Military history




The duke of Cumberland takes his last turn on the stage of British politics, leaving his followers to puzzle out a solution to the crisis in imperial governance. The Rockingham administration finds a way to retreat without sacrificing Parliament’s claim to sovereignty: the Declaratory Act and the delicate politics of the Stamp Act’s repeal. Americans respond without fully understanding the extent to which repeal has only crystallized divergent understandings of the imperial relationship. The hollowness of the empire in North America, and the insufficiency of the army as an instrument of power.


The Repeal of the Stamp Act


THE LEADERS OF His Majesty’s government reacted calmly enough when reports of the Virginia Resolves reached London in July 1765. The event that triggered such vast colonial opposition to the Stamp Act seemed, in Lieutenant Governor Fauquier’s account, inconsequential: a momentary majority in the House of Burgesses had responded to a hothead’s eloquence, and the damage had soon been undone. Such matters required nothing beyond the Board of Trade’s routine attention, and the cabinet merely took note of Fauquier’s report at a meeting on August 30. When more sinister news began arriving from New England in early October, however—stories of royal officials resigning in fear for their lives, of houses pillaged, records destroyed, and towns in the hands of mobs—the ministers could not react so casually.

Nor could they agree on what to do. Some favored an immediate hard-line response, while others found fault less with the colonists than the Stamp Act, but most were simply confused. Those with the most powerful offices, the first lord of the Treasury and the two secretaries of state, either had no particular views on the colonies or actively hoped to shift Britain’s imperial course into less confrontational channels. Only their patron, more sure of the issues at stake, entertained no doubts. The Victor of Culloden had never hesitated to apply military power in the service of the state and despised the thought that colonial hooliganism might be allowed to drive imperial policy. From the moment the first news of Boston’s violent demonstrations arrived, he left his colleagues no room to doubt his resolve.

The cabinet meeting that the duke of Cumberland chaired on October 13 thus stiffened the spine of even the most publicly pro-American minister, Secretary of State for the South Henry Seymour Conway. Conway had been one of the few M.P.s to side with Colonel Barré in the debates on the Stamp Act, yet following the meeting of the thirteenth he drafted a circular letter to the governors that would have satisfied even the cabinet’s most hawkish member, Lord Chancellor Robert Henley, first earl of Northington. The governors, Conway wrote, were to use all necessary means to enforce the laws; General Gage had orders to support them with whatever force they requested. When more distressing reports arrived from the colonies, Cumberland summoned the cabinet to meet at his house on the evening of October 31, to decide what further actions— presumably the dispatch of troops—would be necessary to uphold British authority in North America. He clearly intended to administer another dose of his bracing medicine to any minister who remained irresolute.1

But the stroke or heart attack that propelled the duke into eternity just after dinner on the thirty-first, before he could convene his meeting or even taste his port, changed everything. Suddenly a set of ministers whose sole previous distinction had been their attachment to Cumberland found themselves with no head, no direction, no credibility, and— worst of all—no assured support from the king. A death that would at any rate have required the cessation of policy-making until the relations of power and patronage could be sorted out therefore triggered a political crisis as the inexperienced ministers struggled to determine their own sense of precedence and define a plan of action that would restore peace in the colonies without simultaneously surrendering British sovereignty over them. Nothing about these processes would be easy or simple, and months would pass before they reached their fulfillment.

THE ASSEMBLAGE OF previously minor politicians whom Cumberland’s demise turned into the Rockingham ministry faced a formidable array of problems on November 1, 1765, the day the Stamp Act should have taken effect. The worst of these arose as much from British political conditions as from the chaos in the colonies. Some of the most imposing difficulties, indeed, derived from the character and personality of the marquess of Rockingham, the first lord of the Treasury and by default the administration’s leader. At thirty-five, Rockingham was an immensely wealthy and well-connected Yorkshire landlord whose riches, local prominence, and strong attachment to the Old Whig party had made him the man likeliest to inherit Newcastle’s political mantle. Two personal qualities also augured well for that prospect. Rockingham had a singular capacity for making allies or dependents of men more talented than himself: just as he came to office, for example, he engaged Edmund Burke, the subtlest political thinker of the eighteenth century, to be his private secretary and his party’s “man of business.” He also enjoyed a reputation for integrity, an asset made valuable by its comparative rarity.

