George Grenville completes his masterpiece, the Stamp Act, and dutifully attends to passing a Quartering Act for which he feels little enthusiasm; then loses the king’s confidence and is forced to resign before he can complete his plan of imperial reform. The colonial assemblies react in a muddled way to the challenge of the Stamp Act, and mobs take the initiative in protesting an evidently tyrannical measure. Violence nullifies the law and paralyzes governments everywhere in America. Colonial elites struggle to moderate the protests and eventually reassert their leadership. The importance of nonviolent coercive methods in maintaining colonial solidarity. The issues at stake in the Stamp Act crisis.
THE SAME REPORT to the secretary of state for the South in which General Gage described Croghan’s success in “taking Possession of the Ilinois by Treatys, Conferences, and Intrigues, with the Savages of that Country, and other Western Tribes,” also carried his first account of “Clamor Tumults and Plots” against the Stamp Act. That letter, written on September 23, 1765, showed two sudden, significant shifts from his previous correspondence. The most obvious was a change in content. Before that date, virtually all of Gage’s reports had focused on the west and the problems of imposing order there. After it, his letters thickened with news of riots in the cities and towns of the east—descriptions of what seemed a flood tide of anarchy. This change reflected Gage’s amazement at the violence of colonial reactions against what he (like Grenville) saw as incremental additions to the imperial reform program. The other shift in Gage’s letter was in the person addressed: a less dramatic change, perhaps, but an equally significant one. Gage had previously reported to Lord Halifax, but now he wrote to a new Southern secretary, General Henry Seymour Conway. This reflected a governmental upheaval that had taken place in July when, for reasons that had nothing to do with either America or imperial reform, the king sacked George Grenville and his associates in favor of a new set of ministers. The alterations in the temper of the colonists and in the composition of the ministry had both taken place with stunning swiftness, and together they added up to the gravest crisis yet to beset the postwar empire.
NO ONE HAD foreseen crisis back on February 6, when George Grenville introduced legislation to impose a stamp tax on the North American colonists. Grenville, as always, had prepared the ground well. His most ingenious tactic had been to delay the introduction of the bill for nearly a year after the passage of the American Duties Act. That interval had given his subordinates at the Treasury the time necessary to draft a bill that would fit American circumstances as closely as possible, while Grenville used the time to meet with the agents of the colonies, soliciting their opinions and reassuring them that he sought only modest financial help in paying for colonial defense. The year had also enabled Grenville to gauge American reactions to the new duties and the tightened enforcement of customs regulations. Every sign had been encouraging. While it was clear that no one in America welcomed the prospect of taxation, the absence of organized protest suggested that the bridle of imperial subordination was one to which the colonies would soon grow accustomed. Colonial quiescence, indeed, lulled the House of Commons as much as the ministry into believing that the time was ripe for reform. Thus when the House resolved itself into a Committee of the Whole to discuss the Stamp Bill, only the most radical M.P.s questioned the measure or its timing. The titan of opposition, William Pitt, had not found the issue significant enough to stir from his retreat in Kent and attend the debates.1
Only a single exchange that Wednesday evening showed any passion, and that arose more from the personalities of politicians than from the clash of political principles. It took place not long after Grenville concluded a speech in which, with accustomed thoroughness, he had rehearsed and then dismissed every conceivable objection to a colonial stamp tax. A few opposition members spoke, granting Parliament’s right to lay a tax on the colonists but questioning the “propriety” of doing so. Should not Parliament wisely avoid sowing “discord and confusion” by refraining from an open assertion of its sovereignty? Charles Townshend then replied, with his usual wit, in support of the ministry. He was glad, he said, to hear “the right of taxing America asserted and not disputed” by the honorable gentlemen, for if Parliament were ever to give up that right, then “he must give up the word ‘colony’—for that implies subordination.” The straitened “state of the mother country,” he concluded, made it necessary and proper that colonies “planted with so much tenderness, governed with so much affection, and established with so much care and attention,” should come to her aid. “If America looks to Great Britain for protection, she must enable [us] to protect her. If she expects our fleets, she must assist our revenue.”2
With that, Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Barré, the scarred veteran of the Battle of Québec and inveterate opponent of the ministry, was on his feet. To him it seemed obvious that the sleek Townshend—Newcastle’s protégé and erstwhile golden boy of the opposition, once celebrated as heir apparent to Pitt but now proving the truth of his sobriquet “Weather-cock”—was ingratiating himself to Grenville, angling for some post of profit. Without premeditation Barré improvised the reply that would make him a hero in America. He began by quietly observing that he did not doubt the Americans’ ability to pay a stamp tax, but only feared that making them do so would create “disgust. I had almost said hatred.” Then, with growing vehemence, he heaped scorn on Townshend’s peroration.
