Introduction

The stunning irony of the French and Indian War (1754–1763), which resulted in Great Britain gaining from France a vast North American empire, is that it set in motion events causing Britain to lose that hard-won empire—as well as the thirteen Atlantic seaboard colonies that had contributed mightily to its victory. During the course of the Seven Years’ War, as this conflict was known globally, Britain’s debt doubled. In 1765, hoping to boost revenue, Parliament imposed on its colonies the Stamp Act, which taxed everything from contracts to newspapers, stationery, playing cards, and dice. Americans rose up in indignation. It was bad enough that this measure increased taxes and required payment in hard-to-find British currency. Even worse, the Stamp Act amounted to taxation without representation since Parliament included not a single member elected by Americans. If the protection of private property stood as one of the first goals of government—a premise the colonists thought England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688–89 had sanctified—then the British government was not merely failing to do its job. By reaching into Americans’ pockets without their permission, it had committed an act of theft.

Colonists did not take kindly to what they perceived as this violation of their rights. They boycotted goods subject to the stamp tax; ostracized and intimidated stamp tax collectors; and protested, petitioned, and organized resistance not only on the local level but also through an intercolonial network of activists known as Sons of Liberty. In October of 1765, in an unprecedented display of colonial unity, thirty-seven delegates from nine colonies gathered in New York City for the Stamp Act Congress, which issued these resolutions and sent petitions to the king and both houses of Parliament. Although British officials dismissed the Congress as an extralegal body, they could not ignore the economic damage done by the boycott. In February 1766, Parliament voted to repeal the Stamp Act.


Source: Hezekiah Niles, ed., Principles and Acts of the Revolution in America… (Baltimore: William Ogden Niles, 1822), 456–57.


Saturday, Oct. 19th, 1765, A. M.—The congress met … and upon mature deliberation, agreed to the following declarations of the rights and grievances of the colonists in America….

The members of this congress, sincerely devoted, with the warmest sentiments of affection and duty, to his majesty’s person and government; inviolably attached to the present happy establishment of the Protestant succession [to the throne], and with minds deeply impressed by a sense of the present and impending misfortunes of the British colonies on this continent; having considered as maturely as time would permit, the circumstances of the said colonies, esteem it our indispensable duty to make the following declarations, of our humble opinion, respecting the most essential rights and liberties of the colonists, and of the grievances under which they labor, by reason of several late acts of Parliament.

1st. That his majesty’s subjects in these colonies, owe the same allegiance to the crown of Great Britain, that is owing from his subjects born within the realm, and all due subordination to that august body, the parliament of Great Britain.

2d. That his majesty’s liege[1] subjects in these colonies are entitled to all the inherent rights and privileges of his natural born subjects within the kingdom of Great Britain.

3d. That it is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted rights of Englishmen, that no taxes should be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives.

4th. That the people of these colonies are not, and from their local circumstances cannot be, represented in the House of Commons in Great Britain.

5th. That the only representatives of the people of these colonies, are persons chosen therein, by themselves; and that no taxes ever have been, or can be constitutionally imposed on them, but by their respective legislatures.

6th. That all supplies to the crown, being free gifts of the people, it is unreasonable and inconsistent with the principles and spirit of the British constitution, for the people of Great Britain to grant to his majesty the property of the colonists.

7th. That trial by jury is the inherent and invaluable right of every British subject in these colonies.[2]

8th. That the late act of Parliament, entitled, An act for granting and applying certain stamp duties, and other duties in the British colonies and plantations in America, etc.,[3] by imposing taxes on the inhabitants of these colonies, and the said act, and several other acts, by extending the jurisdiction of the courts of admiralty beyond its ancient limits, have a manifest tendency to subvert the rights and liberties of the colonists.

9th. That the duties imposed by several late acts of Parliament, from the peculiar circumstances of these colonies, will be extremely burdensome and grievous, and from the scarcity of specie,[4] the payment of them absolutely impracticable.

10th. That as the profits of the trade of these colonies ultimately center in Great Britain, to pay for the manufactures which they are obliged to take from thence,[5] they eventually contribute very largely to all supplies granted there to the crown.

11th. That the restrictions imposed by several late acts of parliament, on the trade of these colonies, will render them unable to purchase the manufactures of Great Britain.

12th. That the increase, prosperity, and happiness of these colonies, depend on the full and free enjoyment of their rights and liberties, and an intercourse, with Great Britain, mutually affectionate and advantageous.

13th. That it is the right of the British subjects in these colonies to petition the king or either house of Parliament.

Lastly, That it is the indispensable duty of these colonies to the best of sovereigns, to the mother country, and to themselves, to endeavor, by a loyal and dutiful address to his majesty, and humble application to both houses of Parliament, to procure the repeal of the act for granting and applying certain stamp duties, of all clauses of any other acts of Parliament, whereby the jurisdiction of the admiralty is extended as aforesaid, and of the other late acts for the restriction of the American commerce.

Study Questions

A. What were the Stamp Act Congress’s practical objections to the Stamp Act? What important constitutional principle did the Congress believe the Stamp Act violated?

B. According to the arguments of James Otis (Speech against Writs of Assistance and  Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved) and the Stamp Act Congress, what were the principles that limited the authority of Parliament?

Footnotes

  1. Loyal.
  2. People accused of violating the Stamp Act were to face trial in vice admiralty courts, which lacked juries.
  3. George III gave his assent to the Stamp Act on March 22, 1765.
  4. Coined money; the legal tender—in short supply in the colonies—required for payment of the stamp tax.
  5. From that place.