Yet Rockingham—perhaps because wealth and honesty and an amiable disposition inoculated him against the ruder dictates of ambition— was also lazy, absentminded, and perennially late. He lacked confidence in his political judgment and avoided public speaking at almost any cost, two frightful handicaps in a parliamentary leader. And he could not (or did not care to) hide the fact that he loved his estates, his racing stable, and popular acclaim infinitely more than the grubby business of managing Parliament, strengthening his party, and wielding power. Preferences and habits like these, which made him a political curiosity when in opposition, fitted him so poorly to head a government that no one who knew him expected his ministry to endure more than a few months.2

No one realized Rockingham’s limitations more clearly than his secretaries of state. Both the duke of Grafton and Henry Conway worshiped the Great Commoner and longed to have him head the ministry; and Rockingham himself, at least at first, strongly agreed. But Pitt scorned their overtures—refusing, as always, to lead except on his own terms, which meant accepting office only at the direct request of the king, without obligation to any party. Weeks passed while the ministers waited for some sign that he had even heard their appeals. When he finally deigned to respond, in January, his terms were calculatedly outrageous: the duke of Newcastle, the only distinguished personage currently holding a portfolio, would have to be dismissed from his office so that Pitt could take over as lord privy seal, and Rockingham would have to resign as first lord of the Treasury in favor of Pitt’s brother-in-law, the earl Temple. 3 Rockingham, affronted, broke off the negotiations, but Grafton and Conway went on hoping that Pitt could somehow be brought on board. Thus an administration that began weak soon became internally divided, as its principal executive officers took positions disloyal to the man who was supposed to be their leader.4

Significantly, while the ministers were trying to recruit the most idiosyncratic opposition politician in Britain, they neglected to make any overtures at all to the so-called King’s Friends—the parliamentary group that routinely furnished ministries with their most reliable support. These pensioners, churchmen, military officers, Scots, and placeholders accounted for perhaps 120 votes in the House of Commons and about 60 in the House of Lords, and under ordinary circumstances would back any position a ministry cared to adopt. But because many of the King’s Friends were also friends of the earl of Bute, who had given them positions from which he had ejected adherents of the duke of Newcastle in the “massacre of Pelhamite innocents” late in 1762, the new ministers refused to have anything to do with them.5

In part this reflected a reluctance to rehabilitate Bute, whom many still regarded as the most dangerous man in Britain, but at bottom the Rockingham ministry’s problem with the King’s Friends was purely psychological. The men now responsible for His Majesty’s government had known nothing but opposition before taking office, and once in office they found it impossible to think about influencing affairs of state except as opposition politicians. Instead of applying themselves to the levers of power and patronage, they sought support where they had always found it before: from middle-class popular opinion, the noisy press, the City of London, and the great merchants. In this way a weak, poorly led, internally divided ministry deprived itself of the single largest assured bloc of votes in Parliament and instead aligned its interests with forces antagonistic to the normal exercise of power; and it did so as it tried to resolve a crisis that seemed more likely with every passing week to drag the empire feetfirst into civil war. Small wonder, then, that virtually from the moment the feckless Rockingham inherited power, Charles Townshend and his fellow highfliers could be seen circling overhead, anticipating the feast.6

They had good reason. Reports that arrived from America in November and December made it clear that the disorders there were both nightmarishly complex and not susceptible to solution by military means. Less as a matter of principle than of necessity, therefore, the leading figures among the duke of Cumberland’s ex-protégés abandoned their mentor’s preferred response. Rockingham was probably the first to understand that Britain confronted not one crisis in America, but a set of interrelated problems that only conciliation could resolve. A series of conferences in November—in which, typically, Rockingham consulted neither members of the Board of Trade nor any other government officials with colonial expertise, but rather the richest of the London merchants who traded to North America—convinced him that these problems could be understood, in terms of descending urgency, as economic, political, and institutional; and that they could be addressed accordingly. In December and January—again, typically, not in cabinet meetings but at a series of dinners and informal gatherings to which he invited Grafton, Conway, and others from inside the cabinet and out—Rockingham began to discuss the policies and tactics that his administration might pursue in seeking first to resolve the crisis, and then to begin restructuring imperial relations along less antagonistic lines.

The first set of interrelated issues, of course, centered on the Stamp Act itself: a law that was not working and indeed could never be anything but a dagger in the empire’s heart. With virtual unanimity, the colonists had nullified the act, and in doing so had disrupted trade so severely that the great London merchants on whom Rockingham relied for advice were growing extremely anxious. The trade depression that had plagued them since the end of the war had plummeted to its bottom, and their American correspondents still owed them vast sums. If colonial commerce, or at least the regular collection of colonial debts, was not soon restored, financial catastrophe would ensue. Unless the colonists began to consume British manufactures again, workers in the industries that fed colonial markets—and those prominently included cloth-makers in Rockingham’s own Yorkshire—would be thrown out of work. Since the Spitalfields riots had lately demonstrated a close correlation between industrial unemployment and social disorder, the Americans’ refusal to import British goods posed a threat to more than just the bank balances of a few great merchants. At this most fundamental level of analysis, therefore, Rockingham came to see that the economic dimension of the Stamp Act provided the most favorable grounds on which to seek repeal. In a memorandum to himself on November 28, he noted that in the coming session it would be necessary “to avoid the discussion on the Stamp Act” until “Consideration of N[orth] A[merica] in the Commercial [context could] . . . be brought on” and the members of Parliament had been shown “the high Importance of the Commerce [with] N[orth] A[merica] . . . to the Mother Country.” 7

And yet the Stamp Act was not merely a millstone around the empire’s economic neck, but an urgent political issue as well. Whether they appreciated it or not, the Americans whose protests made the act unenforceable had in effect denied parliamentary sovereignty over the colonies. Parliament’s authority therefore needed to be restored, and quickly. That much Cumberland had instinctively grasped, and the members of the Houses of Lords and Commons understood it no less viscerally. But Rockingham’s consultations with Secretary at War Barrington and with Conway, both of whom were in touch with General Gage, convinced him that force could not restore Parliament’s rule. The army was in the wrong place to impose order and lacked the strength to do so. Its gruesome losses to disease at the end of the war, casualties by the hundreds in Pontiac’s War, chronic starvation for funds and replacements, and the difficulties of recruitment in America had hollowed out His Majesty’s forces, leaving them capable of self-defense, but little more. Finally, weak as they were, most battalions were still dispersed across the conquered territories. In New England, where the riots had begun in late summer and where opposition to the Stamp Act blazed most fiercely, there were no troops at all. New York City had a modest garrison on hand at the time the act was to go into effect, but the reports that arrived in December demonstrated that, far from maintaining order, the redcoats’ presence had stimulated the worst rioting in America.

As if all that were not enough, the Quartering Act had proven a grievous mistake. To the colonists it seemed yet another effort to tax and enslave them; to Gage it posed an insuperable obstacle to billeting troops in private homes, and thus to using them with maximum coercive effect. The necessary assertion of parliamentary sovereignty, Rockingham saw, would thus have to be only an assertion. He knew what risks he would run by relying on words, where Britain lacked swords to give them meaning. But his merchant tutors assured him that the Americans would reopen trade as soon as the Stamp Act was repealed, and Gage’s reports persuaded him that any attempt to use force would create an insurrection that the army could not suppress. In the absence of any alternative, words would have to suffice.

Beyond these most pressing problems between America and the empire, Rockingham’s consultations eventually convinced him that every postwar effort to reform imperial governance had served only to exacerbate tensions and reduce trade. The American Currency Act had alienated the Virginians, who had since become leading agitators against the Stamp Act, and it had disturbed the rest of the colonies to the south of New England as well, stoking the mobs’ fury with economic anxiety and class antagonism. The American Duties Act, similarly, had failed to produce any substantial revenue but had very successfully created opposition to British authority within the colonial merchant community. The act’s complex customs provisions enraged shipowners, coastal merchants, and their numerous artisan allies in all the important American ports, encouraging them to participate in the emerging nonimportation movement.8

These underlying problems flourished like weeds in the postwar depression and would not be rooted out by the repeal of the Stamp Act, but were virtually certain to grow large enough to choke off colonial goodwill once the repeal had been secured. To deal with them, Rockingham— again on the advice of his merchant friends, and in a typically chaotic way—began contemplating measures to abolish the Currency Act, reduce regulations on trade within the empire, modify the American Duties Act to lower duties on foreign molasses, and increase the amount of silver coin available for circulation in America by opening avenues of legitimate trade with the Spanish and French Caribbean. He knew, however, that all such efforts would have to await the resolution of the economic and political aspects of the Stamp Act crisis. And even at the beginning of January, how the crisis could be resolved was far from obvious.9


Cantonment of the Forces in N. America 1766. This map, showing the distribution of regular units c. January 1766, illustrates Britain’s dilemma in dealing with the Stamp Act riots: virtually all of Gage’s men were still in Canada, the Floridas, and beyond the Proclamation Line. Only a few were available where he needed them most. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

In the first weeks of 1766, as Parliament prepared to reopen after its Christmas recess, Rockingham had finally concluded that repeal was imperative. Grafton and Conway agreed. But Rockingham still had not been able to bring himself to lay down his views as policy, and he knew that several of his colleagues—particularly the Crown’s leading law officers, Lord Chancellor Northington and Attorney General Charles Yorke—strongly favored enforcement over conciliation. Until Pitt finally made his impossible demands for joining the administration, Rockingham clung to the hope that he could avoid making policy altogether, much less devising plans for the empire’s long-term future. Only on January 11 did he decide to break off discussions with Pitt; and that was just three days before Parliament convened. Thus while the indecisive marquess had at length made the issues at stake clear to himself, his ministry entered the parliamentary session as much in the dark as ever, with neither a publicly articulated goal nor any internal consensus. The ministry’s tactics, as they gradually surfaced in confusion and fluster during January’s debates, would depend less on Rockingham’s leadership in the House of Lords or on Conway’s ability to manage the Commons than on two adventitious factors: the oratory of William Pitt and the actions of the merchant community. Together, Pitt’s pursuit of notoriety and the merchants’ pursuit of self-interest nudged the administration in directions of which Rockingham approved, even though he found it impossible to say so in public. 10

Parliament opened on January 14, as always, with the speech from the throne, the address by which the monarch (in theory) and the ministry (in fact) set the session’s agenda. In this case, because the Rockinghams had not yet agreed upon their own policy, the king merely asked the Commons to resolve the Stamp Act crisis in some way consistent with both the “authority of the British legislature” and “the welfare and prosperity of all my people.” So broad a mandate allowed the M.P.s to construe the king’s wishes according to their own desires. In response a series of speakers from Grenville’s opposition faction and from among the King’s Friends called for the enforcement of the Stamp Act. It was, they argued, no longer a matter of revenue, but of right. The colonists denied Parliament’s lawful authority, which must now be asserted, regardless of expense: “a pepper-corn, in acknowledgment of the right,” one speaker thundered, was “of more value, than millions without it.” Against this chorus only a single speaker, one of Pitt’s minor allies, called for repeal. On the Treasury bench, Conway and his colleagues fidgeted in silence. Then William Pitt stood and launched into a long speech in which he made his own views—until that moment mysterious—explicit.11

Announcing that he spoke only for himself, and not for a ministry he distrusted (“confidence is a plant of slow growth in an aged bosom”), Pitt affirmed that since “the Americans are the sons, not the bastards, of England,” they deserved honorable treatment, not abuse, from their mother country. Parliament’s sovereignty over the colonies was indeed complete, he continued, but it was absurd to think that sovereignty gave Parliament the right to levy an “internal” or direct tax on the colonists. Taxes were the free gift of the Commons, and American commoners “would have been slaves” if they had acquiesced in the late administration’s fumbling tyrannies. “Virtual representation,” by which Grenville had tried to justify the confiscation of the colonists’ property, was the lamest of rationalizations, “the most contemptible idea that ever entered into the head of man.” The Stamp Act, he concluded, “ought to be totally and absolutely repealed as an erroneous policy.”12

Conway, relieved to find himself on the same side as his idol, piped up to thank Pitt on behalf of the ministry that Pitt had just said he could not trust. The Great Commoner doubtless valued Conway as the rhinoceros values the tick-bird, but whatever smile flickered as he acknowledged the secretary’s tribute vanished as George Grenville rose to ridicule Pitt’s effort to distinguish between internal and external taxation. The Stamp Act, Grenville declared, was wholly consistent with Parliament’s sovereignty. As for the colonists, they border on open rebellion; and if the doctrine I have heard this day [Pitt’s distinction between internal and external taxation] be confirmed, I fear they will lose that name to take that of revolution. The government over them being dissolved, a revolution will take place in America. I cannot understand the difference between external and internal taxes. . . . That this kingdom has the sovereign, the supreme legislative power over America, is granted. It cannot be denied; and taxation is a part of that sovereign power. . . . Protection and obedience are reciprocal. Great Britain protects America; America is bound to yield obedience. If not, tell me when Americans were emancipated? . . . The nation has run itself into an immense debt to give them their protection; and now [that] they are called upon to contribute a small share toward the public expence, an expence arising from themselves, they renounce your authority, insult your officers, and break out, I might almost say, into open rebellion.13

Pitt had already spoken, and under the rules of the House should not have been able to reply. But his brother-in-law had touched a nerve and, brushing aside the canons of debate (“I do not speak twice. I only finish”) as the chamber “resounded with cries of Go on! Go on!” Pitt answered in the greatest extemporaneous speech of his career.

