continued to increase in the winter and spring of 1765, when news arrived that Britain’s Parliament had passed the Stamp Act, the first direct tax Parliament had ever imposed on American colonists. For generations, Parliament had only collected indirect “hidden” taxes such as import duties, and allowed each colony’s elected legislature to impose direct taxes such as sales taxes and property taxes to pay costs of colonial administration.
In three different ways, then, Parliament sought to draw the lifeblood out of the colonies. Indirect taxation was already in place, as was the structural bias of licensing various industries. Now, Parliament wanted to add direct taxation. As an excuse, the Crown reminded the public about the costs of the French and Indian War. Between 1754 and 1763, the Seven Years’ War occupied Europe. The central conflict was between Frederick the Great of Prussia and Maria-Theresa of Austria. France and England were drawn into the conflict through alliances: England on the side of Prussia, and France on the side of Austria. Frictions between England and France already existed because of their competing imperial aspirations. In North America, this took the form of competition of the Ohio River valley area.
Although England had won the Seven Years’ War, her victory left the government nearly bankrupt, with a national debt of
130 million pounds. The war was expensive because it had been fought on multiple fronts: Europe, North America, Africa, and India, in addition to naval encounters. In addition, the postwar status left England paying approximately 300,000 pounds
in annual costs of military garrisons to protect American colonists against Indian attacks. To pay for the garrisons, Parliament raised taxes at home first, but the increases plunged 40,000 Englishmen into debtor’s prisons and provoked widespread antitax riots. Threatened with a national uprising, Parliament rescinded some tax increases at home and compensated by raising duties on America’s imports and exports - and extending the reach of the British Stamp Tax to the colonies. Parliament - and, indeed, most Englishmen - believed Americans should pay for their own military protection, and the stamp tax seemed the most innocuous way to do so. In effect for some decades in England, the stamp tax required the purchase and affixment of one or more revenue stamps - often worth less than a penny - on all legal documents (wills, deeds, marriage certificates, bills of lading, purchase orders, etc.), newspapers and periodicals, liquor containers, decks of playing cards, and a host of other industrial and consumer goods. All but negligible when added to the cost of any one individual item, it nevertheless amounted to a considerable - and reliable - revenue source for the government when collections from stamps on tens of thousands of documents and products poured into the treasury. British Chancellor of the Exchequer Lord Grenville estimated that stamp tax collections in America would reap about
60,000 pounds per “year, or about 20 percent of troop costs there.” The Englishmen at home in Britain were not eager to foot the bill for the colonies - who can blame them? - but the colonists knew that British military was an overly expensive defense system. The mere presence of British soldiers in North America made life difficult for the colonists, the colonists whom the soldiers were allegedly protecting. Drunken, thieving, and rowdy, the soldiers were not good neighbors to the colonists. Having survived the French and Indian War, the colonists also had learned from that bitter experience about how to defend themselves. Now the colonists were told that they would have to pay for the presence of the soldiers who were an overly expensive and underperforming defense system, and who made life unsafe for some of the colonists whom they were allegedly defending.
Although the costs of the stamp tax to the average American was trivial, Parliament chose just the wrong moment to impose it. Increased duties were already strangling the American economy in the spring of 1765. Importers were collapsing under the weight of debts to English suppliers; shopkeepers and craftsmen closed their doors; even the largest merchants struggled to stay in business, leaving farmers without their usual outlets for crops and at the mercy of speculators. Patrick Henry loaned his father-in-law, John Shelton, several hundred pounds to help Shelton keep his farm and stave off personal bankruptcy.
The Stamp Act was one more insult to the colonists. Already economically strained, Parliament seemed ignorant of colonial finances. The Stamp Act proved to be the occasion for the emergence of America’s leaders: in Boston, James Otis and Samuel Adams represented public sentiment against the act; in Virginia, Patrick Henry and George Washington emerged as thinkers who were willing to see that this was tyranny. Historian Harlow Unger, however, dismisses their claims as “specious” and points to British suffrage rates at that time.
