Sunday, January 14, 2018

Episode 027: Prime Minister Pitt Falls From Power

Last week, things started looking like they would go the right way for the colonies.  Their hero, William Pitt, now Lord Chatham, had become Prime Minister.  Pitt has always been one of the leading advocates in Parliament for colonial rights.  He had spoken forcefully in favor of colonial freedoms and had been a tireless advocate for colonial rights throughout all the efforts to tax them.  Before that, Pitt had been the man who got the colonies all that money during the French and Indian War, turning around all the problems they had, and getting the colonies to cooperate with the army in making Canada part of the British Empire.

Colonies Unsure about the Townshend Acts

So when the Pitt administration passed the Townshend Acts, it looked like the colonies’ biggest advocate believed these new tariffs were reasonable.  The colonists greeted the Townshend Acts with caution.  They were not terribly happy about them, but also were not sufficiently outraged to march in the streets as they did with the Stamp Act.  There were several reasons for this.

First, as I’ve said, the Townshend duties were not internal taxes.  Even though they were clearly designed to raise revenues, they met the demands of the Stamp Act protesters to keep clear of internal taxes.  Import tariffs had been a part of colonial life for generations.  Even though colonists had found a way to evade most of these tariffs, they had never made any sort of principled objection to Parliament’s authority to impose tariffs on the colonies.

Second, most of the taxed items were luxuries.  You did not have to pay the duties if you refused to buy the covered imports.  The stamp tax had been required for the exercise fundamental rights, like a free press or access to the courts.  You could not avoid that tax if you wanted to avail yourself of those rights.  By contrast, the Townshend Acts were assessed mostly on imported luxury items.  If you did not want to pay the tax, you could just do without those fancy imported goods.

Third, the taxes were not that outrageous.  The stamp tax was going to double the costs of some newspapers.  That was big enough to put people out of business.  By contrast the Townshend duties covered many more items, but only a small amount on each item.  It was not going to make any particular item ridiculously expensive.

Fourth, colonial elites were wary about encouraging mob violence on a regular basis.  Even the most vocal opponents of the Stamp Act were concerned about encouraging the working class to march in streets and destroy the homes and property of those with whom they disagreed.  That sort of thing could get out of hand really fast.

Fifth, many feared pushing things too far with Britain.  Colonists had seen British public opinion turn against them.  They were clearly taxed less than British subjects.  Even their traditional ally and advocate William Pitt seemed to be growing weary of their resistance.  No one wanted to start a full on war with the home country.

Sixth, the other colonies seemed to accept the new laws.  No one wanted to be like New York with the Quartering Act, being the only colony to resist.  That would only result in Parliament focusing its wrath on them.

As a result of all this, the colonies did not seem to have a powerful or coordinated objection to the new laws.  They were simply unsure how to respond to them.

The Duke of Grafton

Even before the Townshend Acts took effect, the Pitt Ministry in London began to fall apart.  In July 1767, only about a month after passage of the Townshend Acts, Prime Minister Pitt suffered what has been described as a mental breakdown and withdrew from all public appearances.  He was not well before this, but now seemed entirely withdrawn from politics.

Although he would nominally remain Prime Minister, Pitt was gone from the scene.  The role of prime minister unofficially fell to his first Lord of the Treasury, 31 year old Augustus Henry Fitzroy, 3rd duke of Grafton.  That man, whom I will now just call Grafton, assumed the duties of prime minister in the summer of 1767, but would not become Prime Minister formally until Pitt resigned in October 1768.

Third duke of Grafton
(from Wikipedia)
Grafton came from a family that held a prominent role in British aristocracy.  He was descended from an illegitimate son of King Charles II.  He came from a life of privilege.  He went to the best schools in London.  At age 12, he received designation as an earl when it became clear that he would eventually succeed to his Grandfather’s title as Duke of Grafton.

Before becoming a duke, Grafton won a seat in the House of Commons at age 21.  Since he served as representative of his family’s district, getting elected was only matter of getting his family’s approval.  When his grandfather died a year later, Henry had to leave the House of Commons for the House of Lords.  His father had died over a decade earlier, meaning that Henry became the third duke of Grafton on his grandfather’s death in 1757.

Around the same time he began his career in the House of Commons, Grafton also go married.  I only mention this because the marriage was not a particularly good fit.  Although the couple had three children, Grafton had numerous open affairs.  His wife decided to have her own affairs, and eventually go pregnant through one of them.  This led to a divorce during Grafton’s tenure as Prime Minister.  At the time, divorces were not easy and required an Act of Parliament.  It was all a great scandal.

In politics, Grafton associated himself with the radical whigs like Newcastle and Pitt.  He even visited John Wilkes in prison after his arrest for sedition in 1763, though he refused to bail him out of jail.  He made his first speech in the House of Lords that same year, opposing Prime Minister Bute’s treaty to end the Seven Years War.  As a result, he incurred the wrath of the King, who took away his honorary title as Lord Lieutenant of Suffolk.  A couple of years later though, Grafton joined the Privy Council as the Pitt faction gained more political influence.

Next, he agreed to join the Rockingham ministry as Secretary of State.  There, Grafton was one of the Pitt loyalists who undermined Rockingham’s leadership.  Grafton supported Rockingham’s repeal of the Stamp Act, but resigned his position in early 1766, thus contributing to the instability of the Rockingham ministry, and Rockingham’s resignation as Prime Minister in July.

When Pitt established the new government, and became Prime Minister, Pitt took the job of Lord of the Privy Seal, rather than Lord of the Treasury.  That was the traditional position for Prime Ministers.  Instead, Pitt offered Treasury to Grafton, who was only 30 years old at the time.  Grafton was not actually pushing for the job.  In fact, he seemed reluctant to take on the role, thinking it above his abilities.  However, he did take the job in the end.

Grafton found himself in a tough situation.  He generally agreed with Prime Minister Pitt’s policies.  But Pitt did not seem to have control of his own ministry.  When Charles Townshend proposed the Townshend Acts that I discussed last week, Grafton opposed them, but could not really openly fight the ministry in which he served.

So by July 1767, after passage of the Townshend Acts, Grafton was unofficially acting Prime Minister, putting him in charge, but with the extent of his authority in question.  Given also his youth, there was not good chance he would become a strong leader who could guide the ministry in a clear direction.

Lord North

In September 1767, the Ministry again experienced an abrupt change.  Charles Townshend died rather suddenly from an illness.  He was only 42 years old.

Lord North
(from Wikipedia)
Frederick North, took over for Townshend in the Exchequer.  He also served as the ministry’s leader in the House of Commons.  Since Lord North will go on to become Prime Minister for much of the later part of this story, it might be worth getting to know him a little more now.

North, the son of an earl, was known as Lord North, even though he was technically without title for most of his life.  He would not obtain the title of Earl of Guildford until his father died in 1790.  North lived the life of privilege available to wealthy aristocrats at the time.  His mother died when he was only two.  Shortly thereafter, his father married a widow whose son was also a baby and would soon had inherit his grandfather’s title as the Earl of Dartmouth.  North and Dartmouth grew up together as step-brothers, attending the best schools.

In 1756 North won election to the House of Commons. After supporting the Newcastle ministry against an opposition attempt to mandate annual Parliamentary elections, North landed a position on the Board of Treasury.  He continued in that role, even after Newcastle left office and through the Bute and Grenville ministries.  When Rockingham came to power, he asked North to remain.  North’s family, character, and financial abilities, as well as close ties to the King made him a valuable asset to each of these ministries.

North, though, decided to resign when Rockingham came to power.  When Pitt became Prime Minister a year later, North came back as Joint Paymaster-General.  In December 1766 North received an appointment to the Privy Council.  By early 1767, he began to attend Cabinet meetings.  When Charles Townshend died suddenly in September, North’s background made him an ideal candidate to be the new Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Although North considered himself a Whig, he was not an outspoken partisan, nor did he ally himself with the most radical factions of the Whig party.  That was probably how he managed to remain working in the ministries of such widely divergent Prime Ministers.  North was an establishment guy with friends across the political spectrum.  He could be outspoken when he wanted to, but as a member of various ministries, he focused more on running government than on controversial policies.  He had served as the voice of the Government during the 1763 attempt to prosecute John Wilkes for sedition.  North led the effort to expel Wilkes from the House.  He also voted for the Stamp Act in 1765.

