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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Friday, February 06, 2015

Introducing the Stamp Act

On 6 Feb 1765, two and a half centuries ago, the chief British minister, George Grenville (1712-1770, shown here), formally introduced the Stamp Act into the House of Commons.

That wasn’t a sudden move. Grenville had floated the idea of a stamp tax—in practical terms, a tax on paper—for the North American colonies in the previous spring. That allowed the colonial legislatures to express their responses to the idea of paying new taxes to support the imperial government.

Not surprisingly, those responses were negative. In November the Massachusetts legislature, after much discussion between the House and the Council, had sent the House of Commons a petition which said, in part:
That there have been communicated to your petitioners sundry resolutions of the House of Commons in their last session for imposing stamp duties or taxes upon the inhabitants of the colonies, the consideration whereof was referred to the next session.

That your petitioners acknowledge with all gratitude the tenderness of the legislature of Great Britain of the liberties of the subjects in the colonies, who have always judged by their representatives both of the way and manner in which internal taxes should be raised within their respective governments, and of the ability of the inhabitants to pay them.

That they humbly hope the colonies in general have so demeaned themselves, more especially during the late war, as still to deserve the continuance of all those liberties which they have hitherto enjoyed.
Not surprisingly, those preemptive rejections of a stamp tax (and complaints about the latest Sugar Act as well) didn’t go over well in London. In fact, the 4 May Providence Gazette reported how Grenville handled them:
By several Letters from London we learn, That the Addresses from the Colonies were wrote with such warm and unbecoming Expressions, that it would have been dangerous to have presented them to the Parliament: That when the House of Commons entered upon the Consideration of the Colonies, Mr. G——le said much upon the subject, and with much Moderation; that after he had shewn the Equity and Necessity of taxing the Colonies, he expressed much Concern at the undue Spirit of the Addresses, but forbore to be particular, lest it should exasperate the House; and requested they would proceed with Coolness and Moderation.
So from the start, the American colonists and the Parliament had trouble even finding common ground for a discussion.

COMING UP: The debate in London.


Daud Alzayer said...

I'm usually the first to defend the actions of the British government, but Grenville consistently acts like he's trying to give the colonists the finger.

First he tells them to raise the money themselves if they don't want the Stamp Act, but gives no amount and declares their efforts unsatisfactory.

Then he tells them they should make their objections known if they don't want the Stamp Act which they do in no uncertain terms and then he dismisses them saying that the decision has already been made.

And then he goes on to add that he will not share anything they wrote with anyone else because the audacity they had to object to the act is offensive.

ಠ_ಠ You're killin' us here George!

J. L. Bell said...

One press report said that of the colonial legislatures who sent comments on the Stamp Act, only two offered to kick in any money for the imperial government, even on their own terms.

And clearly the sticking-point of parliamentary sovereignty was already in the way of everything. I suspect the suggestion that colonial legislatures were the equal of Parliament was what Grenville described as disloyal, and what government supporters complained was (in 1765!) a dangerous sign of independency.

Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

Glad to see Old State House staff kicking off this discussion on the occasion of the Stamp Act's 250th. I think Daud is right on target in terms of outlining why Grenville's behavior was perfectly shaped to irritate colonial British Americans.

And, John, do keep hammering away on the "parliamentary sovereignty" point--it's why, absent a philosophical revolution among the British leadership that would have enabled them to imagine a federal empire--I think a break between the colonies and London was inevitable if Parliament was set on pushing the point.

J. L. Bell said...

I think Parliament had been pushing that particular point (against monarchs) since 1688, or at least since the creation of a single British Parliament in 1707. Most of the seventeenth century had been taken up with that argument as well, and it had been costly. So almost no British politicians were bold enough to open that question up to debate.