Unger’s skepticism about American claims to freedom, however, does not bear closer examination. Two arguments speak against Unger: first, if “only” one in nine Britons had the vote, that’s well ahead of the zero in nine Americans who had a vote in Parliament; second, the fact that Britons may have been deprived of effective parliamentary representation is no excuse for depriving Americans as well. If anything, Unger’s argument, far from nullifying American claims to freedom, rather points to the fact that the Britons would have been justified, or almost as justified, in raising the same demands as the Americans.
(To clarify: many Americans had a vote for their own town councils and colonial legislative bodies; at issue here was the fact that no American had elected representation in Parliament. If one in nine Englishmen could vote to select his region's representative in the House of Commons, that was still infinitely more than the zero in nine Americans who could do the same.)
Aside from Unger’s insertion of gratuitous adjectives like “specious,” his narrative is largely correct, if somewhat underemphasized:
In a pamphlet entitled The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, Otis raised the first specious cry against parliamentary imposition of direct taxation without representation, conveniently overlooking the absence of parliamentary representation for almost all English taxpayers in England as well as in America. Indeed, only one million of Britain’s nine million adult males were permitted to vote.
Joining James Otis was Samuel Adams. Together, the two of them represent the earliest igniters of revolutionary sentiment in Boston, just as Patrick Henry and George Washington were perhaps the earliest embodiments of the spirit of independence in Virginia. Again, Unger casts a derisive eye on their demands for freedom, but he admits that America had refined the concept of liberty farther, at that point in time, than most other societies:
Teaming with Otis, Adams all but smothered Boston’s editors with propaganda leaflets that the proroyalist Boston Evening Post labeled “mad rant and porterly reviling.” Indeed, few but the world’s most disgruntled citizens would have paid any attention to it except in North America, where settlers isolated in the hamlets and woods of New England had lived free of almost all government authority for more than 150 years. They had cleared the land, felled great forests, built homes and churches, planted their fields, hunted, fished, and fought off Indian marauders on their own, cooperating with each other, collectively governing themselves, electing their militia commanders and church pastors and turning to assemblies of elders to mediate occasional disputes. Self-reliant - often courageously so - they had thought and acted independently for four or more generations, seldom hearing, let alone responding to, utterances from the church, throne, or Parliament in far-off London. Like Patrick Henry, they had lived in freedom, without government intrusion in their lives and saw little need for it.
By the time the colonists were moved to protest the Stamp Act, they had lived with, and resisted, a century of oppression and attempted oppression. It began with a distortion of market forces, requiring cargo to be carried only on ships flying the flag of the British Empire. It may seem a small thing, but the consequences were significant. Lack of competition continually tilted pricing in favor of England and against the colonies. To be sure, Parliament was reacting to a legitimate threat posed by the Dutch; some response was required in that situation. But the course of action chosen by Parliament had harmful, and possibly or probably unintended, consequences.
In 1651, however, Parliament began to interfere in colonial affairs after Dutch cargo ships began capturing more and more of the trade between America and Europe, threatening the health of Britain’s merchant fleet. Parliament passed a series of “Navigation Acts,” which, one by one, over the next fifty years, banned all American trade with any country but England and force all ocean-going trade onto British or American bottoms.
Although settlers in the colonies were
galled by parliamentary intrusion in their affairs, most New England lumbermen and shipbuilders
found creative ways to deal with Parliament’s regulations. They quickly learned that
smuggling goods onto unguarded landing points avoided duties altogether. The unexpected economic collapse that followed the Seven Years’ War, however, left New Englanders easy prey for Boston’s rabble-rousers and the frenzied warnings that the stamp tax would bankrupt them.
In the midst of this crisis, a young man named Patrick Henry was elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses, the colony’s legislative body. In May 1765, he arrived as a newly-elected representative for his first sessions of the body. The House of Burgesses had a strong sense of tradition, including a sentiment that young or freshly-elected legislators were to be silent and learn from those who were older and more experienced. Patrick Henry did not correspond well to those notions.
