American Problem
But even from a ministerial point of view the Wilkes affair was no more than an accident, though it was one to which their own conduct had given a preposterous importance in the eyes of the public. George Grenville's real business was retrenchment after the portentous expenditure on the war. The National Debt had swelled to alarming proportions, and it appeared to Grenville first that there must be an end of the long prevalent laxity in applying the revenue laws, and, secondly, that the American colonies in whose interests primarily Great Britain had entered upon the war, ought to make a substantial contribution to the expenses; propositions which were in themselves manifestly just.
Therefore he proceeded to assert the technical rights of the mother country. Past governments had deliberately shut their eyes to the immense illicit traffic carried on by the Americans, their persistent disregard of the navigation laws, and their evasion of the customs duties. Instructions were issued that the smuggling was to be stopped, and ships of the Royal Navy were employed in the preventive service. The colonies were invited to consider and suggest proposals for laying them under contribution, but unfortunately Grenville had already made up his own mind that the contributions were to be obtained through the imposition of taxes by the British parliament - a scheme which took definite shape in the famous Stamp Act of 1765.
Now the colonists occupied the colonies under specific charters which reserved controlling powers to the Crown. The reservation of powers was admittedly a technical necessity; emergencies might arise when their exercise would be imperative. On the other hand, it could plausibly be maintained that they were intended to be used only on emergency; that apart from emergencies the colonies were entitled to regard themselves and to be regarded as autonomous states. In one respect at least that claim had never been admitted in England; it had at all times been assumed that the mother country was entitled to impose trade regulations on the colonists for her own protection, though the colonists might suffer. Also from time to time the Crown had interfered with the governments of particular colonies; but its doing so had always been resented, though the colonists had found themselves obliged to submit.
In fact the consciousness had hitherto been ever present with them, that they depended on the mother country for security against their French rivals. Detached from each other and without any central government, they might still have held their own against the French colonists in actual occupation of Canada and Louisiana; but if France herself took up the cause, they would be overwhelmed unless they could rely on British fleets and British regiments to support them. Therefore although they had grumbled, and on occasion had gone beyond grumbling, they had still on the whole accepted the control exercised from the old country as something which must be endured. But the situation had been fundamentally changed by the war.
The miilitia of the several colonies felt themselves able to cope with the Red Indians, and now they had nothing to fear from France. It ceased to be tacitly assumed that the protection of the mother country was a necessity which was worth purchasing at the price of a subjection which only made itself felt intermittently. It was, in fact, certain that the colonists would very soon demand a relaxation even of the technical authority asserted by the home government, laid down by the charters, and confirmed by practice throughout the century and a half which covered the lifetime of every colony except Virginia.
Now although there were already revolutionary spirits who would have been by no means reluctant to demand complete independence, the great bulk of the Americans would have indignantly repudiated the idea of sep-ration. They were in fact aware that they were very much indebted to the mother country for deliverance from the French menace, and in the abstract they were even 'quite willing to admit a moral obligation to repay a little of what Great Britain had spent primarily on their behalf. But there was no technical obligation to do so, and it was not difficult to maintain that the mother country was after all fairly compensated by the benefits that would accrue to it from the acquisition of Canada.
A minister at Westminster with any real grasp of the situation would have used the occasion to encourage the sentiment of loyalty to the Empire by every means in his power, while appealing to colonial patriotism and gratitude to lighten the financial burden which the recent war had entailed upon Great Britain. Unhappily, Grenville could think of nothing but the relief of that burden. He did not believe that appeals to patriotism and loyalty would meet with an adequate response in hard cash.
The states might feel conscious of their obligations as a body, but individually each would discover very good reasons why its neighbours were in duty bound to pay a much larger proportion than itself; and there was no common authority to lay down a general principle of contribution or to assess the respective shares of the different states. Grenville then having rejected the idea of a voluntary thank-offering, and having no idea of conciliating popular feeling, there remained to him the technical power of imposing and enforcing taxation for the purposes of revenue. In order to provide revenue the feasting customs were enforced, and the new Stamp Act was passed, almost unnoticed in England.
The Stamp Tax
In effect the minister at one breath informed the colonists that he had no confidence in their loyalty or gratitude, laid on them a new burden, which, while trifling in itself, was galling in the method of its application, and emphasised precisely what was most irritating to the colonists in the relations between them and the mother country. In dealing with the colonies the British parliament claimed to override what for England the English parliament had asserted to be the elementary right of English citizenship in that last palladium of English liberties, the Bill of Rights. No one should be taxed save by consent of a representative parliament, and the parliament at Westminster was in no conceivable sense representative of the colonies. There was an immediate outcry that such taxation was a monstrous and unprecedented innovation, in defiance of the base principles of English citizenship.
