At stake were clashing ideas of the British empire itself. American leaders viewed the empire as an association of equals in which free settlers overseas enjoyed the same rights as Britons at home. Colonists in other outposts of the empire, such as India, the West Indies, and Canada, echoed this outlook. All, in the name of liberty, claimed the right to govern their own affairs. British residents of Calcutta, India, demanded the “rights inherent in Englishmen.” British merchants in Quebec said that to allow French laws to remain in force would reduce them to “slavery.” The British government and its appointed representatives in America, by contrast, saw the empire as a system of unequal parts in which different principles governed different areas, and all were subject to the authority of Parliament. To surrender the right to tax the colonies would set a dangerous precedent for the empire as a whole. “In an empire, extended and diversified as that of Great Britain,” declared Governor Francis Bernard of Massachusetts in 1765, “there must be a supreme legislature, to which all other powers must be subordinate.” Parliament, Bernard continued, was the “sanctuary of liberty”—a description with which many Americans were beginning to disagree.
This teapot protesting the Stamp Act was produced in England and marketed in colonial America, illustrating the close political and economic connections between the two.
A woodcut depicting a crowd attempting to intimidate a New Hampshire official charged with carrying out the Stamp Act. They throw stones at his effigy, while, to the left, a mock funeral begins.
Some opponents of the Stamp Act distinguished between “internal” taxes like the stamp duty, which they claimed Parliament had no right to impose, and revenue legitimately raised through the regulation of trade. But more and more colonists insisted that Britain had no right to tax them at all, since Americans were unrepresented in the House of Commons. “No taxation without representation” became their rallying cry. Virginia’s House of Burgesses approved four resolutions offered by the fiery orator Patrick Henry. They insisted that the colonists enjoyed the same “liberties, privileges, franchises, and immunities” as residents of the mother country and that the right to consent to taxation was a cornerstone of “British freedom.” (The House of Burgesses rejected as too radical three other resolutions, including Henry’s call for outright resistance to unlawful taxation, but these were also reprinted in colonial newspapers.)
In October 1765, the Stamp Act Congress, with twenty-seven delegates from nine colonies, including some of the most prominent men in America, met in New York and endorsed Virginia’s position. Its resolutions began by affirming the “allegiance” of all colonists to the “Crown of Great Britain” and their “due subordination” to Parliament. But they went on to insist that the right to consent to taxation was “essential to the freedom of a people.” Soon, merchants throughout the colonies agreed to boycott British goods until Parliament repealed the Stamp Act. This was the first major cooperative action among Britain’s mainland colonies. In a sense, by seeking to impose uniformity on the colonies rather than dealing with them individually as in the past, Parliament had inadvertently united America.