The gentleman tells us, America is obstinate; America is almost in open rebellion. I rejoice that America has resisted. Three millions of people so dead to all the feelings of liberty, as voluntarily to submit to be slaves, would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest. I come not here armed at all points, with law cases and acts of parliament, with the statute-book doubled down in dog’s ears, to defend the cause of liberty: if I had, . . . I would . . . have shown that, even under former arbitrary reigns, parliaments were ashamed of taxing a people without their consent, and allowed them representatives. . . .

I am no courtier of America; I stand up for this kingdom. I maintain, that the parliament has a right to bind, to restrain America. Our legislative power over the colonies is sovereign and supreme. When it ceases to be sovereign and supreme, I would advise every gentleman to sell his lands, if he can, and embark for that country. When two countries are connected together, like England and her colonies, without being incorporated, the one must necessarily govern; the greater must rule the less; but so rule it, as not to contradict the fundamental principles that are common to both. If the gentleman does not understand the difference between external and internal taxes, I cannot help it; but there is a plain difference between taxes levied for the purpose of raising a revenue, and duties imposed for the regulation of trade, for the accommodation of the subject; although, in the consequences, some revenue might incidentally arise from the latter.

The gentleman asks, when were the colonies emancipated? But I desire to know when they were made slaves. . . . I will be bold to affirm that the profit to Great Britain from the trade of the colonies, through all its branches, is two millions a year. This is the fund that carried you triumphantly through the last war. The estates that were rented at two thousand pounds a year, threescore years ago, are at three thousand pounds at present. Those estates sold then from fifteen to eighteen years’ purchase; the same may now be sold for thirty. You owe this to America; this is the price America pays for her protection. And shall a miserable financier come with a boast that he can bring a pepper-corn into the exchequer, to the loss of millions to the nation? . . .

A great deal has been said without doors of the power, of the strength, of America. It is a topic that ought to be cautiously meddled with. In a good cause, on a sound bottom, the force of this country can crush America to atoms. I know the valour of your troops. I know the skill of your officers. . . . But on this ground, on the Stamp act, when so many here will think it a crying injustice, I am one who will lift up my hands against it.

In such a cause, your success would be hazardous. America, if she fell, would fall like the strong man. She would embrace the pillars of state, and pull down the constitution along with her. Is this your boasted peace? Not to sheathe the sword in the scabbard, but to sheathe it in the bowels of your countrymen? . . .

The Americans have not acted in all things with prudence and temper. The Americans have been wronged. They have been driven to madness by injustice. Will you punish them for the madness you have occasioned? . . .

Upon the whole, I will beg leave to tell the House what is really my opinion. It is, that the Stamp-act should be repealed absolutely, totally, and immediately; that the reason for the repeal should be assigned, because it was founded on an erroneous principle. At the same time let the sovereign authority of this country be asserted in as strong terms as can be devised, and be made to extend to every point of legislation whatsoever: that we may bind their trade, confine their manufactures, and exercise every power whatsoever—except that of taking their money out of their pockets without their consent.14

The debate boomed on, but Pitt’s speech had already given the ministry its cue and its courage—and indeed virtually ratified the legislative strategy that Rockingham had decided upon but lacked the confidence to propose. As at the height of his influence a half-dozen years before, Pitt had captured the admiration of that largest and most refractory group in the Commons, the backbench independents. Now Grenville’s party, Bedford’s faction, and the Friends of the King and Bute could raise any hue and cry they wished; if Pitt could hold the support of the independents, the ministry would have its chance to repeal the Stamp Act. Thus in a series of informal meetings over the next ten days, Rockingham at last brought himself to advocate the course he had contemplated since November. His ministry would assert, as strenuously as possible, Parliament’s sovereignty over America; then it would press the case for repealing the Stamp Act on the grounds of economic expediency.

In the last week of January, Rockingham therefore asked his hard-line attorney general, Charles Yorke, to devise a declaration of parliamentary supremacy that would leave no doubt about the legal subordination of the colonies, and he turned to his merchant friends to organize support for repeal as a measure of economic necessity. Both Yorke and the merchants were well ahead of him. Since late December the attorney general had argued that whether the ministry opted to pursue enforcement or repeal, it needed first to secure parliamentary approval for resolutions condemning the colonists’ violence and unequivocally declaring Parliament’s sovereignty; indeed, he had already identified the model for such a declaration in the Dependency of Ireland Act of 1719. Since December, too, the leading figure among the London merchants who traded to North America, an ex-Bostonian named Barlow Trecothick, had headed a great petition drive to testify to the distressed state of trade with America and to document the damage that the Stamp Act had done to the British economy. Before the end of January, the merchants of London and the outports, as well as manufacturers from the cities of the north, had sent no fewer than twenty-four petitions to the House of Commons, all blaming the Stamp Act for the hard times they were suffering, and all pleading for relief.15

Procedurally the ministry’s strategy was to convene a Committee of the Whole House to discuss the measures to be taken on America. Tactically, this depended upon making no effort to harness Pitt (a futile enterprise at any rate), but otherwise to maintain the closest possible control over the debates. Rockingham intended to direct the discussions first toward an assertion of Parliament’s sovereignty over the colonies, then to make an overwhelming case for the economic dysfunctions of the Stamp Act; only then would his administration move in favor of repeal, on purely pragmatic grounds. This solution in effect depended upon speaking the words that the M.P.s wanted to hear while taking the actions that the colonies demanded, and pretending that there was no contradiction between them. To achieve this end, the colonies’ own protests had to be squelched. Thus amid all the petitions submitted to Parliament, the memorial of the Stamp Act Congress was conspicuously absent, buried by a ministry that knew any document—even a mild one—that originated in the proceedings of “an illegal congress, calling the right of Parliament into question,” was too explosive to be read in open session. 16

The House of Commons resolved itself into a Committee of the Whole on January 28, and for three long days sat listening to the clerk read aloud the official papers that detailed American reactions to the Stamp Act. On the thirty-first, with the readings complete, the House heard verbal testimony from four witnesses. These included Martin Howard of Newport, who described the riot that had destroyed his house and made him a refugee aboard H.M.S. Cygnet, and Major Thomas James, who testified that any effort to enforce the Stamp Act by military means in New York would have brought out twenty thousand rioters instead of the four thousand or so who had demolished his home, drained his wine cellar, and dared his troops to fire. The House of Lords, meeting separately, heard the same papers and testimony. In both Houses the ministry’s spokesmen took exquisite care to orchestrate the evidence and the questions asked of the witnesses. With the ground thus prepared, and after Rockingham had made sure that the king would assent to repeal, the administration introduced resolutions affirming Parliament’s supremacy over the colonies and denouncing colonial disorders.17

The first resolution, which Conway and Grafton moved simultaneously in the Commons and the Lords on February 3, would later become the Declaratory Act. It held that the king in Parliament “had, hath, and of a right ought to have, full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America in all cases whatsoever.” The Lords debated the resolution all day and passed it, 125 to 5, by nine o’clock; the Commons stayed in session until nearly three the next morning, when they too approved the resolution, without a division. In both Houses, argument centered on whether the words “in all cases whatsoever,” made explicit Parliament’s right to tax the colonists directly. Although Pitt and Colonel Barré prolonged the Commons debate by denying that Parliament had any such right to grant American taxes without American representatives in the House, the distinguishing fact about the discussion was that almost no one shared their view. Indeed, the two finest legal minds of the age—in the House of Lords, the Lord Chief Justice William Murray, Baron Mansfield, and in the House of Commons the eminent constitutional commentator William Blackstone—agreed that Parliament’s right to tax rested not on any principle of representation but on its sovereign power and denied that there was any distinction between tax laws and other kinds of legislation. If ever there had been doubts about the consensus of the Lords and the Commons on the unassailable, indivisible sovereignty of king in Parliament, the debates of February 3 should have extinguished them.18

With the declaratory resolution safely in hand, the ministry proposed its remaining resolves. After prolonged but generally less intense debate, these were passed in a form that condemned America’s “Tumults and Insurrections,” as well as the “Votes and Resolutions, passed in several of the Assemblies,” which had “inflamed” the people; declared that those who had suffered as a result of the riots “ought to have full and ample Compensation made to them . . . by the respective Colonies”; assured His Majesty’s “dutiful and loyal Subjects” in America that they would henceforth “have the Protection” of the British government; and shielded from prosecution all loyal colonists who had unwillingly broken the law when the “Tumults and Outrages in North America” prevented them from obtaining stamped paper. These resolutions were all reasonably innocuous and indeed milder than British public opinion would have supported. Grenville indeed succeeded in modifying many of the drafts that the ministry proposed to strengthen their language: small successes that emboldened him to introduce a final resolution on February 7, a forthright challenge to the ministry’s plans. When Grenville moved “that an humble address be presented, in consequence of our [declaratory] resolution, expressing our indignation and concern at the proceedings in N[orth] America, and to assure the King that we will assist him in enforcing the laws of this Kingdom,” he was doing nothing less than calling for a vote of confidence on the Rockingham ministry and seeking to reverse the direction of policy. It was his supreme gambit to regain power, and he thought that “in the present unsettled state of men and things” he stood a reasonable chance of winning.19

