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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Monday, February 15, 2016

The House of Lords Considers the Declaratory Act

The Rockingham government’s strategy to extricate itself from the unenforceable Stamp Act and yet maintain Parliament’s authority was to couple the repeal of that law with the Declaratory Act.

That act stated outright that Parliament’s laws were binding in British colonies. No other legislature in the empire could be more powerful than the Parliament in London. That would become part of the constitution of the British Empire.

In an undated letter to Lt. Gov. Cadwallader Colden of New York, Maj. Thomas James, who went to London after an anti-Stamp mob destroyed his house on 1 Nov 1765, described the Lords’ debate on the law this way:
the House of Lords in point of Question; whether the Mother Country has a Right to lay an Internal Tax upon the Americans? and whether the Colonies are not subject to the Decrees of King Lords and Commons.

Given by 125 to 5 That the Colonies are subject to the Laws of Great Britain; and that the Acts of the House of Commons are binding throughout all the Colonies of America

The 5 in favour of America were CambdenPauletTorringtonCornwallisShelburn — The first made a very Good Speech upon a Wrong Cause But the Lord Chancellor [the Earl of Northington] Cut Him to pieces; and observed; He wonderd how Lord Cambden could attempt to support so bad so dangerous and so unjust an Argument, with so serene a Countenance;

The Commons have resolved that the Colonies ought to be subject to the Laws and Decrees of Great Britain; they are softening all Resolves with a firmness, that they shall be permanent. The Repeal of the [Stamp] Act will be the last Resolve. I believe it will be softened—
Of the five peers who voted against the Declaratory Act, Baron Camden succeeded his nemesis Northington as Lord Chancellor later that year. Camden continued to advocate for American rights even more than his colleagues in the short-lived Chatham administration. His speech against the Declaratory Act indirectly led to the phrase “No Taxation without Representation.”

Charles Powlett, the Duke of Bolton, committed suicide in July. Not even Horace Walpole knew why. His brother succeeded him, switching from the opposition in the House of Commons to supporting the government until 1778, when he got sick of how the American War was going.

Viscount Torrington was a young man, only twenty-four. He married a daughter of the Earl of Cork in July, and they had several children. He voted for less strict policy toward America at a couple of other important moments but doesn’t appear to have been a vocal political leader.

The Earl of Shelburne became prime minister late in the American War and completed the 1783 Treaty of Paris to end it. Under his next and higher peerage, Marquess of Lansdowne, he was the recipient of Gilbert Stuart’s famous full-length portrait of George Washington.

And finally there’s Earl Cornwallis (shown above), in 1766 a lieutenant colonel in the army as well as a peer. We know what he had to do in the Revolutionary War. Afterwards, Cornwallis went on to a more successful career building the British Empire in India.


Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

Cornwallis was a member of a tiny minority voting against the Declaratory Act--amazing!

Talk about the ironies of history!

Mark said...

Even more ironic is that the Earl of Shelburne was the namesake for the town of Shelburne, NS, which became the single biggest destination for Loyalists who fled the U.S. as the war ended. Of all those who left, 10,000 made their way to Shelburne (at least initially).

Also interesting that Cornwallis, Torrington, Camden and Shelburne are all places in NS, and all have some connection to the dissenters of the Act.(I think).

J. L. Bell said...

Shelburne, Massachusetts, was also named after the Earl of Shelburne, in 1768. It was one of several locations in America named after British statesmen of the mid-1700s, such as Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and Camden, New Jersey.

I checked to see if Bolton, Massachusetts, or Torrington, Connecticut, were among those places, but no. Since British peers usually took their names from British places, and New England settlers usually named their towns after British places, there was a lot of overlap.

Jan said...

Shelburne, Vermont, was also named after the Second Earl and Barre, Vermont, after Isaac Barre.