Grenville Leaves Office
Before word of colonial resistance to the Stamp Act even made it back to London, King George removed Prime Minister Grenville from office. The change of leadership had nothing to do with the colonies. The King never really liked nor trusted Grenville. He gave Grenville the job because had not been able to find anyone better to take it. Although Lord Bute had been forced from office, the King still relied on him for advice. This drove Grenville nuts. It was a major source of tension between him and the King.
In 1765, shortly after passage of the Stamp and Quartering Acts, Grenville turned his attention to the Minority Heir to the Crown Act. The King had no objection to the law itself. King George had young children. If he died before they reached adulthood, the Act permitted the Queen, or someone else of the King’s choosing, to act as regent. It was a simple way to prevent any questions about who controlled the government in the event the country ended up with let’s say a seven year old King. Parliament had passed a similar law when George III was still a minor and, after the death of his father, became the immediate heir to George II.
|Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, |
King George III's mother
The whole affair deeply upset the King’s mother. The King had to use his influence in the House of Commons to get his mother added back into the law. Following that, the King decided that Grenville’s role, which was at best public bumbling over whether or not the King of England’s mother was English, was as good a reason as any to demand a new government.
The King gave Grenville the boot in July 1765, sending him back to being an ordinary member in the House of Commons. The King again considered William Pitt for Prime Minister, but Pitt once again made too many demands. Eventually the King settled on Charles Watson-Wentworth, the 2nd marquess of Rockingham (we’ll just call him “Rockingham”). At age 35, Rockingham was rather young to be leading a government, though still eight years older than the King. He was an wealthy and established member of the nobility. He had served in the House of Lords since age 22 and was a political protege of Lord Newcastle. When Rockingham became Prime Minister, Newcastle, now 73 years old, would serve as Lord Privy Seal in the new administration.
Although Rockingham took office in July 1765, Parliament would not meet again until the end of the year and would not begin new business until January 1766. This delay gave London time to learn about and absorb the resistance in the colonies to the Stamp Act.
Colonies Defy Stamp Act
Back in the colonies, the mobs had prevented any tax distributors from taking office. They had also either destroyed all the stamped paper, or forced it to be kept locked away where it could not be distributed. Either way, when November 1, 1765 came, local officials were unsure how to proceed.
|Marquess of Rockingham|
This is not to say that the Sons of Liberty necessarily wanted a FREE press. One publisher in North Carolina, after succumbing to pressure to publish, permitted readers to submit letters for publication. Amidst numerous letters in opposition the the Stamp Act, he published a single letter from a reader who supported Parliamentary authority. For this infraction, he received various threats, and two weeks later saw the colonial government, backed by the Sons of Liberty, close his press for printing a letter that they considered unacceptable.
Merchant vessels found themselves in a more difficult situation. Ships could not be cleared to leave port without stamped documents, which were not available. Customs officials refused to clear any ships to leave harbor at all, meaning trade came to a standstill and out of work sailors roamed the city getting into trouble. Some colonies realized the futility of this within days and began resumption of trade without stamped documents. They reasoned that because England had failed to make a distributor with stamped paper available, they could not put the law into effect. Other colonies, particularly Massachusetts, simply failed to do anything and let ships sit in the harbor for weeks. It was not until mid-December that Boston started clearing ships again. North Carolina held out until January. There, the governor offered to pay the stamp tax fees personally for any merchant who would sail. However, none of them wanted to be from the only colony using stamps, and they refused to go along.
Even after the ports began allowing vessels to leave, the British navy could still seize vessels without stamped paper. One zealous naval officer in NY harbor continued to block as many ships as he could from leaving. Although he could have seized them and taken them to Halifax for condemnation, he simply forced the ships back into NY harbor. The navy did seize some vessels after boarding them at sea or in another English harbor. As a result, merchants did their best to avoid the navy. They did not sail to England. The stamp tax was being enforced in the English colonies in the West Indies (Caribbean). Initially merchants were reluctant to sail there. Those ports, desperate for American trade, permitted them to enter and leave with unstamped paper, so some trade resumed with the Caribbean. Mostly ships traded with European countries or non-British colonies who could care less about stamps. That was also illegal, but chances of getting caught were lower.
Courts were an even more difficult situation. Judges, appointed by the King, were obligated to enforce laws regarding the use of unstamped documents in court. Many courts simply remained closed, refusing to do business. In Massachusetts, mobs demanded that the courts open and do business without the stamped documents. They used the arguments of the Virginia Resolves: the Stamp Act was beyond Parliament’s authority and therefore should be considered void. A few courts opened for brief periods to satisfy the mobs. Some handled older cases that did not require new paper, in order to avoid the Stamp tax issue, then quickly closed again.