He guessed wrong. The debate that followed made it clear that however unimpressed many M.P.s were with the ministry, the depositions and oral testimony had convinced them that enforcement was impossible. Even Charles Townshend, watching as ever to see which way the winds blew, spoke in opposition to enforcement. Once Grenville’s resolution failed, by a vote of 274 to 134, the ministry’s way at last was clear. The opposition could no longer hope to see the act enforced, and that left only two options. It could try to delay the ministry’s motion to repeal, hoping that some new outrage in America would alter the balance; or it might seek to modify the law, retaining some part of it—perhaps “a Stamp on cards and dice only”—as a symbolic gesture, “to keep up the claim of right.” The administration thus was free to build its case for repeal on arguments from economic necessity, which meant convincing the majority of M.P.s that the Stamp Act was all that stood between Britain and prosperity. Beginning on February 11, that was what the ministry tried to do, by hearing the merchants’ and manufacturers’ petitions and carefully questioning expert witnesses on the content of each. 20

Of the twenty-six witnesses examined before the House of Commons—the Lords opted to suspend their independent proceedings and resume deliberations after the Commons had finished taking testimony— the first, Barlow Trecothick, was by far the most important. Perhaps the richest merchant who traded to America and an important military contractor from the last war, Trecothick came armed with facts and figures that he laid before the House in a bravura four-hour performance. Britain’s trade with America, he affirmed, exceeded even the £2,000,000 annually that Pitt had named. Three million was nearer the mark, and its significance was all the greater because Britain’s trade with the rest of the world was falling off, while its American commerce—until the Stamp Act—had continually grown. Now all trade with the colonies was at a standstill, and the interruption of court proceedings made it impossible for any merchant to recover a penny of what his American debtors owed. And the sums in question, Trecothick claimed, were immense. His computations showed that London merchants held American debts amounting to almost £3,000,000 sterling, and if one included the merchants of the outports the total would reach approximately £4,450,000.

Those figures added up to Trecothick’s most significant testimony, but he also helped the M.P.s better understand the colonists’ protests by explaining exactly how the Stamp Act would affect the colonial economies. It was true, he said, that no money collected was to leave America, since it would be paid out to maintain the troops stationed there; but America was a big place, and His Majesty’s forces were not spread evenly throughout it. Much of the revenue collected would come from New England, a cash-starved region suffering severe depression, and would be disbursed among soldiers stationed in Canada and the Floridas, where infinitesimal sums could be collected. Of the colonies most inflamed against the Stamp Act, only New York and Pennsylvania were likely to recover, in army expenditures, the monies the stamp tax would remove from circulation. Colonial merchants thus were objecting to more than taxation without consent. They also feared the drain of precious metals from their specie-short economies, and they resented being forced in effect to promote the prosperity of territories mainly populated by former enemies. 21

Trecothick’s testimony, masterful and thoroughly rehearsed, forecast the arguments of the merchants and colonial agents who followed him. The thrust of their accounts confirmed his contention that the Stamp Act was aggravating Britain’s depression by preventing the recovery of debts from the colonies and creating vast unemployment in Britain. From personal knowledge they told of thousands of workers already laid off and prophesied that as many as a hundred thousand might lose their jobs, with God knew what costs in poor relief and what risks of social unrest. The key to regaining British prosperity, they repeated in a kind of litany, was to resume American trade, and that was impossible without repeal. Only Benjamin Franklin, appearing as one of the ministry’s final witnesses, refused to chant with this choir. Pennsylvania’s agent went substantially beyond the earlier testimony to venture his judgments on a variety of topics—not all of which pleased the ministry.22

More than anyone else of his day, Franklin symbolized America; as a scientist and public figure he was the most famous colonist in London, and indeed in the world. He also had more to lose than any other witness, for he had severely miscalculated the colonials’ reactions to the Stamp Act and damaged his political faction’s position in Pennsylvania by securing a distributorship for John Hughes. Franklin therefore spoke not only as America’s advocate, but as a man who desperately needed to repair his reputation at home. (In this light the presence of a stenographer in the gallery, and the immediate publication of his transcript in pamphlet form, can hardly have been coincidental.23) In choosing to depart from the ministry’s carefully prepared line the Pennsylvanian took huge risks, for he exposed himself to a grilling by opposition M.P.s, including a hostile Grenville. Yet he also, clearly, relished matching wits with them. America’s greatest celebrity may have come before Parliament as a sixty-year-old man with his political future on the line, but he danced through the interrogation like a cocky teenager waltzing down Philadelphia’s Market Street with a Dutch dollar in his pocket and a great puffy roll tucked under each arm.