So as a moderate Whig with Tory leanings, North could get along well with both sides of the establishment.  Most importantly, he earned the trust and respect of the King.  Eager to get British debt under control, and not terribly obsessed with colonial sensibilities, North, fit well as a good replacement for Townshend.

Earl of Hillsborough

Another big change that took place at this time was a new division in how the ministry handled foreign affairs.  At the time, there were two Secretaries of State.  The Secretary of State for the Southern Department was responsible for relations with Southern Europe, that meant all the Catholic countries like France and Spain, that typically went to war with Britain.  The Secretary for the Southern Department tended to be the more experienced and senior secretary.  Newcastle, and Pitt, among others, had held this position in the past.  The Secretary of State for the Northern Department dealt with Northern Europe, that is Britain’s traditional allies, including the Netherlands and the German States.

Under this organizational structure, the Secretary of State for the Southern Department typically handled any issues related to the North American colonies.  Typically most colonial issues would be resolved by the Privy Council.  The Secretary of State would give the colonies little attention.

Earl of Hillsborough
(From Wikipedia)
Pitt was still technically Prime Minister in 1768, but his continuing illness left Grafton in charge.  With the ministry growing more hostile to the colonies, the current Secretary of State for the Southern Department, was seen as too willing to make concessions with the colonies to keep the peace.  Grafton wanted a firmer hand.

Rather than replace his Secretary of State who was doing just fine handling southern Europe, Grafton decided to create a third Secretary of State, for Colonial Affairs.  The colonies were going to need more attention.  Having a secretary focused on just colonial affairs made sense.

Grafton selected Wills Hill, the Earl of Hillsborough, to be his Secretary for Colonial Affairs.  In his fifties, Hillsborough was appreciably older than many of the thirty-somethings in the ministry at the time. His family held a small estate in England, but held huge tracts of land in Ireland.  Hillsborough was one of those absentee landlords that extracted a fortune from Ireland without spending much time there.

Hillsborough had inherited his father’s lands and titles in 1741.  About that same time, he was elected to the House of Commons.  His title at the time did not entitle him to a seat in the House of Lords, but the lands under his control gave him control over about nine seats in the Commons.  In the 1750’s he served on George the II’s Privy Council among other positions.  In 1756, he received a Peerage and a seat in the House of Lords.

Hillsborough tended to be more of a conservative, though he considered himself a Whig.  He was good friends, and ideologically close to George Grenville. When Grenville became Prime Minister in 1763, he appointed Hillsborough to head the Board of Trade, overseeing enforcement of the Sugar Act and Stamp Act.  Hillsborough left office when Rockingham replaced Grenville in 1765.  Later in life, he claimed he opposed the Stamp Act, but there is no evidence from that time that he spoke out against it.

In 1766, Pitt returned Hillsborough to his former position at the Board of Trade.  About a year later, he replaced North as Joint Paymaster-General, a position that paid pretty well, but did not require very much work or policy making.  In early 1768, acting Prime Minister Grafton tapped Hillsborough to be his first Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs.

It could be as a result of his upbringing, trying to control rebellious Irishmen on his lands, that Hillsborough thought that the uppity colonists needed a firm hand to keep them in line as well.  Hillsborough would be much more confrontational and assertive with the colonies than most of his predecessors.  We’ll get into that more later, but in hindsight, he was not the right man for the job at this point in time.  Hillsborough was not someone who favored peaceful negotiations with the colonies.  He came from the school of thought that held you operated from a position of power and forced your subjects to accept whatever policies you deemed appropriate.

The Vice Admiralty Court Act (1768)

As Grafton began to reorganize the Pitt Ministry to his own liking, he continued to build on the tough policies created by the Townshend Acts.

Some history books combine the Vice Admiralty Court Act in the list of laws that constitute the Townshend Acts.  However, it really was separate.  It was not even an act of Parliament.  Rather, it was what we today would call a regulation, passed by Lords Commissioners of His Majesty's Treasury.  Treasury created the regulation on July 8, 1768, more than a year after the other acts, and many months after Lord Townshend died in September 1767.  Still, because it was part of the overall enforcement of trade and customs with North America, it gets lumped in with the other Townshend Acts.  It was a continuation of the enforcement efforts set forth in the Townshend Acts that I discussed last week.

The Act ensured that royal naval courts had jurisdiction over all matters involving customs and smuggling.  Many of these cases were already being moved to the Admiralty Court in Halifax Canada.  Colonists had complained about this, in part because getting witnesses and parties to Canada was a burdensome process.  If there was a dispute in Charleston South Carolina, dragging everyone 1700 miles up to Halifax for a trial seemed a bit ridiculous.

Vice Admiralty Court
Still, the government was not going to turn over trials back to local juries.  They knew the colonists would never enforce the new laws.  Instead, the new Act created three new royal admiralty courts in Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston.  This allowed trials to take place closer to home, but also ensured many more of the cases would be tried in an admiralty court rather than local colonial courts.

London ignored colonists’ other objections to trials in admiralty courts.  The primary objection was the lack of juries.  Colonists considered that a fundamental right, while London found that local juries simply ignored laws and allowed smugglers to go free.  When officials in London passed laws which the colonies disliked, juror nullification, that is juries refusing to enforce such laws, was the only legal remedy that the colonies had.  Colonist saw this as a protection for their rights.  London saw it as an impediment to due process of the laws.

Even without juries, local courts had locally appointed judges who were part of the community. Admiralty judges were appointed in London.  Even worse, judges received 5% of any award when finding someone guilty, an incentive the might make judges biased against defendants.

Grafton expected this change would make customs enforcement speedier and more efficient.  Creating these new courts would allow British customs officials to seize more ships used for smuggling and bring in more revenues.

Pitt Officially Leaves Office

With Pitt out sick for most of 1767 and 1768, Grafton had slowly, perhaps even reluctantly, taken on the role of Prime Minister, even though Pitt retained the title.  I’ve seen some arguments that Pitt’s illness was exaggerated, that he was mostly staying away from London because his popularity suffered after the “great commoner” accepted a title to become Lord Chatham.  Others have argued that his isolation was more due to insanity than physical ailment.

Whatever the real reason, Pitt remained out of touch with most of his own government for well over a year.  During that time Grafton replaced many of Pitt’s appointees with his own, and began taking policy in a very different direction.  Finally, in October 1768, Pitt decided he should not retain a position that he was no longer performing and tendered his resignation to the King.  Grafton went from being acting Prime Minister, to actually Prime Minister.

Pitt would continue his self-imposed isolation for another couple of years, finally returning to the House of Lords in 1770.  Meanwhile Grafton would have to contend with enforcement of the Townshend Acts and other efforts to pay off British war debt.  The colonies would not make this easy for him.

Next Week: A Pennsylvania farmer writes some letters that finally galvanize colonial opposition to the Townshend Acts.

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Further Reading:

Web Sites

William Pitt Biography (includes a good summary of events in England in 1767-68):

Augustus Henry Fitzroy, 3rd Duke of Grafton (1735-1811):

Frederick North, 2nd Earl of Guilford (1732-1792):

Biography of Lord North:

Wills Hill 1st Marquess of Downshire (1719-1793) (Earl of Hillsborough):

Hillsborough Parliamentary Biography:

Vice Admiralty Courts and Writs of Assistance, by Bob Ruppert (JAR) (2015):

Clark, Dora Mae, "The American Board of Customs, 1767-1783" The American Historical Review
July, 1940, pp. 777-806 (free to read online with registration):

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Fitzgerald, Percy Charles Townshend, Wit and Statesman, London: R. Bentley, 1866.

Miller, Marion Mills (ed) Great Debates in American History, Vol. 1, New York: Current Literature Publishing Co. 1913.

Ward, AW, Prothero, G & Leathes, S (eds) Cambridge Modern History, Vol. 6, (18th Century Britain)  Cambridge: University Press 1902.

Wilkes, John. A letter to His Grace the Duke of Grafton, on the present situation of public affairs. London: J. Almond. 1768.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Archer, Richard As If an Enemy's Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution, Oxford: Oxford  Univserity Press 2010.

Knollenberg, Bernhard Growth of the American Revolution 1766-1775,  Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1975.

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, New York: Macmillan Co. 1943.

Smith, Page A New Age Now Begins, Vol. 1, New York: McGraw-Hill 1976.

Zobel, Hiller The Boston Massacre, New York: WW Norton & Co. 1970.

* (Book links to are for convenience.  They are not an endorsement of Amazon, nor does this site receive any compensation for any links).

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Episode 026: The Townshend Acts

Last week we discussed some of the various happenings in the colonies following the Stamp Act Repeal.  I want to begin this week by discussing a few of the changes in Britain, specifically the ongoing game of musical chairs in running the government.

The Return of Pitt

With his Stamp Act repeal in 1766, Prime Minister Rockingham seemed to have settled the crisis in the colonies, at least temporarily.  Even so, he could not form a stable long term government.  From the beginning, he had been a compromise appointment because William Pitt demanded too much autonomy as a condition of serving as Prime Minister.  Rockingham had picked some great men to work for him. He had even hired a young up and comer named Edmund Burke as his private secretary.  But his ministers were largely Pitt supporters.  Rockingham never got the loyalty he needed to maintain a government.

Marquess of Rockingham
(from Wikipedia)
Rockingham also owed his appointment to the Duke of Cumberland.  You may recall from Episode 009, the King’s uncle had been banished from politics by George II after his military defeat during the Seven Year’s war.  George III, however, who was still in his late 20’s, had relied on his uncle as an experienced advisor.  Cumberland had advocated Rockingham’s appointment.  When Cumberland died in October 1765, Rockingham lost a valuable supporter.

King George understood that Pitt was the major force in Parliament.  He had tried on numerous occasions to convince Pitt to form a government.  Pitt, however, had always put too many conditions on his appointment  Now finally, the King and Pitt were able to come to mutually agreeable terms.  Rockingham resigned in July 1766, allowing Pitt to form a new government.  Rockingham had served as Prime Minister for only one year, but would go back to being a vocal member of the House of Lords.

Despite essentially running the government during much of the Seven Years War, Pitt had never been Prime Minister before.  While he was conducting the war, Newcastle had retained that title.  Now Pitt was in both name and fact the Prime Minister.  He did not take on the role as First Lord of the Treasury, as prime ministers usually did.  Instead he became Lord Privy Seal.  This job required a title of nobility.  The King granted Pitt the title of the Earl of Chatham.  This also had the effect of removing the “Great Commoner” from the House of Commons into the House of Lords.

William Pitt, Lord Chatham
(from Wikimedia)
If I was going to be consistent, I’d start calling him “Chatham” from now on.  But Pitt will always be the “great commoner” to me.  I’m going to keep referring to him as Pitt.  Congratulations on the new title though!

Pitt’s rise to Prime Minister encouraged colonial leaders even more.  Pitt was part of that radical minority who believed that Parliament did not, as a matter of right, have authority to levy taxes on the American colonies.

With the Stamp Act repealed, Parliament on the defensive, and the most pro-colonial member of Parliament now running things, everything should be just fine going forward.  That, of course, is how this crisis ended, and Britain and her colonies lived in harmony for years to come.  Except if that really happened, there would not have been a revolution and we would not have this podcast.

Pitt Ministry

Alas, the Pitt ministry would not be sunshine and lollipops for the colonies.  Despite his experience and demands for autonomy, Pitt did not seem to be able to control his own administration.  He had been ill for many years on and off.  He spent much of his tenure as Prime Minister, lying in his sick bed. He relied on his ministers to run the government.  Clearly Pitt knew about the laws being proposed.  In correspondence he appears to approve, or at least not object to the proposals of his ministers.  But given his physical condition at the time, it is unclear how engaged he really was.

Townshend Acts

The bad guy in the Administration was Lord of the Exchequer, Charles Townshend. Townshend did not share Pitt’s views of colonial rights. He was determined to exert Parliamentary control over the colonies.  As a member of Pitt’s Administration, Townshend passed a series of laws in June 1767 that became known collectively as the Townshend Acts.

Charles Townshend
(from Wikipedia)
By all accounts, Townshend was a likeable guy.  He was the younger brother of George Townshend, one of the Generals I mentioned back in Episode 013 at the Battle of Quebec.  Brother George was also sitting in the House of Lords now.  Charles enjoyed a good party.   He once gave a speech to Parliament while obviously drunk, earning him the nickname “Champagne Charlie.”  Despite enjoying good drink, Townshend buckled down in his new job, which included trying the balance the budget.

As always, Parliament remained concerned over costs.  Forget about past war debts.  The current military presence in North America was now costing Britain upwards of £400,000 per year.  Revenue from existing tariffs were only providing token amounts toward these costs.  Opposition members like former Prime Minister Grenville were happy to poke the Administration which was now responsible for solving such problems.  Pitt was always griping about the liberties of the colonists.  Let him find a way to raise the money now that he is in charge.

Townshend knew he was not going to balance the books now, or even within a few years.  But he was determined to increase revenues from the colonies.  He also tried to implement policies that would compel future obedience to the law.

Public opinion in England was changing as well.  A series of newspaper articles had compared tax burdens in England to those in the colonies, showing people in England suffered under much higher taxes.  There also remained the tiff between London merchants and the colonists who refused to express gratitude for help repealing the Stamp Act.  The English people were beginning to decide that the colonists were just too full of themselves and did not appreciate what they had.

The British people were also in a strong anti-tax mood.  The Bute Ministry had implemented the  hated Cider Tax in 1763 to help pay off war debt.  The tax, in part, led to his resignation and the end of his ministry.  His successor Lord Grenville, had maintained the hated tax, as did Rockingham.  As much as the British people hated the tax, it was bringing in much needed revenue.  Pitt, however, who had made much of his career railing against the tax, finally repealed it.

On top of that, Parliament reduced the land tax from 4 shillings to three shillings.  Townshend had opposed this reduction, or at least hoped to put it off for a year so that the government could get the much needed revenue.  But his predecessor who sat in Parliament, proposed the reduction.  The popular bill passed both houses despite the Ministry’s concerns.  Again, you might ask why Townshend’s predecessor did not see a reduction while he was in charge.  The truth is, that everyone knew the government needed the revenue to pay off debt.  The popular tax reduction was just another way for the opposition to screw the ministry and make it harder for them to balance the books.

So with all this going on, Townshend had to find a way to start bringing in more money.  Since more local taxes seemed politically impossible, the obvious answer seemed to be to find a way to squeeze more money out of the colonies.

In the of spring 1767 the government began a new attempt to extract more revenue and compel the compliance of the colonies.  That summer a series of bills that we call the Townshend Acts became law.

There is some debate over which Acts should be included in the group known as the Townshend Acts.  The first Act I will discuss was passed a couple of weeks before the three main laws, and does not have anything to do with revenue.  Still, it came over to the colonies at the same time as the other Acts and contributed to the colonies’ tension with England, so I’ll discuss it along with the rest.

The New York Restraining Act of 1767

On June 15, 1767, Parliament passed the New York Restraining Act to punish the NY Assembly for its refusal to obey the Quartering Act and pay for the quartering of troops as I discussed last week.  The law essentially said all laws passed by the NY Assembly after October 1, 1767 would be null and void until the Assembly provided adequate funding for the troops stationed in its colony.

NY Restraining Act 1767
(from Manhattan Rare Book Co.)
This was not a battle, however, that New York was prepared to fight.  Before Parliament even passed the bill, New York received news that some retaliatory action was coming.  It acted quickly to pass a bill on June 6th which allocated £3000 for the soldiers.  Parliament, unaware of this, passed the Act anyway.  Once officials received word of New York’s action, they deemed this amount sufficient to comply with the Quartering Act.  The suspension of legislative powers in the colony never took effect.

Still, when word reached the colonies that Parliament had essentially suspended the NY legislature because of its refusal to comply with Parliament, colonists went on alert that their powers of self-government were being threatened once again.

The Revenue Act of 1767

Townshend’s main goal that year was not just getting colonies to pay for soldiers.  He wanted to collect some money.  He was smart enough to avoid any direct internal taxes on the colonies.  All of Pitt’s earlier speeches about how that was contrary to the rights of Englishmen made that a non-starter.

With that in mind, Townshend introduced the Revenue Act.  Parliament passed this Act on June 29, just two weeks after the NY Restraining Act.

This is the main legislation, sometimes called the Townshend Act.  It would create or increase tariff duties on a wide range of items, including paper, paint, lead, glass, and tea.  Money would be collected through tariff duties, not internal taxes, so nobody gets upset, right?

During debate on the bill, Townshend estimated that the tea tax alone would raise around £20,000 per year, and the other duties combined would raise around £17,000.  Even if it raised promised revenues, it would not cover even 10% of the military costs in the colonies.  By this time though, Townshend decided that the revenue would not be used to cover military costs at all.

Instead, the new law allocated revenue from these new duties to pay the salaries of colonial governors and judges. This amounted to a form of tax relief since the colonial legislatures would not have to pay those costs themselves anymore.  But colonial legislatures understood that losing control of that pay responsibility meant losing power.  Even though legislatures had been obligated to pay the salaries of their appointed governors, they could at times withhold pay for a short time in order to push a governor on certain issues.  If the English government paid colonial governors and judges, they would be more likely to be biased in favor of the crown and Parliament rather than local officials.

Even if the colonists could swallow those “external taxes” The Act created additional controversy by requiring courts to issue use of writs of assistance to customs officials.  These were general search warrants that permitted customs officials to search homes and businesses for smuggled goods without specific evidence of a crime - you know, the same ones that James Otis has been screaming about as a violation of fundamental rights for years.

The Indemnity Act (1767) 

Along with the Revenue Act, Parliament passed the Indemnity Act on the same day. Parliament’s goal with this law was to help the East India Company, which had a legal monopoly on all tea trade within the British Empire.  I will discuss the East India Company in more detail in a future episode.  For now, I’ll just say that the Company was a major cash cow for the government and was in financial trouble.

Now I've been trying to make sense of this law, and it seems that historians disagree on its effect exactly.  I’ll try to spell it out, with the warning that I may have misunderstood some of this.

Before this Act, all tea from Asia had to be shipped to London.  There it was subject to a 25% tax as an import.  Next, the tea was stored in a warehouse to be sold at auction, where the government extracted another 25% duty.  Then, it taxed 1 shilling per pound of tea.  So more than 50% of the cost of a cup of tea in Britain was government taxes.

Tea headed to the colonies, first had to land in Britain and pay the 25% duty, but they avoided the inland duty as well as the 1 shilling per pound tax.  Even with the reduced taxes, the vast majority of the tea imported into the colonies came illegally from the Netherlands.  Incidentally, smuggled Dutch tea also made up a large amount of tea consumed in England.  It was just so much cheaper without all these taxes.  That was one reason the East India Company was in financial trouble.

The 1767 Revenue Act created a new three pence per pound tax on tea imported into the colonies.  However, the Indemnity Act was designed to make tea cheaper overall.  The East India Company was losing money.  The Company was an important source of revenue for the government and needed to remain solvent.  The Act eliminated the 25% inland tax in Britain, making the price much more competitive there.  It also refunded part of the 25% customs paid on tea that was shipped from Britain to the colonies, meaning colonists would pay substantially less than they had been paying.  The cost of tea in America would be about half the price of tea in England.

Part of the Indemnity Act guaranteed that the amount of revenue the government received would not fall below current levels, so the Company had to pay additional taxes on any shortfalls.  But the idea was that lower prices would greatly increase consumption and therefore the Company’s profits.

East India House,
Headquarters of East India Company
(from Wikipedia)
So in theory everybody won from this deal.  The total price of tea in both Britain and the colonies got cheaper.  The East India Company sold more tea and made more profits, and the British government got a guarantee that tea revenues would not decrease.  The only losers were the Dutch traders and the folks who smuggled Dutch tea.

Under other circumstances, the colonies probably would have welcomed the change.  But they complained anyway.  The big issue was that merchant vessels would pay the three pence tax in the colonial ports, rather than being added into the price after collection in Britain.  Colonists could see the amount extracted from them.  The law also threatened to cut into the highly profitable business of smuggling Dutch tea.  Smuggling was becoming riskier and the tea had to compete with cheaper tea from England. That meant less profits for colonial merchants involved in smuggling Dutch tea.

The Commissioner of Customs Act (1767)

The Commissioner of Customs Act also passed Parliament on the same day as the Revenue Act and the Indemnity Act.  It created a new Customs Commission, headquartered in Boston, with offices to be opened in all major North American ports.

Prior to this, the main Commission in London handled all customs enforcement. Creating a separate Commission to focus just on North America, with increased funds for enforcement, would ensure that trade laws were enforced and customs duties collected.  Customs officials would be held accountable specifically for the American revenues.  It also required more officials be present in America to ensure proper enforcement.

Essentially, this was another step that Parliament took to show it was serious about customs enforcement.  It also meant that customs commissioners and the colonial mobs would be face to face for the first time.


The Townshend Acts always seemed rather passive aggressive to me.  They technically addressed concerns about only implementing external duties rather than internal taxes.  But beyond that, they seemed to do everything possible to annoy the colonists.  The Acts specifically said they were for raising revenue, not regulating trade.  They introduced general warrants and juryless trials.  They needlessly put tax collectors right in front of the colonists and practically dared them to do something about it.

British merchants, now annoyed by the colonists who were seen more and more as unappreciative free riders, seemed to support the new laws.  Benjamin Franklin, colonial agent not only for Pennsylvania, but also Georgia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, assured Townshend and other members of Parliament that as long as they stuck to tariffs and did not try to levy internal taxes, the colonies would accept them.  He essentially gave his seal of approval to the new laws.  No other colonial agents seemed to raise any objections either.

The Acts sailed through Parliament with almost no opposition.  They would take effect on Nov. 20, 1767.

Surprisingly, former Prime Minister George Grenville, seemed to have a better grasp on colonial sentiments than did Franklin.  Now, a regular member of Parliament, Grenville spoke out against the Townshend Acts.  He told Townshend that the colonists “will laugh at you for your distinctions about regulation of trade” and that import tariffs would harm British merchants as the colonies moved to manufacture more goods locally.  Grenville wanted a more aggressive policy that would not tiptoe around colonial tax sensitivities.  He wanted a showdown.  Grenville though, was in the minority now. Townshend’s approach won the approval of Parliament and the Acts went forward as proposed.

With the Townshend Acts, Parliament was calling the colonies’ bluff.  The Stamp Act protests had essentially argued that internal taxes, like the Stamp tax, were unconstitutional.  At the same time, the colonies had generally conceded that trade tariffs were permissible.  Yes, there were a few radicals like James Otis who objected even to tariffs, but even in the colonies only a tiny fringe minority held that view.  Parliament had maintained such tariffs on the books for decades, even if they were not very well enforced.

Next Week, the British government undergoes more personnel changes while colonists try to decide how to respond to these new tariffs.

Visit the American Revolution Podcast (

Further Reading:

Web Sites

The New York Restraining Act, explanation and full text:

Revenue Act of 1767 (Townshend Act) full text:

William Pitt Biography (includes a good summary of events in England in 1767-68):

Clark, Dora Mae, "The American Board of Customs, 1767-1783" The American Historical Review
July, 1940, pp. 777-806 (free to read online with registration):

More information on the history of the tea trade:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Cushing, Harry (ed) The Writings of Samuel Adams, Vol. 1, New York GP Putnam's Sons 1904).

Farrand, Max "The Taxation of Tea, 1767-1773," The American Historical Review Jan., 1898, pp. 266-269.

Fitzgerald, Percy Charles Townshend, Wit and Statesman, London: R. Bentley, 1866.

Hosmer, James Samuel Adams, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co. 1913.

Hutchinson, Thomas & Hutchinson, John (ed) The History of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, from 1749 to 1774,  London: John Murray 1828 (This book was edited and published using Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s personal papers.  The editor was his grandson).

Hutchinson, Thomas & Hutchinson, Peter Orlando (ed) The Diary and Letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co. 1884 (Editor is Thomas Hutchinson’s great-grandson).

Miller, Marion Mills (ed) Great Debates in American History, Vol. 1, New York: Current Literature Publishing Co. 1913.

Ridpath, John Clark James Otis, the Pre-revolutionist, Chicago: The University Assn. 1898.

Tudor, William The Life of James Otis, of Massachusetts, Boston: Wells and Lilly 1823.

Ward, AW, Prothero, G & Leathes, S (eds) Cambridge Modern History, Vol. 6, (18th Century Britain)  Cambridge: University Press 1902.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Archer, Richard As If an Enemy's Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution, Oxford: Oxford  Univserity Press 2010.

Keay, John The Honourable Company: A History of the East India Company, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. 1991.

Knollenberg, Bernhard Growth of the American Revolution 1766-1775,  Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1975.

Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, New York: Macmillan Co. 1943.

Smith, Page A New Age Now Begins, Vol. 1, New York: McGraw-Hill 1976.

Sutherland, Lucy The East India Company in 18th Century Politics, 1952.

Zobel, Hiller The Boston Massacre, New York: WW Norton & Co. 1970.

