The Stamp Tax, introduced by Grenville in 1765, will be remembered “as long as the globe lasts.” So proclaimed Macaulay in one of his bugle calls to historical grandeur. It was the act, he wrote, destined to “produce a great revolution, the effects of which will long be felt by the whole human race,” and he blamed Grenville for not foreseeing the consequences. That is hindsight; even the colonies’ agents did not foresee them. But enough information was available to the English to forecast determined resistance by the Americans and prospects of serious trouble.
Reports were now being received and published in the London Chronicle and other journals of colonial resentment of the Sugar Act and indignation at the proposed Stamp Tax. Emphatic protests were delivered by Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Virginia and South Carolina, each affirming the “right” to tax itself and denying Parliament’s right. The fallacy inherent in the British Government’s position was laid bare by the ill-fated Thomas Hutchinson, Lieutenant-Governor of Massachusetts, who was to suffer so much worse from his colony than he deserved. He pointed out in a treatise, of which he sent copies to the government in London, that revenue was a fallacious goal because England’s natural profit from colonial trade, which would be endangered by ill-will, was greater than any prospective yield from the tax. A tragic figure, vilified by one side and ignored by the other, Hutchinson thus early identified England’s folly. It was evident also to others. Benjamin Franklin noted in a memorandum to himself that while Americans at present loved British modes, customs and manufactures, “A disgust of these will ensue. Trade will suffer more than the tax profits.” He added a thought that should have been a creed for the British government: “Everything one has a right to do is not best to be done.” This in essence was to be the Burke thesis: that principle does not have to be demonstrated when the demonstration is inexpedient.
By the time the protests and petitions were received in London—the eastbound crossing took anywhere from four to six weeks, and it took longer the other way—Grenville was preparing the Stamp Act. Anxious to prevent it, four of the agents, Benjamin Franklin, Richard Jackson, Charles Garth, an M.P. agent for Maryland and South Carolina, and Jared Ingersoll, newly arrived from Connecticut, waited on him in a body. Discussion focused on the alternative of the colonies taxing themselves. Asked by Grenville if they could state how much each was prepared to raise, the agents, uninstructed on that point, could give no answer, and Grenville did not really want one. What he wanted was to establish Parliament’s right to tax for now and thereafter. He avoided pressing the question and remained deliberately vague in responding to the agents’ queries about the amounts needed.
Here at the very start was the feasible alternative. If revenue from the colonies to pay the cost of their defense was what Britain wanted—which was reasonable enough—she could and should have put it to the colonies to raise it themselves. They were prepared to respond. The Massachusetts Assembly petitioned Governor Francis Bernard in 1764 for a special session to enable the colony to tax itself rather than be taxed by Parliament, but the Governor, though he favored that procedure, refused because he thought it would be useless without specific requisitions from Grenville. Pennsylvania instructed its agent in London to signify its willingness to raise revenue if requested in a regular manner for a specific sum. “Most of the colonies,” according to the agent Charles Garth, “had signified their inclinations to assist their Mother Country upon proper requisitions from hence.”
The firmness of colonial objection was made equally explicit. When Thomas Whately, the Treasury Secretary and M.P. responsible for drafting the Stamp bill, asked the agents for likely American reactions, they told him the tax was neither “expedient” nor “prudent.” Ingersoll of Connecticut said the New England colonies were “filled with the most dreadful apprehensions of such a step’s taking place,” and if it did, many gentlemen of property had said they would “remove themselves with their families and fortunes into some foreign Kingdom.” Whately was unimpressed because, as he said indisputably, “some taxes are absolutely necessary.” He was to hear more. Britain’s own representative, the Royal Governor of Rhode Island, Stephen Hopkins, stated in a published pamphlet, The Rights of the Colonies Examined, the fixed opposition of His Majesty’s American subjects to taxation except “by their own representatives as Your Majesty’s other free subjects are.” The Rhode Island Assembly sent his pamphlet to their agent in London along with a petition to the King confirming its sentiments. The New York Assembly likewise, in petitions to the King and to both Houses of Parliament, expressed its “most earnest Supplication” that apart from necessary regulation of trade, Parliament should “leave it to the legislative power of the Colony to impose all other Burthens upon its own people which the publick Exigencies require.”
