The Eve Of The Revolution, A Chronicle Of The Breach With England
by Carl Becker
In this brief sketch I have chiefly endeavored to convey to the reader, not a record of what men did, but a sense of how they thought and felt about what they did. To give the quality and texture of the state of mind and feeling of an individual or class, to create for the reader the illusion (not DELUSION, O able Critic!) of the intellectual atmosphere of past times, I have as a matter of course introduced many quotations; but I have also ventured to resort frequently to the literary device (this, I know, gives the whole thing away) of telling the story by means of a rather free paraphrase of what some imagined spectator or participant might have thought or said about the matter in hand. If the critic says that the product of such methods is not history, I am willing to call it by any name that is better; the point of greatest relevance being the truth and effectiveness of the illusion aimed at–the extent to which it reproduces the quality of the thought and feeling of those days, the extent to which it enables the reader to enter into such states of mind and feeling. The truth of such history (or whatever the critic wishes to call it) cannot of course be determined by a mere verification of references.
To one of my colleagues, who has read the entire manuscript, I am under obligations for many suggestions and corrections in matters of detail; and I would gladly mention his name if it could be supposed that an historian of established reputation would wish to be associated, even in any slight way, with an enterprise of questionable orthodoxy.
Ithaca, New York, January 6, 1918.
I. A PATRIOT OF 1768
II. THE BURDEN OF EMPIRE
III. THE RIGHTS OF A NATION
IV. DEFINING THE ISSUE
V. A LITTLE DISCREET CONDUCT
VI. TESTING THE ISSUE
THE EVE OF THE REVOLUTION
CHAPTER I. A Patriot Of 1763
His Majesty’s reign…I predict will be happy and truly glorious.–Benjamin Franklin.
The 29th of January, 1757, was a notable day in the life of Ben Franklin of Philadelphia, well known in the metropolis of America as printer and politician, and famous abroad as a scientist and Friend of the Human Race. It was on that day that the Assembly of Pennsylvania commissioned him as its agent to repair to London in support of its petition against the Proprietors of the Province, who were charged with having “obstinately persisted in manacling their deputies [the Governors of Pennsylvania] with instructions inconsistent not only with the privileges of the people, but with the service of the Crown.” We may, therefore, if we choose, imagine the philosopher on that day, being then in his fifty-first year, walking through the streets of this metropolis of America (a town of something less than twenty thousand inhabitants) to his modest home, and there informing his “Dear Debby” that her husband, now apparently become a great man in a small world, was ordered immediately “home to England.”
In those leisurely days, going home to England was no slight undertaking; and immediately, when there was any question of a great journey, meant as soon as the gods might bring it to pass. “I had agreed with Captain Morris, of the Pacquet at New York, for my passage,” he writes in the “Autobiography,” “and my stores were put on board, when Lord Loudoun arrived at Philadelphia, expressly, as he told me, to endeavor an accommodation between the Governor and the Assembly, that his Majesty’s service might not be obstructed by their dissentions.” Franklin was the very man to effect an accommodation, when he set his mind to it, as he did on this occasion; but “in the mean time,” he relates, “the Pacquet had sailed with my sea stores, which was some loss to me, and my only recompence was his Lordship’s thanks for my service, all the credit for obtaining the accommodation falling to his share.”
It was now war time, and the packets were at the disposal of Lord Loudoun, commander of the forces in America. The General was good enough to inform his accommodating friend that of the two packets then at New York, one was given out to sail on Saturday, the 12th of April–“but,” the great man added very confidentially, “I may let you know, entre nous, that if you are there by Monday morning, you will be in time, but do not delay longer.” As early as the 4th of April, accordingly, the provincial printer and Friend of the Human Race, accompanied by many neighbors “to see him out of the province,” left Philadelphia. He arrived at Trenton “well before night,” and expected, in case “the roads were no worse,” to reach Woodbridge by the night following. In crossing over to New York on the Monday, some accident at the ferry delayed him, so that he did not reach the city till nearly noon, and he feared that he might miss the packet after all–Lord Loudoun had so precisely mentioned Monday morning. Happily, no such thing! The packet was still there. It did not sail that day, or the next either; and as late as the 29th of April Franklin was still hanging about waiting to be off. For it was war time and the packets waited the orders of General Loudoun, who, ready in promises but slow in execution, was said to be “like St. George on the signs, always on horseback but never rides on.”
Franklin himself was a deliberate man, and at the last moment he decided, for some reason or other, not to take the first packet. Behold him, therefore, waiting for the second through the month of May and the greater part of June! “This tedious state of uncertainty and long waiting,” during which the agent of the Province of Pennsylvania, running back and forth from New York to Woodbridge, spent his time more uselessly than ever he remembered, was duly credited to the perversity of the British General. But at last they were off, and on the 26th of July, three and a half months after leaving Philadelphia, Franklin arrived in London to take up the work of his mission; and there he remained, always expecting to return shortly, but always delayed, for something more than five years.
These were glorious days in the history of Old England, the most heroic since the reign of Good Queen Bess. When the provincial printer arrived in London, the King and the politicians had already been forced, through multiplied reverses in every part of the world, to confer power upon William Pitt, a disagreeable man indeed, but still a great genius and War Lord, who soon turned defeat into victory. It was the privilege of Franklin, here in the capital of the Empire, to share the exaltation engendered by those successive conquests that gave India and America to the little island kingdom, and made Englishmen, in Horace Walpole’s phrase, “heirs apparent of the Romans.” No Briton rejoiced more sincerely than this provincial American in the extension of the Empire. He labored with good will and good humor, and doubtless with good effect, to remove popular prejudice against his countrymen; and he wrote a masterly pamphlet to prove the wisdom of retaining Canada rather than Guadaloupe at the close of the war, confidently assuring his readers that the colonies would never, even when once the French danger was removed, “unite against their own nation, which protects and encourages them, with which they have so many connections and ties of blood, interest, and affection, and which ’tis well known they all love much more than they love one another.” Franklin, at least, loved Old England, and it might well be maintained that these were the happiest years of his life. He was mentally so cosmopolitan, so much at ease in the world, that here in London he readily found himself at home indeed. The business of his particular mission, strictly attended to, occupied no great part of his time. He devoted long days to his beloved scientific experiments, and carried on a voluminous correspondence with David Hume and Lord Kames, and with many other men of note in England, France, and Italy. He made journeys, to Holland, to Cambridge, to ancestral places and the homes of surviving relatives; but mostly, one may imagine, he gave himself to a steady flow of that “agreeable and instructive conversation” of which he was so much the master and the devotee. He was more famous than he knew, and the reception that everywhere awaited him was flattering, and as agreeable to his unwarped and emancipated mind as it was flattering. “The regard and friendship I meet with,” he confesses, “and the conversation of ingenious men, give me no small pleasure”; and at Cambridge, “my vanity was not a little gratified by the particular regard shown me by the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor of the University, and the Heads of the Colleges.” As the years passed, the sense of being at ease among friends grew stronger; the serene and placid letters to “Dear Debby” became rather less frequent; the desire to return to America was much attenuated.
How delightful, indeed, was this Old England! “Of all the enviable things England has,” he writes, “I envy it most its people…. Why should this little island enjoy in almost every neighborhood more sensible, virtuous, and elegant minds, than we can collect in ranging one hundred leagues of our vast forests?” What a proper place for a philosopher to spin out the remnant of his days! The idea had occurred to him; he was persistently urged by his friend William Strahan to carry it into effect; and his other friend, David Hume, made him a pretty compliment on the same theme: “America has sent us many good things, gold, silver, sugar, tobacco; but you are the first philosopher for whom we are beholden to her. It is our own fault that we have not kept him; whence it appears that we do not agree with Solomon, that wisdom is above gold; for we take good care never to send back an ounce of the latter, which we once lay our fingers upon.” The philosopher was willing enough to remain; and of the two objections which he mentioned to Strahan, the rooted aversion of his wife to embarking on the ocean and his love for Philadelphia, the latter for the moment clearly gave him less difficulty than the former. “I cannot leave this happy island and my friends in it without extreme regret,” he writes at the moment of departure. “I am going from the old world to the new; and I fancy I feel like those who are leaving this world for the next; grief at the parting; fear of the passage; hope for the future.”
When, on the 1st of November, 1762, Franklin quietly slipped into Philadelphia, he found that the new world had not forgotten him. For many days his house was filled from morning till night with a succession of friends, old and new, come to congratulate him on his return; excellent people all, no doubt, and yet presenting, one may suppose, a rather sharp contrast to the “virtuous and elegant minds” from whom he had recently parted in England. The letters he wrote, immediately following his return to America, to his friends William Strahan and Mary Stevenson lack something of the cheerful and contented good humor which is Franklin’s most characteristic tone. His thoughts, like those of a homesick man, are ever dwelling on his English friends, and he still nourishes the fond hope of returning, bag and baggage, to England for good and all. The very letter which he begins by relating the cordiality of his reception in Philadelphia he closes by assuring Strahan that “in two years at fartherest I hope to settle all my affairs in such manner as that I may then conveniently remove to England–provided,” he adds as an afterthought, “we can persuade the good woman to cross the sea. That will be the great difficulty.”
It is not known whether it was this difficulty that prevented the eminent doctor, revered in two continents for his wisdom, from changing the place of his residence. Dear Debby, as docile as a child in most respects, very likely had her settled prejudices, of which the desire to remain on dry land may have been one, and one of the most obstinate. Or it may be that Franklin found himself too much occupied, too much involved in affairs after his long absence, to make even a beginning in his cherished plan; or else, as the months passed and he settled once more to the familiar, humdrum life of the American metropolis, sober second thought may have revealed to him what was doubtless a higher wisdom. “Business, public and private, devours my time,” he writes in March, 1764. “I must return to England for repose. With such thoughts I flatter myself, and need some kind friend to put me often in mind THAT OLD TREES CANNOT SAFELY BE TRANSPLANTED.” Perhaps, after all, Dear Debby was this kind friend; in which case Americans must all, to this day, be much indebted to the good woman.
At least it was no apprehension of difficulties arising between England and the colonies that induced Franklin to remain in America. The Peace of Paris he regarded as “the most advantageous” of any recorded in British annals, very fitting to mark the close of a successful war, and well suited to usher in the long period of prosperous felicity which should properly distinguish the reign of a virtuous prince. Never before, in Franklin’s opinion, were the relations between Britain and her colonies more happy; and there could be, he thought, no good reason to fear that the excellent young King would be distressed, or his prerogative diminished, by factitious parliamentary opposition.
“You now fear for our virtuous young King, that the faction forming will overpower him and render his reign uncomfortable [he writes to Strahan]. On the contrary, I am of opinion that his virtue and the consciousness of his sincere intentions to make his people happy will give him firmness and steadiness in his measures and in the support of the honest friends he has chosen to serve him; and when that firmness is fully perceived, faction will dissolve and be dissipated like a morning fog before the rising sun, leaving the rest of the day clear with a sky serene and cloudless. Such after a few of the first years will be the future course of his Majesty’s reign, which I predict will be happy and truly glorious. A new war I cannot yet see reason to apprehend. The peace will I think long continue, and your nation be as happy as they deserve to be.”
