In the middle of a dark night, a lone rowboat crosses the Long Island Sound. The date is Sept. 12, 1776. A few weeks prior, the British army, under the command of Gen. William Howe, had successfully invaded Long Island. George Washington, in defeat, retreated to Manhattan. He was desperate to gain any bit of intelligence on the British army's next plan of attack. One young man in this boat, by the name of Nathan Hale, had volunteered to travel behind enemy lines as a spy.
By Dr. David E. Schrader
Summer 2017 Vol. 112. No. 1
On March 18, 1766 the hated Stamp Act was repealed. Also on March 18, 1766 the Declaratory Act (the American Colonies Act 1766) was enacted. The longtitle of the act perhaps best reveals its troublesome nature: “An Act for the better securing the Dependency of His Majesty’s Dominions in America upon the Crown and Parliament of Great Britain.” The Declaratory Act was an assertion by the British parliament that it held legislative power over British colonies “in all cases whatsoever.” This included the power to tax. It was essentially the same assertion of parliamentary authority that had been made with respect to Ireland in the Declaratory Act 1719 (An Act for the better securing the dependency of the Kingdom of Ireland on the Crown of Great Britain), as the Duke of Northumberland affirmed in parliamentary debate (cited in Temperley, p. 578).
In the euphoria over the repeal of the Stamp Act, most in the Colonies hardly noticed the Declaratory Act. Revolutionary leaders like the Adams cousins and Patrick Henry were profoundly concerned with abstract questions of rights and were alarmed by the Declaratory Act, but others paid little attention to such abstract questions of rights and saw the more concrete end of the Stamp Act with joy.
To understand the adoption and significance of the Declaratory Act, four issues need to be explored: 1) the dramatic expansion of British possessions resulting from the Seven Years’ War and the resulting need to develop systems for administering those possessions; 2) the political instability that plagued Great Britain during the 1760s, the first decade of the reign of King George III; 3) two sets of distinctions between different kinds of taxation that seem to have been the subject of confusion on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean; and 4) the concern of British political leaders and ordinary citizens for the honor and authority of King and parliament.
The Seven Years’ War, known in its American phase as the French and Indian War, was both successful and expensive for Great Britain. British colonial holdings expanded in
North America from a group of 13 Colonies along the Atlantic seaboard to include the entire continent east of the Mississippi River. Great Britain also expanded its territory in the islands of the Caribbean. Additionally, Great Britain effectively eliminated French influence in India, leaving Britain as the unquestioned colonial master of the Indian subcontinent. The combination of vastly expanded colonial holdings and near- bankruptcy resulting from the cost of waging the war left Great Britain with both the need and the opportunity to overhaul its entire colonial system (Thomas, p. 45).
The overhaul of the British colonial system took place against the backdrop of the basic understanding of mercantilist economic ideology that had dominated European thinking since the 16th century. According to mercantilist thought, the whole purpose of having colonies was to derive economic benefit for the mother country (Thomas, p. 44). By contrast, the people of New England, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia surely did not see their existence as being for the economic benefit of Great Britain. The New England colonies were founded over a century earlier by people who saw their colonies primarily as religious communities. Maryland had been established through a grant from King Charles I as a place where British Roman Catholics could exercise their religion freely. Pennsylvania had been given as a grant to the Penn family by King Charles II to settle a family debt. The history of at least some of the older colonies had led the residents of those colonies to see their presence in America in terms very different from those of mercantilist orthodoxy.
Thus, there was an inevitable conflict over the status of the colonies and the colonists. The residents of many of the older colonies, who had systems of self-government that had been in place in some cases for well over a century, viewed themselves as British citizens living in America. Their view was that they should continue to be largely self-governing, subject to British trade regulations. They should be self-sustaining, supporting the costs of their own government. But they did not see themselves as simply a source of revenue for Great Britain. The King, parliament and public opinion in the mother country, by contrast, held to the standard mercantilist view of colonies and colonials. “Fundamentally, the great problem of the decade following the peace of 1763 was the problem of the reconciliation of centralized imperial control with colonial home rule” (Schlesinger, p. 65).