The evidence was ample that taxation by Parliament would meet adamant resistance in the colonies. It was ignored because the policymakers regarded Britain as sovereign and the colonials as subjects, because Americans were not taken too seriously, and because Grenville and his associates, having some doubts themselves as to the rights in the case, wanted to obtain the revenue in a way that would establish Parliament’s eminent domain. It was a classic and ultimately self-defeating case of proceeding against all negative indications. Grenville made no formal “requisitions from hence” upon the colonies to tax themselves and by rejecting this alternative opened the path to the Revolution.
In Parliament, the colonial petitions were rejected unheard on the ground that they concerned a money bill for which petitions were disallowed. Jackson and Garth spoke in the House denying Parliament’s right to tax “until or unless the Americans are allowed to send Members to Parliament.” Rising to answer, the President of the Board of Trade, Charles Townshend, soon to be a critical figure in the conflict, provoked the first moment of excitement in the American drama. Shall the Americans, he asked, “children planted by our Arms, shall they grudge to contribute their mite to relieve us from the heavy weight of that burden we lie under?”
Unable to contain himself, Colonel Isaac Barré, a fierce one-eyed former soldier who had fought with Wolfe and Amherst in America, sprang to his feet. “They planted by your Care? No! Your Oppressions planted ’em in America.… They nourished up byyourIndulgence? They grew up by your neglect of ’em.… They protected by your arms? They have nobly taken up arms in your defence.… And believe me, and remember that I this day told you so, that same spirit of freedom which actuated that people at first, will accompany them still.… They are a people jealous of their liberties and who will vindicate them if ever they should be violated—but the Subject is too delicate and I will say no more.” These sentiments, recorded Ingersoll, were thrown out so spontaneously, “so forcibly and firmly, and the breaking off so beautifully abrupt, that the whole House sat awile as Amazed, intently looking and without answering a Word.” It may have been the first moment when perhaps a few realized what loomed ahead.
Barré, who looked on the world with a “savage glare” from a face scarred by the bullet that took out his eye at Quebec, was to become one of the leading defenders of America and orators of the Opposition. Of Huguenot ancestry, born in Dublin and educated at Dublin’s Trinity College (described by the father of Thomas Sheridan as “half bear garden and half brothel”), he had left the Army when his promotion was blocked by the King and was elected to Parliament through the influence of Lord Shelburne, Irish-born like himself. His staunch support of America, joined with that of another champion, of a sort, is commemorated in the town of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
A more explicit warning was heard at the second reading, when General Conway warmly protested the exclusion of the colonial petitions and moved that they be heard. “From whom unless from themselves are we to learn the circumstances of the colonies,” he asked, “and the fatal consequences that may attend the imposing of this tax?” His motion was of course rejected by the well-schooled majority. A professional soldier, he seems to have been the first to glimpse a possibility of “fatal consequences.” He was a cousin and close friend of Horace Walpole, a handsome, likable, honorable man, who, having voted against the government in the Wilkes case, was one of those deprived by royal vindictiveness of a court post and also of command of his regiment, on which he depended for income. Nevertheless, he refused financial assistance from friends and joined with Barré, Richard Jackson and Lord Shelburne in the nucleus of those who were beginning to oppose the Government’s American policy and who met in association under Shelburne’s roof.
The Earl of Shelburne, 32 at this time, was the most able of Pitt’s disciples and after him the most independent-minded among the ministers, perhaps because he escaped schooling at Westminster or Eton, although his early education in Ireland, he said, was “neglected to the greatest degree.” Considered too clever and known as “the Jesuit,” he was disliked and mistrusted by colleagues. Needed for his talent, he was never to be long out of office and, despite mistrust, was to reach the premiership in 1782 in time to negotiate the treaty confirming American independence. The dislike he inspired may have sprung from fear of his ideas, which tended to be cynical about men and progressive in policy. He voted against the expulsion of Wilkes, favored Catholic emancipation, free trade and even, in contrast to Burke, the French Revolution when it came.
While owner of enormous rent-rolls in Ireland and England, and one of the richest absentee proprietors of Irish land, he was the only minister, according to Jeremy Bentham, who did not fear the people, and the first, according to Disraeli, to comprehend the rising importance of the middle class. He conformed to noble style in having his country estate landscaped by Capability Brown, his town house designed by Robert Adam and his portrait painted by Joshua Reynolds, several times. He went beyond it in amassing a vast library of books, maps and manuscripts, whose sale at auction after his death lasted 31 days, and a collection of historical documents bought for the nation by a special grant of Parliament. Like Pitt and Burke, he had no trouble discerning the inexpediency of coercing America, and no hesitation in warning against it.
