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.

Follow by Email


Saturday, May 30, 2015

Virginia Takes a Less Firm Stand Against the Stamp Act

On this date 250 years ago the Virginia House of Burgesses took up the resolutions against the Stamp Act that Patrick Henry had drafted the previous day. Those same legislators had narrowly approved them as a committee of the whole, but this was the official vote.

A Frenchman traveling through Virginia happened to be in Williamsburg that day and wrote this account:
May the 30th. Set out early from half-way house in the chair and broke fast at York[town], arived at Williamsburg at 12, where I saw three negroes hanging at the galous for having robbed Mr. Waltho of 300 pounds. I went immediately to the Assembly which was seting, where I was entertained with very strong debates concerning dutys that the Parlement wants to lay on the America colonys, which they call or stile stamp dutys.

Shortly after I came in, one of the members stood up and said he had read that in former time Tarquin and Julius had their Brutus, Charles had his Cromwell, and he did not doubt but some good American would stand up in favour of his Country; but (says he) in a more moderate manner, and was going to continue, when the Speaker of the House rose and, said he, the last that stood up had spoke traison, and was sorey to see that not one of the members of the House was loyal enough to stop him before he had gone so far.

Upon which the same member stood up again (his name is Henery) and said that if he had afronted the Speaker or the House, he was ready to ask pardon, and he would shew his loyalty to His Majesty King George the third at the expence of the last drop of his blood; but what he had said must be attributed to the interest of his country’s dying liberty which he had at heart, and the heat of passion might have lead him to have said something more than he intended; but, again, if he said anything wrong, be begged the Speaker and the House’s pardon. Some other members stood up and backed him, on which that afaire was droped.
Likewise, a letter from Virginia published in the 13 Aug 1765 London Gazetteer said:
Mr. ————— [Henry] has lately blazed out in the Assembly, where he compared —————— [George III] to a Tarquin, a Caesar, a Charles the First, threatening him with a Brutus, or an Oliver Cromwell; yet Mr. —————— [Henry] was not sent to the Tower: but having prevailed to get some ridiculous violent Resolutions passed, rode off in triumph…
Some recountings of the day say speaker of the house John Robinson wasn’t there, and attorney general Peyton Randolph presided in his place. However, Gov. Francis Fauquier reported to London:
The most strenuous opposers of this rash heat were the late Speaker, the King’s Attorney and Mr. [George] Wythe; but they were overpowered by the young hot and giddy members. In the course of the debates I have heard that very indecent language was used by a Mr. Henry a young lawyer who had not been a month a Member of the House; who carryed all the young Members with him; so that I hope I am authorised in saying there is cause at least to doubt whether this would have been the sense of the Colony if more of their Representatives had done their duty by attending to the end of the Session.
Henry himself recalled the event as a narrow victory. Late in life he wrote of his resolutions: “Upon offering them to the House violent debates ensued. Many threats were uttered, and much abuse cast on me by the party for submission. After a long and warm contest the resolutions passed by a very small majority, perhaps of one or two only.”

Fauquier’s letter confirmed that the house was closely divided, “the greatest majority being 22 to 17; for the 5th Resolution, 20 to 19 only.”

The official record of the house says:
Mr. Attorney, from the Committee of the whole House, reported, according to Order, that the Committee had considered of the Steps necessary to be taken in Consequence of the Resolutions of the House of Commons of Great Britain relative to the charging Stamp Duties in the Colonies and Plantations in America, and that they had come to several Resolutions thereon; which he read in his Place, and then delivered in at the Table, where they were again twice read, and agreed to by the House, with some Amendments, and are as follow:

Resolved, That the first Adventurers 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 Persons 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.
Those final resolutions showed some small changes in the language from Henry’s draft, such as adding the word “Liberties” multiple places. But the big change was that the fifth resolution didn’t appear in the record at all, though even Gov. Fauquier admitted it had passed, 20–19.

TOMORROW: How the empire struck back.

No comments: