The Birth of the Republic

Chapter 3: Sugar and Stamps (excerpted)

No one likes to pay taxes, and the English in 1763 thought they had too many. Though they were the most powerful nation in the world and the most prosperous, their government was costing too much. They had just completed the very expensive Seven Years' War against France, doubling the national debt. The war had also left them with a huge new territory to administer: Canada and the eastern Mississippi valley.   Many of them thought the whole of it not worth keeping and when they heard that the government was going to assign ten thousand troops to defend and pacify it, they could only think of how much that many men would eat and drink in a year and how many uniforms they would wear out and how much they would have to be paid.


The idea of relieving their own burdens by taxing the colonies had often been suggested to the English, but hitherto they had not thought it wise to take the step. Sir Robert Walpole, who was admired and hated as the most astute politician of the preceding generation, was said to have dismissed such a proposal with a smile, saying, "I will leave that for some of my successors, who may have more courage than I have."


George Grenville in l763 was ready to tread where Walpole had feared to. Grenville, a wily and humorless statesman with a, head for figures, became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1763 and discov­ered from the treasury books that the American customs service was costing more to operate than it was bringing in. He began his pursuit of the American dollar by tightening up the service to prevent smuggling. The Americans in a series of remonstrances at once pointed out that the sixpence duty on foreign molasses was prohibitive and if enforced would ruin an important branch of the colonial economy. They urged that it be discontinued. Grenville had no desire to destroy the New England rum industry but merely to make it furnish a revenue to England. He accordingly decided to continue the duty but cut it in half. Knowing that the colonial merchants were paying up to a penny and a half per gallon in bribes, he reasoned that they could afford to pay threepence in an honest tax....

The Americans were thus confronted with the first great chal­lenge of the Revolutionary period. The new act, usually called the Sugar Act, was in form a revision of the old customs laws; but its purpose was novel, to raise money, and this purpose was frankly stated in the preamble. The colonists had long since learned the importance of the power to tax, from the struggle of their own assemblies with the royal governors and from Parliament's struggle with the King. For them as for their English counterparts, Parliament's exclusive power to tax was the most important feature of its supremacy over the King, the most important guarantee of English liberty. It was for this principle that John Hampden had gone to prison when he refused to pay a tax demanded by the King alone; it was this principle that Parliament had secured when it gave the throne of James Stuart to William of Orange in 1688; and it was this principle that John Locke, the philosopher, had insisted upon in justifying that revolution: property must not be taken from the owners, without consent, given either in person or by their representatives. For the colonists, as for the rest of the English, property was not merely a possession to be hoarded and admired; it was rather the source of life and liberty. If one had property, if one had land, one had one's own source of food and could be independent of all other men, including kings and lords. Where property was concentrated in the hands of a king and aristocracy, only the king and the aristocracy would be free, while the rest of the population would be little better than slaves, victims of the eternal efforts of rulers to exploit subjects. Without property, people could be starved into submission. Hence liberty rested on property, and whatever threatened the security f property threatened liberty.

Security for their property was what the English had won in the course of a long history. Parliament was a representative body, and, as such it enjoyed the sole authority to grant the property of the English in taxes. But when it presumed on this authority to grant the property of the colonial English, who were not represented in it, then surely something had gone awry, then surely it ceased to be the great protector, of popular liberty and became a threat to the freedom of the Americans whose property it demanded. 

The Americans were quick to see the threat, but they were not, altogether sure what to do about it. Some favored an immediate denial of Parliament's authority to tax them. Others thought it best not to raise this question but simply request with all due humility the repeal of the new duties. In Massachusetts, for example, the assembly drew up a spirited protest in which they stated plainly "that we look upon those Duties as a tax, and which we humbly apprehend ought not to be laid without the Representatives of the People affected by them. "The new act;  they said, deprived the people of "the most essential Rights of Britons." But before the assembly could send this message, Lieutenant-Governor Hutchinson persuaded them to abandon it in favor of a much milder request for the continuation of the "privileges" formerly enjoyed. The New York Assembly, on the other hand, got off an eloquent series of petitions in which they claimed a complete exemption from Parliamentary taxation, and affirmed their disdain "of claiming that Ex­emption as a Privilege-They found it on a Basis more honourable, solid and stable; they challenge it, and glory in it as their Right."

It was their right not only because they were English but because they were human beings: "An Exemption from the Burthen of ungranted, involuntary Taxes, must be the grand Principle of every free State.-Without such a Right vested in themselves, exclusive of all others, there can be no Liberty, no Happiness, no Security; it is inseparable from the very idea of Property, for who can call that his own, which may be taken away at the Pleasure of another?" And lest the members of Parliament think that customs duties used for revenue were less objectionable than other taxes, the New York­ers took care to point out that "all Impositions, whether they be internal Taxes, or Duties paid, for what we consume, equally di­minish the Estates upon which they are charged. . . . The whole Wealth of a Country may be as effectually drawn off, by the Exac­tion of Duties, as by any other Tax upon their Estates."

James Otis, the popular leader of the Massachusetts Assembly, made this same point in a pamphlet published during the summer of 1764. He had evidently heard that some in England thought an "external" tax on trade more permissible than an "internal" or direct tax. He therefore specifically stated, "There is no foundation for the distinction some make in England, between an internal and an external tax on the colonies." And though the Massachusetts Assem­bly had been willing to tone down its own official protest, it en­dorsed Otis's pamphlet by formal vote and shipped copies of it off to London....

