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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Friday, May 29, 2015

Virginia Considers a Firm Stand Against the Stamp Act

Britain’s North American colonies had a chance to weigh in on the Stamp Act before Parliament passed it, as described back here. All of them said it would be a Bad Thing. Few or none offered any alternative way for the Crown to raise revenue for its army on the continent. So Prime Minister George Grenville proposed the law, and it sailed through.

News of the Stamp Act arrived in North America in early May 1765. Virginia was the oldest, largest, and most populous of Britain’s colonies on the continent at that time, and 250 years ago today its House of Burgesses took up the matter.

That legislature’s official record for 29 May 1765 concludes like this:
On a Motion made,

Resolved, That the House resolve itself into a Committee of the whole House immediately, to consider of the Steps necessary to be taken in Consequence of the Resolutions of the House of Commons of Great Britain relative to the charging certain Stamp Duties in the Colonies and Plantations in America.

The House accordingly resolved itself into the said Committee, and after some Time spent therein Mr. Speaker resumed the Chair, and Mr. Attorney reported that the said Committee had had the said Matter under their Consideration, and had come to several s Resolutions thereon, which he was ready to deliver in at the Table.

Ordered, That the said Report be received Tomorrow.
By becoming a committee of the whole, the burgesses could set aside their usual procedures and record-keeping to debate more freely.

The speaker of the house was John Robinson. He was also the province’s treasurer. He had held both offices since 1738, or for more than a quarter-century. That turned out to have been a Bad Thing, as Virginians discovered the next year when he died suddenly and they checked his books.

The colony’s attorney general was Peyton Randolph, shown above. He had been the principal author of the colony’s objections to the proposed Stamp Act, which had yet to receive an official reply from London. Randolph had also served in his office for a long time: since 1744, with a one-year interruption. His father had held the same office before him. Virginia didn’t like change.

The principal author of the proposed resolutions, however, was a newcomer: a young lawyer named Patrick Henry. He had been elected partway through the year to fill an empty seat and had arrived in Williamsburg only nine days before. Nonetheless, he had things to say about the new Stamp Act.

Near the end of his life, Henry wrote:
I had been for the first time elected a Burgess a few days before, was young, inexperienced, unacquainted with the forms of the House, and the members that composed it. Finding the men of weight averse to opposition, and the commencement of the tax at hand, and that no person was likely to step forth, I determined to venture, and alone, unadvised, and unassisted, on a blank leaf of an old law-book, wrote the within.
This is what the older Henry put down as his draft version of the resolutions:
Resolved, That the first Adventurers and Settlers of this his Majesties Colony and Dominion brought with them and transmitted to their Posterity and all other his Majestie’s Subjects since inhabiting in this his Majestie’s said Colony all the Priviledges, Franchises & Immunities that have at any Time been held, enjoyed, & possessed by the People of Great Britain.

Resolved, That by the two royal Charters granted by King James the first the Colonists aforesaid are declared intituled to all the Priviledges, Liberties & Immunities of Denizens and natural born 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 Persons chosen by themselves to represent them who can only know what Taxes the People are able to bear and the easiest Mode of raising them and are equally affected by such Taxes themselves is the distinguishing Characteristick of British Freedom and without which the ancient Constitution cannot subsist.

Resolved, That his Majestie’s liege People of this most ancient Colony have uninteruptedly enjoyed the Right of being thus governed by their own assembly in the Article of their Taxes and internal Police and that the same hath never been forfeited or any other Way given up but hath been constantly recognized by the Kings of People of Great Britain.

Resolved, Therefore that the General Assembly of this Colony have the only and sole exclusive Right & Power to lay Taxes & Impositions upon the Inhabitants of this Colony and that every Attempt to vest such Power in any Person or Persons whatsoever other than the General Assembly aforesaid has a manifest Tendency to destroy British as well as American Freedom.
Those were very strong words for 1765.

Gov. Francis Fauquier complained to his superiors in London about how this complaint was brought up:
just at the end of the Session when most of the members had left the town, there being but 39 present out of 116 of which the House of Burgesses now consists, a motion was made to take into consideration the Stamp Act, a copy of which had crept into the House, and in a Committee of the whole House five resolutions were proposed and agreed to, all by very small majorities.
Though the top brass of the Virginia burgesses didn’t like the Stamp Act, they really didn’t like change. Still, once the committee of the whole had approved those resolutions, the house had to vote on them.

TOMORROW: Debate in the House of Burgesses.

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