They planted by your care? No! your oppressions planted them in America. They fled from your tyranny to a then uncultivated and unhospitable country. . . . And yet, actuated by principles of true English liberty, they met all these hardships with pleasure, compared with what they suffered in their own country, from the hands of those who should have been their friends.
They nourished up by your indulgence? They grew by your neglect of them: as soon as you began to care about them, that care was exercised in sending persons to rule over them, . . . to spy out their liberty, to misrepresent their actions and to prey upon them; men whose behaviour on many occasions has caused the blood of those Sons of Liberty to recoil within them. . . .
They protected by your arms? They have nobly taken up arms in your defence, have exerted a valour amidst their constant and laborious industry for the defence of a country, whose frontier, while drenched in blood, its interior parts have yielded all its little savings to your emolument. And believe me, remember I this day told you so, that same spirit of freedom which actuated that people at first, will accompany them still. . . . God knows I do not at this time speak from motives of party heat, what I deliver are the genuine sentiments of my heart; however superior to me in general knowledge and experience the reputable body of this House may be, yet I claim to know more of America than most of you, having seen and been conversant in that country. The people I believe are as truly loyal as any subjects the King has, but a people jealous of their liberties . . . will vindicate them, if ever they they should be violated[.] But the subject is too delicate and I will say no more.
According to Jared Ingersoll, the Connecticut agent watching from the gallery, “the whole House sat awhile as amazed, intently looking and without answering a word.”3
Ingersoll—and those colonists who liked the old soldier’s description of their virtues so well that they began calling themselves Sons of Liberty—wanted to believe that Barré had shamed his fellow M.P.s to silence. It is more likely, however, that most of the members present were simply not paying attention, for the House was half-empty and the hour was growing late. Those actually listening were as likely amazed by the one-eyed colonel’s inconsistency as his eloquence. Earlier he had said, not once but twice, that he approved “that kind of [stamp] tax as being the most equal and producing” the most revenue. And at any rate Barré’s passion spent itself to no effect. When William Beckford, Pitt’s old ally and spokesman for the West Indian interest, moved to adjourn with the intent of delaying action on the measure, the M.P.s voted it down by nearly 5 to 1, 245 to 49. Then they sat, yawning and yearning for their Madeira, while the clerk read out the fifty-four resolutions that made up the bill. The clocks had struck ten before they adjourned. It was as if that long session had permanently sapped their interest in the measure, for thereafter it aroused no debate worth the name. In three weeks’ time the Stamp Bill passed through the necessary committees and formal readings, and on February 27 received its final approval on a voice vote. On March 8 the House of Lords concurred without amendment or debate, and the king gave his assent on March 22. Once Barré resumed his seat on February 6, the Stamp Act stirred no emotion stronger than ennui.4
Yet if that was how George Grenville preferred it, he personally found nothing boring about this act, his masterpiece. For it was, in truth, a work of rare ingenuity: a tax that would be both unintrusive and virtually self-collecting. No excisemen would ever enter workplaces or homes to extract money from American purses, because revenues would arise from a benign Crown monopoly over the paper that the colonists used for legal purposes and the transmission of news. Before any sheet of paper could be used in a court proceeding or sold from a press, it would have to carry a small stamp to show that the duty set for its intended use had been paid. No overt enforcement would be needed because court clerks would not enter unstamped legal documents in court records, vendors could not sell unstamped newspapers or pamphlets without risking arrest, and customs officers would have yet another excuse to seize vessels if masters were so foolish as to use unstamped bills of lading or cockets. Colonists might try to counterfeit stamps—if they cared to risk prosecution for felony—but otherwise they could not evade the tax.