The Americans had had a year's warning that the [stamp] act was coming, and the act itself gave them half a year more to think and prepare, for it was not to take effect until November. Though someone in London forgot for several months to send official notice or even a copy of the act to the royal governors and to the officers appointed ,to collect the duties, the American' newspapers carried all the lengthy details early in May of 1765. Almost anything formally written or printed would have to be on special stamped paper which would be shipped from the central, stamp office in London and dispensed in 'America by local agents on payment of specified taxes. The colonists could see that they would have to pay stamp fees at every stage of a lawsuit, that diplomas and deeds, almanacs and advertisements, bills and bonds, customs papers and newspapers, even dice and cards, would all be charged. But there was not much interest in the details: every duty, however large or small, was felt to be an attack on the security of property because it was levied without consent. If Parliament succeeded in collecting the stamp tax, there was no telling how much would be demanded in the future; for America's loss would be England's gain: every penny collected in America would be a penny saved to the constituents of the Parliament that levied the tax.

The colonists therefore did not argue about the details, Instead, they moved against the act itself, to secure repeal if possible, to prevent enforcement whether they got repeal or not. The Sugar Act of the previous year had set in motion an attempt to bring pressure on England by reducing colonial imports of her manufactures. Let­ters to the editor in various newspapers urged the virtues of home­spun and home brew; a society was formed in New York to encour­age local manufacturing; and volunteer firemen, who often seem more interested in politics than in fires, announced in the newspa­pers that they would increase the American supply of wool by not, eating lamb. With passage of the Stamp Act the boycott method of bringing Parliament to terms was taken up seriously by the merchants of the cities. Led by those of New York, they agreed to cease importing all British goods unless the Stamp Act were repealed.

Without waiting for such measures to take effect, the colonists also took steps to see that the Stamp Act should be a dead letter before it began. Grenville had hoped to appease the opposition by selecting native Americans for stamp distributors. Since the men he chose were all men of means, owners of substantial houses, a way of inducing them to reject the office was not hard to discover. Boston showed the way in August 1765 when a mob stoned and pillaged the house of Andrew Oliver. The following day Oliver was visited by a number of gentlemen who suggested that to avoid further damage, and danger: he ought to resign the office Grenville had given him, an office which did not promise under the circum­stances to be very lucrative anyhow.  Poor Oliver knew of his appointment only as his neighbors knew of it, through the news­papers. He had therefore nothing to resign, but he obliged by declaring publicly that he would abandon the office as soon as possible and would do nothing toward executing the act. Some months later when his commission did arrive, the mob made him repeat the performance with a full resignation.

Meanwhile, Bostonians found mobbing so effective a weapon that they used it gratuitously on Lieutenant-Governor Hutchinson, whom they wrongly suspected of :advocating the Stamp Act, on the Comptroller of Customs, and on one of the officers of the admiralty court. The other colonies took up the example, and by November­ 1, 1765, no one in America was prepared to distribute the stamped paper, which was safely stowed away in forts and warships. When that date arrived, there was a pause in business in most colonies as people made up their minds which way to nullify the act by doing nothing that required the use of stamps or by proceeding without them. Once the latter course was chosen by determined groups of citizens, they found it easy, by the mere threat of mob action, to coerce recalcitrant dissenters including the royally appointed cus­toms 'officers. Within a few months the ports were open for business as usual with no sign of a stamp (though because of the boycott, cargoes, from England were few). The courts too were open, and unstamped newspapers appeared weekly, full of messages encourag­ing the people to stand firm.  

As they went about the work of defying the most powerful government in, the world, the Americans had need of encourage­ment. When word reached England of what they were doing, there was a great deal of talk about putting them in their places. "These yellow shadows of men," cried one frantic London newspaper, "are by no means fit for a Conflict with our Troops: Nor will ever such romantic Adventures of Chivalry enter into their trembling Hearts." Other Englishmen knew better and said so. Some were sympathetic with the Americans but felt that defiance must be suppressed before mercy could safely be shown.

As for the Americans, they knew that the full weight of the British Army and Navy might soon descend upon them, but they were ready to fight rather than submit. In towns and villages every­where they formed themselves into, associations which they called "Sons of Liberty" and declared their intention to resist the Stamp Act, as they usually put it, "to the last extremity." They were ready, in other words, to risk their lives and fortunes in rebellion rather than allow their property to be taken by a Parliament in which they had no representative.

It is of course easier to say you will fight than it is to fight, but the assurance with which the colonists proceeded in their whole nullification of the Stamp Act argues an extraordinary conviction among them that Parliament had no business doing what it was trying to do. Though there had hitherto been little occasion for the expression of such a conviction, it emerged full grown as soon as the Stamp Act was passed. When the Virginia House of Burgesses, sparked by Patrick Henry, adopted a set of resolutions denouncing Parliamentary taxation, other colonial assemblies followed with a speed that showed how wide and how spontaneous was the agree­ment on this subject. Though Americans could not agree on boundary lines and Indian wars, they could agree without argument on opposition to taxes. At the invitation of Massachusetts nine colonies even sent delegates to a congress in New York in 9ctober 1765, where they formally joined in another set of resolutions and petitions denying the authority of Parliament to tax them....