At its third reading, the Stamp Tax, the first direct tax ever levied on America, was enacted by 249 to 49, the usual five-to-one majority, by whom, says Horace Walpole, it was “little understood … and less attended to.” The professionals understood it well enough. It was the “great measure” of the session, said Whately, because it established “the Right of Parliament to lay an internal tax upon the Colonies.” A colleague, Edward Sedgewick, Under-Secretary of State, acknowledged that it had been done deliberately, in the face of strong resolutions by the American assemblies, “because it was thought to establish the Right by a new execution of it.”
Americans reacted widely and strenuously. Because the Act not only required a stamp on all printed matter and legal and business documents, but extended to such things as ships’ papers, tavern licenses and even dice and playing cards, it touched every activity in every class in every colony, not only New England, and coming on top of the Sugar Act confirmed the suspicion of a deliberate plan by the British first to undermine the economy and then to enslave the colonies. The Virginia House of Burgesses, meeting to denounce the Act, heard Patrick Henry skirt treason in the famous words reminding George III of the fate of Caesar and Charles I. When Boston learned of the Virginia resolves, “the universal voice of all the people,” wrote Hutchinson, supported them in the conviction that “if the Stamp Act must take place, we are all slaves.” Sons of Liberty were organized in the towns to foment resistance. In response to a general movement to force stamp agents to resign, mobs rampaged and pillaged and wrecked their homes and paraded with the agents’ figures hanged in effigy. Heeding the warning, the agents in Boston and Newport resigned in August, and by November, when the Act took effect, not an agent remained in office to execute it.
Agitators and pamphleteers kept passions excited. Hardly a family from Canada to Florida had not heard of the Act though many had little idea what it threatened. A country gentleman whose servant was afraid to go out to the barn on a dark night asked him, “Afraid of what?”
“Of the Stamp Act,” the servant replied. In Connecticut, three out of four were ready to take up the sword, as reported by Ezra Stiles, preacher and future President of Yale. More astonishing and, to any Englishmen who took notice, ominous was the agreement of nine colonies at a Stamp Act Congress in October in New York. After a mere two and a half weeks of bickering, they united on a petition for repeal, and agreed also to abandon the troublesome distinction that figured so largely in the whole American dispute between acceptable “external” taxation in the form of duties on trade and unacceptable “internal” taxation on domestic processes.
Beyond all words and petitions, the effective protest was boycott, known as Non-Importation. Already set in motion in response to the Sugar Act, a program to cut off imports of English goods was now formally adopted by groups of merchants in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. The call swept through the colonies on winds of enthusiasm. Women brought their spinning wheels to the minister’s parlor or to the courthouse to compete in the number of skeins they could turn out for homespun to replace English cloth. Flax was spun for shirts “fine enough for the best gentlemen in America.” By the end of the year, imports were £305,000 less than the year before out of a total of some £2 million.
What of the alternative available to the British? It was, as many thought, to give the Americans the representation in Parliament they claimed and let taxation follow. At one stroke, this would have invalidated American resistance. While other dynamics of conflict were present, nothing raises tempers like money, and taxation was the Americans’ most vibrant issue. They were ready enough to claim representation as a right but the fact was that they did not really want it in the flesh. The Stamp Act Congress agreed to declare it “impractical.”
In all discussions of representation, much was made of the 3000-mile distance, where “seas roll and months pass” between order and execution. Yet distance did not prevent Americans from ordering English furnishings, clothes and books, adopting English fashions, sending children to English schools, corresponding steadily with colleagues in Europe, sending botanical specimens, absorbing ideas and generally maintaining a close cultural relationship. It was not so much the “vast and hazardous ocean” that was the deterrent as a growing realization in the colonies that what they really wanted was less interference and greater home rule. Although separation, much less independence, was not contemplated, many did not want a closer connection for they shuddered at the corruption of English society. John Adams believed that England had reached the same stage as the Roman Republic, “a venal city, ripe for destruction.” Visiting Americans were shocked at the corrupt politics, the vice, the gap between the “Wealth, Magnificence and splendour” of the rich and the “extreme Misery and distresses of the Poor … amazing on the one hand and disgusting on the other.”