Why should Britain protect America, an opposition M.P. demanded, if America did not help pay the cost? Britain did not protect America, Franklin replied, Americans did: “The colonies raised, cloathed, and paid, during the last war, near 25000 men, and spent many millions.” But Parliament had generously reimbursed America, had it not? Not particularly, Franklin said. The reimbursement had been necessary, but “it was a very small part of what we spent.” Would the Americans accept a partial stamp tax? No. Another tax in its place? “They would not pay it.” So they would contribute nothing? “Their opinion is, that when aids to the Crown are wanted, they are to be asked of the several assemblies, according to the old established usage, who will as they have always done, grant them freely.” Suppose Parliament refused to repeal the Stamp Act and the dispute remained at impasse: how could Americans live without British manufactures? “I do not know a single article imported into the Northern Colonies, but what they can either do without, or make themselves.” In the space of three years, the colonists could produce wool enough to make all the clothes they needed; in the meantime, they would patch their old ones. Suppose then that the Stamp Act were repealed, would the Americans acquiesce in a declaration of parliamentary sovereignty? Yes, said Franklin, so long as Parliament made no more effort to enforce the claim than they did in Ireland.

And so it went for perhaps four hours, as Franklin expanded upon the opportunities friendly questioners offered to explain the reasonableness of Americans, and parried the thrusts of the opposition. Always he stressed the Americans’ ability to provide for their own needs—in effect, to manage independently of the empire to which they were bound only by a rapidly eroding tie of affection. Always he stopped short of affirming that Americans intended to make themselves independent. Only Parliament, he implied, would determine whether the Americans moved from resistance to reconciliation or from resistance to something more final. Franklin made his clinching argument in response to an opposition demand to know if “any thing less than a military force” could achieve the submission of the colonies: “I do not see how a military force can be applied to that purpose.” When the interrogator, as convinced as Pitt that British force could crush America to atoms, shot back “Why may it not?” Franklin came coolly to the heart of the matter: “Suppose a military force sent into America, they will find nobody in arms; what are they then to do? They cannot force a man to take stamps who chooses to do without them. They will not find a rebellion; they may indeed make one.”

If Franklin’s testimony burnished his reputation at home, it also gave the opposition an opportunity to attack “the Ingratitude” of the Americans. “We have fought, bled, and Ruin’d ourselves, to conquer for them,” complained the Bristol M.P. Robert Nugent, soon to become president of the Board of Trade; “and now they come and tell us to our Noses, even at the Bar of this House, that they are not obliged to us!” Yet neither Franklin’s excessively clever performance nor Nugent’s outcry against it, nor the witnesses whom the opposition called in to examine thereafter, could overturn the impression the ministry had created. When, with the petitions heard and the expert testimony concluded, the Commons formally debated repeal on the evening of February 21, the opposition could not hope to reverse what had become a decisive majority against the Stamp Act. As usual, the speeches were long. But at 1:45 a.m. when the House divided, 275 M.P.s voted in favor of repeal against 167 Grenvillites, Bedford Whigs, and King’s Friends who still stood opposed.24

Thereafter the ministry needed only to couch the relevant resolutions in the form of a Declaratory Bill and a Bill to Repeal the Stamp Act and set in motion the machinery to enact them. There were more debates, notable chiefly for Pitt’s insistence that the Stamp Act should be repealed on no grounds other than Grenville’s stupidity, but the outcome was never in doubt. On March 4 the Commons passed the Declaratory Act by acclamation and approved the Repeal Act by a majority of 250 to 122. After several more days of debate in the upper house—debate of an unusually high quality, it was said, for there the sentiment favored repeal less than enforcement—the Lords formally concurred on March 17. The king attended the House of Lords on the following day to give his assent to both acts in person, and he returned to the palace from Westminster as bells pealed and crowds cheered to the echo his passing coach.25

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