J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, February 07, 2015

The Debate Over the Debate Over the Stamp Act

In 1765, when the House of Commons started to debate the Stamp Act, there was no official record of Parliament’s debates, either from the government or private organizations.

In fact, it wasn’t entirely clear that reporting on parliamentary debates in detail was legal. Newspaper printers protected themselves by not spelling out the full names of politicians, as in yesterday’s report on George Grenville introducing legislation or this account of Lord Camden.

Because there was no authoritative record of those debates, that could produce debates about what Members of Parliament actually said. On 13 Apr 1765, the Providence Gazette reported this scoop:
By a Letter from London in the last Ship to Boston, we are acquainted, that Colonel ISAAC BARRE, Member of Parliament for the Borough of Chipping Wycomb, in the County of Bucks, distinguished himself GLORIOUSLY in Parliament, by a strenuous Opposition of ministerial Projections against the KNOWN RIGHTS of the Colonies, which were most unconstitutionally attacked by the Commons of Great-Britain, when they resolved that Stamp Duties should be charged here.—

He, openly, and with great Firmness, patronized the injured Colonies, and asserted their Privileges.—A COLUMN ought to be erected to him in America, as a LASTING MONUMENT of the Gratitude of the People, for his Virtue, Fortitude, and animated Endeavours to rescue them from Slavery.——
The Boston Post-Boy reprinted that story, but then responded on 29 April:
We hear there is a Letter in Town which says, That Col. BARRE, a Member of the House of Commons, did not say one Word in Opposition to the laying a Stamp-Duty on the Colonies; and if this is true, There cannot be a Word of Truth in that Pompous Account which we Published in our last, under Providence Head, of that Gentleman’s having “GLORIOUSLY distinguished himself, by a strenuous Opposition of the Projections against the KNOWN RIGHTS of the Colonies.”——

However, as the Expectations of the Public have been rais’d, we hope that Gentleman will do something GRAND, in behalf of the distressed Colonies, and if he does, we make no doubt but proper Notice will be taken of him.
On 4 May, the Providence Gazette could only reply:
The Account which was given in our Paper of the 13th of April, of Colonial BARRE’s distinguishing himself gloriously in Parliament in Behalf of the Colonies, is founded on a Letter to a Person of Distinction in this Town, from a certain Agent for one of the Colonies, who, one would think, could not be mistaken as to that Gentleman’s Behaviour in the House; and how a meer Negative should be proved by a Letter in Boston, seems very strange. It remains therefore that the Writer in the Boston Post-Boy be more explicit, if he thinks proper, as to that Matter.——However, it may be Matter of some Doubt, whether Col. BARRE objected against the Legality of taxing the Colonies, when he exerted himself to ward off the fatal Stamp Duties, or not.
(The picture above shows Barré in 1765—though painter Hugh Douglas Hamilton must have smoothed out the scars on his right cheek.)

TOMORROW: The debate at last.


Comittee of Correspondence said...

There is a great pdf book that one can download called "The Parliamentary History of England” Vol. XVIII 1774-1777". This book is a record all debates in the Houses of the Commons and Lords.

J. L. Bell said...

Another good source are the annual volumes of John Almon's Remembrancer. Debates, official documents, and newspaper stories in Britain, many of the last taken from American newspapers. It started publishing in 1770, if I recall right.

J. L. Bell said...

Here's an attempt from 1813 to recreate the Stamp Act debate. It appears to be entirely based on Jared Ingersoll's report, which I'll run tomorrow. And all its commentary about the ill-judged law is based on 20-20 hindsight.

The compiler was William Cobbett, a British man who moved to America, was a high Federalist in the early republic, then moved back to Britain and became a radical.