They viewed the patronage system as hostile and dangerous to liberty, for when government rested on purchased support, true political liberty was a dead letter. Englishmen were the only people to have gained that liberty; pervading American polemic in these years was a sense of America’s mission, as inheritor, to foster and preserve it for mankind. Colonial members in Parliament were believed likely to be corrupted by English decadence and in practice would be a helpless minority always outvoted. It was also clear that if the colonies gained representation, they would no longer have grounds for resisting Parliament’s right to tax. Americans recognized this ahead of the English, who, indeed, never seriously considered the advantage to themselves of admitting American representation.
Attitude was again the obstacle; the English could not visualize Americans in terms of equality. Should uncouth provincials, the “spawn of our [prisoners’] transports,” rabble-rousers “with manners no better than Mohawks,” be invited, asked the Gentleman’s Magazine, to occupy the “highest seats of our commonwealth?” To the Morning Post, Americans were “a mongrel breed of Irish, Scotch and Germans leavened with convicts and outcasts.” Deeper than social disdain was fear of the colonials as “levellers” of class, whose representation in Parliament would encourage unrepresented English towns and districts to demand seats, destroying property rights in the boroughs and overturning the system.
The English had contrived a convenient theory of “virtual representation” to cover the masses who lacked votes or members to represent them. Every member of the House, it was maintained, represented the whole body politic, not a particular constituency, and if Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham had no seats and London had only six while Devon and Cornwall had seventy, the former could take comfort in being “virtually represented” by the bluff gentlemen from the country. These gentlemen on the whole, bearing the main weight of the land tax, heartily favored taxing the colonies for their share of the burden and firmly believed in the assertion of parliamentary sovereignty.
An alternative to conflict that serious men gave thought to, and proposed, was colonial union followed by some form of federation with Britain, and with colonial representation in an imperial parliament. In 1754, a Plan of Union to meet the French and Indian threat had been proposed by Benjamin Franklin, with advice from Thomas Hutchinson, at the Albany Congress and found no takers. During the Stamp Act crisis the idea was revived by persons who held governing responsibility in the colonies and were worried by the growing alienation from the mother country. Franklin himself, Thomas Pownall, a former Governor of Massachusetts, now an M.P., Thomas Crowley, a Quaker merchant familiar with America, and Francis Bernard, the current Governor of Massachusetts, all proposed various plans for rationalization of the colonial government and definitive settlement through debate of reciprocal rights and obligations leading to federation. Pownall complained at a later crisis in 1775 that as no one in government paid any attention to his views, he would offer them no more. Francis Bernard, who formulated a detailed plan of 97 propositions which he sent to Lord Halifax and others, was told by Halifax that the plan was “the best thing of the kind by much that he had ever read,” and that was the last he heard.
Benjamin Franklin urged his British correspondents to recognize the inevitability of American growth and development and to make no laws intended to cramp its trade and manufacture, for natural expansion would sweep them aside, but rather to work toward an Atlantic world peopled by Americans and English possessing equal rights in which the colonists would enrich the mother country and extend its “empire round the whole globe and awe the world!” It was a splendid vision which had enthralled him since the Albany Plan of Union. “I am still of the opinion,” he wrote years later in his autobiography, “that the Plan of Union would have been happy for both Sides of the Water if it had been adopted. The Colonies so united would have been sufficiently strong to have defended themselves; there would have been no need of Troops from England; of course the subsequent Pretence for Taxing America, and the bloody Contest it occasioned would have been avoided.” Franklin ends with a sigh: “But such Mistakes are not new; History is full of the Errors of States and Princes.”
Repeal became an issue in England almost as soon as the Stamp Act became law. As Non-Importation emptied the ports, and shippers and handlers and factory workers lost employment and merchants lost money, Britain awoke to American sentiment. For the next six months the Stamp Act was a leading topic in the press. With the 18th century’s passion for political principle, all the issues—the rights of Parliament, the iniquity of taxation without representation, “virual representation,” external versus internal taxation—were debated in comments, columns and angry letters.
Great impact was made by a pamphlet published by Soame Jenyns, a Commissioner of the Board of Trade, who insisted that both the right to tax and the expediency of exerting it were “propositions so indisputably clear” that they needed no defense, were it not for arguments challenging them “with insolence equal to their absurdity.” The phrase “liberty of an Englishman,” snorted Mr. Jenyns, had lately been used “as a synonymous term for blasphemy, bawdry, treason, libels, strong beer and cyder,” and the American argument that people cannot be taxed without their consent was “the reverse of truth, for no man I know is taxed by his own consent.”