On May 29, 1765, his twenty-ninth birthday, Henry startled the House by asking for recognition and, as older burgesses demanded that he sit, he proposed five resolutions that they shouted down as preposterous. The first three were harmless enough, reiterating the principle that colonists were entitled to “all the privileges, franchises, and immunities … possessed by the people of Great Britain.” The fourth resolution declared speciously that “taxation of the people by themselves, or by persons chosen by themselves to represent them … is the distinguishing characteristic of British freedom. …” In fact, few British subjects had any say over taxes, although Virginia, as Henry stated correctly in his fourth resolution, had “uninterruptedly enjoyed the right of being … governed by their own Assembly in the article of their [direct] taxes. …”
Managing to bundle together the ills which the colonies were suffering at the Crown’s hands, Patrick Henry tapped directly into the sentiment of “no taxation without representation,” a slogan already current at the time. He also rephrased, knowing or unknowingly, Locke’s principle that the legitimacy of a government is derived from the consent of the governed.
The last resolution was the most preposterous, and provocative, of all, and he was too well versed in British law by then not to have realized it. Inspired, perhaps, by the overwhelming popular support he had received
both as an attorney in private practice and as winner of an election, in the former role having represented the interests of the colonists against the Crown’s excessive taxes,
he evidently saw opposition to taxes as a way to ensure and even broaden that support. In his fifth resolution, he declared that “the General Assembly of this colony have the only and sole exclusive right and power to lay taxes … upon the inhabitants of this colony, and that every attempt to vest such power in any person or persons … other than the General Assembly … has a manifest tendency to destroy British and American freedom.”
Clearly expressing the direct connection between economic freedom and political freedom, Patrick Henry saw that the ability to levy taxes, if vested in anyone or anything other than the duly elected representatives of the people, was a root for any and all other forms of tyranny.
As Henry realized, his resolutions not only violated House protocol, they represented the first colonial opposition to British law.
Simultaneously clear-headed and passionate, Patrick Henry knew that he was edging into the realm of rebellion. A trained and experienced lawyer, he knew exactly where the line lay, and deliberately crossed it.
A majority of those present approved his motions. The coalition supporting him was composed of the younger members and of the “uplanders” - those from western Virginia, living in the rural hill country, where political attitudes emphasized liberty and freedom.
… they forced through a vote approving Henry’s resolutions - with George Washington and, most surprisingly, Richard Henry Lee among them.
Richard Henry Lee would later be a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, where he would push for independence and for the codification thereof in the Declaration of Independence, of which he was one of the signatories. He also signed the Articles of Confederation.
After hearing Henry’s condemnation of the Stamp Act, however, he realized, as did Washington, that the act would undermine the rights of all Virginians, the wealthy planters as well as Henry’s uplanders. Lee and Washington immediately abandoned the pro-British bloc of burgesses and become two of Patrick Henry’s staunchest political allies, with Lee resigning his ties to stamp distribution.
Although the motion had carried with a majority of the voting members present, there had been a number of members absent. One of the representatives, Edmund Pendleton, made a motion to repeal Patrick Henry’s proposals, and worked to ensure that all, or almost all, voting members of the House of Burgesses would be present for this repeal vote. Patrick Henry’s victory - a small but significant step for freedom - seemed in danger. But Pendleton did not succeed in extinguishing the small flame of liberty which Patrick Henry had lit.
Even more startling were the votes of Lee and Washington and the younger Tidewater planters, who rebelled against their elders by joining Henry’s uplanders in defeating Pendleton’s omnibus motion to erase all of Henry’s resolves from the record. Although senior burgesses managed to remove the most virulent resolutions, their efforts came too late. Before leaving Williamsburg the previous day, Henry had given the editor of the Virginia Gazette all seven resolutions to copy, and, under a news-sharing agreement among the newspaper printers in most of the colonies, he had already sent them on their way to newspapers across America. The entire continent soon heard the lion’s roar.