CHAPTER II. The Burden Of Empire
Nothing of note in Parliament, except one slight day on the American taxes.–Horace Walpole.
There were plenty of men in England, any time before 1763, who found that an excellent arrangement which permitted them to hold office in the colonies while continuing to reside in London. They were thereby enabled to make debts, and sometimes even to pay them, without troubling much about their duties; and one may easily think of them, over their claret, as Mr. Trevelyan says, lamenting the cruelty of a secretary of state who hinted that, for form’s sake at least, they had best show themselves once in a while in America. They might have replied with Junius: “It was not Virginia that wanted a governor, but a court favorite that wanted a salary.” Certainly Virginia could do with a minimum of royal officials; but most court favorites wanted salaries, for without salaries unendowed gentlemen could not conveniently live in London.
One of these gentlemen, in the year 1763, was Mr. Grosvenor Bedford. He was not, to be sure, a court favorite, but a man, now well along in years, who had long ago been appointed to be Collector of the Customs at the port of Philadelphia. The appointment had been made by the great minister, Robert Walpole, for whom Mr. Bedford had unquestionably done some service or other, and of whose son, Horace Walpole, the letter-writer, he had continued from that day to be a kind of dependent or protege, being precisely the sort of unobtrusive factotum which that fastidious eccentric needed to manage his mundane affairs. But now, after this long time, when the King’s business was placed in the hands of George Grenville, who entertained the odd notion that a Collector of the Customs should reside at the port of entry where the customs were collected rather than in London where he drew his salary, it was being noised about, and was presently reported at Strawberry Hill, that Mr. Bedford, along with many other estimable gentlemen, was forthwith to be turned out of his office.
To Horace Walpole it was a point of more than academic importance to know whether gentlemen were to be unceremoniously turned out of their offices. As far back as 1738, while still a lad, he had himself been appointed to be Usher of the Exchequer; and as soon as he came of age, he says, “I took possession of two other little patent places in the Exchequer, called Comptroller of the Pipe, and Clerk of the Estreats”–all these places having been procured for him through the generosity of his father. The duties of these offices, one may suppose, were not arduous, for it seems that they were competently administered by Mr. Grosvenor Bedford, in addition to his duties as Collector of the Customs at the port of Philadelphia; so well administered, indeed, that Horace Walpole’s income from them, which in 1740 was perhaps not more than 1500 pounds a year, nearly doubled in the course of a generation. And this income, together with another thousand which he had annually from the Collector’s place in the Custom House, added to the interest of 20,000 pounds which he had inherited, enabled him to live very well, with immense leisure for writing odd books, and letters full of extremely interesting comment on the levity and low aims of his contemporaries.
And so Horace Walpole, good patron that he was and competent letter-writer, very naturally, hearing that Mr. Bedford was to lose an office to which in the course of years he had become much accustomed, sat down and wrote a letter to Mr. George Grenville in behalf of his friend and servant. “Though I am sensible I have no pretensions for asking you a favour, …yet I flatter myself I shall not be thought quite impertinent in interceding for a person, who I can answer has neither been to blame nor any way deserved punishment, and therefore I think you, Sir, will be ready to save him from prejudice. The person I mean is my deputy, Mr. Grosvenor Bedford, who, above five and twenty years ago, was appointed Collector of the Customs in Philadelphia by my father. I hear he is threatened to be turned out. If the least fault can be laid to his charge, I do not desire to have him protected. If there cannot, I am too well persuaded, Sir, of your justice not to be sure you will be pleased to protect him.”
George Grenville, a dry, precise man of great knowledge and industry, almost always right in little matters and very patient of the misapprehensions of less exact people, wrote in reply a letter which many would think entirely adequate to the matter in hand: “I have never heard [he began] of any complaint against Mr. Grosvenor Bedford, or of any desire to turn him out; but by the office which you tell me he holds in North America, I believe I know the state of the case, which I will inform you of, that you may be enabled to judge of it yourself. Heavy complaints were last year made in Parliament of the state of our revenues in North America which amount to between 1,000 pounds and 9,000 pounds a year, the collecting of which costs upon the establishment of the Customs in Great Britain between 7,000 pounds and 8,000 pounds a year. This, it was urged, arose from the making all these offices sinecures in England. When I came to the Treasury* I directed the Commissioners of the Customs to be written to, that they might inform us how the revenue might be improved, and to what causes they attributed the present diminished state of it…. The principal cause which they assigned was the absence of the officers who lived in England by leave of the Treasury, which they proposed should be recalled. This we complied with, and ordered them all to their duty, and the Commissioners of the Customs to present others in the room of such as should not obey. I take it for granted that this is Mr. Bedford’s case. If it is, it will be attended with difficulty to make an exception, as they are every one of them applying to be excepted out of the orders…. If it is not so, or if Mr. Bedford can suggest to me any proper means of obviating it without overturning the whole regulation, he will do me a sensible pleasure.
* On the resignation of Lord Bute in April, 1763, Grenville formed a ministry, himself taking the two offices of First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer.
There is no evidence to show that Mr. Bedford was able to do Mr. Grenville this “sensible pleasure.” The incident, apparently closed, was one of many indications that a new policy for dealing with America was about to be inaugurated; and although Grenville had been made minister for reasons that were remote enough from any question of efficiency in government, no better man could have been chosen for applying to colonial administration the principles of good business management. His connection with the Treasury, as well as the natural bent of his mind, had made him “confessedly the ablest man of business in the House of Commons.” The Governors of the Bank of England, very efficient men certainly, held it a great point in the minister’s favor that they “could never do business with any man with the same ease they had done it with him.” Undoubtedly the first axiom of business is that one’s accounts should be kept straight, one’s books nicely balanced; the second, that one’s assets should exceed one’s liabilities. Mr. Grenville, accordingly, “had studied the revenues with professional assiduity, and something of professional ideas seemed to mingle in all his regulations concerning them.” He “felt the weight of debt, amounting at this time to one hundred and fifty-eight millions, which oppressed his country, and he looked to the amelioration of the revenue as the only mode of relieving it.”
It is true there were some untouched sources of revenue still available in England. As sinecures went in that day, Mr. Grosvenor Bedford’s was not of the best; and on any consideration of the matter from the point of view of revenue only, Grenville might well have turned his attention to a different class of officials; for example, to the Master of the Rolls in Ireland, Mr. Rigby, who was also Paymaster of the Forces, and to whose credit there stood at the Bank of England, as Mr. Trevelyan assures us, a million pounds of the public money, the interest of which was paid to him “or to his creditors.” This was a much better thing than Grosvenor Bedford had with his paltry collectorship at Philadelphia; and the interest on a million pounds, more or less, had it been diverted from Mr. Rigby’s pocket to the public treasury, would perhaps have equaled the entire increase in the revenue to be expected from even the most efficient administration of the customs in all the ports of, America. In addition, it should perhaps be said that Mr. Rigby, although excelled by none, was by no means the only man in high place with a good degree of talent for exploiting the common chest.
The reform of such practices, very likely, was work for a statesman rather than for a man of business. A good man of business, called upon to manage the King’s affairs, was likely to find many obstacles in the way of depriving the Paymaster of the Forces of his customary sources of income, and Mr. Grenville, at least, never attempted anything so hazardous. Scurrilous pamphleteers, in fact, had made it a charge against the minister that he had increased rather than diminished the evil of sinecures–“It had been written in pamphlets that 400,000 pounds a year was dealt out in pensions”; from which charge the able Chancellor, on the occasion of opening his first budget in the House of Commons, the 9th of March, 1764, defended himself by denying that the sums were “so great as alleged.” It was scarcely an adequate defense; but the truth is that Grenville was sure to be less distressed by a bad custom, no law forbidding, than by a law, good or bad, not strictly enforced, particularly if the law was intended to bring in a revenue.
Instinctively, therefore, the minister turned to America, where it was a notorious fact that there were revenue laws that had not been enforced these many years. Mr. Grenville, we may suppose, since it was charged against him in a famous epigram, read the American dispatches with considerable care, so that it is quite possible he may have chanced to see and to shake his head over the sworn statement of Mr. Sampson Toovey, a statement which throws much light upon colonial liberties and the practices of English officials in those days:
“I, Sampson Toovey [so the statement runs], Clerk to James Cockle, Esq., Collector of His Majesty’s Customs for the Port of Salem, do declare on oath, that ever since I have been in the office, it hath been customary for said Cockle to receive of the masters of vessels entering from Lisbon, casks of wine, boxes of fruit, etc., which was a gratuity for suffering their vessels to be entered with salt or ballast only, and passing over unnoticed such cargoes of wine, fruit, etc., which are prohibited to be imported into His Majesty’s Plantations. Part of which wine, fruit, etc., the said James Cockle used to share with Governor Bernard. And I further declare that I used to be the negotiator of this business, and receive the wine, fruit, etc., and dispose of them agreeable to Mr. Cockle’s orders. Witness my hand. Sampson Toovey.”
The curious historian would like much to know, in case Mr. Grenville did see the declaration of Sampson Toovey, whether he saw also a letter in which Governor Bernard gave it as his opinion that if the colonial governments were to be refashioned it should be on a new plan, since “there is no system in North America fit to be made a module of.”
Secretary Grenville, whether or not he ever saw this letter from Governor Bernard, was familiar with the ideas which inspired it. Most crown officials in America, and the governors above all, finding themselves little more than executive agents of the colonial assemblies, had long clamored for the remodeling of colonial governments: the charters, they said, should be recalled; the functions of the assemblies should be limited and more precisely defined; judges should be appointed at the pleasure of the King; and judges and governors alike should be paid out of a permanent civil list in England drawn from revenue raised in America. In urging these changes, crown officials in America were powerfully supported by men of influence in England; by Halifax since the day, some fifteen years before, when he was appointed to the office of Colonial Secretary; by the brilliant Charles Townshend who, in the year 1763, as first Lord of the Treasury in Bute’s ministry, had formulated a bill which would have been highly pleasing to Governor Bernard had it been passed into law. And now similar schemes were being urged upon Grenville by his own colleagues, notably by the Earl of Halifax, who is said to have become, in a formal interview with the first minister, extremely heated and eager in the matter.
But all to no purpose. Mr. Grenville was well content with the form of the colonial governments, being probably of Pope’s opinion that “the system that is best administered is best.” In Grenville’s opinion, the Massachusetts government was good enough, and all the trouble arose from the inattention of royal officials to their manifest duties and from the pleasant custom of depositing at Governor Bernard’s back door sundry pipes of wine with the compliments of Mr. Cockle. Most men in England agreed that such pleasant customs had been tolerated long enough. To their suppression the first minister accordingly gave his best attention; and while Mr. Rigby continued to enjoy great perquisites in England, many obscure customs officials, such as Grosvenor Bedford, were ordered to their, posts to prevent small peculations in America. To assist them, or their successors, in this business, ships of war were stationed conveniently for the intercepting of smugglers, general writs were authorized to facilitate the search for goods illegally entered, and the governors, His Excellency Governor Bernard among the number, were newly instructed to give their best efforts to the enforcement of the trade acts.
