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The Eve of the Revolution, Chapter IV: Defining the Issue

A pepper-corn, in acknowledgement of the right, is of more value than millions without it.–George Grenville.

A perpetual jealousy respecting liberty, is absolutely requisite in all free states.–John Dickinson.

Good Americans everywhere celebrated the repeal of the Stamp Act with much festivity and joyful noises in the streets, and with “genteel entertainments” in taverns, where innumerable toasts were drunk to Liberty and to its English defenders. Before his house on Beacon Hill, Mr. John Hancock, on occasion a generous man, erected a platform and placed there a pipe of Madeira which was broached for all comers. At Colonel Ingersoll’s, where twenty-eight gentlemen attended to take dinner, fifteen toasts were drunk, “and very loyal they were, and suited to the occasion”; upon which occasion, we are told, Mr. Hancock again “treated every person with cheerfulness.” Throughout the land men with literary gifts, or instincts, delivered themselves of vigorous free verse, founded upon the antithesis of Freedom and Tyranny, and enforcing the universal truth that “in the unequal war Oppressors fall, the hate, contempt, and endless curse of all.” In New York, on the occasion of the King’s birthday, an ox was roasted whole in the Fields, and twenty kegs of beer were opened for a great dinner at the King’s Arms; and afterwards, through the generosity of the Assembly of that province, there was erected on the Bowling Green a mounted statue–made of lead but without present intention of being turned into bullets representing His Majesty King George the Third, of ever glorious memory, the Restorer of Liberty.

The joyful Americans could not know how little King George aspired to be thought the Restorer of Liberty. In reality he was extremely sulky in his silent, stubborn way over the repeal of the Stamp Act, and vexed most particularly at the part which he himself had been forced to play in it. The idea of a Patriot King, conceived by Lord Bolingbroke (one-time Jacobite exile) and instilled into the mind of the young Hanoverian monarch by an ambitious mother, had little to do with liberty, either British or colonial, but had much to do with authority. The Patriot King was to be a king indeed, seeking advice of all virtuous men of whatever connections, without being bound by any man or faction of men. It was not to restore liberty, nor yet to destroy it, but to destroy factions, that the King was ambitious; and for this purpose he desired a ministry that would do his bidding without too much question. If Mr. Grenville did not satisfy His Majesty, it was not on account of the Stamp Act, in respect to which the King was wholly of Mr. Grenville’s opinion that it was a just law and ought to be enforced. In July, 1765, when Mr. Grenville was dismissed, there had indeed as yet been no open resistance in America; and if the King had been somewhat annoyed by the high talk of his loyal subjects in Virginia, he had been annoyed much more by Mr. Grenville, who was disposed, in spite of his outward air of humility and solemn protestations of respect, to be very firm with His Majesty in the matter of ministerial prerogative, reading him from time to time carefully prepared pedantic little curtain lectures on the customs of the Constitution and the duties of kings under particular circumstances.

Unable to endure Mr. Grenville longer, the King turned to Mr. Pitt. This statesman, although extremely domineering in the House, was much subdued in the presence of his sovereign, and along with many defects had one great virtue in his Majesty’s eyes, which was that he shared the King’s desire to destroy the factions. The King was accordingly ready to receive the Great Commoner, even though he insisted on bringing “the Constitution,” and Earl Temple into the bargain, with him to St. James’s Palace. But when it appeared that Earl Temple was opposed to the repeal of the Stamp Act, Mr. Pitt declined after all to come to St. James’s on any terms, even with his beloved Constitution; whereupon the harassed young King, rather than submit again to Mr. Grenville’s lectures, surrendered himself, temporarily, to the old-line Whigs under the lead of the Marquis of Rockingham. In all the negotiations which ended in this unpromising arrangement of the King’s business, the Stamp Act had apparently not been once mentioned; except that Mr. Grenville, upon retiring, had ventured to say to His Majesty, as a kind of abbreviated parting homily, that if “any man ventured to defeat the regulations laid down for the colonies, by a slackness in the execution, he [Mr. Grenville] should look upon him as a criminal and the betrayer of his country.”

The Marquis of Rockingham and his friends had no intention of betraying their country. They had, perhaps, when they were thus accidentally lifted to power, no very definite intentions of any sort. Respecting the Stamp Act, as most alarming reports began to come in from America, His Majesty’s Opposition, backed by the landed interest and led by Mr. Grenville and the Duke of Bedford, knew its mind much sooner than ministers knew theirs. America was in open rebellion, they said, and so far from doing anything about it ministers were not even prepared, four months after disturbances began, to lay necessary information before the House. Under pressure of such talk, the Marquis of Rockingham had to make up his mind. It would be odd and contrary to well-established precedent for ministers to adopt a policy already outlined by Opposition; and in view of the facts that good Whig tradition, even if somewhat obscured in latter days, committed them to some kind of liberalism, that the City and the mercantile interest thought Mr. Grenville’s measures disastrous to trade, and that they were much in need of Mr. Pitt’s eloquence to carry them through, ministers at last, in January, 1766, declared for the repeal.

