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Stamp Act of 1765 – Pic of the Week

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Saturday marked the 250th anniversary of the passage of the Virginia Resolves on the Stamp Act, one of colonial America’s most important expressions of protest against the policies of the British government in London.

Nineteenth-century engraving by Alfred Jones after painting by Peter Frederick Rothermel depicting Patrick Henry delivering his fiery speech to the House of Burgesses on May 29, 1765. (Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress)
Nineteenth-century engraving by Alfred Jones after the painting by Peter Frederick Rothermel depicting Patrick Henry delivering his fiery speech to the House of Burgesses on May 29, 1765. (Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress)

The focus of the objections that the House of Burgesses raised in the Virginia Resolves was the Stamp Act of 1765, a piece of tax legislation that reflected Parliament’s decision to use tax revenues from America to help pay for the cost of the French and Indian War (1754-1763). It famously required all printed documents used or created in the colonies to bear an embossed revenue stamp.

The Stamp Act encountered widespread opposition in America. Critics were quick to notice that the law was the first attempt by the British government to lay a tax on the internal commerce of the colonies. Because this was an innovation, it raised, for many Americans, an important question about the relative authority of their own local legislative bodies and Parliament in London.

That question was presented along these lines: Did Parliament have the authority to create legislation that regulated the internal affairs of the colonies? If so, did this mean that colonial legislatures were going to be subordinate to Parliament’s legislative will in managing the colonies’ internal affairs?

Such an understanding of Parliament’s legislative authority conflicted with a belief that many Americans held, namely, that the American colonists had the authority to regulate their own internal affairs by right. The colonial legislatures, each with its own area of legitimate legislative authority, were the expression of the colonists’ right to select and administer for themselves the local political arrangements best suited for their community. They defended this right in a variety of ways – by appeal to a royal grant or charter, or to natural law, or to the Rights of Englishmen, or even by reason of the immense geographical distance that separated them from the mother country. But it was because self-government was theirs by right that Parliament’s act was especially threatening. If this most important political right could be overturned by Parliament’s legislative fiat, what was to stop Parliament from undoing any of the other rights that the colonies believed to be secure?

The well-known slogan “no taxation without representation,” which colonists adopted in protest of the Stamp Act, was meant to problematize Parliament’s claim to legislative authority over the colonies. The colonies had no representatives in Parliament. If legislative authority comes from representation, how could Parliament claim to have authority to lay a tax on the colonists? But the slogan only captured part of the greater problem that colonists faced in the Stamp Act: the question of whether they enjoyed all the rights of Britons who lived in the home country or whether they were to be second class citizens, “subjects of subjects,” as Benjamin Franklin put it.

Parliament finally bowed to the pressure of colonial protest and repealed the Stamp Act in March 1766, but the constitutional question, fatefully, was not resolved. Was the British Empire going to become a unitary state, with Parliament in London acting as sovereign over all British territories? Or was it going to be a federal polity, with regional parliaments acting independently while remaining loyal to the British Monarchy and its foreign policy? Hints of a third option were only just emerging.

The day before the passage of the Virginia Resolves, Patrick Henry spoke before the Virginia House of Burgesses to support the passage of the resolutions. “Caesar had his Brutus, Charles I his Cromwell, and George III… [At this point Henry paused because of shouting from the opposition.]… may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it.”

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