All this was but an incident, to be sure, in the minister’s general scheme for “ameliorating the revenue.” It was not until the 9th of March, 1764, that Grenville, “not disguising how much he was hurt by abuse,” opened his first budget, “fully, for brevity was not his failing,” and still with great “art and ability.” Although ministers were to be congratulated, he thought, “on the revenue being managed with more frugality than in the late reign,” the House scarcely need be told that the war had greatly increased the debt, an increase not to be placed at a lower figure than some seventy odd millions; and so, on account of this great increase in the debt, and in spite of gratifying advances in the customs duties and the salutary cutting off of the German subsidies, taxes were now, the House would easily understand, necessarily much higher than formerly–“our taxes,” he said, “exceeded by three millions what they were in 1754.” Much money, doubtless, could still be raised on the land tax, if the House was at all disposed to put on another half shilling in the pound. Ministers could take it quite for granted, however, that country squires, sitting on the benches, would not be disposed to increase the land tax, but would much prefer some skillful manipulation of the colonial customs, provided only there was some one who understood that art well enough to explain to the House where such duties were meant to fall and how much they might reasonably be expected to bring in. And there, in fact, was Mr. Grenville explaining it all with “art and ability,” for which task, indeed, there could be none superior to his Majesty’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, who had so long “studied the revenue with professional assiduity.”
The items of the budget, rather dull reading now and none too illuminating, fell pleasantly upon the ears of country squires sitting there on the benches; and the particular taxes no doubt seemed reasonably clear to them, even if they had no perfect understanding of the laws of incidence, inasmuch as sundry of the new duties apparently fell upon the distant Americans, who were known to be rich and were generally thought, on no less an authority than Jasper Mauduit, agent of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, to be easily able and not unwilling to pay considerable sums towards ameliorating the revenue. It was odd, perhaps, that Americans should be willing to pay; but that was no great matter, if they were able, since no one could deny their obligation. And so country squires, and London merchants too, listened comfortably to the reading of the budget so well designed to relieve the one of taxes and swell the profits flowing into the coffers of the other.
“That a duty of 2 pounds 19s. 9d. per cwt. avoirdupois, be laid upon all foreign coffee, imported from any place (except Great Britain) into the British colonies and plantations in America. That a duty of 6d. per pound weight be laid upon all foreign indigo, imported into the said colonies and plantations. That a duty of 7 pounds per ton be laid upon all wine of the growth of the Madeiras, or of any other island or place, lawfully imported from the respective place of the growth of such wine, into the said colonies and plantations. That a duty of 10s. per ton be laid upon all Portugal, Spanish, or other wine (except French wine), imported from Great Britain into the said colonies and plantations. That a duty of 2s. per pound weight be laid upon all wrought silks, Bengals, and stuffs mixed with silk or herbs; of the manufacture of Persia, China, or East India, imported from Great Britain into the said colonies and plantations. That a duty of 2s. 6d. per piece be laid upon all callicoes….” The list no doubt was a long one; and quite right, too, thought country squires, all of whom, to a man, were willing to pay no more land tax.
Other men besides country squires were interested in Mr. Grenville’s budget, notably the West Indian sugar planters, virtually and actually represented in the House of Commons and voting there this day. Many of them were rich men no doubt; but sugar planting, they would assure you in confidence, was not what it had been; and if they were well off after a fashion, they might have been much better off but for the shameless frauds which for thirty years had made a dead letter of the Molasses Act of 1733. It was notorious that the merchants of the northern and middle colonies, regarding neither the Acts of Trade nor the dictates of nature, had every year carried their provisions and fish to the foreign islands, receiving in exchange molasses, cochineal, “medical druggs,” and “gold and silver in bullion and coin.” With molasses the thrifty New Englanders made great quantities of inferior rum, the common drink of that day, regarded as essential to the health of sailors engaged in fishing off the Grand Banks, and by far the cheapest and most effective instrument for procuring negroes in Africa or for inducing the western Indians to surrender their valuable furs for some trumpery of colored cloth or spangled bracelet. All this thriving traffic did not benefit British planters, who had molasses of their own and a superior quality of rum which they were not unwilling to sell.
Such traffic, since it did not benefit them, British planters were disposed to think must be bad for England. They were therefore willing to support Mr. Grenville’s budget, which proposed that the importation of foreign rum into any British colony be prohibited in future; and which further proposed that the Act of 6 George II, c. 13, be continued, with modifications to make it effective, the modifications of chief importance being the additional duty of twenty-two shillings per hundredweight upon all sugar and the reduction by one half of the prohibitive duty of sixpence on all foreign molasses imported into the British plantations. It was a matter of minor importance doubtless, but one to which they had no objections since the minister made a point of it, that the produce of all the duties which should be raised by virtue of the said act, made in the sixth year of His late Majesty’s reign, “be paid into the receipt of His Majesty’s Exchequer, and there reserved, to be from time to time disposed of by Parliament, towards defraying the necessary expences of defending, protecting, and securing the British colonies and plantations in America.”
With singularly little debate, honorable and right honorable members were ready to vote this new Sugar Act, having the minister’s word for it that it would be enforced, the revenue thereby much improved, and a sudden stop put to the long-established illicit traffic with the foreign islands, a traffic so beneficial to the northern colonies, so prejudicial to the Empire and the pockets of planters. Thus it was that Mr. Grenville came opportunely to the aid of the Spanish authorities, who for many years had employed their guarda costas in a vain effort to suppress this very traffic, conceiving it, oddly enough, to be injurious to Spain and highly advantageous to Britain.
It may be that the Spanish authorities regarded the West Indian trade as a commercial system rather than as a means of revenue. This aspect of the matter, the commercial effects of his measures, Mr. Grenville at all events managed not to take suffciently into account, which was rather odd, seeing that he professed to hold the commercial system embodied in the Navigation and Trade Acts in such high esteem, as a kind of “English Palladium.” No one could have wished less than Grenville to lay sacrilegious hands on this Palladium, have less intended to throw sand into the nicely adjusted bearings of the Empire’s smoothly working commercial system. If he managed nevertheless to do something of this sort, it was doubtless by virtue of being such a “good man of business,” by virtue of viewing the art of government too narrowly as a question of revenue only. For the moment, preoccupied as they were with the quest of revenue, the new measures seemed to Mr. Grenville and to the squires and planters who voted them well adapted to raising a moderate sum, part only of some 350,000 pounds, for the just and laudable purpose of “defraying the necessary expences of defending, protecting, and securing the British colonies and plantations in America.”
The problem of colonial defense, so closely connected with the question of revenue, was none of Grenville’s making but was a legacy of the war and of that Peace of Paris which had added an immense territory to the Empire. When the diplomats of England and France at last discovered, in some mysterious manner, that it had “pleased the Most High to diffuse the spirit of union and concord among the Princes,” the world was informed that, as the price of “a Christian, universal; and perpetual peace,” France would cede to England what had remained to her of Nova Scotia, Canada, and all the possessions of France on the left bank of the Mississippi except the City of New Orleans and the island on which it stands; that she would cede also the islands of Grenada and the Grenadines, the islands of St. Vincent, Dominica, and Tobago, and the River Senegal with all of its forts and factories; and that she would for the future be content, so far as her activities in India were concerned, with the five factories which she possessed there at the beginning of the year 1749.
The average Briton, as well as honorable and right honorable members of the House, had known that England possessed colonies and had understood that colonies, as a matter of course, existed to supply him with sugar and rice, indigo and tobacco, and in return to buy at a good price whatever he might himself wish to sell. Beyond all this he had given slight attention to the matter of colonies until the great Pitt had somewhat stirred his slow imagination with talk of empire and destiny. It was doubtless a liberalizing as well as a sobering revelation to be told that he was the “heir apparent of the Romans,” with the responsibilities that are implied in having a high mission in the world. Now that his attention was called to the matter, it seemed to the average Briton that in meeting the obligation of this high mission and in dealing with this far-flung empire, a policy of efficiency such as that advocated by Mr. Grenville might well replace a policy of salutary neglect; and if the national debt had doubled during the war, as he was authoritatively assured, why indeed should not the Americans, grown rich under the fostering care of England and lately freed from the menace of France by the force of British arms, be expected to observe the Trade Acts and to contribute their fair share to the defense of that new world of which they were the chief beneficiaries?
If Americans were quite ready in their easy going way to take chances in the matter of defense, hoping that things would turn out for the best in the future as they had in the past, British statesmen and right honorable members of the House, viewing the question broadly and without provincial illusions, understood that a policy of preparedness was the only salvation; a policy of muddling through would no longer suffice as it had done in the good old days before country squires and London merchants realized that their country was a world power. In those days, when the shrewd Robert Walpole refused to meddle with schemes for taxing America, the accepted theory of defense was a simple one. If Britain policed the sea and kept the Bourbons in their place, it was thought that the colonies might be left to manage the Indians; fur traders, whose lure the red man could not resist, and settlers occupying the lands beyond the mountains, so it was said, would do the business. In 1749, five hundred thousand acres of land had been granted to the Ohio Company “in the King’s interest” and “to cultivate a friendship with the nations of Indians inhabiting those parts”; and as late as 1754 the Board of Trade was still encouraging the rapid settling of the West, “inasmuch as nothing can more effectively tend to defeat the dangerous designs of the French.”
On the eve of the last French war it may well have seemed to the Board of Trade that this policy was being attended with gratifying results. In the year 1749, La Galissomere, the acting Governor of Canada, commissioned Celoron de Blainville to take possession of the Ohio Valley, which he did in form, descending the river to the Maumee, and so to Lake Erie and home again, having at convenient points proclaimed the sovereignty of Louis XV over that country, and having laid down, as evidence of the accomplished fact, certain lead plates bearing awe-inspiring inscriptions, some of which have been discovered and are preserved to this day. It was none the less a dangerous junket. Everywhere Blainville found the Indians of hostile mind; everywhere, in every village almost, he found English traders plying their traffic and “cultivating a friendship with the Indians”; so that upon his return in 1750, in spite of the lead plates so securely buried, he must needs write in his journal: “All I can say is that the nations of those countries are ill disposed towards the French and devoted to the English.”
During the first years of the war all this devotion was nevertheless seen to be of little worth. Like Providence, the Indians were sure to side with the big battalions. For want of a few effective garrisons at the beginning, the English found themselves deserted by their quondam allies, and although they recovered this facile allegiance as soon as the French garrisons were taken, it was evident enough in the late years of the war that fear alone inspired the red man’s loyalty. The Indian apparently did not realize at this early date that his was an inferior race destined to be supplanted. Of a primitive and uncultivated intelligence, it was not possible for him to foresee the beneficent designs of the Ohio Company or to observe with friendly curiosity the surveyors who came to draw imaginary lines through the virgin forest. And therefore, even in an age when the natural rights of man were being loudly proclaimed, the “Nations of Indians inhabiting those parts” were only too ready to believe what the Virginia traders told them of the Pennsylvanians, what the Pennsylvania traders told them of the Virginians–that the fair words of the English were but a kind of mask to conceal the greed of men who had no other desire than to deprive the red man of his beloved hunting grounds.
Thus it was that the industrious men with pedantic minds who day by day read the dispatches that accumulated in the office of the Board of Trade became aware, during the years from 1758 to 1761, that the old policy of defense was not altogether adequate. “The granting of lands hitherto unsettled,” so the Board reported in 1761, “appears to be a measure of the most dangerous tendency.” In December of the same year all governors were accordingly forbidden “to pass grants…or encourage settlements upon any lands within the said colonies which may interfere with the Indians bordering upon them.”
The policy thus initiated found final expression in the famous Proclamation of 1763, in the early months of Grenville’s ministry. By the terms of the Proclamation no further grants were to be made within lands “which, not having been ceded to, or purchased by us, are reserved to the said Indians”–that is to say, “all the lands lying to the westward of the sources of the rivers which fall into the sea from the west or the northwest.” All persons who had “either willfully or inadvertently seated themselves” on the reserved lands were required “forthwith to remove themselves”; and for the future no man was to presume to trade with the Indians without first giving bond to observe such regulations as “we shall at any time think fit to…direct for the benefit of the said trade.” All these provisions were designed “to the end that the Indians may be convinced of our justice and determined resolution to remove all reasonable cause of discontent.” By royal act the territory west of the Alleghanies to the Mississippi, from Florida to 50 degrees north latitude, was thus closed to settlement “for the present” and “reserved to the Indians.”
Having thus taken measures to protect the Indians against the colonists, the mother country was quite ready to protect the colonists against the Indians. Rash Americans were apt to say the danger was over now that the French were “expelled from Canada.” This statement was childish enough in view of the late Pontiac uprising which was with such great difficulty suppressed–if indeed one could say that it was suppressed–by a general as efficient even as Amherst, with seasoned British troops at his command. The red man, even if he submitted outwardly, harbored in his vengeful heart the rankling memory of many griefs, real or imaginary; and he was still easily swayed by his ancient but now humiliated French friends, who had been “expelled from Canada” only indeed in a political sense but were still very much there as promoters of trouble. What folly, therefore, to talk of withdrawing the troops from America! No sane man but could see that, under the circumstances, such a move was quite out of the question.
It would materially change the circumstances, undoubtedly, if Americans could ever be induced to undertake, in any systematic and adequate manner, to provide for their own defense in their own way. In that case the mother country would be only too glad to withdraw her troops, of which indeed she had none too many. But it was well known what the colonists could be relied upon to do, or rather what they could be relied upon not to do, in the way of cooperative effort. Ministers had not forgotten that on the eve of the last war, at the very climax of the danger, the colonial assemblies had rejected a Plan of Union prepared by Benjamin Franklin, the one man, if any man there was, to bring the colonies together. They had rejected the plan as involving too great concentration of authority, and they were unwilling to barter the veriest jot or tittle of their much prized provincial liberty for any amount of protection. And if they rejected this plan–a very mild and harmless plan, ministers were bound to think–it was not likely they could be induced, in time of peace, to adopt any plan that might be thought adequate in England. Such a plan, for example, was that prepared by the Board of Trade, by which commissioners appointed by the governors were empowered to determine the military establishment and to apportion the expense of maintaining it among the several colonies on the basis of wealth and population. Assemblies which for years past had systematically deprived governors of all discretionary power to expend money raised by the assemblies themselves would surely never surrender to governors the power of determining how much assemblies should raise for governors to expend.
Doubtless it might be said with truth that the colonies had voluntarily contributed more than their fair share in the last war; but it was also true that Pitt, and Pitt alone, could get them to do this. The King could not always count on there being in England a great genius like Pitt, and besides he did not always find it convenient, for reasons which could be given, to employ a great genius like Pitt. A system of defense had to be designed for normal times and normal men; and in normal times with normal men at the helm, ministers were agreed, the American attitude towards defense was very cleverly described by Franklin: “Everyone cries, a Union is absolutely necessary, but when it comes to the manner and form of the Union, their weak noddles are perfectly distracted.”
Noddles of ministers, however, were in no way distracted but saw clearly that, if Americans could not agree on any plan of defense, there was no alternative but “an interposition of the authority of Parliament.” Such interposition, recommended by the Board of Trade and already proposed by Charles Townshend in the last ministry, was now taken in hand by Grenville. The troops were to remain in America; the Mutiny Act, which required soldiers in barracks to be furnished with provisions and utensils by local authorities, and which as a matter of course went where the army went, was supplemented by the Quartering Act, which made further provision for the billeting and supplying of the troops in America. And for raising some part of the general maintenance fund ministers could think of no tax more equitable, or easier to be levied and collected, than a stamp tax. Some such tax, stamp tax or poll tax, had often been recommended by colonial governors, as a means of bringing the colonies “to a sense of their duty to the King, to awaken them to take care of their lives and their fortunes.” A crown officer in North Carolina, Mr. M’Culloh, was good enough to assure Mr. Charles Jenkinson, one of the Secretaries of the Treasury, backing up his assertion with sundry statistical exhibits, that a stamp tax on the continental colonies would easily yield 60,000 pounds, and twice that sum if extended to the West Indies. As early as September 23, 1763, Mr. Jenkinson, acting on an authorization of the Treasury Board, accordingly wrote to the Commissioners of Stamped Duties, directing them “to prepare, for their Lordships’ consideration, a draft of an act for imposing proper stamp duties on His Majesty’s subjects in America and the West Indies.”
Mr. Grenville, who was not in any case the man to do things in a hurry, nevertheless proceeded very leisurely in the matter. He knew very well that Pitt had refused to “burn his fingers” with any stamp tax; “and some men, such as his friend and secretary, Mr. Jackson, for example, and the Earl of Hillsborough, advised him to abandon the project altogether, while others urged delay at least, in order that Americans might have an opportunity to present their objections, if they had any. It was decided therefore to postpone the matter for a year; and in presenting the budget on March 9, 1764, the first minister merely gave notice that “it maybe proper to charge certain stamp duties in the said colonies and plantations.” Of all the plans for taxing America, he said, this one seemed to him the best; yet he was not wedded to it, and would willingly adopt any other preferred by the colonists, if they could suggest any other of equal efficacy. Meanwhile, he wished only to call upon honorable members of the House to say now, if any were so minded, that Parliament had not the right to impose any tax, external or internal, upon the colonies; to which solemn question, asked in full house, there was not one negative, nor any reply except Alderman Beckford saying: “As we are stout, I hope we shall be merciful.”
It soon appeared that Americans did have objections to a stamp tax. Whether it were equitable or not, they would rather it should not be laid, really preferring not to be dished up in any sauce whatever, however fine. The tax might, as ministers said, be easily collected, or its collection might perhaps be attended with certain difficulties; in either case it would remain, for reasons which they were ready to advance, a most objectionable tax. Certain colonial agents then in England accordingly sought an interview with the first minister in order to convince him, if possible, of this fact. Grenville was very likely more than ready to grant them an interview, relying upon the strength of his position, on his “tenderness for the subjects in America,” and upon his well-known powers of persuasion, to bring them to his way of thinking. To get from the colonial agents a kind of assent to his measure would be to win a point of no slight strategic value, there being at least a modicum of truth in the notion that just government springs from the consent of the governed.
“I have proposed the resolution [the minister explained to the agents] from a real regard and tenderness for the subjects in the colonies. It is highly reasonable they should contribute something towards the charge of protecting themselves, and in aid of the great expense Great Britain has put herself to on their account. No tax appears to me so easy and equitable as a stamp duty. It will fall only upon property, will be collected by the fewest officers, and will be equally spread over America and the West Indies…. It does not require any number of officers vested with extraordinary powers of entering houses, or extend a sort of influence which I never wished to increase. The colonists now have it in their power, by agreeing to this tax, to establish a precedent for their being consulted before any tax is imposed upon them by Parliament; for their approbation of it being signified to Parliament next year…will afford a forcible argument for the like proceeding in all such cases. If they think of any other mode of taxation more convenient to them, and make any proposition of equal efficacy with the stamp duty, I will give it all due consideration.”
The agents appear at least to have been silenced by this speech, which was, one must admit, so fatherly and so very reasonable in tone; and doubtless Grenville thought them convinced, too, since he always so perfectly convinced himself. At all events, he found it possible, for this or for some other reason, to put the whole matter out of his mind until the next year. The patriotic American historian, well instructed in the importance of the Stamp Act, has at first a difficulty in understanding how it could occupy, among the things that interested English statesmen at this time, a strictly subordinate place; and he wonders greatly, as he runs with eager interest through the correspondence of Grenville for the year 1764, to find it barely mentioned there. Whether the King received him less coldly today than the day before yesterday was apparently more on the minister’s mind than any possibility that the Stamp Act might be received rather warmly in the colonies. The contemporaries of Grenville, even Pitt himself, have almost as little to say about the coming great event; all of which compels the historian, reviewing the matter judiciously, to reflect sadly that Englishmen of that day were not as fully aware of the importance of the measure before it was passed as good patriots have since become.
There is much to confirm this notion in the circumstances attending the passage of the bill through Parliament in the winter of 1765. Grenville was perhaps further reassured, in spite of persistent rumors of much high talk in America, by the results of a second interview which he had with the colonial agents just before introducing the measure into the House of Commons. “I take no pleasure,” he again explained in his reasonable way, “in bringing upon myself their resentments; it is my duty to manage the revenue. I have really been made to believe that, considering the whole circumstances of the mother country and the colonies, the latter can and ought to pay something to the common cause. I know of no better way than that now pursuing to lay such a tax. If you can tell of a better, I will adopt it.”
Franklin, who was present with the others on this occasion, ventured to suggest that the “usual constitutional way” of obtaining colonial support, through the King’s requisition, would be better. “Can you agree,” asked Grenville, “on the proportions each colony should raise?” No, they could not agree, as Franklin was bound to admit, knowing the fact better than most men. And if no adequate answer was forthcoming from Franklin, a man so ready in expedients and so practiced in the subtleties of dialectic, it is no great wonder that Grenville thought the agents now fully convinced by his reasoning, which after all was only an impersonal formulation of the inexorable logic of the situation.
Proceeding thus leisurely, having taken so much pains to elicit reasonable objection and none being forthcoming, Grenville, quite sure of his ground, brought in from the Ways and Means Committee, in February, 1765, the fifty-five resolutions which required that stamped paper, printed by the government and sold by officers appointed for that purpose, be used for nearly all legal documents, for all customs papers, for appointments to all offices carrying a salary of 20 pounds except military and judicial offices, for all grants of privilege and franchises made by the colonial assemblies, for Licenses to retail liquors, for all pamphlets, advertisements, handbills, newspapers, almanacs, and calendars, and for the sale of packages containing playing cards and dice. The expediency of the act was now explained to the House, as it had been explained to the agents. That the act was legal, which few people in fact denied, Grenville, doing everything thoroughly and with system, proceeded to demonstrate also. The colonies claim, he said, “the privilege of all British subjects of being taxed only with their own consent.” Well, for his part, he hoped they might always enjoy that privilege. “May this sacred pledge of liberty,” cried the minister with unwonted eloquence, “be preserved inviolate to the utmost verge of our dominions and to the latest pages of our history.” But Americans were clearly wrong in supposing the Stamp Act would deprive them of the rights of Englishmen, for, upon any ground on which it could be said that Englishmen were represented, it could be maintained, and he was free to assert, that Americans were represented, in Parliament, which was the common council of the whole Empire.
The measure was well received. Mr. Jackson supposed that Parliament had a right to tax America, but he much doubted the expediency of the present act. If it was necessary, as ministers claimed, to tax the colonies, the latter should be permitted to elect some part of the Parliament, “otherwise the liberties of America, I do not say will be lost, but will be in danger.” The one notable event of this “slight day” was occasioned by a remark of Charles Townshend, who asked with some asperity whether “these American children, planted by our care, nourished up by our indulgence to a degree of strength and opulence, and protected by our arms,” would now be so unfilial as to “grudge to contribute their mite to relieve us from the heavy burden under which we lie?” Upon which Colonel Isaac Barre sprang to his feet and delivered an impassioned, unpremeditated reply which stirred the dull House for perhaps three minutes
“They planted by YOUR care! No; your oppression planted them in America. They fled from your tyranny to a then uncultivated, inhospitable country, where they exposed themselves to almost all the hardships to which human nature is liable …. They nourished up by your indulgence! They grew by your neglect of them. As soon as you began to care about them, that care was exercised in sending persons to rule them in one department and another, who were, perhaps, the deputies of deputies to some members of this house, sent to spy out their liberties, to misrepresent their actions, and to prey upon them; men whose behaviour on many occasions has caused the blood of these sons of liberty to recoil within them…. They protected by your arms! They have nobly taken up arms in your defense; have exerted a valor amidst their constant and laborious industry, for the defense of a country whose frontier was drenched in blood, while its interior parts yielded all its little savings to your emolument.”
A very warm speech, and a capital hit, too, thought the honorable members of the House, as they settled comfortably back again to endure the routine of a dull day. Towards midnight, after seven hours of languid debate, an adjournment was carried, as everyone foresaw it would be, by a great majority–205 to 49 in support of the ministry. On the 13th of February the Stamp Act bill was introduced and read for the first time, without debate. It passed the House on the 27th; on the 8th of March it was approved by the Lords without protest, amendment, debate, or division; and two weeks later, the King being then temporarily out of his mind, the bill received the royal assent by commission.
At a later day, when the fatal effects of the Act were but too apparent, it was made a charge against the ministers that they had persisted in passing the measure in the face of strong opposition. But it was not so. “As to the fact of a strenuous opposition to the Stamp Act,” said Burke, in his famous speech on American taxation, “I sat as a stranger in your gallery when it was under consideration. Far from anything inflammatory, I never heard a more languid debate in this house…. In fact, the affair passed with so very, very little noise, that in town they scarcely knew the nature of what you were doing.” So far as men concerned themselves with the doings of Parliament, the colonial measures of Grenville were greatly applauded; and that not alone by men who were ignorant of America. Thomas Pownall, once Governor of Massachusetts, well acquainted with the colonies and no bad friend of their liberties, published in April, 1764, a pamphlet on the “Administration of the Colonies” which he dedicated to George Grenville, “the great minister,” who he desired might live to see the “power, prosperity, and honor that must be given to his country, by so great and important an event as the interweaving the administration of the colonies into the British administration.”
CHAPTER III. The Rights Of A Nation
British subjects, by removing to America, cultivating a wilderness, extending the domain, and increasing the wealth, commerce, and power of the mother country, at the hazard of their lives and fortunes, ought not, and in fact do not thereby lose their native rights.–Benjamin Franklin.
It was the misfortune of Grenville that this “interweaving,” as Pownall described it, should have been undertaken at a most inopportune time, when the very conditions which made Englishmen conscious of the burden of empire were giving to Americans a new and highly stimulating sense of power and independence. The marvelous growth of the colonies in population and wealth, much commented upon by all observers and asserted by ministers as one principal reason why Americans should pay taxes, was indeed well worth some consideration. A million and a half of people spread over the Atlantic seaboard might be thought no great number; but it was a new thing in the world, well worth noting–which had in fact been carefully noted by Benjamin Franklin in a pamphlet on “The Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc.”–that within three-quarters of a century the population of the continental colonies had doubled every twenty-five years, whereas the population of Old England during a hundred years past had not doubled once and now stood at only some six and a half millions. If this should go on–and, considering the immense stretches of free land beyond the mountains, no one could suppose that the present rate of increase would soon fall off–it was not unlikely that in another century the center of empire, following the course of the sun, would come to rest in the New World. With these facts in mind, one might indeed say that a people with so much vitality and expansive power was abundantly able to pay taxes; but perhaps it was also a fair inference, if any one was disposed to press the matter, that, unless it was so minded, such a people was already, or assuredly soon would be, equally able not to pay them.
People in new countries, being called provincial, being often told in effect that having made their bed they may lie in it, easily maintain their self-respect if they are able to say that the bed is indeed a very comfortable one. If, therefore, Americans had been given to boasting, their growing wealth was not, any more than their increasing numbers, a thing to be passed over in silence. In every colony the “starving time,” even if it had ever existed, was now no more than an ancient tradition. “Every man of industry has it in his power to live well,” according to William Smith of New York, “and many are the instances of persons who came here distressed in their poverty who now enjoy easy and plentiful fortunes.” If Americans were not always aware that they were rich men individually, they were at all events well instructed, by old-world visitors who came to observe them with a certain air of condescension, that collectively at least their material prosperity was a thing to be envied even by more advanced and more civilized peoples. Therefore any man called upon to pay a penny tax and finding his pocket bare might take a decent pride in the fact, which none need doubt since foreigners like Peter Kalm found it so, that “the English colonies in this part of the world have increased so much in…their riches, that they almost vie with old England.”
That the colonies might possibly “vie with old England,” was a notion which good Americans could contemplate with much equanimity; and even if the Swedish traveler, according to a habit of travelers, had stretched the facts a point or two, it was still abundantly clear that the continental colonies were thought to be, even by Englishmen themselves, of far greater importance to the mother country than they had formerly been. Very old men could remember the time when English statesmen and economists, viewing colonies as providentially designed to promote the increase of trade, had regarded the northern colonies as little better than heavy incumbrances on the Empire, and their commerce scarcely worth the cost of protection. It was no longer so; it could no longer be said that two-thirds of colonial commerce was with the tobacco and sugar plantations, or that Jamaica took off more English exports than the middle and northern colonies combined; but it could be said, and was now being loudly proclaimed–when it was a point of debate whether to keep Canada or Guadeloupe–that the northern colonies had already outstripped the islands as consumers of English commodities.
Of this fact Americans themselves were well aware. The question whether it was for the interest of England to keep Canada or Guadeloupe, which was much discussed in 1760, called forth the notable pamphlet from Franklin, entitled “The Interest of Great Britain Considered,” in which he arranged in convenient form for the benefit of Englishmen certain statistics of trade. From these statistics it appeared that, whereas in 1748 English exports to the northern colonies and to the West Indies stood at some 830,000 pounds and 730,000 pounds respectively, ten years later the exports to the West Indies were still no more than 877,571 pounds while those to the northern colonies had advanced to nearly two millions. Nor was it likely that this rate of increase would fall off in the future. “The trade to our northern colonies,” said Franklin, “is not only greater but yearly increasing with the increase of the people …. The occasion for English goods in North America, and the inclination to have and use them, is and must be for ages to come, much greater than the ability of the people to buy them.” For English merchants the prospect was therefore an inviting one; and if Canada rather than Guadeloupe was kept at the close of the war, it was because statesmen and economists were coming to estimate the value of colonies in terms of what they could buy, and not merely, as of old, in terms of what they could sell. From this point of view, the superiority of the continental over the insular colonies was not to be doubted. Americans might well find great satisfaction in this disposition of the mother country to regard her continental colonies so highly and to think their trade of so much moment to her; all of which, nevertheless, doubtless inclined them sometimes to speculate on the delicate question whether, in case they were so important to the mother country, they were not perhaps more important to her than she was to them.
The consciousness of rapidly increasing material power, which was greatly strengthened by the last French war, did nothing to dull the sense of rights, but it was, on the contrary, a marked stimulus to the mind in formulating a plausible, if theoretical, justification of desired aims. Doubtless no American would say that being able to pay taxes was a good reason for not paying them, or that obligations might rightly be ignored as soon as one was in a position to do so successfully; but that he should not “lose his native rights” any American could more readily understand when he recalled that his ancestors had without assistance from the mother country transformed a wilderness into populous and thriving communities whose trade was now becoming indispensable to Britain. Therefore, in the summer of 1764, before the doctrine of colonial rights had been very clearly stated or much refined, every American knew that the Sugar Act and also the proposed Stamp Act were grievously burdensome, and that in some way or other and for reasons which he might not be able to give with precision, they involved an infringement of essential English liberties. Most men in the colonies, at this early date, would doubtless have agreed with the views expressed in a letter written to a friend in England by Thomas Hutchinson of Boston, who was later so well hated by his compatriots for not having changed his views with the progress of events.
“The colonists [said Hutchinson] claim a power of making laws, and a privilege of exemption from taxes, unless voted by their own representatives…. Nor are the privileges of the people less affected by duties laid for the sake of the money arising from them than by an internal tax. Not one tenth part of the people of Great Britain have a voice in the elections to Parliament; and, therefore, the colonies can have no claim to it; but every man of property in England may have his voice, if he will. Besides, acts of Parliament do not generally affect individuals, and every interest is represented. But the colonies have an interest distinct from the interest of the nation; and shall the Parliament be at once party and judge?…
“The nation treats her colonies as a father who should sell the services of his sons to reimburse him what they had cost him, but without the same reason; for none of the colonies, except Georgia and Halifax, occasioned any charge to the Crown or kingdom in the settlement of them. The people of New England fled for the sake of civil and religious liberty; multitudes flocked to America with this dependence, that their liberties should be safe. They and their posterity have enjoyed them to their content, and therefore have endured with greater cheerfulness all the hardships of settling new countries. No ill use has been made of these privileges; but the domain and wealth of Great Britain have received amazing addition. Surely the services we have rendered the nation have not subjected us to any forfeitures.
“I know it is said the colonies are a charge to the nation, and they should contribute to their own defense and protection. But during the last war they annually contributed so largely that the Parliament was convinced the burden would be insupportable; and from year to year made them compensation; in several of the colonies for several years together more men were raised, in proportion, than by the nation. In the trading towns, one fourth part of the profit of trade, besides imposts and excise, was annually paid to the support of the war and public charges; in the country towns, a farm which would hardly rent for twenty pounds a year, paid ten pounds in taxes. If the inhabitants of Britain had paid in the same proportion, there would have been no great increase in the national debt.”