Despite token openings, most civil court business came to a halt. The Act did not affect criminal courts, so only civil courts were closed. In many cases, this benefited debtors in the colonies. They could not be sued by creditors, most of whom were English merchants seeking repayment of debts. In a few colonies, courts opened without requiring stamped documents. Judges were risking removal by doing so. Even there though, lawyers were reluctant to proceed for fear of creating legal challenges that could result in them being sued for malpractice. So even where courts were open, litigation remained limited.
Stamp Act Opposition in England
Parliament almost immediately felt pressure from all sides to repeal the Stamp Act. The colonial petitions were easy enough to ignore. But others within England raised the same concerns. Newspaper articles appeared all over England from working class people and merchants complaining about the Stamp Act and its effects. Many at the time, and some later historians, thought this was a groundswell of support among the English commoners for the colonies. In fact, the vast majority of those articles were written and sent by one man, Benjamin Franklin, still working in London as a colonial agent. He invented false names and sent articles to newspaper editors all over the country.
Franklin’s little fraud aside, there were a great many merchants suffering from the loss of trade and the inability of colonists to repay their debts. The truth was that trade without taxes had benefited England greatly. This trade killing dispute was hurting the English economy, the English merchants, and those who worked for them.
Not only were old debts not being paid, colonial merchants were not trading with England at all. No vessels arrived to buy new English goods for the colonies.
Some colonies or more accurately groups within colonies, began developing non-importation agreements against England, though not nearly as extensive or organized as we will see later. Beyond the political popularity of such agreements, colonial ships did not want to travel to England with unstamped papers and risk seizure of their vessels. The colonial economy was tanking and no one had money to buy British imports anyway. The 1764 trade laws had already started an American initiative to become more self sufficient and make more goods domestically. The anti-British feeling over the Stamp Act only increased this sentiment.
This crash in trade was killing London merchants. They were not selling their goods, and were increasingly unable to collect on debts in the colonies. Parliament received petitions and letters, not only from London merchants but from manufacturers all over England calling for repeal of the Stamp Act. These petitions did not care about the rights asserted by the colonists. They simply focused on the fact that the law was destroying their trade and their ability to pay their workers.
When the King addressed the opening of the new Parliamentary session on December 17, 1765, he requested that Parliament do something about the mess in the colonies, but left it vague as to what he thought should be done. Parliament’s response was equally vague, promising to “apply utmost diligence and attention to those important occurrences in America.”
Rockingham and his ministers viewed the Stamp Act as a mistake. Grenville would have had a much harder time backing down since the Act was his idea in the first place. In fact, Grenville proposed a much more militant response to the King’s message, stating the Parliament would take necessary measures to preserve the legal dependence of the colonies on England. Parliament rejected his proposal overwhelmingly.
By the time Parliament got back to work in January 1766, Rockingham had already decided to repeal the act. He began reaching out to Pitt, who remained leader of the opposition, to make a deal. Pitt, still annoyed that he was not Prime Minister himself, refused to cooperate. Pitt and his faction, of course, would support repeal, but did not want to look like they were cooperating with the leadership.
Stamp Act Repeal & Declaratory Act
With near universal agreement in Parliament that something had to be done, there were essentially three schools of thought on exactly what course to take. One, led by Grenville, argued that there might need to be some amendment or tweaking needed but that Parliament should not back down in the face of resistance. The Pitt faction that believed these taxes as a matter of principle were wrong and demanded immediate repeal along with a promise never to try anything like this again. In the middle were men who seemed to recognize repeal was necessary, but only as a matter of policy. This group wanted to retain the authority to tax the colonies, even if they chose not to exercise it at this time.
Rockingham’s position was the middle ground. If a bill could get the Pitt faction to support repeal but not push away the overwhelming majority of members who believed that Parliament had the authority to tax the colonies. It might find a reasonable compromise.
Parliament had refused even to consider any petitions that suggested it had no right to tax the colonies. For most members Parliamentary authority was an issue beyond dispute. Most also accepted the reality that the Stamp Act was a complete failure and was damaging both the English and colonial economies. But they did not want to establish a precedent that mobs in the colonies could dictate to Parliament what its power and authority was. Any suggestion in any repeal that gave the indication that Parliament could not tax the colonies would have gone down to overwhelming defeat.
Pitt’s support of repeal actually made things harder for the Administration. He essentially praised the colonies for refusing to accede to Parliament and called for the immediate and complete repeal. The administration knew that arguing Parliament had no right to levy taxes on the colonies would only cause them to dig in their heels. Rockingham wanted to stick to the much more practical argument that the law was hurting the English economy.
As a result, the Administration took no action in Parliament for another month, giving Pitt’s opponents time to cool down and hear more from constituents suffering under the current law. On February 3, Rockingham attempted to increase support for repeal by introducing the Declaratory Act, which was formally called the American Colonies Act of 1766. The Act simply stated clearly the Parliament had the authority to pass laws to bind the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.” There was some debate whether to add an explicit line on the authority to tax. That was rejected as needlessly provocative. Clearly “all cases whatsoever” included the right to tax. At the same time, the Pitt faction tried to get the phrase “in all cases whatsoever” removed from the bill. That amendment also failed.