Finally, the revenues from the sale of stamps would grow as the colonies grew; legal actions, commercial transactions, and newspaper publication would all increase in close relation to the growth of America’s population and prosperity. Grenville was particularly fond of the self-adjusting character of the tax, for it gave him the perfect argument to counter colonial protestations that the measure was unnecessary. When the colonial agents suggested that he could raise the same revenue by requisitioning it from the colonial assemblies, he replied that neither the colonies themselves nor the officers of the Treasury were capable of apportioning the various provinces’ contributions equitably. The war had shown the difficulty of finding acceptable ratios; a stamp duty was the only way to parcel out the burden fairly, the only tax that would afflict neither poor colonists nor poor colonies unjustly. Moreover, as Grenville did not point out to the agents, the very modest cost of the stamps—on average only two-thirds the rates Britons paid under their stamp tax—could be increased once Americans became habituated to paying the levy.5
The Stamp Act thus promised to provide the Treasury with perhaps a hundred thousand pounds annually at the start, but much more later. It asserted the sovereign right of Parliament to tax American subjects—but did it so mildly, so reasonably, that the colonists would soon think nothing of contributing to the support of the army that defended them. If at first the Crown sent two or three pounds to the colonies for every pound that Americans contributed to the empire, the Stamp Act furnished the best possible means to inure colonists to their responsibilities, gently preparing them for the day they would bear a full share of the empire’s burdens.
Like the American Duties Act, the new law was long, complex, and crafted with careful attention to producing the desired effects. Some provisions were explicitly intended to allay colonists’ fears about the purposes of the tax. The preamble, for example, announced that this was only an extension of the legislation of 1764 and, like it, was intended to pay for America’s defense; section 54 stipulated that all funds raised would be kept in a separate Exchequer account and spent solely within the colonies. Most of the provisions, however, listed those items that would require stamps and fixed their prices. A vast array of legal documents comprised the bulk of the list, ranging in value from threepence for common pleadings entered in civil courts upward through five shillings for each sheet of a will entered into probate. Deeds to land parcels of under 100 acres required one shilling sixpence stamps, while deeds to larger parcels cost more (five shillings for lots between 200 and 320 acres, for example, and an additional five shillings for each additional 320 acres). The papers on which contracts were written required stamps costing two shillings sixpence per sheet. The modest sums required for shipping documents (fourpence per sheet for cockets and bills of lading) were more a means of preventing fraud than raising revenue, but rates on licenses for income-producing activities could be comparatively steep: four pounds to retail wine, ten pounds to practice law or act as a notary. Newspapers were to bear stamps at a rate of a penny per sheet, but advertisers would be required to pay two shillings for each advertisement. Each copy of a short pamphlet would carry a shilling stamp, but almanacs came cheaper, at twopence per year covered. Finally, each deck of playing cards sold in America would need a stamp costing a shilling, while each pair of dice would require the payment of a ten-shilling duty.6
In practice, then, the act would bear most frequently on lawyers and printers, who would presumably be scrupulous both about observing the law and about passing its costs along to their clients and customers. But with less frequency the law would touch almost every free subject in the colonies: or at least those who engaged in such quotidian activities as selling land, entering into contracts, buying newspapers, playing piquet or hazard, and dying with enough property to bequeath to their heirs. The near-universality of the law offered yet another testimony to the fiscal brilliance of the first lord of the Treasury and to the ingenuity of the functionaries who drew it up, and surely occasioned some quiet self-congratulation among them. Yet even that was not all. Grenville also took care to see that, once the law went into effect on November 1—an interval necessary to allow the stamps to be printed and shipped to America— it would be administered by the Americans themselves.
Grenville knew the colonists had complained, since his reforms in the customs service, that the officers and Admiralty judges who administered the American Duties Act were virtually all British placemen and cavalier in their regard for American sensibilities. He therefore took care, once the Stamp Act was passed, to ask the agents of the colonies to nominate prominent colonists to act as stamp-masters. Since each province was to have a distributor entitled to collect a fee equal to 7.5 percent of his gross sales, this was no trivial boon, and the agents jumped to take advantage of it. Jared Ingersoll, whose pamphlet explained why the colonies ought not to be charged with “internal” taxes and who had admired the spirit of Colonel Barré’s speech, gave the matter careful consideration and then nominated himself. In May he took passage for New England, carrying his commission as Connecticut’s distributor. The new agent for Pennsylvania, Benjamin Franklin, nominated John Hughes, his political ally at home and leader of the antiproprietary party in the assembly. The Virginia distributorship went to George Washington’s colleague and friend Colonel George Mercer, who had been representing the interests of the Ohio Company in London. Mercer only narrowly beat out another prominent and politically powerful candidate from the Northern Neck, Richard Henry Lee. On advice from Massachusetts’s agent, Grenville named Andrew Oliver—brother-in-law of Lieutenant Governor and Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson, and secretary of the province in his own right—as the Bay Colony’s distributor. These men, like their fellow stamp-masters, were socially prominent, propertied, and politically respectable figures. Their appointments, Grenville reasoned, would reassure colonial elites of his good intentions, and anchor his influence among the leaders of each colony. It was another stroke of organizational acumen. The first lord must have smiled to think how little he had left to chance.7