Nor is there occasion for any national expense in America. For one hundred years together the New England colonies received no aid in their wars with the Indians, assisted by the French. Those governments now molested are as able to defend their respective frontiers; and had rather do the whole of it by a tax of their own raising, than pay their proportion in any other way. Moreover, it must be prejudicial to the national interest to impose parliamentary taxes. The advantages promised by an increase of the revenue are all fallacious and delusive. You will lose more than you will gain. Britain already reaps the profit of all their trade, and of the increase of their substance. By cherishing their present turn of mind, you will serve your interest more than by your present schemes.
Thomas Hutchinson, or any other man, might write a private letter without committing his country, or, with due caution to his correspondent, even himself; but for effective public and official protest the colonial assemblies were the proper channels, and very expert they were in the business, after having for half a century and more devoted themselves with singleness of purpose to the guardianship of colonial liberties. Until now, liberties had been chiefly threatened by the insidious designs of colonial governors, who were for the most part appointed by the Crown and very likely therefore to be infected with the spirit of prerogative than which nothing could be more dangerous, as everyone must know who recalled the great events of the last century. With those great events, the eminent men who directed the colonial assemblies–heads or scions or proteges of the best families in America, men of wealth and not without reading–were entirely familiar; they knew as well as any man that the liberties of Englishmen had been vindicated against royal prerogative only by depriving one king of his head and another of his crown; and they needed no instruction in the significance of the “glorious revolution,” the high justification of which was to be found in the political gospel of John Locke, whose book they had commonly bought and conveniently placed on their library shelves.
More often than not, it is true, colonial governors were but ordinary Englishmen with neither the instinct nor the capacity for tyranny, intent mainly upon getting their salaries paid and laying by a competence against the day when they might return to England. But if they were not kings, at least they had certain royal characteristics; and a certain flavor of despotism, clinging as it were to their official robes and reviving in sensitive provincial minds the memory of bygone parliamentary battles, was an ever-present stimulus to the eternal vigilance which was well known to be the price of liberty.
And so, throughout the eighteenth century, little colonial aristocracies played their part, in imagination clothing their governors in the decaying vesture of old-world tyrants and themselves assuming the homespun garb, half Roman and half Puritan, of a virtuous republicanism. Small matters were thus stamped with great character. To debate a point of procedure in the Boston or Williamsburg assembly was not, to be sure, as high a privilege as to obstruct legislation in Westminster; but men of the best American families, fashioning their minds as well as their houses on good English models, thought of themselves, in withholding a governor’s salary or limiting his executive power, as but reenacting on a lesser stage the great parliamentary struggles of the seventeenth century. It was the illusion of sharing in great events rather than any low mercenary motive that made Americans guard with jealous care their legislative independence; a certain hypersensitiveness in matters of taxation they knew to be the virtue of men standing for liberties which Englishmen had once won and might lose before they were aware.
As a matter of course, therefore, the colonial assemblies protested against the measures of Grenville. The General Court of Massachusetts instructed its agent to say that the Sugar Act would ruin the New England fisheries upon which the industrial prosperity of the northern colonies depended. What they would lose was set down with some care, in precise figures: the fishing trade, “estimated at 164,000 pounds per annum; the vessels employed in it, which would be nearly useless, at 100,000 pounds; the provisions used in it, the casks for packing fish, and other articles, at 22,700 pounds and upwards: to all which there was to be added the loss of the advantage of sending lumber, horses, provisions, and other commodities to the foreign plantations as cargoes, the vessels employed to carry the fish to Spain and Portugal, the dismissing of 5,000 seamen from their employment,” besides many other losses, all arising from the very simple fact that the British islands to which the trade of the colonies was virtually confined by the Sugar Act could furnish no suffcient market for the products of New England, to say nothing of the middle colonies, nor a tithe of the molasses and other commodities now imported from the foreign islands in exchange.
Of the things taken in exchange, silver, in coin and bullion, was not the least important, since it was essential for the “remittances to England for goods imported into the provinces,” remittances which during the last eighteen months, it was said, “had been made in specie to the amount of 150,000 pounds besides 90,000 pounds in Treasurer’s bills for the reimbursement money.” Any man must thus see, since even Governor Bernard was convinced of it, that the new duties would drain the colony of all its hard money, and so, as the Governor said, “There will be an end of the specie currency in Massachusetts.” And with her trade half gone and her hard money entirely so, the old Bay colony would have to manufacture for herself those very commodities which English merchants were so desirous of selling in America.
The Sugar Act was thus made out to be, even from the point of view of English merchants, an economic blunder; but in the eyes of vigilant Bostonians it was something more, and much worse than an economic blunder. Vigilant Bostonians assembled in Town Meeting in May, 1764, in order to instruct their representatives how they ought to act in these serious times; and knowing that they ought to protest but perhaps not knowing precisely on what grounds, they committed the drafting of their instructions to Samuel Adams, a middle-aged man who had given much time to the consideration of political questions, and above all to this very question of taxation, upon which he had wonderfully clarified his ideas by much meditation and the writing of effective political pieces for the newspapers.
Through the eyes of Samuel Adams, therefore, vigilant Bostonians saw clearly that the Sugar Act, to say nothing of the Stamp Act, was not only an economic blunder but a menace to political liberty as well. “If our trade may be taxed,” so the instructions ran,” why not our lands? Why not the produce of our lands, and everything we possess or make use of? This we apprehend annihilates our charter right to govern and tax ourselves. It strikes at our British privileges which, as we have never forfeited them, we hold in common with our fellow-subjects who are natives of Great Britain. If taxes are laid upon us in any shape without our having a legal representative where they are laid, are we not reduced from the character of free subjects to the miserable state of tributary slaves?” Very formidable questions, couched in high-sounding phrases, and representing well enough in form and in substance the state of mind of colonial assemblies in the summer of 1764 in respect to the Sugar Act and the proposed Stamp Act.
Yet these resounding phrases doubtless meant something less to Americans of 1764 than one is apt to suppose. The rights of freemen had so often, in the proceedings of colonial assemblies as well as in the newspaper communications of many a Brutus and Cato, been made to depend upon withholding a governor’s salary or defining precisely how he should expend a hundred pounds or so, that moderate terms could hardly be trusted to cope with the serious business of parliamentary taxation. “Reduced from the character of free subjects to the miserable state of tributary slaves” was in fact hardly more than a conventional and dignified way of expressing a firm but entirely respectful protest.
The truth is, therefore, that while everyone protested in such spirited terms as might occur to him, few men in these early days supposed the new laws would not take effect, and fewer still counseled the right or believed in the practicability of forcible resistance. “We yield obedience to the act granting duties,” declared the Massachusetts Assembly. “Let Parliament lay what duties they please on us,” said James Otis; “it is our duty to submit and patiently bear them till they be pleased to relieve us.” Franklin assured his friends that the passage of the Stamp Act could not have been prevented any more easily than the sun’s setting, recommended that they endure the one mischance with the same equanimity with which they faced the other necessity, and even saw certain advantages in the way of self-discipline which might come of it through the practice of a greater frugality. Not yet perceiving the dishonor attaching to the function of distributing stamps, he did his two friends, Jared Ingersoll of Connecticut and John Hughes of Pennsylvania, the service of procuring for them the appointment to the new office; and Richard Henry Lee, as good a patriot as any man and therefore of necessity at some pains later to explain his motives in the matter, applied for the position in Virginia.
Richard Henry Lee was no friend of tyrants, but an American freeman, less distinguished as yet than his name, which was a famous one and not without offense to be omitted from any list of the Old Dominion’s “best families.” The best families of the Old Dominion, tide-water tobacco planters of considerable estates, admirers and imitators of the minor aristocracy of England, took it as a matter of course that the political fortunes of the province were committed to their care and for many generations had successfully maintained the public interest against the double danger of executive tyranny and popular licentiousness. It is therefore not surprising that the many obscure freeholders, minor planters, and lesser men who filled the House of Burgesses had followed the able leadership of that little coterie of interrelated families comprising the Virginia aristocracy. John Robinson, Speaker of the House and Treasurer of the colony, of good repute still in the spring of 1765, was doubtless the head and front of this aristocracy, the inner circle of which would also include Peyton Randolph, then King’s Attorney, and Edmund Pendleton, well known for his cool persuasiveness in debate, the learned constitutional lawyer, Richard Bland, the sturdy and honest but ungraceful Robert Carter Nicholas, and George Wythe, noblest Roman of them all, steeped in classical lore, with the thin, sharp face of a Caesar and for virtuous integrity a very Cato. Conscious of their English heritage, they were at once proud of their loyalty to Britain and jealous of their well-won provincial liberties. As became British-American freemen, they had already drawn a proper Memorial against the Sugar Act and were now, as they leisurely gathered at Williamsburg in the early weeks of May, 1765, unwilling to protest again at present, for they had not as yet received any reply to their former dignified and respectful petition.
To this assembly of the burgesses in 1765, there came from the back-country beyond the first falls of the Virginia rivers, the frontier of that day, many deputies who must have presented, in dress and manners as well as in ideas, a sharp contrast to the eminent leaders of the aristocracy. Among them was Thomas Marshall, father of a famous son, and Patrick Henry, a young man of twenty-nine years, a heaven-born orator and destined to be the leader and interpreter of the silent “simple folk” of the Old Dominion. In Hanover County, in which this tribune of the people was born and reared and which he now represented, there were, as in all the backcountry counties, few great estates and few slaves, no notable country-seats with pretension to architectural excellence, no modishly dressed aristocracy with leisure for reading and the cultivation of manners becoming a gentleman. Beyond the tide-water, men for the most part earned their bread by the sweat of their brows, lived the life and esteemed the virtues of a primitive society, and braced their minds with the tonic of Calvin’s theology–a tonic somewhat tempered in these late enlightened days by a more humane philosophy and the friendly emotionalism of simple folk living close to nature.
Free burgesses from the back-country, set apart in dress and manners from the great planters, less learned and less practiced in oratory and the subtle art of condescension and patronage than the cultivated men of the inner circle, were nevertheless staunch defenders of liberty and American rights and were perhaps beginning to question, in these days of popular discussion, whether liberty could very well flourish among men whose wealth was derived from the labor of negro slaves, or be well guarded under all circumstances by those who, regarding themselves as superior to the general run of men, might be in danger of mistaking their particular interests for the common welfare. And indeed it now seemed that these great men who sent their sons to London to be educated, who every year shipped their tobacco to England and bought their clothes of English merchants with whom their credit was always good, were grown something too timid, on account of their loyalty to Britain, in the great question of asserting the rights of America.