Now that it was a question of repealing Mr. Grenville’s measures, serious attention was given to them; and honorable members, in the notable debate of 1766, learned much about America and the rights of Englishmen which they had not known before. Lord Mansfield, the most eminent legal authority in England, argued that the Stamp Act was clearly within the power of Parliament, while Lord Camden, whose opinion was by no means to be despised, staked his reputation that the law was unconstitutional. Mr. Grenville, in his precise way, laid it down as axiomatic that since “Great Britain protects America, America is therefore bound to yield obedience”; if not; he desired to know when Americans were emancipated. Whereupon Mr. Pitt, springing up, desired to know when they were made slaves. The Great Commoner rejoiced that America had resisted, and expressed the belief that three millions of people so dead to all the feelings of liberty as voluntarily to submit to be made slaves would be very fit instruments to make slaves of all Englishmen.

Honorable members were more disposed to listen to Mr. Pitt than to vote with him; and were doubtless less influenced by his hot eloquence than by the representations of English merchants to the effect that trade was being ruined by Mr. Grenville’s measures. Sir George Seville, honorable member for Yorkshire, spoke the practical mind of business men when he wrote to Lord Rockingham: “Our trade is hurt; what the devil have you been doing? For our part, we don’t pretend to understand your politics and American matters, but our trade is hurt: pray remedy it, and a plague of you if you won’t.” This was not so eloquent as Mr. Pitt’s speech, but still very eloquent in its way and more easily followed than Mr. Pitt’s theory that “taxation is no part of the governing or legislative power.”

Constitutional arguments, evenly balanced pro and con, were not certain to change many minds, while such brief statements as that of Sir George Seville, although clearly revealing the opinion of that gentleman, did little to enlighten the House on the merits of the question. That members might have every opportunity to inform themselves about America, the ministers thought it worth while to have Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia, printer and Friend of the Human Race, brought before the bar of the House to make such statements of fact or opinion as might be desired of him. The examination was a long one; the questions very much to the point; the replies very ready and often more to the point than the questions. With much exact information the provincial printer maintained that the colonists, having taxed themselves heavily in support of the last war, were not well able to pay more taxes, and that, even if they were abundantly able, the sugar duties and the stamp tax were improper measures. The stamps, in remote districts, would frequently require more in postage to obtain than the value of the tax. The sugar duties had already greatly diminished the volume of colonial trade, while both the duties and the tax, having to be paid in silver, were draining America of its specie and thus making it impossible for merchants to import from England to the same extent as formerly. It was well known that at the moment Americans were indebted to English merchants to the amount of several million pounds sterling, which they were indeed willing, as English merchants themselves said, but unable to pay. Necessarily, therefore, Americans were beginning to manufacture their own cloth, which they could very well do. Before their old clothes were worn out they “would have new ones of their own making.”

Against the Stamp Act, honorable members were reminded, there was a special objection to be urged. It was thought with good reason to be unconstitutional, which would make its application difficult, if not impossible. Troops might no doubt be sent to enforce it, but troops would find no enemy to contend with, no men in arms; they would find no rebellion in America, although they might indeed create one. Pressed by Mr. Townshend to say whether the colonies might not, on the ground of Magna Carta, as well deny the validity of external as internal taxes, the Doctor was not ready to commit himself on that point. It was true many arguments had lately been used in England to show Americans that, if Parliament has no right to tax them internally, it has none to tax them externally, or to make any other law to bind them; in reply to which, he could only say that “at present they do not reason so, but in time they may possibly be convinced by these, arguments.”

Whether the Parliament was truly enlightened and resolved by statistical information and lofty constitutional argument is not certainly known; but it is known that the King, whose steady mind did not readily change, was still opposed to the repeal, a fact supposed to be not without influence in unsettling the opinions of some honorable members. Lord Mansfield had discreetly advised His Majesty that although it was contrary to the spirit of the constitution to “endeavour by His Majesty’s name to carry questions in Parliament, yet where the lawful rights of the King and Parliament were to be asserted and maintained, he thought the making His Majesty’s opinion in support of those rights to be known, was very fit and becoming.”

The distinction was subtle, but perhaps not too subtle for a great lawyer. It was apparently not too subtle for a Patriot King, since certain noble lords who could be counted on to know the King’s wishes conveyed information to the proper persons that those who found it against their conscience to vote for the repeal would not for that reason be received coldly at St. James’s Palace. In order to preserve the constitution as well as to settle the question of the repeal on its merits, Lord Rockingham and the Earl of Shelburne obtained an interview with the King at which they pointed out to him the manifest irregularity of such a procedure, and in addition expressed their conviction that, on account of the high excitement in the City, failure to repeal the Stamp Act would be attended with very serious consequences. Whether to preserve the Constitution, or to allow the repeal to be determined on its merits, or for some other reason, the King at last gave in writing his consent to the ministers’ measure. On February 22, by a vote of 275 to 167, Mr. Conway was given leave to bring in the bill for a total repeal of the Stamp Act. The bill was accordingly brought in, passed by both houses, and on March 18 assented to by the King.