* (Book links to are for convenience.  They are not an endorsement of Amazon, nor does this site receive any compensation for any links).

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Episode 025: Tensions Simmer

In last week’s episode, we left off as the colonies celebrated the repeal of the hated Stamp Act.  Colonists now viewed Parliament with suspicion though.  Today we look at a variety colonial events that continued to push apart Britain from her colonies.

Declaratory Act Debated

The Declaratory Act put colonists on notice that Parliament did not accept colonial arguments over its tax authority.

Declaratory Act
(from Revolutionary War
& Beyond)
Colonists argued over the possible threat it implied.  Parliament had taken the language of the Declaratory Act from a 1719 Act applied to Ireland.  In the intervening years, Parliament had not attempted to levy taxes against Ireland.  Indeed, it would not do so until 1801 when an Act of Union made Ireland part of Britain and gave the Irish representation in Parliament.  Based on the Irish precedent, many colonists decided it meant Parliament would not try to levy another direct tax.

Colonies Still Not Happy

The Declaratory Act would remain a festering sore between the colonies and England, and it was only one of many indications that the colonies were moving farther from the ideological mainstream in England.  A good example of this divide is a letter sent from London merchants to the colonists in February 1765.  This was right about the time when the Stamp Act repeal debates were coming to an end and the repeal was making its way through Parliament.

George Mason
(from Stratford Museum)
The London merchants who authored the letter had been fighting for the Stamp Act repeal so that trade would return to normal. They announced the successful repeal, but warned colonists that any further attempts to challenge Parliamentary authority might force another unpleasant confrontation.  They advised responding to the repeal with “duty, submission, and gratitude.” They sent the public letter to New York merchants.  But as was common, newspapers all across the colonies republished it.

In Virginia, George Mason famously responded to this letter with a public letter of his own. He attacked the tone of the Merchants’ letter. He said it conveyed the typical English attitude that colonists were misbehaving children who needed better manners.  He scoffed at the idea that colonists should be grateful for having to fight for their basic rights as free men.  He went on to point out that Parliament repealed the law, not because they wanted to be nice to the colonies, but because it was in their direct financial interest.  The law killed profitable trade between England and the colonies.  Mason sent the letter to be published in London newspapers.  It made clear that the colonies were in no mood for quiet compromise or conciliation.

The Robinson Scandal

Around this same time, an unexpected event in Virginia only made things worse for the colonial economies.  A scandal resulted in a cash crunch, which only created further divisions.

I already discussed the Wheelwright Affair back in Episode 21.  Elias Wheelwright fled Boston owing hundreds of thousands of pounds to people all over New England.  This one man created a sudden and massive cash crunch in New England in 1765.  A year later, a new crisis caused a similar effect in Virginia.

John Robinson
(from Library of Virginia)
One of the most powerful men in Virginia, John Robinson, who was speaker of the House of Burgesses, Secretary of the Province, and Colonial Treasurer, died in May 1766.  I’ve neglected to mention him so far, but he was a controlling figure in the colony, often more so than the colonial governors who came and went.

Like most powerful men, he had political enemies.  Two members of the House of Burgesses were among his most vocal adversaries.  Richard Henry Lee, had luckily been rejected for Stamp Act Commissioner of Virginia.  This allowed him to become a colonial leader in opposition to the Act.  Patrick Henry, who along with Lee, had successfully opposed Robinson’s 1764 attempt to create a government financed slush fund from which planters could borrow on favorable terms.  Both men distrusted Robinson’s control of colonial finances but did not mount a direct challenge while he lived.

On Robinson’s death, Lee and Henry demanded an audit of his accounts as colonial treasurer.  They suspected that he had commingled government and private funds.  The audit proved them right.  Robinson had embezzled hundreds of thousands of pounds from the government.  Remember all that paper money that Virginia had issued over the previous decade to pay for the French and Indian War?  When that money was repaid in taxes, it was supposed to be taken out of circulation and destroyed.  Apparently, Robinson thought it a shame to burn all that cash and instead decided to take it home.  He used most of it as a private slush fund to provide personal loans to most of the wealthiest, prominent, and politically connected families in the colony.  He had lent money totaling over £130,000.

These loans had helped the wealthy planters get through the difficult years and had offset the harmful effects of the Currency Act of 1764 that I discussed back in Episode 20.  Now, however, Robinson’s estate had to pay that money back to the colony, which meant the planters had to repay their loans to the estate.  Once repaid, all that money could finally be burned. This created a major cash shortage in the colony.  Many wealthy planters had to demand repayment of loans that they made to others in order to repay their loans to Robinson’s estate.  Others had to sell land or other property in a poor market to raise money, leading to financial ruin.  It would take 25 years to settle Robinson’s estate and clean up the financial mess he had created.

More importantly though, the incident tore apart the good old boys’ club that had been the House of Burgesses.  Generally, the rich planter politicians had tried to work together through disputes and keep scandals out of the public eye.  The Robinson Scandal created deep hostile divisions between the members.  Lee’s enemies, for example, released his application to become Stamp Act Commissioner, thus tarnishing his reputation as a Stamp Act opponent.  The affair further destroyed the reputation of the elites among the middle and lower class Virginians, meaning they would be much less deferential in coming years.  The working class who had been suffering through the poor economy were not happy to find out the rich planters were using an illegal slush fund to avoid the same suffering.

Of course, all the suffering from the currency shortage reminded everyone why they were mad at Parliament for passing the Currency Act two years earlier.

The Free Port Act of 1766

Back in London, Parliament was still messing around with trade laws.  A few months after the Stamp Act Repeal, Rockingham’s ministry led Parliamentary passage of the Free Port Act of 1766 and a few related bills, making changes to colonial trade laws. Although Parliament passed several bills with different names related to trade that summer, I’m going to refer to all of them under this one name just to keep things simple.

The Free Port Act set up two free ports in the British West Indies (the Caribbean) where colonial French, Spanish or other islands could trade goods, particularly molasses.  This might have done wonders for ending American sugar smuggling.  Foreign producers could bring their supplies into the two free ports on Domenica.  Then, American merchants could buy what they needed legally.  With the duty now at a reasonable rate, there would be no need to smuggle.  One big problem though - any foreign goods sold at the free ports from foreign colonies, had to go from there to Britain.  Colonists could not buy sugar to take directly back to New England.  This Act was not about improving American trade.  It was about making it more advantageous for French sugar islands to trade with England rather than the American colonies.

Parliament also reduced the duty of threepence per gallon on molasses to one penny.  But since most of this trade had to go through London, the increased shipping costs were far worse than the duties.  Therefore, the tax cut did nothing to reduce smuggling.

Other clauses further restricted trade or attempted to shut down incentives for smuggling.  However, they also made small shipping nearly impossible.  Any ship carrying any cargo had to furnish a bond of at least £1000 (more for larger ships) promising not to land the goods in Europe or Ireland.  This was onerous enough for wealthier merchants in cities with larger ports.  For smaller shippers it was a ridiculous burden.  There were no exceptions for ships staying within a colony or of any minimum size.  In theory, if not practice, the law could apply to traders bringing trade goods down a river in a canoe.  The notion that they were supposed to find a customs agent before starting their trip and post a £1000 bond seems absurd.  Given the difficulties of overland transport, the new rules made legal trade among small local transports virtually impossible.

In short, these laws which were sold to the colonists as an attempt to relieve their trade problems, only made things worse.  These were not violations of fundamental colonial rights, but they did remind colonists that Britain would always keep them at a disadvantage.

Forsey v Cunningham

Turning now to New York, a court case also contributed to colonial grumbling. In 1763, a debt collector named Cunningham tried to collect a £150 debt owed by a man named Forsey.  During the course of discussions, which apparently got rather testy, Cunningham drew his sword and ran through Forsey.  Forsey lived and Cunningham was convicted of assault.  After he recovered, Forsey sued Cunningham for his damages and received a jury award of £1500 (about $350,000 in inflation adjusted dollars) in October 1764.

Forsey v. Cunningham
(from Hist. Soc. NY Courts)
To many, the award seemed far too high, the result of jury bias against debt collectors.  Forsey appealed to New York Lt. Gov. Colden, who was at the time acting Governor.  Colden demanded the judges appear before him and explain why they would did not overrule such an outrageous judgment.  The judges met with Coldon but refused to alter their opinions.  The debate raged throughout 1765 as both sides appealed to officials in London to resolve the issue.  Eventually the English Attorney General and Solicitor General upheld the verdict based on the defendant’s failure to seek a writ of error.  This resolution did not arrive until early 1766.