Lord Chesterfield, observing affairs, like Horace Walpole, from the sidelines, had a way of picking out the essence in contrast to the stilted etiquette he preached to his nephew. The “absurdity” of the Stamp Act, he wrote to Newcastle, equaled “the mischief of it by asserting a right you know you cannot exert.” Even if effective, he wrote, the tax should bring in no more than £80,000 a year (the government calculated on no more than £60,000), which could not compensate for the loss to Britain in trade worth at least a million a year (it was worth two million). A harder truth came from General Thomas Gage, commander of British forces in the colonies, who reported in November that resistance was widespread throughout the colonies, and that “Unless the Act from its own nature enforces itself, nothing but a very considerable military force can do it.” The gentlemen of England could not envisage this necessity vis-à-vis rabble.
By the time the crisis that Grenville’s Stamp Act had engendered was at hand, he had lost office. The King, long irritated and bored by Grenville’s habit of lecturing him on economic policy, became enraged when his mother’s name was eliminated by Grenville’s faction for devious political reasons from a Regency Bill drawn up in consequence of the King’s illness early in 1765.* George dismissed him, unfortunately before locating someone sufficiently master of the conflicts stirred up by the Regency Bill to form a ministry in his place. At a loss, George turned to his uncle, the Duke of Cumberland, a person of un-Hanoverian ability and considerable prestige. The Duke offered the premiership to Pitt, who obstinately refused for reasons not easily discerned in this complex and opaque character. He may have been already determined on repeal and not sure whether he could command it and too stiff-necked to compromise or, given that he had been absent from affairs for the past year, the physical and sometimes mental disturbances that afflicted him from time to time may have been active.
Historians have suggested that, had Pitt taken office in 1765, the course of the next decade might have been different, but that is a supposition dependent on his continuing to function, which, as events soon proved, he could not. Pitt’s intransigence and exaggerated demands for an autonomous hand unquestionably weakened the government during the conflict with America. With his immense popularity, reputation and influence, and his incomparable sway over the House of Commons, he was an epic figure who had won, and could not save, an empire.
Pitt owed his rise as a younger son of what Lord Chesterfield called “a very new family” to force of character and his own abilities. His grandfather, called “Diamond” Pitt, was a nabob of the East India Company, of brutal temperament and wild and tyrannical habits, who had made the family fortune in the Indian trade and held a share of command for a while as Governor of Madras. The diamond for which he was known was bought by the French Crown for more than two million livres. In England the family acquired the rotten borough of Old Sarum in Wiltshire, whose seat Pitt held from 1735. He took it over at 27 from his elder brother, who, having dissipated his fortune and alienated all friends in the process, retired abroad “in very bad circumstances” and intermittently mad, “though not confined but obliged to lead a very retired life.” The streak of madness in the blood, whether or not stemming from the grandfather, appeared also in Pitt’s sisters, one of whom was confined and two others more or less so.
Throughout his life Pitt suffered from incapacitating gout, which had afflicted him since schooldays at Eton. Rare in youth, gout at that age was evidence of a severe form. Its recurring pain caused the irritability common to gout-sufferers and required a gout-stool and huge boot to be built into the front of Pitt’s carriage and sedan chair.
His political career gained notoriety by a much publicized refusal as Paymaster of the Forces to take commissions or hold back for personal investment the sums assigned for pay, both customary perquisites of office. As Secretary of State during the Seven Years’ War, he was able to abide shared command with the Duke of Newcastle as premier because Newcastle stayed within his specialty, the handling of patronage, and left policy to Pitt.
Pitt was driven by conviction that England’s destiny was maritime supremacy and that her resources could prevail in the rivalry with France by destruction of French trade and trading bases. With passionate application of funds and forces to this object, and infusion of his own assurance, which once expressed itself in the statement “I know I can save this country and that I alone can,” he reconditioned and manned the fleet, recruited fellow-countrymen to replace foreign mercenaries, and turned feckless campaigning into a national war and tide of victory. Louisburg, on Cape Breton, Guadeloupe, Ticonderoga, Quebec, Minden in Europe, naval triumph in the Bay of Biscay—such a series of successes, wrote Horace Walpole, that “we are forced to ask every morning what victory there has been for fear of missing one.” Captured French flags were hung from St. Paul’s amid roars of the multitude. Supplies were voted without discussion. Pitt dominated his colleagues and, as the Great Commoner, was the idol of the public, who admired his absence of title and felt that in him they had a representative. This feeling carried as far as New England, where, according to Ezra Stiles, he was “idolized.” Fort Duquesne, captured from the French in 1758, was renamed Fort Pitt and its wooden village Pittsburgh.
