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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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

“The right of representation and taxation always went together”

Having spent a week on the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, I’m going to jump back to 250 years ago and Parliament’s debate over what to do about the Stamp Act.

That law was clearly unenforceable in North America. The Marquess of Rockingham’s government was already working with Barlow Trecothick, spokesman for London’s merchants doing business with North America, to revise it. (The Journal of the American Revolution recently published an article with more about Trecothick’s role.)

But simply repealing the tax might suggest that the ministry thought it was as unconstitutional as Americans had complained. And Parliament could not countenance some of the colonists’ irregular methods of protest. Like the riots. And the unauthorized assemblies.

On 27 Jan 1766, according to Horace Walpole’s Memoirs of the Reign of King George the Third, an M.P. submitted the Stamp Act Congress’s petition against the law to the House of Commons. The Chancellor of the Exchequer asked for the petition to be withdrawn as coming from a body with no standing.
Mr. [William] Pitt warmly undertook the protection of the petition, which he affirmed was innocent, dutiful, and respectful. . . . He painted the Americans as people who, in an ill-fated hour, had left this country to fly from the Star Chamber and High Commission Courts. The desert smiled upon them in comparison of this country. It was the evil genius of this country that had riveted amongst them this union, now called dangerous and federal. . . . This country upon occasion has its meetings, and nobody objects to them; but the names of six or eight Americans are to be big with danger.

He could not guess by the turn of the debate, whether the Administration intended lenity or not. To him lenity was recommended by every argument. He would emphatically hear the Colonies upon this their petition. The right of representation and taxation always went together, and should never be separated. Except for the principles of Government, records were out of the question. “You have broken,” continued he, “the original compact if you have not a right of taxation.” The repeal of the Stamp Act was an inferior consideration to receiving this petition.

Sir Fletcher Norton [shown above] rose with great heat, and said, He could hardly keep his temper at some words that had fallen from the right honourable gentleman. He had said, that the original compact had been broken between us and America, if the House had not the right of taxation. Pitt rose to explain—Norton continued: “The gentleman now says, I mistook his words; I do not now understand them.”

Pitt interrupted him angrily, and said, “I did say the Colony compact would be broken—and what then?”

Norton replied, “The gentleman speaks out now, and I understand him; and if the House go along with me, the gentleman will go to another place.”
Walpole’s footnote explained that Norton meant, “To the bar of the House, whither members are ordered when they violate the rules or privileges of Parliament.” However, Maj. Thomas James, observing his first parliamentary session, thought he meant that Pitt “ought to have been sent to the Tower.”
Pitt at this looked with the utmost contempt, tossed up his chin, and cried, “Oh! oh!—oh! oh!”

“I will bear that from no man,” said Norton; “changing their place did not make Englishmen change their allegiance. I say the gentleman sounds the trumpet to rebellion; or would he have strangers in the gallery go away with these his opinions? He has chilled my blood at the idea.”

“The gentleman,” rejoined Pitt, “says I have chilled his blood: I shall be glad to meet him in any place with the same opinions, when his blood is warmer.”
In the end, Pitt’s approach gained only a handful of supporters, including Col. Isaac Barré and a new M.P. named Edmund Burke. The House set aside the Americans’ petition and moved on to other matters.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the government continued to look for a way out of the Stamp Act.

1 comment:

Mary Jean Adams said...

Unconstitutional and inadvisable are not always the same thing.