The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

VIII. American Political Writing, 1760–1789

§ 3. The Stamp Act Controversy

The treaty of Paris, ceding to Great Britain all the vast possessions of France on the mainland of North America, together with Florida and other Spanish territory east of the Mississippi, was concluded to February, 1763. On the 23d of that month, Charles Townshend became first lord of trade, with the oversight of colonial administration, in the short-lived ministry of Bute, and some far-reaching changes in the colonial system were presently announced. The salaries of governors and judges, hitherto paid by the colonial assemblies, were now to be paid by the crown, thus insuring, it was believed, a better enforcement of the trade laws and a proper revenue from customs; and a standing army of ten thousand men was to be maintained in America, in anticipation of an attempt by France to recover what it had lost, the expense of the troops to be met by parliamentary taxation of the colonies. Grenville, who became prime minister in June, supported the plan. In March, 1764, Grenville gave notice of his intention to impose stamp duties; laying the matter over for a year, however, in order that the colonies might be consulted. In April a Sugar Act imposed new colonial customs duties.

The prospect of direct taxation by Parliament aroused wide-spread apprehension in America, and called forth in July the ablest and best-known of Otis’s pamphlets, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved. With notable moderation and restraint, and in a tone pervadingly judicial rather than partisan, Otis argued the case for the colonies, appealing as before to the British constitution as he understood it, and to the logic of right, liberty, and justice. A colony being an integral part of the mother country, though territorially separated from it, its people are, “by the law of God and nature, by the common law, and by act of Parliament … entitled to all the natural, essential, inherent, and inseparable rights of our fellow-subjects in Great Britain.” Among these rights was that of freedom from taxation save with their own consent, and of representation in the supreme or some subordinate legislature. Parliament admittedly possessed a general supervisory authority over the colonies, but if, under the guise of regulation, it were to infringe upon the right of taxation through duly elected representatives, it would be guilty of an arbitrary violation of the constitution. Forcible resistance, however, even to an unconstitutional act, was not to be thought of.

  • There would be an end of all government, if one or a number of subjects or subordinate provinces should take upon them so far to judge of the justice of an act of Parliament, as to refuse obedience to it … Therefore let the Parliament lay what burdens they please on us, we must, it is our duty to submit and patiently bear them, till they will be pleased to relieve us.
  • Otis voiced effectively the first impulse of thoughtful, patriotic Americans as they contemplated the prospect of parliamentary taxation. The proposed act violated the constitution whose benefits the colonists claimed, but forcible resistance would be treason. The same line of argument, more systematically and cogently put, characterized Oxenbridge Thacher’s Sentiments of a British American (1764). Thacher was a fellow townsman of Otis, and the two had been associated in the case of the writs of assistance. Like Otis, Thacher’s legal argument closes with a strong profession of loyalty to the crown, and there is no good for thinking that in either case the profession was insincere. Argument and dissent were an Englishman’s right, and the constitution had grown by protest against abuses.

    An even more effective statement of the American case is found in The Rights of Colonies Examined, a pamphlet written by Stephen Hopkins, governor of Rhode Island, and pub lished at Providence in 1765. Admitting the right of Parliament to regulate the affairs of the whole empire, Hopkins not only claims for the colonies “as much freedom as the mother state from which they went out,” but dwells forcibly upon the dangerous tendency of the new policy, the widespread apprehension which it has already aroused, and the absence of any clear necessity for raising an American revenue by parliamentary fiat.

  • What motive … can remain, to induce the parliament to abridge the privileges, and lessen the rights of the most loyal and dutiful subjects; subjects justly intituled to ample freedom, who have long enjoyed, and not abused or forfeited their liberties, who have used them to their own advantage, in dutiful subserviency to the orders and interests of Great-Britain?
  • Such reasoning as that of Otis, Thacher, and Hopkins, however convincing to the popular mind, avoided, but did not settle, the important and difficult constitutional question of the ultimate authority of Parliament over the colonies. On that question the wisest were certain to differ, and a presentation of the other side of the case was speedily forthcoming. In February, 1765, there appeared at Newport A Letter from a Gentleman at Halifax, to his Friend in Rhode-Island, published anonymously, but written by Martin Howard, a Newport lawyer of repute. In this temperate, logical, and readable pamphlet, the “Gentleman at Halifax,” replying to Hopkins’s “labored, ostentatious piece,” puts his finger on the primary defect in the whole colonial argument, namely, the claim “that the colonies have rights independent of, and not controulable by the authority of parliament.” If they derived their political rights from Parliament, were not those rights subject to interpretation or abridgement by Parliament? A lively controversy ensued. Hopkins defended himself in a series of articles in the Providence Gazette, while Otis, his zeal for debate knowing no Provincial bounds, printed A Vindication of the British Colonies against the Aspersions of the Halifax Gentleman. Howard retorted with A Defence of the Letter from a Gentleman at Halifax, to his Friend in Rhode-Island, to which Otis responded with Brief Remarks on the Defence of the Halifax Libel on the British-American-Colonies. The tide of patriotism was rising, however, and the populace presently took a hand. Before the summer was over Howard, after being hanged and burned in effigy at Newport, fled to England, and the “rights of the colonies” were both “asserted and proved.”

    No substitute for the stamp tax having been agreed upon by the colonial assemblies, the Stamp Act became a law (March, 1765). In the interval between the approval of the act and the date (1 November) at which it was to go into effect, disorderly bodies calling themselves “Sons of Liberty” organized a campaign of forcible resistance; with the result that, when the first of November arrived, stamps and stamped paper were not to be had. Meantime, the newspaper and pamphlet controversy continued. To a pamphlet written by Soame Jenyns, a member of Parliament, published in 1765, entitled The Objections to the Taxation of Our American Colonies, by the Legislature of Great Britain, Briefly Considered, Otis replied with Considerations on Behalf of the Colonies, in a Letter to a Noble Lord, the argument of which, save in its plea for leniency and consideration on the part of Great Britain in view of the extent and importance of the colonies, does not differ materially from that which the author had previously advanced. John Adams, “with the exception of Jefferson … the most readable of the statesmen of the Revolutionary period,” now entered the lists with a series of four essays, published anonymously and without title in the Boston Gazette in August, 1765. Beginning with an examination of the “ecclesiatical and civil tyranny” which he found exemplified in the canon and feudal law, and of which the Stamp Act was held up as the consummate illustration, Adams traced the course of the historical struggle between corporate oppression and individual liberty and self-assertion. “Admitting we are children, have not children a right to complain when their parents are attempting to break their limbs, to administer poison, or to sell them to enemies for slaves?” Adams had read his history with a Puritan obsession, and neither his interpretation of facts nor his reasoning did him here much credit. The essays had influence, however. Reprinted in The London Chronicle, they were finally published in 1768, in revised form, under the misleading title of A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law.