"No taxation without representation"
Perhaps we are apt at first sight to wonder why the new tax was treated as a monstrous innovation. The colonies were accustomed to duties paid at the ports imposed by the home government; why should they have resented the imposition of the Stamp Tax, which required a stamp to be purchased and affixed to give validity to legal documents? The explanation is that a "tax" in the technical sense was taken to mean an impost levied for the purpose of raising revenue. The customs at the ports were theoretically at least, levied not with the intention of raising a revenue but in order to control trade and develop bade in the national interest.
Thus for instance, French wines were heavily taxed in British ports not because the toil upon them brought money into the treasury, bat in order to check the purchase of French wines. Portuguese wines were lightly taxed, not because a larger revenue came in from lightly taxed goods than from heavily taxed goods, but in order to encourage .the Portuguese trade. The Americans bad been subjected to the payment of customs duties on the same principles. In the same way in the Plantagenet times the "ancient customs" for the regulation of trade were levied by the king by royal prerogative; parliament resisted any extension of the tolls by royal prerogative precisely because extension was attempted in order to provide revenue. The continued regulation of colonial trade by the king in parliament at Westminster was no breach of the established principles, for the king had merely handed over to parliament certain particular functions, theoretically as a matter of administrative convenience.
Trade regulation was a burden which the colonies would not have borne much longer in any case; but a new and suspicious aspect was given to the existing system when the revenue laws began to be rigorously enforced avowedly for the purpose of increasing the revenue; and a definite innovation declared itseif when an unmistakable tax was imposed, an internal tax for which there was no precedent, a tax which had nothing whatever to do with the regulation of trade, for the sole purpose of raising revenue.
Here at last was actual taxation without representation. Even if the right did legally exist, even if it was a right of which the home government could not with safety technically deprive itself, its actual exercise was without precedent, and provided the colonists with precisely that technical ground of complaint which had before been lacking. The colonists were presented with a constitutional formula, “No taxation without representation," a formula to which it was difficult for Whigs, who professed to be the guardians of the principles of the Revolution of 1688, to close their ears.
Upheaval in America
Ministers were wholly unconscious of the importance of the issue which they had raised. The amount of the tax was not great, and it was taken for granted that opposition would be merely superficial. There was no practical possibility of giving colonists direct representation in the parliament at Westminster; no adequate response could be anticipated to an appeal for a voluntary contribution; and they had followed the merely obvious course in exercising a right which, as an actual matter of law, they did possess. The colonists would soon find that the burden imposed was too slight to be a real grievance. The colonists took a different view.
One after another their assemblies passed resolutions denying the power of taxation. At the instance of Massachusetts the various assemblies sent delegates to a general congress at New York, where the unanimity of colonial feeling found expression. Associations were formed for the boycotting of imported goods until the Stamp Act should be repealed. Riots took place in Boston and elsewhere; the officials nominated for the administration of the Stamp Act refused the appointments or were threatened into resigning; when the stamps themselves arrived it was obvious that they would never be distributed; for the most part 'they were seized and destroyed. In England the mercantile community at once suffered from fee pressure of the boycott, and was strongly in favour of the repeal of the Act.
Meanwhile, other events brought the antagonism of the king and the ministry to a head, for on the colonial question itself King George was practically at one with Grenville. George developed symptoms of the brain trouble which so completely darkened the last years of his life. It became necessary to provide for a regency in case the king should be incapacitated. Ministers were bent on excluding George's mother, the Dowager Princess of Wales, believing that if she became regent Bute would recover his ascendency.
They persuaded the king to approve the omission of her name from the list of eligible persons by declaring that the House of Commons would certainly demand it, and a very awkward situation would be created. The king assented with reluctance;.the Regency Bill was brought in - and the House of Commons proceeded to add the Princess of Wales to the list of possible regents. The king, who recovered his health for a time, was furious with the ministers, and determined to dispense with their services at any price. Twice he sent for Pitt and entreated him to form a government; twice Pitt refused, because his brother-in-law, Lord Temple, insisted upon impossible terms, and he would not separate himself from Temple. George had no alternative but an appeal to the Whigs who associated themselves with Pitt's principles,. and a ministry was constructed in July (1765) by the Marquis of Rockingham.