Although Pendleton had succeeded in taking some of the edge from Patrick Henry’s proposals, news of this bold step spread quickly throughout the colonies.
… publication of Henry’s resolutions fired up colonist antipathy toward British government intrusion in their affairs and Parliament’s efforts to tax them, directly or indirectly. Stamp Act opponents rallied in every city, forming secret societies called the Sons of Liberty.
Having struck a blow for freedom, Patrick Henry was content to step back and let others lead the movement for a while. He was perhaps more an instigator or rallier than a leader in this sense. He had little taste for organizational tasks.
Having sparked the fires of rebellion across the colonies, however, Henry remained curiously absent from the turmoil he had created, having vanished into the Piedmont hills to attend to the mundane tasks of raising and supporting his family. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Henry derived far less pleasure from the pomp, power, and formality of the capital than he did from the sense of freedom he felt in his fields at home and the joys he derived from his children.
In Boston, the flames lit by Samuel Adams and James Otis received fresh fuel, both from new of Patrick Henry’s motions in the Virginia House of Burgesses, and from renewed affronts carried out by the British government against American freedom.
At the beginning of August, the British government published the names of the colonial distributors who would sell tax stamps. With Henry’s resolves still echoing across the colonies, Bostonians - particularly hard hit by the economic downturn - snapped as one. Debts had piled high; there was no work; shops had closed. With nothing left for rent or food, some tramped off into the wilderness, hoping to stumble on some unfortunate beast whose flesh and hide might provide sustenance and clothing.
In the lore and legend of the American Revolution, one of the symbols which played an inspirational role was the Liberty Tree. It was location for escalating and organizing the colonial quest for freedom.
On the morning of August 14, a straw effigy of Boston’s designated stamp collector, the wealthy Tory merchant Andrew Oliver, dangled from the limb of an oak tree on High Street. Immediately dubbed the Liberty Tree, it drew an ever-thickening crowd, which metamorphosed into an angry mob.
On August 14, 1765, and on several days following, there was rioting in Boston in response to the Stamp Act’s taking effect. Rioting spread to other cities and towns in the thirteen colonies. A more careful response was the organization of the Stamp Act Congress, at which delegates from most, but not all, of the thirteen colonies met in New York in October 1765. The Congress issued a declaration and sent petitions to Parliament and King George III. Economic countermeasures against the Stamp Act were also undertaken by colonists.
As the effective date approached for the Stamp Act to go into effect, Patrick Henry’s new friend and political ally, planter Richard Henry Lee, of Westmoreland County, put his name and fortune at risk by calling on Virginians to boycott all things British until Parliament repealed the Act. In what was essentially an act of treason, more than one hundred Virginia planters signed Lee’s Westmoreland Protests and inspired similarly prominent men in other colonies to follow suit. Some 200 merchants in New York City, 250 Boston, and 400 in Philadelphia pledged to stop importing all but a select list of goods from England until Parliament repealed the Stamp Act. Boston’s leading merchant banker John Hancock warned his London agent that “the people of this country will never suffer themselves to be mades slaves of by a submission to the damned act.”
While the notion of independence from Britain had not yet crystallized in the minds of the colonists, Patrick Henry’s actions in the Virginia House of Burgesses, the work of Samuel Adams and James Otis in Boston, and the solidifying effect of the Stamp Act Congress furthered freedom-oriented sentiments in North America. These sentiments were strengthened by success: Parliament did repeal the Stamp Act in February 1766, and the King approved the repeal in March of that year. Although the work of Edmund Burke in England helped the colonial cause, the economic effects of the colonial boycotts and the political impact of Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, James Otis, and the Stamp Act Congress were the main drivers in this development.
The colonists learned that they could organize and assert themselves against the British Empire, and in so doing, could gain and protect their liberty.