Only when he wanted to carry the war to Spain, the other maritime rival, his dominance failed against the resistance to increased taxes and against the new King’s determination to turn out the Newcastle Whigs and take patronage into his own hands. When Pitt resigned in 1761, cheers followed his coach from the palace, ladies waved their handkerchiefs from windows, the populace “clung to the wheels, shook hands with the footmen and even kissed the horses.”
Thereafter Pitt was too unbending, too arrogant, too vain to enter into bargaining for place. He did not fit into the system, having no interest in groups and cabals. His interest was in policy commanded by himself. On leaving office in 1761 he told the House that he would not govern when his advice was not taken. “Being responsible, I will direct and will be responsible for nothing I do not direct.” A member thought this was “the most insolent declaration ever made by a Minister,” but it was Pitt to the core. He was of the rare type incapable of acting in association with others. “Unattached to any party, I am and wish to be entirely single,” he said, and more starkly on another occasion, “I cannot bear the least touch of command.” Perhaps what spoke here was a touch of megalomania. Pitt may have suffered from what in our time would be called delusions of grandeur and manic depression, but these had no names in his time and were not recognized as mental illness.
Tall, pale, thin-faced, with a hawk nose and piercing eye, ankles swollen with the gout that caused him to hobble, he was grand, proud, imposing, appearing always in full dress and full peruke, in manner “sage and awful as a Cato.” He was always acting, always enveloping himself in artificiality, perhaps to conceal the volcano within. His glance of scorn or indignation could wither an opponent, his invective and sarcasm were “terrible”; he had the same quality of terribilità as Julius II. His gift for oratory at a time when political success resided in it was literally spellbinding though few could explain why. His eloquence, vehement, fiery, original, bold, could win the support of the independents in Parliament. Theatrical, even bombastic in language, spoken with an actor’s gestures and plays of tone, employing “very brilliant and striking phrases,” his most successful speeches were composed on his feet, although of a particularly striking phrase he told Shelburne that he had “tried it on paper three times” before deciding to use it. At a whisper his voice could be heard to the remotest benches, and when swelling like a great organ to its fullest register, the volume filled the House and could be heard in the lobbies and down the stairs. All fell silent to listen when Pitt stood up to speak.
Failing Pitt, the Duke of Cumberland put together a mixed ministry whose three principal offices were filled by personal acquaintances from the turf and the Army, none of whom had held ministerial office before. The chief was the young grandee, the Marquess of Rockingham, one of the wealthiest nobles of England, with baronies in three counties, wide estates in Ireland and Yorkshire, the lord-lieutenancy of his home county, an Irish peerage and suitable titles as Knight of the Garter and Lord of the Bedchamber to add to his status. At 35, he was a “new Whig” of the younger generation, untried and uncertain how to proceed. The Secretaries of State were General Conway, who had been the Duke’s aide-de-camp, and Augustus Henry Fitzroy, 3rd Duke of Grafton, a fellow-patron of the turf like Rockingham, known to Cumberland from the Jockey Club. A rather lax young man of thirty, Grafton had no great ambition to make a name in history and was more interested in racing than government, but he was ready from a sense of noblesse oblige to serve his country as well as he could. When rank won him unanimous election as Chancellor of Cambridge University in 1768, the poet Thomas Gray, author of “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” for whom Grafton had secured appointment as Regius Professor of History, wrote an ode that was set to music for the Duke’s installation. In government Grafton was less happy, uneasy in his duties and given to frequent proposals to resign.
Leading the King’s friends in the Cabinet as Lord Chancellor was the gouty, profane, boisterous Lord Northington, who though frequently the worse for drink had held all the various law posts over the last nine years and was willing to concede the effects of too much port, saying, “If I had known that these legs were one day to carry a Lord Chancellor, I would have taken more care of them when I was a lad.” The Secretary at War, who accepted his post at the King’s express wish, was Viscount Barrington, an amiable man with one brother an Admiral and another a Bishop. He made it a principle, he said, to refuse no office on the theory that “some fortune may at last make me pope.” He remained at the War Office, still waiting, for the next thirteen years, one of the longest tenures of the period. The disunion permissible within a Cabinet is illustrated by his making it a condition of his accepting the post that he be permitted to vote against the ministry both on the Stamp Act and on General Warrants.