Jean Jacques Rousseau would have well understood Patrick Henry, one of those passionate temperaments whose reason functions not in the service of knowledge but of good instincts and fine emotions; a nature to be easily possessed of an exalted enthusiasm for popular rights and for celebrating the virtues of the industrious poor. This enthusiasm in the case of Patrick Henry was intensified by his own eloquence, which had been so effectively exhibited in the famous Parson’s Cause, and in opposition to the shady scheme which the old leaders in the House of Burgesses had contrived to protect John Robinson, the Treasurer, from being exposed to a charge of embezzlement. Such courageous exploits, widely noised abroad, had won for the young man great applause and had got him a kind of party of devoted followers in the backcountry and among the yeomanry and young men throughout the province, so that to take the lead and to stand boldly forth as the champion of liberty and the submerged rights of mankind seemed to Patrick Henry a kind of mission laid upon him, in virtue of his heavenly gift of speech, by that Providence which shapes the destinies of men.
It was said that Mr. Henry was not learned in the law; but he had read in “Coke upon Littleton” that an Act of Parliament against Magna Carta, or common right, or reason, is void–which was clearly the case of the Stamp Act. On the flyleaf of an old copy of that book this unlearned lawyer accordingly wrote out some resolutions of protest which he showed to his friends, George Johnston and John Fleming, for their approval. Their approval once obtained, Mr. Johnston moved, with Mr. Henry as second, that the House of Burgesses should go into committee of the whole, “to consider the steps necessary to be taken in consequence of the resolutions…charging certain Stamp Duties in the colonies”; which was accordingly done on the 29th of May, upon which day Mr. Henry presented his resolutions.
The 29th of May was late in that session of the Virginia House of Burgesses; and most likely the resolutions would have been rejected if some two-thirds of the members, who knew nothing of Mr. Henry’s plans and supposed the business of the Assembly finished, had not already gone home. Among those who had thus departed, it is not likely that there were many of Patrick Henry’s followers. Yet even so there was much opposition. The resolutions were apparently refashioned in committee of the whole, for a preamble was omitted outright and four “Resolves” were made over into five which were presented to the House on the day following.
Young Mr. Jefferson, at that time a law student and naturally much interested in the business of lawmaking, heard the whole of this day’s famous debate from the door of communication between the House and the lobby. The five resolutions, he afterwards remembered, were “opposed by Randolph, Bland, Pendleton, Nicholas, Wythe, and all the old members, whose influence in the House had, till then, been unbroken;…not from any question of our rights, but on the ground that the same sentiments had been, at their preceding session, expressed in a more conciliatory form, to which the answers were not yet received. But torrents of sublime eloquence from Mr. Henry, backed by the solid reasoning of Johnston, prevailed.” It was in connection with the fifth resolution, upon which the debate was “most bloody,” that Patrick Henry is said to have declared that “Tarquin and Caesar had each his Brutus, Charles the First his Cromwell, and George the Third–“; upon which cries of “Treason” were heard from every part of the House. Treason or not, the resolution was carried, although by one vote only; and the young law student standing at the door of the House heard Peyton Randolph say, as he came hastily out into the lobby: “By God, I would have given 500 guineas for a single vote.” And no doubt he would, at that moment, being then much heated.
Next day Mr. Randolph was probably much cooler; and so apparently were some others who, in the enthusiasm of debate and under the compelling eye of Patrick Henry, had voted for the last defiant resolution. Thinking the matter settled, Patrick Henry had already gone home “to recommend himself to his constituents,” as his enemies thought, “by spreading treason.”
But the matter was not yet settled. Early on that morning of the 31st, before the House assembled, the young law student who was so curious about the business of lawmaking saw Colonel Peter Randolph, of his Majesty’s Council, standing at the Clerk’s table, “thumbing over the volumes of journals to find a precedent for expunging a vote of the House.” Whether the precedent was found the young law student did not afterwards recollect; but it is known that on motion of Peyton Randolph the fifth resolution was that day erased from the record. Mr. Henry was not then present. He had been seen, on the afternoon before, “passing along the street, on his way to his home in Louisa, clad in a pair of leather breeches, his saddle-bags on his arm, leading a lean horse.” The four resolutions thus adopted as the deliberate and formal protest of the Old Dominion were as mild and harmless as could well be. They asserted no more than that the first adventurers and settlers of Virginia brought with them and transmitted to their posterity all the privileges at any time enjoyed by the people of Great Britain; that by two royal charters they had been formally declared to be as surely possessed of these privileges as if they had been born and were then abiding within the realm; that the taxation of the people by themselves or by persons chosen by themselves to represent them “is the only security against a burthensome taxation, and the distinguishing characteristick of British freedom, without which the ancient constitution cannot exist”; and that the loyal colony of Virginia had in fact without interruption enjoyed this inestimable right, which had never been forfeited or surrendered nor ever hitherto denied by the kings or the people of Britain. No treason here, expressed or implied; nor any occasion for 500 guineas passing from one hand to another to prove that the province of Virginia was still the ancient and loyal Old Dominion.
But Fate, or Providence, or whatever it is that presides at the destinies of nations, has a way of setting aside with ironical smile the most deliberate actions of men. And so, on this occasion, it turned out that the hard-won victory of Messrs. Randolph, Bland, Pendleton, and Wythe was of no avail. William Gordon tells us, without mentioning the source of his information, that “a manuscript of the unrevised resolves soon reached Philadelphia, having been sent off immediately upon their passing, that the earliest information of what had been done might be obtained by the Sons of Liberty.” From Philadelphia a copy was forwarded, on June 17, to New York, in which loyal city the resolutions were thought “so treasonable that their possessors declined printing them”; but an Irish gentleman from Connecticut, who was then in town, inquired after them and was with great precaution permitted to take a copy, which he straightway carried to New England. All this may be true or not; but certain it is that six resolutions purporting to come from Virginia were printed in the Newport “Mercury” on June 24, 1765, and afterwards, on July 1, in many Boston papers.
The document thus printed did not indeed include the famous fifth resolution upon which the debate in the House of Burgesses was “most bloody” and which had been there adopted by a single vote and afterwards erased from the record; but it included two others much stronger than that eminently treasonable one:
“Resolved, That his Majesty’s Liege people, the inhabitants of this colony, are not bound to yield obedience to any law or ordinance whatever, designed to impose any taxation whatsoever upon them, other than the laws and ordinances of the General Assembly aforesaid. Resolved, That any person who shall, by speaking or writing, assert or maintain that any person or persons, other than the General Assembly of this colony, have any right or power to impose any taxation on the people here, shall be deemed an enemy to his Majesty’s colony.”
These resolutions, which Governor Fauquier had not seen, and which were perhaps never debated in the House of Burgesses, were now circulated far and wide as part of the mature decision of the Virginia Assembly. On the 14th of September, Messrs. Randolph, Wythe, and Nicholas were appointed a committee to apprise the Assembly’s agent “of a spurious copy of the resolves of the last Assembly…being dispersed and printed in the News Papers and to send him a true copy of the votes on that occasion.” In those days of slow and difficult communication, the truth, three months late, could not easily overtake the falsehood or ever effectively replace it. In later years, when it was thought an honor to have begun the Revolution, many men denied the decisive effect of the Virginia Resolutions in convincing the colonists that the Stamp Act might be successfully resisted. But contemporaries were agreed in according them that glory or that infamy. “Two or three months ago,” said Governor Bernard, “I thought that this people would submit to the Stamp Act. Murmurs were indeed continually heard, but they seemed to be such as would die away. The publishing the Virginia Resolutions proved an alarm-bell to the disaffected.” We read the resolutions, said Jonathan Sewell, “with wonder. They savored of independence; they flattered the human passions; the reasoning was specious; we wished it conclusive. The transition to believing it so was easy, and we, almost all America, followed their example in resolving that the Parliament had no such right.” And the good patriot John Adams, who afterwards attributed the honor to James Otis, said in 1776 that the “author of the first Virginia Resolutions against the Stamp Act…will have the glory with posterity of beginning…this great Revolution.*
* Upon the death of George II, 1760, the collectors of the customs at Boston applied for new writs of assistance. The grant was opposed by the merchants, and the question was argued before the Superior Court. It was on this occasion that James Otis made a speech in favor of the rights of the colonists as men and Englishmen. All that is known of it is contained in some rough notes taken at the time by John Adams (“Works of John Adams,” ii., 125). An elaboration of these notes was printed in the “Massachusetts Spy,” April 29, 1778, and with corrections by Adams fifty years after the event in William Tudor’s “Life of James Otis,” chs. 5-7. This is the speech to which Adams, at a later date, attributed the beginning of the Revolution.
James Otis in 1765 declared the Virginia Resolutions to be treasonable. It was precisely their treasonable flavor that electrified the country, while the fact that they came from the Old Dominion made men think that a union of the colonies, so essential to successful resistance, might be achieved in spite of all. The Old Dominion, counted the most English of the colonies in respect to her institutions and her sympathies, had a character for loyalty that, in any matter of opposition to Britain, gave double weight to her action. Easy-going tobacco-planters, Church of England men all, were well known not to be great admirers of the precise Puritans of New England, whose moral fervor and conscious rectitude seemed to them a species of fanaticism savoring more of canting hypocrisy than of that natural virtue affected by men of parts. Franklin may well have had Virginia and Massachusetts in mind when he said, but a few years earlier, no one need fear that the colonies “will unite against their own nation…which ’tis well known they all love much more than they love one another.” Nor could anyone have supposed that the “Ancient and Loyal Colony of Virginia” would out-Boston Boston in asserting the rights of America. Yet this was what had come to pass, the evidence of which was the printed resolutions now circulating far and wide and being read in this month of July when it was being noised about that a Congress was proposed for the coming October. The proposal had in fact come from Massachusetts Bay in the form of a circular letter inviting all the colonies to send delegates to New York for the purpose of preparing a loyal and humble “representation of their condition,” and of imploring relief from the King and Parliament of Great Britain.
No very encouraging response was immediately forthcoming. The Assembly of New Jersey unanimously declined to send any delegates, although it declared itself “not without a just sensibility respecting the late acts of Parliament,” and wished “such other colonies as think proper to be active every success they can loyally and reasonably desire.” For two months there was no indication that any colony would think it “proper to be active”; but during August and September the assemblies of six colonies chose deputies to the congress, and when that body finally assembled in October, less formally designated representatives from three other colonies appeared upon the scene. The Assembly of New Hampshire declined to take part. Virginia, Georgia, and North Carolina were also unrepresented, which was perhaps due to the fact that the governors of those provinces refused to call the assemblies together to consider the Massachusetts circular letter. Of the 27 members of the Stamp Act Congress, few if any were inclined to rash or venturesome measures. It is reported that Lord Melbourne, as Prime Minister of England, once remarked to his Cabinet, “It doesn’t matter what we say, but we must all say the same thing.” What the Stamp Act Congress said was to be sure of some importance, but that it should say something which all could agree to was of even greater importance. “There ought to be no New England man, no New Yorker, known on the continent,” wrote Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina, “but all of us Americans.” New Yorkers and New England men could not indeed be so easily transformed over night; but the Stamp Act Congress was significant as marking a kind of beginning in that slow and difficult process. After eleven days of debate, in which sharp differences of opinion were no doubt revealed, a declaration of rights and grievances was at last adopted; a declaration which was so cautiously and loyally phrased that all could subscribe to it, and which was perhaps for that very reason not quite satisfactory to anyone.