Finally, on February 21, Henry Conway introduced the Repeal of the Stamp Act into the House. Conway was the only member of Commons in the Rockingham Administration. He was a member of the Pitt faction and was serving as Secretary of State for the Southern Department, which was responsible for North American affairs. Conway had voted against the Stamp Act the year before, and seemed to agree with Pitt’s sentiments. However, he held his tongue on colonial rights and simply focused on the economic need to repeal the Act.
Franklin, of course, knew that colonists were quite hostile even to external tariffs. His private correspondence paints an understanding of the much more radical positions in the colonies. It seems his rehearsed testimony was designed to appeal to those in Parliament inclined to repeal the Stamp Act, but who would not give up on the right of Parliament to levy such taxes in the future. Like any good lobbyist, Franklin was concerned about the law’s repeal, not furthering some broader philosophical debate.
Despite the ministry’s efforts, most of parliament seemed to oppose the bill since it looked like they were backing down before lawless mobs. The King directly let it be known that he supported the bill. That was enough to take the air out of the opposition. After the King's intervention, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act and the Repeal of the Stamp Act, with final passage of both on the same day: March 18, 1766. Both acts passed overwhelmingly with large majorities. The laws also passed the House of Lords and received the King’s approval, taking effect on May 1, 1766.
Shortly after passage, Rockingham passed another bill voiding any penalties owed under the Stamp Act during the six months it was technically in force. If Parliament wanted to put all that unpleasantness behind them, the last thing they needed was to make martyr out of some merchant or lawyer over a penalty of a few pounds. Similarly, in 1767, when Massachusetts passed a bill to reimburse victims of mob riots for the destruction of their homes and property, it included a provisioning pardoning all of those involved in the riots. Some in London raised concerns about pardoning these criminals, but in the end the Privy Council let the bill become law without objection. Best to act like the Stamp Act never happened.
Repeal of the Stamp Act met with near universal celebration throughout the colonies. Leaving aside concerns over the Declaratory Act, which we’ll talk more about next week, everyone seemed overjoyed at the news from London. Cities held parades and festivities, not only that year, but celebrated it as an annual event for the next decade.
|Celebration of Stamp Act Repeal, 1766|
Grenville may have lost his fight over repeal, but he was absolutely right that the colonists took the repeal as evidence of weakness. Colonists were much more willing to push back against unpopular legislation from Parliament, including continued opposition to trade restrictions and duties.
Next week, we shall see that, while things get better for a while, the tensions between Britain and her colonies remain.
Next Episode 25: Tensions Simmer
Previous Episode 23: The Stamp Act Congress
Visit the American Revolution Podcast (https://amrev.podbean.com).
Full text of the Stamp Act of 1765: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/stamp_act_1765.asp
Good easy to read summary of Stamp Act details: https://www.landofthebrave.info/stamp-act.htm
The Stamp Act, a Brief History, by Mary Nesnay (JAR) (2014):
Declaration of Rights and Grievances (full text): http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/resolu65.asp
Stamp Act Congress Petitions (full text): https://books.google.com/books?id=jQ1FAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA481 (I have not found a good web site for these petitions, other than the appendix of Hutchinson’s book, which is thankfully available online. If anyone has a better source to link, please let me know).
William Pitt’s Opposition to the Stamp Act, January 14, 1766: http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/documents/1751-1775/william-pitts-speech-on-the-stamp-act-january-14-1766.php
Notes on Benjamin Franklin’s testimoney before parliament on Repeal of the Stamp Act, Feb. 13, 1766: http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp?vol=13&page=159a
Repeal of the Stamp Act (full text): http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/repeal_stamp_act_1766.asp
Declaratory Act (full text): http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/declaratory_act_1766.asp
(from archive.org unless noted)
The History of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, from 1749 to 1774, by Thomas Hutchinson, John Hutchinson (ed) (1828) (This book was edited and published in London using Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s personal papers. The editor was his grandson).
The Diary and Letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, by Thomas Hutchinson, Peter Hutchinson (ed) (1884) (Editor was Thomas Hutchinson’s great-grandson).
Great Debates in American History, Vol. 1, Marion Mills Miller (ed) (1913).
Debates on the Repeal of the Stamp Act, from The American Historical Review, Vol 17 by H. Temperley (1912).
Cambridge Modern History, Vol. 6, (18th Century Britain), S. Ward, G. Prothero, & S. Leathes (eds) (1902).
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766, by Fred Anderson (2000).
The Colonial Experience, by David Hawke (1966).
Empire of Fortune, by Francis Jennings (1988).
Origins of the American Revolution, by John Miller (1943).
A New Age Now Begins, Vol. I, by Page Smith (1976).