Divided and weak, the new ministry headed into the Stamp Act crisis, losing Cumberland by death after only four months, which left Rockingham unsheltered and without guidance. He tried to recruit Pitt without success and when he repeatedly asked what he should do about repeal, Pitt refused to communicate. Suffering from some debility, he was out of affairs throughout 1765.
Non-Importation was cutting into the economy, distressing merchants and labor. Alarming articles appeared in the press, inspired in many cases by an organized merchants’ campaign for repeal, reporting factory closings and an army of unemployed preparing to march on London to obtain repeal by threat of violence to the House of Commons. London’s merchants formed a committee to write to their fellows in thirty manufacturing and port towns urging them to petition Parliament for repeal. The Government was torn between “Stamp Men” and “No Stamp Men,” with Rockingham, Grafton and Conway and the old Duke of Newcastle in favor of repeal, against the Stamp Men, who wanted a demonstration of sovereignty and argued that repeal would destroy Britain’s authority and give the colonies impetus toward outright independence. Openly at odds with the Rockingham faction, Lord Northington announced he would attend no more Cabinet meetings, but rather than resigning, he remained to work through intrigue to bring the government down.
While not himself the possessor of forceful opinions, Rockingham acquired a policy by transfusion from his secretary, Edmund Burke. He became persuaded that the violent American reaction indicated that an attempt to enforce the Act would be inexpedient, that England would be poorly advised to lose her colonial trade through ill-will, and that if harmony could be restored by repeal, so much the better. Through conciliation, Burke explained, the two Whig principles of liberty of the subject and sovereignty of Parliament could be reconciled.
With a majority determined to teach the colonies a lesson in sovereignty and eager for a reduction in their own land tax in consequence of revenue from America, the hope of moving Parliament to vote for repeal was slight. Grenville fulminated about the “outrageous Tumults and Insurrections” in North America, and Lord Northington declared that to “give up the law” by repeal would mean for Britain to “be conquered in America and become a Province to her own Colonies.” Efforts to elicit an opinion from Pitt during the Christmas recess were unavailing and when Parliament reconvened on 14 January 1766, Rockingham, trying to maintain a government weakened by dissension, was uncertain what to do.
Pitt appeared. The benches hushed. He said to them that the subject before them was “of greater importance than ever engaged the attention of this House” since their own liberties were at stake in the revolution of the last century and that “the outcome will decide the judgment of posterity on the glory of this kingdom and the wisdom of government during the present reign.” Taxation was “no part of the governing or legislative power”; it was a “voluntary gift” of representative assemblies. The idea of “virtual representation of America in this House is the most contemptible idea that ever entered into the head of man and it does not deserve a serious refutation.” Referring to remarks by Grenville denouncing those in England who encouraged colonial resistance, he retorted, “I rejoice that America has resisted. Three millions of people so dead to all feelings of liberty as voluntarily to submit to be slaves would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest.” A member cried out that the speaker should be sent to the Tower, evoking, according to a witness, “such shouts of applause as I never heard.” Shaken but not diverted, Pitt went on to announce that the Stamp Act must be repealed “absolutely, totally, immediately” and at the same time accompanied by a statement of “sovereign authority over the colonies … 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.”
Here was a fine obfuscation. Was not binding their trade by customs duties another way of taking money out of their pockets without their consent? If Parliament had supreme legislative power, how could taxation not be “part of that sovereign power”? Grenville, in making these points, refused to accept the distinction between external and internal taxation. Pitt was a firm mercantilist and his reply was unequivocal: “Let it be forever ascertained; taxation is theirs, commercial regulation is ours.” His distinction left others unconvinced. “If you understand the difference,” wrote Lord George Germain to a friend, “it is more than I do, but I assure you it was very fine when I heard it.”