If Grenville had given the same scrupulous care to tending his relations with the king that he gave to reshaping the relationship between the colonies and the metropolis, his story might have played out more happily. Some unfavorable straws were blowing in the palace winds. Even as Parliament compliantly passed the Stamp Act, the king was showing an irritating reluctance to appoint Grenville’s nominees for office; indeed, the king’s appointees were so often friends of the earl of Bute that Grenville suspected the Northern Machiavel was once more whispering in his old tutee’s ear. By late March the first lord, unable to hide his anger, had quarreled openly with the king over appointments. Had he known his master’s mind better, Grenville might have held his tongue. But he was at that time preoccupied with another American measure, which had arisen unexpectedly at the beginning of March with a request from General Gage: a request he felt bound to honor, but one that entailed enough political risk to oblige him to proceed with caution. If the usual pattern in British politics was for domestic concerns to drive the formulation of American policies, here was a case in which an American issue distracted a prime minister’s attention from the politics of the court, at the moment he could least afford it.8
The issues at stake were old ones, arising from the difficulty of quartering troops, impressing property, and maintaining discipline in America. Quartering had been on Gage’s mind, in one way or another, since 1755, when in the aftermath of Braddock’s defeat his regiment had found it difficult to secure winter accommodations. Colonists—particularly around Albany, where Colonel John Bradstreet managed the army’s procurement and transportation requirements with exquisite attention to maximizing profits for himself and his Schuyler and van Rensselaer allies—had always been prickly about providing their horses, wagons, and fodder to the army. And the Indian war, coming on the heels of the debilitating Caribbean campaigns, had produced high levels of desertion, especially in regiments like the Royal Americans that had substantial numbers of colonists in the ranks. Early in 1765, Gage finally decided to attack these problems in the hope of preventing conditions from becoming worse. Thinking ahead to the day he would relocate troops from Indian country to the seaboard colonies, he wanted to be ready both to take care of their physical needs on the march, and to arm himself with authority to maintain order in the settled regions where they would be posted. Thus he asked for a set of amendments to the Mutiny Act. What resulted was a small debate over the place of the army in America and a badly muddled piece of legislation, the Quartering Act of 1765.9
Every year Parliament passed a complicated law known as the Mutiny Act to authorize the army’s continued existence and govern its internal discipline. The Mutiny Act controlled recruitment practices, stipulated penalties for desertion, mutiny, and other military crimes, governed the rules by which the troops would be moved and housed, and touched on virtually every significant aspect of army administration. With a few exceptions, it applied only to the army in the British Isles, and so far as Gage was concerned, that was the problem. During the first phase of the Seven Years’ War colonists and colonial assemblies had often refused to comply with the commander in chief’s orders because the act made no mention of North America. Eventually the commander in chief and the provinces reached a modus vivendi when provincial assemblies agreed to pass their own annual Mutiny Acts; but everything still remained contingent on the colonies’ willingness to cooperate. Gage worried that he lacked the legal power to compel the colonies to do their duty. As the provincial Mutiny Acts expired and the legislatures refused to reenact them, he anticipated a return to the conflicts and frustrations of a decade before; and when the mayor of New York refused to provide fuel to the troops quartered in his city in November 1764, Gage took action. Writing to the secretary at war, Welbore Ellis, he asked that Parliament extend the Mutiny Act to America, modifying it to allow commanders to quarter troops in private homes whenever barracks or public houses were inadequate to their needs.10
Since the freedom from having soldiers quartered in private homes was a precious English liberty guaranteed since 1628 by the Petition of Right, any bill drafted along the lines Gage asked would inevitably arouse a furor, in the House of Commons no less than in the radical press, and hand Pitt a weapon he would not even need to sharpen in order to skewer the ministry. Yet Secretary Ellis responded with the zeal of energetic ignorance, and within a week of receiving Gage’s letter had drafted a new Mutiny Act that embodied the general’s every wish. Ellis did not think to consult with Grenville, who was surprised on March 9 when the king, of all people, informed him of the bill just in time to avert disaster. Looking over Ellis’s draft, however, Grenville thought that he could find language sufficient to enable Gage to quarter troops in private dwellings but vague enough to escape the notice of a keen-eyed opposition.11
