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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Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Marquess of Rockingham’s Stamp Act Revisions

I’m going to break from the campus debate over revising now-problematic symbols to catch up with developments in 1765 concerning the Stamp Act.

When we last left the Marquess of Rockingham, the sudden death of the king’s uncle, the Duke of Cumberland, had left him as the leader of the British government.

Rockingham’s allies in Parliament had opposed the Stamp Act, so he had no stake in maintaining the previous administration’s law. On the other hand, he didn’t want to undermine his own authority or the authority of the Crown by appearing to back down to mob violence or selfish colonists who didn’t want to do their part in maintaining the British Empire.

On 7 November, the London alderman Barlow Trecothick wrote to Rockingham about the problems with the American Stamp Act. Trecothick was linked by business and marriage to the Apthorp family of Boston and New York, and had become the voice of the Caribbean trade in London—a very big part of the imperial economy. With Trecothick’s input, Rockingham started to shape what he hoped would be a compromise that everyone could accept.

By late November, according to John L. Bullion’s 1992 study of how the British ministry reacted to the anti-Stamp protests, the marquess wrote out a memorandum proposing three revisions to the Stamp Act that answered American objections while preserving the tax itself:
  • Disputes arising from the law would be handled in local colonial courts, not the Vice Admiralty court in Halifax, and thus be subject to trial by jury.
  • People could pay the tax in legal notes of their colonies, not just in scarce gold and silver coins.
  • Merchants would not have to use stamped paper for trade within the British Empire—a point Trecothick had pushed particularly.
Those changes responded to three of the four common complaints about the law. But they wouldn’t have addressed the issue that would in a couple of years come to be known as “taxation without representation”—whether the Parliament in London could levy taxes on British colonies.

Rockingham and Trecothick appear to have developed a plan in which the alderman and the London business community would propose those ideas, and the first minister would consider them seriously and decide that for the cause of imperial trade the government could adopt them. In the first week of December, Trecothick got the ball rolling by presiding over a meeting of top merchants doing business with the West Indies.

But Rockingham’s proposals never went before Parliament. A few days after Trecothick’s meeting, London learned that the situation in America was even worse than people had feared.

TOMORROW: Hearings in the House.

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