It was enough for Rockingham; he had his signal. A declaration of parliamentary sovereignty, which it was hoped would satisfy the demand for assertiveness, was immediately drafted and introduced along with the bill for repeal. The King’s sullen consent was secured by informing him that the choice was either repeal or armed enforcement requiring additional military forces for which it would be hard to find funds. The House resumed debate. In the Lords the Duke of Bedford, leader of the Grenville faction, insisted that the Stamp Act “if suffered to be removed puts a final period to the British Empire in America.” Rockingham, however, had found allies. He encouraged the merchants’ campaign in order to shift emphasis from controversial “rights” to economic consequences. Provincial mayors and leading citizens from 35 cities arrived each day to present petitions from their cities for repeal. Letters from American traders to English shippers canceling orders were presented. More than a hundred merchants gathered in London to exert by their presence in the Visitors Gallery a silent pressure. Twenty riders were kept waiting to gallop with news of the vote.
Forty witnesses, including colonial agents, merchants and visiting Americans were called to testify on Non-Importation. Among them, Benjamin Franklin at his famous examination in February 1766 firmly told the House that Americans would never pay the Stamp duties “unless compelled by force of arms,” and armed forces would be useless because “they cannot compel a man to take stamps who chuses to do without them. They will not find a rebellion; they may indeed make one.” That could stand as Britain’s epitaph for the decade, for at the time Franklin spoke, “an overwhelming majority” of his countrymen, as an English historian has stated, “had never contemplated the idea of severing the connection with the mother country.”
The dilemma was real. To leave the Act in place would be to assure, as the witnesses testified, lasting disaffection, even “total alienation” in the colonies, while to concede repeal would be to acknowledge loss of authority in America. Horace Walpole, in his memoirs written two years later, added another disturbing factor: enforcement which could “risk lighting up a rebellion” might be a cause of the colonies’ “flinging themselves into the arms of France and Spain.” On the other hand, repeal of a revenue bill was “setting a precedent of the most fatal complexion.”
The Declaratory Act, stating that “The Parliament of Great Britain had, hath, and by 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,” won unanimous approval in the Commons and the votes in the Lords of all but five, who included, interestingly enough, Lord Cornwallis. Another was Lord Camden, formerly Chief Justice Pratt, the only minister to speak against the Declaratory Act, who insisted that the very ground of the objection was that taxation without representation was illegal and that “there are some things you cannot do.” The fact that the Act did not mention taxation, the whole point of the dispute, was questioned by the Attorney-General, Charles Yorke, who moved to insert “in cases of taxation” but was overruled by the assurance that “in all cases whatsoever” covered the necessity. That satisfied enough members to win a majority for repeal. But though convenient the Declaratory Act was rash because it locked Parliament into a statutory position that foreclosed compromise. It returned to haunt many who had voted for it when in the next decade the Rockingham party was trying to avert war. For the moment it accomplished its purpose. Repeal was enacted over 167 hold-outs. The Lords still resisted and gave their assent only when the King was induced to let it be known that he favored repeal.
The thing was done. General Conway’s face shone, reported Burke, “as it were the face of an angel.” The messengers galloped away with the glad news, bells rang in Bristol, ship captains raised their flags and fired salutes, huzzahs resounded in the seaports, and when the news reached America, rejoicing was double. John Hancock, a merchant-shipper himself, gave a great party with Madeira and fireworks, militias paraded with drum and fife, taverns burst with celebrators, gala balls were held, loyal thanks offered to King and Parliament and 500 sermons of thanksgiving preached throughout New England. Orders for English merchandise were renewed and itchy homespun garments given to the poor. Eight months later, John Adams wrote that the people were now “as quiet and submissive to Government as any people under the sun”; repeal had “composed every wave of popular disorder.” The Declaratory Act made no impression for the very reason that it contained no reference to taxation. The Americans may also have assumed that it was a gesture of hurt pride which would not be implemented.
How shall we assess the Stamp Act and its repeal? Although framed in the face of information assuring trouble, the policy behind the Act was not yet classic folly in the sense of mindless persistence in conduct clearly counter-productive. It was natural to want revenue from the colonies and natural to try to obtain it. Repeal likewise fell short of folly because it lacked a clearly available alternative. Enforcement was impossible; repeal unavoidable. It was inauspicious because Americans, no matter how joyful, could hardly escape the conclusion that parliamentary supremacy was vulnerable to riot, agitation and boycott. Yet the great majority at this time, apart from the few activists, had never contemplated rebellion or separation, and if no further British provocation had followed, combat might never have come to Lexington Common.