So for more than a year, colonists saw this ongoing battle as an attempt to subvert jury trials and allow crown appointed governors to have the final say in court cases.  It was another example for the colonists of how hard they had to fight just to keep their basic rights.

The Malcom Affair

Moving up to Boston now, I want to talk about a relatively minor incident, that is interesting because it is an example of similar incidents happening regularly, and why officials got so frustrated in their attempts to enforce customs laws.

In September 1766, custom officials received a tip that Captain Daniel Malcom, a merchant trader, had untaxed wine in his Boston home.  As was common practice, Malcom had a large storage area in his home for storing commercial goods.

Customs Commissioner Benjamin Hallowell along with two customs agents and a deputy arrived to search Malcom’s property early in the morning.  He allowed them to search most of the storage areas, but refused to provide access to a locked cellar, saying he had rented that space to another person and did not have authority, or a key to open the door.  When they threatened to break down the door, Malcom, armed with two pistols and a sword made some threats of his own.

After a tense standoff, the authorities left to gather reinforcements.  They got the Sheriff and also notified the Governor about what was happening.  They also decided to go to court and apply for a regular search warrant.  They already had a general warrant, but as I’ve mentioned before, many considered those to be a violation of their rights.

Officials caught up with Malcom in a public place on King Street, and tried to convince him to allow the search.  Malcom told them that the only way they were getting in was to break in, after which he would sue them for unlawful entry.

That afternoon the Sheriff and four others went back to Malcom’s house, only to find it locked up tight.  As they tried to gain entry, a crowd of onlookers started to gather. The Sheriff saw the beginnings of a mob.  A tense standoff lasted for hours as the Sheriff tried to convince onlookers to join him in a posse.  No one would do so unless he named the informer who claimed there were untaxed goods in the house.  Of course, naming an informer probably would have resulted in him getting a new suit made of tar and feathers.  That was not going to happen.

Finally, after dark, the sheriff and customs officials decided to leave.  Malcom then produced the wine so that the mob could dispose of the evidence in the most enjoyable way.

The reason this particular case of many gets attention is that Gov. Bernard thought that James Otis was behind the event.  It seems that Otis was looking for a test case to challenge the validity of general warrants.  Capt. Malcom was a prominent member of the militia and a friend of Otis.

Bernard took multiple depositions the following day to document the incident for London.  He was trying to make a case for bringing more soldiers to Massachusetts to enforce the law.  Otis then, on behalf of the legislature, demanded Bernard make his documents on the incident available for review.  The legislature sent its own version of events to its agent in London in case the issue arose there.

So although this incident is well documented, it is only one example of a large number of cases where mobs regularly continued to thwart customs officials trying to enforce the law.

Quartering Act Disputes

The Quartering Act also continued to remain a sore spot for the colonies.  Although passed along with the Stamp Act back in 1765, I have not given it much attention up until now because it had not been something the Colonists had complained about nearly as much as the Stamp Act.  Prime Minister Grenville had wisely rejected Gen. Gage’s proposal to allow him to house soldiers in private homes.  The Act merely provided that colonies provide some reasonable housing for soldiers and pay for their needs, such as firewood and candles.

There weren’t that many soldiers stationed in the colonies, so it just wasn’t that much of an issue.  The bulk of British forces remained in Canada after the Seven Years War.  There were small garrisons of no more than a few dozen soldiers at some western forts.  Beyond that, there were a few companies in Georgia and in New York.  None of these seemed to raise much controversy.

Even before the 1765 Act, colonies regularly contributed money for housing soldiers.  Most colonies wanted troops available in case of an Indian attack or slave uprising.  The minimal amount of funds needed to provide housing was generally considered worth it.

During the winter of 1765-1766 though, the mood was much different.  Following the Stamp Act riots, Gen. Gage decided to move several battalions of soldiers from Canada to be stationed in New York City, Philadelphia, and Charleston, all major port cities.  Their purpose clearly was to keep the colonists in line.  Gage would have to move the soldiers through New York.  He demanded the newly arrived NY Gov. Henry Moore supply his troops with housing and supplies as they traveled through NY, pursuant to the Quartering Act.

Gen. Thomas Gage
(from Wikimedia)
Moore, of course, had to go to the Assembly for funds.  They were in no mood to cooperate while still fighting with England over the Stamp Act.  The Assembly refused any funds, arguing that they already paid for the garrisons in Albany and New York City.  They would only reimburse expenses after the fact.  Gage and Moore tried to force the issue, and sent letters back to London regarding New York’s refusal to comply.  The Governor eventually came up with about £400 of money that had been allocated years earlier to fund the troops.

At the same time, New York was in the middle of a land dispute.  Settlers from Connecticut and Massachusetts were crossing into lands long claimed by New York in the Hudson River Valley.  Squatters were setting up farms on land owned by prominent New Yorkers, many of whom sat in the Assembly.  The squatters formed militias to block any attempts to force them off the land or pay rent.  They also threatened to destroy the homes of New York landlords who attempted to enforce their property claims.

Gage seems to have taken some satisfaction in seeing the NY landowners face these squatters.  Many of these wealthy men were Sons of Liberty and who had supported the Stamp Act mobs.  Now those mobs were attacking them and they needed his help.  Even so, when Gov. Moore asked Gage to restore order in the area, he deployed two regiments of regulars to burn the homes of the squatters, and arrest any settlers or militia who resisted.

The New England squatters gave some resistance, with several regulars shot and at least one killed.  However by the end of the summer 1766, New York once again controlled the region.

New Englanders, of course were outraged by the pillaging of the regulars against their farms, but ended up pulling out of the area.  Their account of Gage’s actions reached London first, resulting in Gage receiving a reprimand for involving the army in inter-colonial land disputes.  But at least he had shown New Yorkers the value of an army to keep order and protect property rights.

In the midst of all this, the Assembly obliged Gage by authorizing a barracks bill in June 1766.  It  directed £3000 for the troops.  However, the money came from funds already allocated in earlier years and did not cover all the expenses.  Moore debated vetoing the bill since it really only limited the use of money he already had discretion to spend as he wished.

But in the end Gage urged him to sign it, figuring some funds were better than continued fighting.  Both Gage and Moore wrote back to London about New York’s refusal to obey the requirements of the Quartering Act.  Gage had particular reason to be outraged.  He had just used the army to protect New York property rights in an action that got him in trouble with his superiors, and the ungrateful New Yorkers would not even pay the reasonable housing expenses for the soldiers protecting their property.

In December 1766, the Assembly needed to allocate additional funds.  They simply refused to do so.  The year ended with New York simply refusing to obey the terms of the Quartering Act.

Next Week: Parliament pokes the colonies in the eye once again with passage of the Townshend Acts.

Visit the American Revolution Podcast (

Further Reading:

Web Sites

Open letter from London merchants about repeal of the Stamp Act (1766):

George Mason’s response to London merchants about the repeal of the Stamp Act (1766):

Richard Henry Lee,

Patrick Henry,

More on the case of Forsey v. Cunningham:

Appeals to Privy Council in Forsey v. Cunningham:

New York land dispute:

Free Books
(from unless noted)

Considerations on the Propriety of Imposing Taxes in the British Colonies, for the Purpose of Raising a Revenue, by Act of Parliament, Daniel Dulany (1765)

Colden Letter Books vol. 1, & vol 2, by Cadwallader Colden (1877) (collected correspondence of NY Gov. Cadwallader Colden).

The History of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, from 1749 to 1774, by Thomas Hutchinson, John Hutchinson (ed) (1828) (This book was edited and published in London using Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s personal papers.  The editor was his grandson).

The Diary and Letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, by Thomas Hutchinson, Peter Orlando Hutchinson (ed) (1884) (Editor is Thomas Hutchinson’s great-grandson).

Great Debates in American History, Vol. 1, Marion Mills Miller (ed) (1913).

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766, by Fred Anderson (2000).

As If an Enemy's Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution, by Richard Archer (2010).

The Colonial Experience, by David Hawke (1966).

Empire of Fortune, by Francis Jennings (1988).

Growth of the American Revolution 1766-1775, Bernhard Knollenberg (1975).

Origins of the American Revolution, by John Miller (1943).

In a Rebellious Spirit: The Argument of Facts, the Liberty Riot, and the Coming of the American Revolution, by John Phillip Reid (1979).

A New Age Now Begins, Vol. I, by Page Smith (1976).

