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 13, 2016

Benjamin Franklin on the Stamp Act

On 13 Feb 1766, two hundred fifty years ago today, Parliament questioned Benjamin Franklin about the American colonists’ response to the Stamp Act. Franklin was in London as agent for the Pennsylvania legislature, and he had been picking up other lobbying assignments as well.

The Founders Online website has the whole text of that examination as published by Franklin’s printing partner, David Hall, in September 1766. Because it was still illegal to publish transcripts of parliamentary sessions, Hall stated merely that Franklin had spoken “before an August Assembly.”

Franklin recalled that the following questions came from Grey Cooper (c. 1726-1801), M.P. and secretary to the Treasury, and “other Friends with whom I had discoursd, and were intended to bring out such Answers as they desired and expected from me.” I was struck by how some of those questions were aimed at the issue of unfairly taxing the poor:
Q. Is the American stamp-act an equal tax on that country?

A. I think not.

Q. Why so?

A. The greatest part of the money must arise from law suits for the recovery of debts, and be paid by the lower sort of people, who were too poor easily to pay their debts. It is therefore a heavy tax on the poor, and a tax upon them for being poor.

Q. But will not this increase of expence be a means of lessening the number of law suits?

A. I think not; for as the costs all fall upon the debtor, and are to be paid by him, they would be no discouragement to the creditor to bring his action.

Q. Would it not have the effect of excessive usury?

A. Yes, as an oppression of the debtor.
Members of Parliament probed for ways of raising money in North America that the North American colonists would accept. The debate over the Stamp Act had given rise to a distinction between internal taxes, as with the Stamp Act, and external taxes, such as Customs duties. Franklin acknowledged the difference but avoided saying the colonists would accept tariffs as a way for the central government to raise money:
Q. Was it an opinion in America before 1763, that the parliament had no right to lay taxes and duties there?

A. I never heard any objection to the right of laying duties to regulate commerce; but a right to lay internal taxes was never supposed to be in parliament, as we are not represented there.

Q. On what do you found your opinion, that the people in America made any such distinction?

A. I know that whenever the subject has occurred in conversation where I have been present, it has appeared to be the opinion of every one, that we could not be taxed in a parliament where we were not represented. But the payment of duties laid by act of parliament, as regulations of commerce, was never disputed.

Q. But can you name any act of assembly, or public act of any of your governments, that made such distinction?

A. I do not know that there was any; I think there was never an occasion to make any such act, till now that you have attempted to tax us; that has occasioned resolutions of assembly, declaring the distinction, in which I think every assembly on the continent, and every member in every assembly, have been unanimous. . . .

Q. You say they do not object to the right of parliament in laying duties on goods to be paid on their importation; now, is there any kind of difference between a duty on the importation of goods, and an excise on their consumption?

A. Yes; a very material one; an excise, for the reasons I have just mentioned, they think you can have no right to lay within their country. But the sea is yours; you maintain, by your fleets, the safety of navigation in it; and keep it clear of pirates; you may have therefore a natural and equitable right to some toll or duty on merchandizes carried through that part of your dominions, towards defraying the expence you are at in ships to maintain the safety of that carriage.
Franklin, at least in the printed records, always spoke of tariffs intended “to regulate commerce” as acceptable to Americans—but by implication other sorts of tariffs would not be. However, a Member of Parliament named Nathaniel Ryder came away from this session with this understanding about the colonists: “That they would not object to duty laid upon importation as considering the sea as belonging to Great Britain, and anything passing that sea would be subject to Great Britain.”

TOMORROW: The questions keep coming.

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