Reactions to the Stamp Act

Virginia Resolves of 1765

[Note: these resolutions were passed by the Virginia House of Burgesses in May 1765.]

Whereas the honorable House of Commons in England have late drawn into question how far the general assembly of this colony has power to enact laws for laying taxes and imposing duties payable to the pope of this his majesty’s most ancient colony — For settling and ascertaining the same to all future times, the House of Burgesses of this present general assembly have come to the several following resolutions:

Resolved, That the first Adventures and Settlers of this his Majesty’s Colony and Dominion of Virginia brought with them, and transmitted to their Posterity, and all other his Majesty’s Subjects since inhabiting in this his Majesty’s said Colony, all the Liberties, Privileges, Franchises, and Immunities, that have at any Time been held, enjoyed, and possessed, by the people of Great Britain.

Resolved, That by two royal Charters, granted by King James the First, the Colonists aforesaid are declared entitled to all Liberties, Privileges, and Immunities of Denizens and natural Subjects, to all Intents and Purposes, as if they had been abiding and born within the Realm of England.

Resolved, That the Taxation of the People by themselves, or by Person chosen by themselves to represent them, who can only know what Taxes the People are able to bear, or the easiest Method of raising them, and must themselves be affected by every Tax laid on the People, is the only Security against a burthensome Taxation, and the distinguishing Characteristick of British Freedom, without which the ancient Constitution cannot exist.

Resolved, That his Majesty’s liege People of this his most ancient and loyal Colony have without Interruption enjoyed the inestimable Right of being governed by such Laws, respecting their internal Polity and Taxation, as are derived from their own Consent, with the Approbation of their Sovereign, or his Substitute; and that the same hath never been forfeited or yielded up, but hath been constantly recognized by the Kings and People of Great Britain.

[The following resolutions were drafted and considered by the Virginia House of Burgesses, but ultimately rejected.]

Resolved, That his majesty’s liege people, the inhabitants of this colony, are not bound to yield obedience to any law or ordinance whatsoever designed to impose any taxation whatsoever upon them, other than the laws and ordinances of the general assembly aforesaid.

Resolved, That any person who shall by speaking or writing maintain that any person or persons other than the general assembly of this colony have any right or power to impose or lay any taxation whatsoever on the people here shall be deemed an enemy to this his majesty’s colony.

Pennsylvania Resolves, 1765

Resolved, That the inhabitants of this Province are entitled to all the Liberties, Rights and Privileges of his Majesty’s Subjects in Great Britain or elsewhere, and that the Constitution of Government in this Province is founded on the natural Rights of Mankind and the noble Principles of English Liberty and therefore is, or ought to be, perfectly free.

Resolved, That it is the inherent Birthright and indubitable Privilege of every British Subject to be taxed only by his own Consent or that of his legal Representatives, in Conjunction with his Majesty or his Substitutes.

Resolved, That the laying Taxes upon the Inhabitants of this Province in any other Manner, being manifestly subversive of public Liberty, must, of necessary Consequence, be utterly destructive of public Happiness.

Resolved, That the vesting and Authority in the Courts of Admiralty to decide in Suits relating to the Stamp Duty, and other Matters foreign to their proper Jurisdiction, is highly dangerous to the Liberties of his Majesty’s American Subjects, contrary to Magna Charta, the great Charter and Fountain of English Liberty, and destructive of one of their most darling and acknowledged Rights, that of Trials by Juries.

Resolved, That it is the Opinion of this House that the Restraints imposed by several late [recent] Acts of Parliament on the Trade of this Province, at a Time when the People labor under an enormous Load of Debt, must of Necessity be attended with the most fatal Consequences, not only to this Province, but to the Trade of our Mother Country.

Maurice Moore.