The Boston Massacre, by Hiller Zobel (1970).

* (Book links to are for convenience.  They are not an endorsement of Amazon, nor does this site receive any compensation for any links).

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Episode 024: Stamp Act Repeal and Declaratory Act.

Grenville Leaves Office

Before word of colonial resistance to the Stamp Act even made it back to London, King George removed Prime Minister Grenville from office.  The change of leadership had nothing to do with the colonies.  The King never really liked nor trusted Grenville.  He gave Grenville the job because had not been able to find anyone better to take it.  Although Lord Bute had been forced from office, the King still relied on him for advice.  This drove Grenville nuts.  It was a major source of tension between him and the King.

In 1765, shortly after passage of the Stamp and Quartering Acts, Grenville turned his attention to the Minority Heir to the Crown Act. The King had no objection to the law itself.  King George had young children.  If he died before they reached adulthood, the Act permitted the Queen, or someone else of the King’s choosing, to act as regent.  It was a simple way to prevent any questions about who controlled the government in the event the country ended up with let’s say a seven year old King.  Parliament had passed a similar law when George III was still a minor and, after the death of his father, became the immediate heir to George II.

Augusta of Saxe-Gotha,
King George III's mother
(from Wikimedia)
The problem was how the law was passed. Lawmakers fought over whether the King’s mother was eligible to select a regent.  She was German, had never been Queen, and had never been formally naturalized by Parliament.  The House of Lords removed her from the eligibility list.  There is some evidence that Grenville himself supported exclusion of the King’s mother.  She was allegedly the mistress of his political enemy, Lord Bute.  So giving her a say over the new regent would give Bute power.  Bute might even become the Regent.

The whole affair deeply upset the King’s mother.  The King had to use his influence in the House of Commons to get his mother added back into the law.  Following that, the King decided that Grenville’s role, which was at best public bumbling over whether or not the King of England’s mother was English, was as good a reason as any to demand a new government.

Enter Rockingham

The King gave Grenville the boot in July 1765, sending him back to being an ordinary member in the House of Commons.  The King again considered William Pitt for Prime Minister, but Pitt once again made too many demands.  Eventually the King settled on Charles Watson-Wentworth, the 2nd marquess of Rockingham (we’ll just call him “Rockingham”).  At age 35, Rockingham was rather young to be leading a government, though still eight years older than the King.  He was an wealthy and established member of the nobility.  He had served in the House of Lords since age 22 and was a political protege of Lord Newcastle.  When Rockingham became Prime Minister, Newcastle, now 73 years old, would serve as Lord Privy Seal in the new administration.

Although Rockingham took office in July 1765, Parliament would not meet again until the end of the year and would not begin new business until January 1766. This delay gave London time to learn about and absorb the resistance in the colonies to the Stamp Act.

Colonies Defy Stamp Act

Back in the colonies, the mobs had prevented any tax distributors from taking office.  They had also either destroyed all the stamped paper, or forced it to be kept locked away where it could not be distributed.  Either way, when November 1, 1765 came, local officials were unsure how to proceed.

Marquess of Rockingham
(from Wikimedia)
Newspapers, for the most part, continued to publish without stamped paper, though a few publishers took their names and addresses off of the masthead, in hopes of making it more difficult to prosecute them.  In some cases, publishers had to be persuaded to publish under threat of having their homes or offices destroyed by mobs.  The Sons of Liberty demanded they continue to to publish on unstamped paper.  It’s the only occasion I know of where mobs were threatening a newspaper publisher for NOT publishing.

This is not to say that the Sons of Liberty necessarily wanted a FREE press.  One publisher in North Carolina, after succumbing to pressure to publish, permitted readers to submit letters for publication.  Amidst numerous letters in opposition the the Stamp Act, he published a single letter from a reader who supported Parliamentary authority.  For this infraction, he received various threats, and two weeks later saw the colonial government, backed by the Sons of Liberty, close his press for printing a letter that they considered unacceptable.

Merchant vessels found themselves in a more difficult situation.  Ships could not be cleared to leave port without stamped documents, which were not available.  Customs officials refused to clear any ships to leave harbor at all, meaning trade came to a standstill and out of work sailors roamed the city getting into trouble.  Some colonies realized the futility of this within days and began resumption of trade without stamped documents.  They reasoned that because England had failed to make a distributor with stamped paper available, they could not put the law into effect.  Other colonies, particularly Massachusetts, simply failed to do anything and let ships sit in the harbor for weeks.  It was not until mid-December that Boston started clearing ships again.  North Carolina held out until January.  There, the governor offered to pay the stamp tax fees personally for any merchant who would sail.  However, none of them wanted to be from the only colony using stamps, and they refused to go along.

Even after the ports began allowing vessels to leave, the British navy could still seize vessels without stamped paper.  One zealous naval officer in NY harbor continued to block as many ships as he could from leaving.  Although he could have seized them and taken them to Halifax for condemnation, he simply forced the ships back into NY harbor.  The navy did seize some vessels after boarding them at sea or in another English harbor.  As a result, merchants did their best to avoid the navy.  They did not sail to England.  The stamp tax was being enforced in the English colonies in the West Indies (Caribbean).  Initially merchants were reluctant to sail there.  Those ports, desperate for American trade, permitted them to enter and leave with unstamped paper, so some trade resumed with the Caribbean. Mostly ships traded with European countries or non-British colonies who could care less about stamps.  That was also illegal, but chances of getting caught were lower.

Courts were an even more difficult situation.  Judges, appointed by the King, were obligated to enforce laws regarding the use of unstamped documents in court.  Many courts simply remained closed, refusing to do business.  In Massachusetts, mobs demanded that the courts open and do business without the stamped documents.  They used the arguments of the Virginia Resolves: the Stamp Act was beyond Parliament’s authority and therefore should be considered void.  A few courts opened for brief periods to satisfy the mobs.  Some handled older cases that did not require new paper, in order to avoid the Stamp tax issue, then quickly closed again.

Despite token openings, most civil court business came to a halt.  The Act did not affect criminal courts, so only civil courts were closed.  In many cases, this benefited debtors in the colonies.  They could not be sued by creditors, most of whom were English merchants seeking repayment of debts.  In a few colonies, courts opened without requiring stamped documents.  Judges were risking removal by doing so.  Even there though, lawyers were reluctant to proceed for fear of creating legal challenges that could result in them being sued for malpractice.  So even where courts were open, litigation remained limited.

Stamp Act Opposition in England

Parliament almost immediately felt pressure from all sides to repeal the Stamp Act.  The colonial petitions were easy enough to ignore.  But others within England raised the same concerns.  Newspaper articles appeared all over England from working class people and merchants complaining about the Stamp Act and its effects.  Many at the time, and some later historians, thought this was a groundswell of support among the English commoners for the colonies.  In fact, the vast majority of those articles were written and sent by one man, Benjamin Franklin, still working in London as a colonial agent.  He invented false names and sent articles to newspaper editors all over the country.

Franklin’s little fraud aside, there were a great many merchants suffering from the loss of trade and the inability of colonists to repay their debts.  The truth was that trade without taxes had benefited England greatly.  This trade killing dispute was hurting the English economy, the English merchants, and those who worked for them.

Not only were old debts not being paid, colonial merchants were not trading with England at all.  No vessels arrived to buy new English goods for the colonies.

Some colonies or more accurately groups within colonies, began developing non-importation agreements against England, though not nearly as extensive or organized as we will see later.  Beyond the political popularity of such agreements, colonial ships did not want to travel to England with unstamped papers and risk seizure of their vessels.  The colonial economy was tanking and no one had money to buy British imports anyway.  The 1764 trade laws had already started an American initiative to become more self sufficient and make more goods domestically.  The anti-British feeling over the Stamp Act only increased this sentiment.

This crash in trade was killing London merchants.  They were not selling their goods, and were increasingly unable to collect on debts in the colonies.  Parliament received petitions and letters, not only from London merchants but from manufacturers all over England calling for repeal of the Stamp Act.  These petitions did not care about the rights asserted by the colonists. They simply focused on the fact that the law was destroying their trade and their ability to pay their workers.

When the King addressed the opening of the new Parliamentary session on December 17, 1765, he requested that Parliament do something about the mess in the colonies, but left it vague as to what he thought should be done.  Parliament’s response was equally vague, promising to “apply utmost diligence and attention to those important occurrences in America.”