In the colonies the repeal was thought to be a victory for true principles of government, at least a tacit admission by the mother country that the American interpretation of the Constitution was the correct one. No Englishman denied that the repeal was an American victory; and there were some, like Pitt and Camden, who preferred the constitutional theories of Daniel Dulaney* to those of George Grenville. But most Englishmen who took the trouble to have any views on such recondite matters, having in general a poor opinion of provincial logic, easily dismissed the whole matter with the convincing phrase of Charles Townshend that the distinction between internal and external taxes was “perfect nonsense.” The average Briton, taking it for granted that all the subtle legal aspects of the question had been thoroughly gone into by Lord Mansfield, was content to read Mr. Soame Jenyns, a writer of verse and member of the Board of Trade, who in a leisure hour had recently turned his versatile mind to the consideration of colonial rights with the happiest results. In twenty-three very small pages he had disposed of the “Objections to the Taxation of Our American Colonies” in a manner highly satisfactory to himself and doubtless also to the average reading Briton, who understood constitutional questions best when they were “briefly considered,” and when they were humorously expounded in pamphlets that could be had for sixpence.

*Daniel Dulaney, of Maryland, was the author of a pamphlet entitled “Considerations on the Propriety of Imposing Taxes on the British Colonies.” Pitt, in his speech on the repeal of the Stamp Act, referred to in this pamphlet as a masterly performance.

Having a logical mind, Mr. Jenyns easily perceived that taxes could be objected to on two grounds: the ground of right and the ground of expediency. In his opinion the right of Parliament to lay taxes on America and the expediency of doing so at the present moment were propositions so clear that any man, in order not to bring his intelligence in question, needed to apologize for undertaking to defend them. Mr. Jenyns wished it known that he was not the man to carry owls to Athens, and that he would never have thought it necessary to prove either the right or the expediency of taxing our American colonies, “had not many arguments been lately flung out…which with insolence equal to their absurdity deny them both.” With this conciliatory preliminary disclaimer of any lack of intelligence on his own part, Mr. Jenyns proceeded to point out, in his most happy vein, how unsubstantial American reasoning really appeared when, brushing aside befogging irrelevancies, you once got to the heart of the question.

The heart of the question was the proposition that there should be no taxation without representation; upon which principle it was necessary to observe only that many individuals in England, such as copyholders and leaseholders, and many communities, such as Manchester and Birmingham, were taxed in Parliament without being represented there. If Americans quoted you “Lock, Sidney, Selden, and many other great names to prove that every Englishman …is still represented in Parliament,” he would only ask why, since Englishmen are all represented in Parliament, are not all Americans represented in exactly the same way? Either Manchester is not represented or Massachusetts is. “Are Americans not British subjects? Are they not Englishmen? Or are they only Englishmen when they solicit protection, but not Englishmen when taxes are required to enable this country to protect them?” Americans said they had Assemblies of their own to tax them, which was a privilege granted them by charter, without which “that liberty which every Englishman has a right to is torn from them, they are all slaves, and all is lost.” Colonial charters were, however, “undoubtedly no more than those of all corporations, which empower them to make bye-laws.” As for “liberty,” the word had so many meanings,” having within a few years been used as a synonymous term for Blasphemy, Bawdy, Treason, Libels, Strong Beer, and Cyder,” that Mr. Jenyns could not presume to say what it meant.

Against the expediency of the taxes, Mr. Jenyns found that two objections had been raised: that the time was improper and the manner wrong as to the manner, the colonies themselves had in a way prescribed it, since they had not been able at the request of ministers to suggest any other. The time Mr. Jenyns thought most propitious, a point upon which he grew warm and almost serious.

“Can any time be more proper to require some assistance from our colonies, to preserve to themselves their present safety, than when this country is almost undone by procuring it? Can any time be more proper to impose some tax upon their trade, than when they are enabled to rival us in their manufactures by the encouragement and protection which we have given them? Can any time be more proper to oblige them to settle handsome incomes on their governors, than when we find them unable to procure a subsistence on any other terms than those of breaking all their instructions, and betraying the rights of their Sovereign?… Can there be a more proper time to force them to maintain an army at their expence, than when that army is necessary for their own protection, and we are utterly unable to support it? Lastly, can there be a more proper time for this mother country to leave off feeding out of her own vitals these children whom she has nursed up, than when they are arrived at such strength and maturity as to be well able to provide for themselves, and ought rather with filial duty to give some assistance to her distresses?”

Americans, after all, were not the only ones who might claim to have a grievance!

It was upon a lighter note, not to end in anticlimax, that Mr. Jenyns concluded his able pamphlet. He had heard it hinted that allowing the colonies representation in Parliament would be a simple plan for making taxes legal. The impracticability of this plan, he would not go into, since the plan itself had nowhere been seriously pressed, but he would, upon that head, offer the following consideration:

“I have lately seen so many specimens of the great powers of speech of which these American gentlemen are possessed, that I should be much afraid that the sudden importation of so much eloquence at once would greatly endanger the safety of the government of this country…. If we can avail ourselves of these taxes on no other condition, I shall never look upon it as a measure of frugality, being perfectly satisfied that in the end, it will be much cheaper for us to pay their army than their orators.”