[Excerpt from 1765 pamphlet, The Justice and Policy of Taxing the American Colonies, Wilmington, North Carolina]

A representative is to act in every respect as the persons who appointed him to that office would do, were they themselves present: And hath the members of the House of Commons, or any of them, been chosen by the Colonists to represent them? Hath their conduct in respect to the Stamp Duty been consistent with the interests of the Colonists? or hath that conduct been such as the Colonists would have adopted had they been present in Parliament? No surely: So far from it, there are very few members of that assembly who have ever been heard of in America. The Stamp Duty is inconsistent with their interests, and the mode of imposing it destructive of their most essential rights and liberties.

Daniel Dulany

[Excerpt from Considerations on the Propriety of Imposing Taxes in the British Colonies, Annapolis, Maryland]

The right of exemption from all taxes without their consent, the colonies claim as British subjects. They derive this right from the common law, which their charters have declared and confirmed, and they conceive that when stripped of this right… they are at the same time deprived of every privilege distinguishing free-men from slaves.

On the other hand, they acknowledge themselves to be subordinate to the mother country, and that the authority vested in the supreme council of the nation may be justly exercised to support and preserve that subordination…

But the inhabitants in the colonies have no share in this great council… For those securities are derived to the subject [person] from the principle that he is not to be taxed without his own consent, and an inhabitant in America can give his consent in no other manner than in assembly.

Joseph Galloway

[In this excerpted August 1765 letter to the New-York Gazette, “Americanus” (Joseph Galloway) defends the Stamp Act.]

At a time when almost every American pen is employed in placing the transactions of the Parliament of our mother country is the most odious light, and in alienating the affections of a numerous and loyal people from the royal person of the best of sovereigns; permit, however unpopular the task, through the impartial channel of your paper, to point out the impudence and folly of such conduct, and to give a brief and true state of the facts included in the dispute between Great Britain and her colonies. From whence the cool and unprejudiced may form a right judgment of the motives of her late [recent] conduct, and of the impropriety and rashness of the method that is taken to prevail on her to alter or repeal her measures.

It is a truth too universally known that the people of England are involved in a debt under which they struggle with the utmost difficulty. From its enormity many judicious persons have predicted the ruin of the nation. Foreign powers rely on it as the only foundation of their hopes of reducing the British dominions. The protection of America has, in no small degree, contributed to this burden of the mother country. To the large sums of money that have been expended from the English treasury and the parental care of a British Parliament, we in a great measure owe our present freedom from Indian barbarities, popish cruelties and superstition.

…The preservation of America is of the utmost importance to Great Britain. A loss of it to the British crown would greatly diminish its strength, and the possession of it to any other nation would give an increase of wealth and power totally inconsistent with the safety of Britons. If then the power of protection is rightfully and solely vested in the crown; If America is of so much importance to her mother country; and if it is just and reasonable that she should contribute towards her own defense, so essential to her own and the happiness of Great Britain, will any be so absurd as to deny the reasonableness, the necessity, of the crown’s having some certainty that she will pay her proportion of aids when requisite and demanded.

…It is a proof of the greatest infatuation [delusion] to conceive that we can bully the British nation, now at peace with the whole world, and possessed of strength which the united powers of France and Spain could not subdue. Let us then convert our idle threats into dutiful remonstrances [petitions]. Reveal to them the poverty of our circumstances, and rectify the false representations which they have received of our wealth. Show them our incapacity to pay the impositions which they have laid upon us without more freedom of commerce and a circulating medium to carry on that commerce. Tell them that, should they make a thousand acts of Parliament to oblige us, we cannot give what we have not, and what they prevent us from procuring for want [need] of a due attention to our circumstances. And tell them our incapacity to pay the debt already due to the British merchants, our inability to take off [trade in] their future manufactures, and the impossibility of our contributing to the wealth, power and glory of our mother country, unless she will relax her present measures, which so essentially affect her own as well as our welfare.