Grenville suggested adding a clause to the Mutiny Act that would empower civil magistrates, wherever barracks or public-house rooms were unavailable, to order soldiers housed “in such manner as had hitherto been practiced to billet His Majesty’s Troops in His Majesty’s Dominions in America.” That was better than Ellis’s direct contravention of the Petition of Right, but not much. The practice in America during the war, and especially while Loudoun was commander in chief, had encompassed the forcible seizure of quarters in private dwellings, and enough opposition M.P.s knew it to raise the issue when Ellis introduced the bill in the House of Commons on April Fools’ Day. The result, a much sharper debate than the one on the Stamp Act, showed that the ministry could not command even enough votes to direct that the bill be printed. Embarrassed, Grenville withdrew the measure until his subordinates could consult with the agents and other experts on colonial affairs.12
This tactic momentarily lessened the ministry’s problems but in the longer run only complicated matters. Charles Jenkinson, Grenville’s aide, asked Benjamin Franklin for advice on the provisions relating to quartering. Franklin had already contacted his old friend Thomas Pownall, the former governor of Massachusetts who now promoted himself as an all-purpose expert in colonial affairs. Together they suggested that the ministry adopt the formula that, Pownall maintained, he had used to defuse a Bay Colony quartering crisis in 1758. This forbade the billeting of troops in private houses but empowered colonial governors to take over vacant houses, barns, and outbuildings and turn them into temporary barracks; in which case the provinces were to furnish the troops with “firewood, bedding, candles, salt, vinegar, cooking utensils, and a daily ration of small beer, cider, or diluted rum”—items that would ordinarily be provided in a public house, or that a province would furnish to troops in permanent barracks. Other agents provided advice on other aspects of the bill, seeing to it that the measure would require only what colonial legislatures had previously granted in their own wartime statutes.
Thus in the end the Quartering Act authorized Gage to order the impressment of wagons at the customary rate of compensation; stipulated that commanders whose men were temporarily billeted in public houses would pay only for their food, not lodging; permitted troops to cross rivers on ferries at half the usual fare; and extended to the colonies all penalties current in Britain for harboring deserters. None of these provisions, Franklin and the other agents agreed, exceeded colonial understandings of reasonable support for the army. In view of their assurances and the absence of any other overtly objectionable provisions, opposition M.P.s would no longer be able to argue that the ministry intended to deprive colonists of their rights. Grenville therefore took the Commons once more in hand and on May 3 secured passage of the Quartering Act of 1765 on a voice vote. The Lords concurred, the king added his assent, and the bill became law on May 15.13
But the Quartering Act, while acceptable in London to the House of Commons and the American agents, was satisfactory nowhere else: least of all in America, where it would have to be applied. General Gage probably liked it less than anyone, for the law did not authorize him to quarter his troops in private homes. In fact, because it explicitly recognized only vacant buildings as suitable temporary barracks, it effectively exempted private dwellings from use, achieving the opposite of Gage’s desire and depriving him of the ability to do even what Loudoun had once done— seize quarters according to the “Custom of Armies.” Gage had asked for a freer hand, and the ministry had tied it behind his back.14
At the same time, the Quartering Act had nothing in it to please the colonists, despite the help that their agents and supposed friends had given the ministry in devising it. Thanks to Franklin, Pownall, and the rest, the new statute codified what had been the wartime practice of virtually all colonies. But in their eagerness to please they had overlooked a critical distinction that no colonist could miss. When the American legislatures passed their own versions of the Mutiny Act, they voluntarily committed their constituents to the support of the army. Insofar as firewood had a price, rooms in public houses cost money to rent, and ferrymen collected tolls, every locality that provided fuel to a garrison, every innkeeper who sheltered a file of soldiers, and every ferry owner who pocketed sixpence in place of his shilling fare paid a special tax. These were taxes in kind, but they were taxes nonetheless.
Towns or innkeepers or ferrymen no doubt resented being forced to contribute to the army’s welfare in this way during the war, but their own representatives had granted this support, and they did so only after duly considering local circumstances. To have exactly the same burdens imposed by a distant Parliament, once the war was over, produced another sensation entirely. Colonial assemblymen would see in the Quartering Act as blatant a usurpation of their right to tax as the Stamp Act itself. Thoughtful colonists—no less conservatives than radicals— believed that the Quartering Act breathed “an air of both severity and contempt” toward all Americans.15 In the end most colonists had no problem distinguishing between what their assemblies had once freely granted and identical contributions now levied by Parliament. It was, of course, more an emotional than an economic matter. However it might vanish, a dollar out of one’s pocket will never be more than a dollar gone. But the feeling that comes from handing it to a friend will always differ from the sensation one gets from surrendering it to a mugger.