British politics in the 1760s was, quite simply, a mess. In 1760, in the middle of the Seven Years’ War, King George II, who had ruled Great Britain for 33 years, died. He was succeeded by his inexperienced 22 year-old grandson, George III. The situation in parliament was, if anything, worse. The first minister from 1757 to 1762 was Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle. He served during most of the Seven Years’ War, and his secretary of state, William Pitt the Elder, bore primary responsibility for the conduct of the war. Newcastle was forced from office in 1762 largely because of the hostility of the new young king. During the remainder of the 1760s, five men occupied the position of first minister: John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute (May 26, 1762 – April 8, 1763); George Grenville (April 16, 1763 – July 13, 1765); Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham (July 13, 1765 – July 30, 1766); William Pitt the Elder, made 1st Lord Chattam in 1766 (July 30, 1766 – October 14, 1768); and Augustus FitzRoy, 3rd Duke of Grafton (October 14, 1768 – January 28, 1770). Rockingham, interestingly, would serve a second term as first minister in 1782, at which time Great Britain acknowledged American independence. What is perhaps most illustrative of the chaotic state of British politics during the 1760s is that five of the six men who served as first minister during the decade were affiliated with the same political party. All were Whigs with the sole exception of Lord Bute. As this relates to American policy, it is important to note that the Stamp Act was the “brainchild” of Whig First Minister George Grenville, and the repeal of the Stamp Act was championed by the succeeding Whig first minister, the Marquess of Rockingham, with the support of the Pitt faction of the party as well.
It is also important to note that the issues surrounding American policy were not unrelated to issues of British parliamentary reform. While Great Britain was technically ruled by parliament, the British Parliament bore only marginal relation to a representative assembly. By the reign of King George III, there had been no redistribution of parliamentary “representation” for over two centuries.
Certain districts that had been sufficiently populous when the distribution was made to be entitled to representation in parliament, had gradually lost most of their inhabitants, but still possessed the right to send representatives to parliament. Others that had been practically uninhabited, when the distribution of seats had taken place, had grown in population until they had become great cities, such as Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, etc., but were without the right to send representatives. (McElroy, p. 45) Kings at times had given additional representative to areas and groups that served their political purposes, but there was no general reform until the great Reform Bill of 1832 (McElroy, p. 46). British political leaders of various stripes recognized the similarities between the American colonists and Britons from the unrepresented areas. Some of those leaders developed the idea of “virtual representation” to justify the lack of representation of major blocks of the British population. The idea of virtual representation was that “a man is represented ‘virtually’ … if his interests are represented” (McElroy, p. 47). Defenders of parliamentary taxation of the Colonies maintained that the colonists were in the same situation as the residents of, say, Birmingham. The American colonists, however, had developed their own system of representative assemblies and took genuine representation quite seriously.
Parliamentary reformers like Pitt, known in his time as “The Great Commoner,” maintained the “idea of a virtual representation … is the most contemptible that ever entered into the heart of a man” (Pitt, quoted in McElroy, p. 47). Not surprisingly, some of these parliamentary reformers maintained the consistent position that parliament lacked the right to tax the colonists. Thus the Pitt faction and the Grenville faction of the Whig establishment were deeply split on the issue of colonial taxation.
This much said, however, there was still a question over what constituted a “tax” in the objectionable sense. Are import duties taxes? In a sense, yes – in another sense, no. The American colonists had long been used to import duties on various goods. It was generally accepted at the time of the Stamp Act that import duties were not generally unacceptable. As I note in “The Stamp Act – The Beginning of the American Revolution,” the Stamp Act “was the first tax that Parliament had imposed on activities within the Colonies” (Schrader, p. 18). Thus some political leaders in the Americas and most in parliament saw a distinction between “external taxes” and “internal taxes,” where the former were traditionally used as
a way of regulating trade while the latter were direct taxes on the day-to-day activities of the people taxed, enacted for the purpose of generating revenue. In the parliamentary debate on the Stamp Act, Pitt argued forcefully that “The first Settlers carried with them every Right consistent with their Situation and the Parl[iament]t has not a right to lay internal taxation” (cited in Temperley, p. 573).
Given Pitt’s opposition to the Stamp Act, it may seem odd that the hated Townshend Act was adopted during Pitt’s administration and was proposed by Pitt’s chancellor of the exchequer, Charles Townshend. Townshend’s idea was that the only problem that the American colonists had with the Stamp Act was that it was an “internal” tax, although James Otis had clearly denied the legitimacy of the “distinction between internal and external taxes” as early as 1764 (cited in Hodge, p. 258). What Townshend proposed, therefore, was a set of “external” taxes (duties) that were designed not simply to regulate trade but to generate revenue. However the dominant view of colonial leaders drew a fundamental distinction between duties for the legitimate purpose of regulating trade and duties (taxes) for the purpose of generating revenue for the home government. Townshend’s ruse, then, did not go unchallenged in the American Colonies, but that is an issue for a later date.
