A guest post by LH Member, George Goodwin.
Today, 18 March 2016, is the 250th anniversary of an event in Britain that was the cause of great celebration in America. This was the repeal of the hated Stamp Act, which, a year earlier, had been foisted on the American colonists by the British Parliament. However, today also marks the 250th anniversary of another British Parliamentary Act, which was ultimately to have far greater consequences for the relationship between Great Britain and its American colonies.
Unlike other imperial crises, the Stamp Act controversy was not a product of military defeat. Completely the opposite: it was caused by the complete success of Britain in the Seven Years’ War that ended in 1763. The French had been routed in both the West and East Indies and their power destroyed in North America. Britain was now the greatest power in the world, but it had come at a cost – the national debt had increased by over 50%. The British Government thought the American colonists should fund the ongoing cost of the British Army on American soil. This may or may not have been unreasonable. However the means they used to bring it about – the Stamp Act – most certainly was. It was unconstitutional. According to the charters of the American colonies, it was their right to introduce internal taxation and not a power of the British Parliament.
There was uproar in the American colonies, because the stamp duty was a tax on all paper products – all licences, newspapers, even playing cards. In fact it was a tax on everyday living. Opposition in the colonial assemblies was matched by mob violence in the Streets.
Sensibly, in response to months of protest, the British Government set up a Committee of the whole House of Commons to consider repeal. Expert witnesses were called, including most importantly, Benjamin Franklin (then living in London), who convinced them of the necessity of repeal.
Yet, the government needed a sop to give to the Parliamentary backbenchers who had been appalled by the violence in the colonies. This was The Declaratory Act, which declared the right of the British Parliament to tax the colonies. Americans, including, at this point, Benjamin Franklin, were assuaged by the assurance that it was a mere assertion of a right and would never be enforced. In the event, after a change of government, a new Chancellor of the Exchequer did enforce it with duties on glass, paint, paper and tea. But that is another story…….
George Goodwin is the author of Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father, just published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (UK) and Yale University Press (North America).