Account of Thomas Hutchinson

[Thomas Hutchinson was governor of Massachusetts and described the reaction in Boston against the Stamp Act] 

The distributor of stamps for the colony of Connecticut [Jared Ingersoll] arrived in Boston from London; and, having been agent for that colony, and in other respects of a very reputable character, received from many gentlemen of the town such civilities as were due to him. When he set out for Connecticut, Mr. [Andrew] Oliver, the distributor for Massachusetts Bay, accompanied him out of town. This occasioned murmuring among the people, and an inflammatory piece in the next Boston Gazette. A few days after, early in the morning, a stuffed image was hung upon a tree, called the great tree of the south part of Boston [subsequently called Liberty Tree]. Labels affixed denoted it to be designed for the distributor of stamps. People, who were passing by, stopped to view it, and the report caused others to gather and the report caused others to gather from all quarters of the town, and many from the towns adjacent. The governor caused the council to be convened. Before they came, to any determination, the sheriff, with his deputies, had been to the place, but, by advice of some of the graver persons present, forbore any attempt to remove the image. The majority of the council, but not the whole, advised not to meddle with it; and urged as a reason, that the people were orderly, and, if left alone, would take down the image, and bury it without any disturbance; but an attempt to remove it would bring on a riot, the mischief designed to be prevented. The governor, however, thought fit to meet the council again in the afternoon.

Before night, the image was taken down, and carried through the townhouse, in the chamber whereof the governor and council were sitting. Forty or fifty tradesmen, decently dressed, preceded; and some thousands of the mob followed down King street to Olivers dock, near which Mr. Oliver had lately erected a building, which, it was conjectured, he designed for a stamp office. This was laid flat to the ground in a few minutes. From thence the mob proceeded for Fort Hill, but Mr. Oliver’s house being in the way, they endeavored to force themselves into it, and being opposed, broke the windows, beat down the doors, entered, and destroyed part of his furniture, and continued in riot until midnight, before they separated.

The next day, the governor, by advice of council, issued a proclamation, offering a reward for discovering offenders, &c. Many of the offenders were known, and the proclamation was considered as a mere matter of form. Some of the council advised to a military watch in the town the next night, but a majority were against it, and thought it enough to recommend to the select men and justices, to increase the number of the ordinary town watch; but even this was not done. Several of the council gave it as their opinion, Mr. Oliver being present, that the people, not only of the town of Boston, but of the country in general, would never submit to the execution of the stamp act, let the consequence of an opposition to it be what it would. It was also reported, that the people of Connecticut had threatened to hang their distributor on the first tree after he entered the colony; and that, to avoid it, he had turned aside to Rhode-Island. Despairing of protection, and finding his family in terror and great distress, Mr. Oliver came to a sudden resolution to resign his office…

This victory was matter of triumph. The mob assembled in the evening; not to insult the distributor, but to give him thanks, and to make a bonfire upon the hill near his house. It was hoped that the people, having obtained all that they desired, would return to order, but, having repeatedly assembled with impunity, a very small pretence served to induce them to re-assemble. The next evening, the mob surrounded the house of the lieutenant-governor and chief justice [Hutchinson’s own home]. He was at Mr. Oliver’s house when it was assaulted, and had excited the sheriff, and the colonel of the regiment, to attempt to suppress the mob. A report was soon spread, that he was a favourer of the stamp act, and had encouraged it by letters to the ministry. Upon notice of the approach of the people, he caused the doors and windows to be barred; and remained in the house. After attempting to enter, they called upon him to come into the balcony, and to declare that he had not written in favour of the act, and they would retire quite satisfied. This was an indignity to which he would not submit; and, therefore, he made no answer. An ancient reputable tradesman obtained their attention, and endeavoured to persuade them, not only of the unwarrantable-ness of their proceedings, but of the groundlessness of their suspicions of the lieutenant-governor, who might well enough wish the act of parliament had not passed, though he disapproved of the violent opposition to its execution. Some were for withdrawing, and others for continuing; when one of the neighbours called to them from his window and affirmed, that he saw the lieutenant-governor in his carriage, just before night, and that he was gone to lodge at his house in the country. Upon this, they dispersed, with only breaking some of the glass. These attacks upon two of the principal officers of the crown struck terror into people of inferior rank; rank; and though they saw the danger from this 1765 assumed power in the populace, yet they would give no aid in discountenancing it, lest they should become obnoxious themselves; for there were whisperings of danger from further acts of violence…