His Majesty’s subjects in the colonies, the declaration affirmed, are entitled to those “inherent rights and liberties” which are enjoyed by “his natural born subjects” in Great Britain; among which rights is that most important one of “not being taxed without their own consent”; and since the people of the colonies, “from local circumstances, cannot be represented in the House of Commons,” it follows that taxes cannot be “imposed upon them, but by their respective legislatures.” The Stamp Act, being a direct tax, was therefore declared to have a “manifest tendency to subvert the rights and liberties of the colonies.” Of the Sugar Act, which was not a direct tax, so much could not be said; but this act was at least “burthensome and grievous,” being subversive of trade if not of liberty. No one was likely to be profoundly stirred by the declaration of the Stamp Act Congress, in this month of October when the spirited Virginia Resolutions were everywhere well known.
“The frozen politicians of a more northern government,” according to the “Boston Gazette,” “say they [the people of Virginia] have spoken treason”; but the “Boston Gazette,” for its part, thought they had “spoken very sensibly.” With much reading of the resolutions and of the commendatory remarks with which they were everywhere received, the treasonable flavor of their boldest phrases no doubt grew less pronounced, and high talk took on more and more the character of good sense. During the summer of 1765 the happy phrase of Isaac Barre–“these sons of liberty”–was everywhere repeated, and was put on as a kind of protective coloring by strong patriots, who henceforth thought of themselves as Sons of Liberty and no traitors at all. Rather were they traitors who would in any way justify an act of tyranny; most of all those so-called Americans, accepting the office of Stamp Master, who cunningly aspired to make a farthing profit out of the hateful business of enslaving their own countrymen.
Who these gentry might be was not certainly known until early August, when Jared Ingersoll, himself as it turned out one of the miscreants, brought the commissions over from London, whereupon the names were all printed in the papers. It then appeared that the gentleman appointed to distribute the stamps in Massachusetts was Andrew Oliver, a man very well connected in that province and of great influence with the beet people, not infrequently entrusted with high office and perquisites, and but recently elected by the unsuspecting Bostonians to represent them in the council of Massachusetts Bay Colony. It seemed inconsistent that a man so often honored by the people should meanwhile pledge himself to destroy their liberties; and so on the morning of the 14th of August, Mr. Oliver’s effigy, together with a horned devil’s head peeping out of an old boot, was to be seen hanging from the Liberty Tree at the south end of Boston, near the distillery of Thomas Chase, brewer and warm Son of Liberty. During the day people stopped to make merry over the spectacle; and in the evening, after work hours, a great crowd gathered to see what would happen. When the effigy was cut down and carried away, the crowd very naturally followed along through the streets and through the Town House, justifying themselves–many respectable people were in the crowd–for being there by calling out, “Liberty and Property forever; no Stamp.” And what with tramping and shouting in the warm August evening, the whole crowd became much heated and ever more enthusiastic, so that, the line of march by some chance lying past the new stamp office and Mr. Oliver’s house, the people were not to be restrained from destroying the former and breaking in the windows of the latter, in detestation of the hated Stamp Act and of the principle that property might be taken without consent. Mr. Oliver hastened to resign his office, which doubtless led many people to think the methods taken to induce him to do so were very good ones and such as might well be made further use of. It was in fact not long afterwards, about dusk of the evening of the 26th of August, that a mob of men, more deliberately organized than before, ransacked the office of William Story, Deputy Registrar of the Court of Admiralty, and, after burning the obnoxious records kept there, they forcibly entered the house, and the cellar too, of Benjamin Hallowell, Comptroller of the Customs. “Then the Monsters,” says Deacon Tudor, “being enflam’d with Rum & Wine which they got in sd. Hallowell’s cellar, proceeded with Shouts to the Dwelling House of the Hon-l. Thos. Hutchinson, Esq., Lieut. Governor, & enter’d in a voyalent manner.” At that moment the Lieutenant-Governor was sitting comfortably at dinner and had barely time to escape with his family before the massive front door was broken in with axes. As young Mr. Hutchinson went out by the back way he heard someone say: “Damn him, he’s upstairs, we’ll have him yet.” They did not indeed accomplish this purpose; but when the morning broke the splendid house was seen to be completely gutted, the partition walls broken in, the roof partly off, and the priceless possessions of the owner ruined past repair: mahogany and walnut furniture finished in morocco and crimson damask, tapestries and Turkey carpets, rare paintings, cabinets of fine glass and old china, stores of immaculate linen, India paduasoy gowns and red Genoa robes, a choice collection of books richly bound in leather and many manuscript documents, the fruit of thirty years’ labor in collecting–all broken and cut and cast about to make a rubbish heap and a bonfire. From the mire of the street there was afterwards picked up a manuscript history of Massachusetts which is preserved to this day, the soiled pages of which may still be seen in the Boston library. Mr. Hutchinson was no friend of the Stamp Act; but he was a rich man, Lieutenant-Governor of the province, and brother-in-law of Andrew Oliver.
Government offered the usual rewards–which were never claimed–for evidence leading to the detection of any persons concerned in the riots. Men of repute, including the staunchest patriots such as Samuel Adams and Jonathan Mayhew, expressed their abhorrence of mobs and of all licentious proceedings in general; but many were nevertheless disposed to think, with good Deacon Tudor, that in this particular instance “the universal Obhorrance of the Stamp Act was the cause of the Mob’s riseing.” It would be well to punish the mob, but punishing the mob would not cure the evil which was the cause of the mob; for where there was oppression the lower sort of people, as was well known, would be sure to express opposition in the way commonly practiced by them everywhere, in London as well as in Boston, by gathering in the streets in crowds, in which event some deplorable excesses were bound to follow, however much deprecated by men of substance and standing. If ministers wished the people to be tranquil, let them repeal the Stamp Act; if they were determined to persist in it, and should attempt to land and distribute the stamps, loyal and law-abiding citizens, however much they might regret the fact, could only say that similar disorders were very likely to become even more frequent and more serious in the future than they had been in the past.
As the first of November approached, that being the day set for the levying of the tax, attention and discussion came naturally to center on the stamps rather than on the Stamp Act. Crowds of curious people gathered wherever there seemed a prospect of catching a glimpse of the bundles of stamped papers. Upon their arrival the papers had to be landed; they could therefore be seen; and the mere sight of them was likely to be a sufficient challenge to action. It seemed a simple matter to resist a law which could be of no effect without the existence of certain papers, paper being a substance easily disposed of. And everywhere in fact the stamps were disposed of–disposed of by mobs, with the tacit consent and impalpable encouragement of many men who, having a reputable position to maintain, would themselves by no means endure to be seen in a common crowd; men of good estate whom no one could think of as countenancers of violence, but who were, on this occasion, as Mr. Livingston said, “not averse to a little rioting” on condition that it be kept within bounds and well directed to the attainment of their just rights.
A little rioting, so easy to be set on foot, was difficult to keep within reasonable bounds, as Mr. Livingston and his friends in New York soon discovered, somewhat to their chagrin. In New York, even after the stamps were surrendered by Lieutenant-Governor Colden and safely lodged in the Town House, there were many excesses wholly unnecessary to the attainment of the original object. Mr. Colden’s new chariot, certainly never designed to carry the stamps, was burned; and on repeated occasions windows were broken and “particulars” threatened that their houses would presently be pulled down. Mr. Livingston was himself the owner of houses, had an immense respect for property rights and for the law that guaranteed them, and therefore wished very much that the lower sort of people would give over their mobbish practices now that the stamps had been disposed of. Since the law could not now operate without stamps, what more was necessary except to wait in good order, patiently denying themselves those activities that involved a violation of the law, until the law should be repealed? The Stamp Act Congress had protested in a proper and becoming manner; merchants had agreed not to import British goods; the Governor had closed the courts. Stopping of business would doubtless be annoying and might very likely produce some distress. But it would be legal and it would be effective: the government would get no revenue; British merchants no profit; and Americans could not be charged with violating a law the failure of which was primarily due to the fact that papers indispensable to its application were, for one reason or another, not forthcoming.
Mr. Livingston, happily possessed of the conservative temperament, was disposed to achieve desired ends with the least possible disturbance of his own affairs and those of his country; and most men of independent means, landowners and merchants of considerable estates, moneyed men and high salaried officials whose incomes were not greatly affected by any temporary business depression, were likely to be of Mr. Livingston’s opinion, particularly in this matter of the Stamp Act. Sitting comfortably at dinner every day and well knowing where they could lay hands on money to pay current bills, they enjoyed a high sense of being defenders of liberty and at the same time eminently law-abiding citizens. They professed a decided preference for nullifying the Stamp Act without violating it. Sitting at dinner over their wine, they swore that they would let ships lie in harbor and rot there if necessary, and would let the courts close for a year or two years, rather than employ taxed papers to collect their just debts; with a round oath they bound themselves to it, sealing the pledge, very likely, by sipping another glass of Madeira. In the defense of just rights, Mr. Livingston and his conservative friends were willing to sacrifice much: they foresaw some months of business stagnation, which they nevertheless contemplated with equanimity, being prepared to tide over the dull time by living in a diminished manner, if necessary even dispensing with customary bottles of Madeira at dinner.
Men of radical temperament, having generally less regard for the status quo, are quick to see ulterior motives back of conservative timidity and solemn profession of respect for law and order. It was so in the case of the Stamp Act. Small shopkeepers who were soon sold out and had no great stock of “old moth-eaten goods” to offer at enhanced prices, rising young lawyers whose fees ceased with the closing of the courts, artisans and laborers who bought their dinners (no Madeira included) with their daily wage–these, and indeed all the lower sort of people, contemplated the stopping of business with much alarm. Mr. John Adams, a young lawyer of Braintree and Boston, was greatly interested in the question of the courts of justice. Were the courts to be closed on the ground that no legal business could be done without stamped papers? Or were they to go on trying cases, enforcing the ‘collection of debts, and probating wills precisely as if no Stamp Act had ever been heard of? The Boston superior court was being adjourned continuously, for a fortnight at a time, through the influence of Messrs. Hutchinson and Oliver, to the great and steadily rising wrath of young Mr. Adams. The courts must soon be opened, he said to himself; their inactivity “will make a large chasm in my affairs, if it should not reduce me to distress.” Young Mr. Adams, who had, no less than Mr. Oliver, a family to support and children to provide for, was just at the point of making a reputation and winning a competence “when this execrable project was set on foot for my ruin as well as that of America in general.” And therefore Mr. Adams, and Mr. Samuel Adams, and Mr. Otis, and Mr. Gridley, in order to avert the ruin of America in general, were “very warm” to have the courts open and very bitter against Messrs. Hutchinson and Oliver whose “insolence and impudence and chicanery” in the matter were obvious, and whose secret motives might easily be inferred. Little wonder if these men, who had