- In the end, of course, the passage of the Declaratory Act was a product of politics. My objective in the foregoing has been to set the political context in which the passage of the Declaratory Act was almost inevitable, even if it was at first little noticed in the Colonies. The dominant Whig party was deeply split over the Stamp Act. The Grenville faction had supported the Stamp Act and was reluctant to acknowledge its mistake. The Rockingham and Pitt factions opposed the Stamp Act, some on the basis of principle, others because of the adverse reaction of the British merchant classes. Many of the Tories were happy to see embarrassment and disorder within the ranks of the Whigs, but were reluctant to accept a public rebuke to the authority of King and parliament.
To the extent that there was some consensus, it could best be expressed by the view of secretary of state for the Northern Department, Henry Seymour Conway, as related by an American named Mr. Trail, that “the Stamp Act must be repealed, that there was some difficulty about coming off with honor, and that America would boast that she had conquered Britain” (cited in Hodge, p. 267). Some of the American colonists’ closest friends in parliament, like Edmund Burke, supported the Declaratory Act as a necessary assertion of “the supremacy of parliament” (cited in Hodge, p. 267), basing their opposition to the Stamp Act largely on issues of practical politics and commercial policy. Yet there were others, like Pitt, who opposed the Declaratory Act as a basic matter of principle. In the end, not surprisingly, the practical won out. As Thomas notes, “Rockingham and his colleagues had always been aware that they had to devise a policy that was not only agreed upon by themselves, but also acceptable to the King, Lords, and Commons” (Thomas, p. 164). Both Conway and Burke maintained parliament’s right to lay “internal” taxes on the Colonies, while maintaining that it would be unwise ever to exercise that right (Thomas, pp. 230f.).
Pitt supporter Isaac Barré moved to amend the Declaratory Act by deleting the words “in all cases whatsoever,” on the ground that parliament had no right to enact “internal” taxes (Thomas, p. 198, and Temperley, p. 571). The move to amend was soundly rejected. Perhaps one of the great ironies of the enactment of the Declaratory Act, however, came in the House of Lords. The Lords approved the Declaratory Act by a vote of 125 to 5. One of the five votes against the Declaratory Act in the House of Lords was that of Charles, Lord Cornwallis (Thomas, p. 196), the man who 15 years later would surrender his army to George Washington at Yorktown.
As was so often the case, Benjamin Franklin’s words were prophetic: “the resolutions of right will give them [the colonies] very little concern, if they are never attempted to be carried into practice” (cited in Hodge, p. 276). Less than 15 months later, at the instigation of Charles Townshend, parliament did attempt to carry it into practice. The rest, as is so often said, is history.
- Hodge, Helen Henry. “The Repeal of the Stamp Act,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Jun., 1904), pp. 252 – 276. McElroy,
- Robert McNutt. “The Representative Idea and the American Revolution,” Proceedings of the New York State Historical Association, Vol. 17 (1919), pp. 44 – 55.
- Schlesinger, Arthur Meier. “The American Revolution Reconsidered,” Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Mar. 1919), pp. 61 – 78.
- Schrader, David E. “250 Years Ago: The Stamp Act – The Beginning of the American Revolution,” The SAR Magazine, Vol. 110, No. 2 (Fall 2015), pp. 18 – 20.
- Temperley, H. W. V. “Debates on the Declaratory Act and the Repeal of the Stamp Act, 1766”.
- The American Historical Review, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Apr. 1912), pp. 563 – 586. Thomas, P. D. G. British Politics and the Stamp Act Crisis: The First Phase of the American Revolution, 1763 – 1767. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.
David E. Schrader earned his doctorate in philosophy and taught philosophy for more than 35 years. He served as executive director of the American Philosophical Association from 2006 to 2012. He has served as president of the Edmund Terrill Chapter, TXSSAR; the George Washington Chapter, PASSAR; and the Major Robert Kirkwood Chapter, DESSAR; and is currently president of the Cape Cod Chapter, MASSAR. He has also served as state chaplain in both the PASSAR and the DESSAR and serves as current chaplain of the Germany Society.