Rockingham and his ministers viewed the Stamp Act as a mistake.  Grenville would have had a much harder time backing down since the Act was his idea in the first place.  In fact, Grenville proposed a much more militant response to the King’s message, stating the Parliament would take necessary measures to preserve the legal dependence of the colonies on England.  Parliament rejected his proposal overwhelmingly.

By the time Parliament got back to work in January 1766, Rockingham had already decided to repeal the act.  He began reaching out to Pitt, who remained leader of the opposition, to make a deal.  Pitt, still annoyed that he was not Prime Minister himself, refused to cooperate.  Pitt and his faction, of course, would support repeal, but did not want to look like they were cooperating with the leadership.

Stamp Act Repeal & Declaratory Act

With near universal agreement in Parliament that something had to be done, there were essentially three schools of thought on exactly what course to take.  One, led by Grenville, argued that there might need to be some amendment or tweaking needed but that Parliament should not back down in the face of resistance.  The Pitt faction that believed these taxes as a matter of principle were wrong and demanded immediate repeal along with a promise never to try anything like this again.  In the middle were men who seemed to recognize repeal was necessary, but only as a matter of policy.  This group wanted to retain the authority to tax the colonies, even if they chose not to exercise it at this time.

Rockingham’s position was the middle ground.  If a bill could get the Pitt faction to support repeal but not push away the overwhelming majority of members who believed that Parliament had the authority to tax the colonies. It might find a reasonable compromise.

Parliament had refused even to consider any petitions that suggested it had no right to tax the colonies.  For most members Parliamentary authority was an issue beyond dispute. Most also accepted the reality that the Stamp Act was a complete failure and was damaging both the English and colonial economies.  But they did not want to establish a precedent that mobs in the colonies could dictate to Parliament what its power and authority was.  Any suggestion in any repeal that gave the indication that Parliament could not tax the colonies would have gone down to overwhelming defeat.

William Pitt
(from Wikimedia)
Grenville led the opposition to any repeal.  He argued before Parliament that the colonies should not be rewarded for opposition to its authority. Backing down would only encourage more resistance and mob violence in the future.  In response, Pitt finally rose to give his famous speech of January 14, 1766 in opposition to the Stamp Act.  It praised the colonists for standing up for their liberties and condemned the Stamp Act as an attempt to enslave the colonists.

Pitt’s support of repeal actually made things harder for the Administration.  He essentially praised the colonies for refusing to accede to Parliament and called for the immediate and complete repeal.  The administration knew that arguing Parliament had no right to levy taxes on the colonies would only cause them to dig in their heels.  Rockingham wanted to stick to the much more practical argument that the law was hurting the English economy.

As a result, the Administration took no action in Parliament for another month, giving Pitt’s opponents time to cool down and hear more from constituents suffering under the current law.  On February 3, Rockingham attempted to increase support for repeal by introducing the Declaratory Act, which was formally called the American Colonies Act of 1766.  The Act simply stated clearly the Parliament had the authority to pass laws to bind the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.”  There was some debate whether to add an explicit line on the authority to tax.  That was rejected as needlessly provocative.  Clearly “all cases whatsoever” included the right to tax.  At the same time, the Pitt faction tried to get the phrase “in all cases whatsoever” removed from the bill.  That amendment also failed.

Finally, on February 21, Henry Conway introduced the Repeal of the Stamp Act into the House.  Conway was the only member of Commons in the Rockingham Administration.  He was a member of the Pitt faction and was serving as Secretary of State for the Southern Department, which was responsible for North American affairs.  Conway had voted against the Stamp Act the year before, and seemed to agree with Pitt’s sentiments.  However, he held his tongue on colonial rights and simply focused on the economic need to repeal the Act.

Henry Conway
(From Wikimedia)
The Administration spent the next few weeks providing Parliament with correspondence from Colonial governors talking about the economic woes in America.  They tried to cover over as much as possible any discussion about Colonial views on the authority of Parliament.  At Rockingham’s prompting, several colonial agents in London submitted petitions again focusing on the economic problems and not mentioning the dispute over the authority to tax.  One agent, Benjamin Franklin appeared before Parliament to answer questions.  Franklin testified that the colonies already paid considerable taxes locally and could not be taxed more.  He discussed the economic woes in America and argued that this unpopular tax could never be enforced even if Parliament elected to send a standing army to enforce it.  He further argued that Parliament could raise money through external duties, but that the colonists would not accept internal taxes from Parliament.

Franklin, of course, knew that colonists were quite hostile even to external tariffs.  His private correspondence paints an understanding of the much more radical positions in the colonies.  It seems his rehearsed testimony was designed to appeal to those in Parliament inclined to repeal the Stamp Act, but who would not give up on the right of Parliament to levy such taxes in the future.  Like any good lobbyist, Franklin was concerned about the law’s repeal, not furthering some broader philosophical debate.

Despite the ministry’s efforts, most of parliament seemed to oppose the bill since it looked like they were backing down before lawless mobs.  The King directly let it be known that he supported the bill.  That was enough to take the air out of the opposition.  After the King's intervention, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act and the Repeal of the Stamp Act, with final passage of both on the same day: March 18, 1766.  Both acts passed overwhelmingly with large majorities.  The laws also passed the House of Lords and received the King’s approval, taking effect on May 1, 1766.

Shortly after passage, Rockingham passed another bill voiding any penalties owed under the Stamp Act during the six months it was technically in force.  If Parliament wanted to put all that unpleasantness behind them, the last thing they needed was to make martyr out of some merchant or lawyer over a penalty of a few pounds.  Similarly, in 1767, when Massachusetts passed a bill to reimburse victims of mob riots for the destruction of their homes and property, it included a provisioning pardoning all of those involved in the riots.   Some in London raised concerns about pardoning these criminals, but in the end the Privy Council let the bill become law without objection. Best to act like the Stamp Act never happened.

Colonies Rejoice 

Repeal of the Stamp Act met with near universal celebration throughout the colonies.  Leaving aside concerns over the Declaratory Act, which we’ll talk more about next week, everyone seemed overjoyed at the news from London.  Cities held parades and festivities, not only that year, but celebrated it as an annual event for the next decade.

Celebration of Stamp Act Repeal, 1766
(from Princeton)
Government officials were also relieved to be free of the tension between instructions from London and angry mobs threatening their homes.  The Sons of Liberty, feeling empowered, became a permanent fixture throughout the colonies.  They would continue to organize and coordinate against future threats to their freedom.

Grenville may have lost his fight over repeal, but he was absolutely right that the colonists took the repeal as evidence of weakness.  Colonists were much more willing to push back against unpopular legislation from Parliament, including continued opposition to trade restrictions and duties.

Next week, we shall see that, while things get better for a while, the tensions between Britain and her colonies remain.

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Further Reading:

Web Sites

Full text of the Stamp Act of 1765:

Good easy to read summary of Stamp Act details:

The Stamp Act, a Brief History, by Mary Nesnay (JAR) (2014):

Declaration of Rights and Grievances (full text):

Stamp Act Congress Petitions (full text): (I have not found a good web site for these petitions, other than the appendix of Hutchinson’s book, which is thankfully available online.  If anyone has a better source to link, please let me know).

William Pitt’s Opposition to the Stamp Act, January 14, 1766:

Notes on Benjamin Franklin’s testimoney before parliament on Repeal of the Stamp Act, Feb. 13, 1766:

Repeal of the Stamp Act (full text):

Declaratory Act (full text):

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

The History of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, from 1749 to 1774, by Thomas Hutchinson, John Hutchinson (ed) (1828) (This book was edited and published in London using Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s personal papers.  The editor was his grandson).

The Diary and Letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, by Thomas Hutchinson, Peter Hutchinson (ed) (1884) (Editor was Thomas Hutchinson’s great-grandson).

Great Debates in American History, Vol. 1, Marion Mills Miller (ed) (1913).

Debates on the Repeal of the Stamp Act, from The American Historical Review, Vol 17 by H. Temperley (1912).

Cambridge Modern History, Vol. 6, (18th Century Britain), S. Ward, G. Prothero, & S. Leathes (eds) (1902).

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766, by Fred Anderson (2000).

The Colonial Experience, by David Hawke (1966).

Empire of Fortune, by Francis Jennings (1988).

Growth of the American Revolution 1766-1775, Bernhard Knollenberg (1975).

Origins of the American Revolution, by John Miller (1943).

A New Age Now Begins, Vol. I, by Page Smith (1976).

* (Book links to are for convenience.  They are not an endorsement of Amazon, nor does this site receive any compensation for any links).