Wednesday, October 7, 2015

250th Anniversary of the Stamp Act Congress

The same year that has seen the end of the 150th anniversary commemorations of the American Civil War also, by historical coincidence, marks the beginning of the 250th anniversary commemorations of the American Revolution. Some might object to this, pointing out that the Revolutionary War began on April 19, 1775, which would suggest that the 250th anniversary is not until 2025. But the American Revolution was as much a political struggle as a military conflict and its beginnings stretch back long before the first actual shots were fired on Lexington Green.

It was on this date two-hundred-and-fifty years ago that the first embers of organized American resistance to British rule began to glow, when the Stamp Act Congress met in New York City on October 7, 1765.

The British Parliament in London had passed the Stamp Act in March of that year and it was due to take effect on November 1. It was a very simple piece of legislation, stipulating that all official papers had to have a governmental stamp on them; this stamp had to be paid for, which would generate revenue for the government. There had been almost no opposition to the legislation in Parliament and few seemed to think that the colonists in America would mind the tax very much. After all, the British government had just completed an enormous military effort in the New World that had driven the French off of the continent and thereby freed the colonists from the French threat.

The American reaction was swift and furious. Protests erupted in the streets across the colonies and stamp collectors were burned in effigy. Colonial legislatures passed resolutions against the act and created "committees of correspondence" to communicate with one another. In Massachusetts, enraged colonists even set fire to the mansion of the lieutenant governor, Thomas Hutchison, who barely escaped with his life. This ferocious response came as a complete shock to the British establishment, as it did to Benjamin Franklin, who was then living in London as a colonial agent for Pennsylvania.

In retrospect, we can see that the most important manifestation of colonial resistance to the Stamp Act was the convening of the Stamp Act Congress. The call for such a convention had come from the colony of Massachusetts, which thought a single coordinated response from all the British colonies in America would be more effective that a series of disjointed reactions. In the end, nine colonies sent representatives to New York City: Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, and South Carolina. The legislatures in Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia were blocked by their respective governors from sending delegates, while New Hampshire just never got around to it.

Among the brilliant minds who composed the Stamp Act Congress was a man who are almost unknown to Americans today, yet fully deserve to be ranked among the august group we call "the Founding Fathers". There was James Otis, one of the most brilliant lawyers of Massachusetts, who had made a name for himself by arguing that it was unconstitutional for British authorities to use the writs of assistance used by British authorities to search private homes without warrants. He is widely credited with coining the phrase "no taxation without representation". Other attendees would go on to play important roles in the Revolution, such as Robert Livingston, Caesar Rodney, Thomas McKean, and John Rutledge.

After a few weeks of debate and deliberations, the Stamp Act Congress issued the Declaration of Rights and Grievances, which stated that Parliament had no right to tax the colonies directly as the colonies were not represented in Parliament. Only the colonial legislatures themselves could tax the colonies. This was the first substantive assertion that there should be no taxation without representation. At the same time, the Stamp Act Congress proclaimed a loyalty to the king, for they did not want to appear as potential rebels. The idea of American independence had not yet entered anyone's mind.

There is something that needs to be stressed about the events leading up to the American break with Britain. Before the political crisis leading up to the war, the American colonists were probably the freest and most lightly taxed people in the world. The Americans were not protesting the amount of tax they were being asked to pay; they were protesting the fact that they did not believe the British Parliament had the constitutional authority to tax them. The American Revolution had its root causes in constitutional questions, not economic ones.

There are legions of revisionist historians who are always eager to tear down great figures from the past and they have given the American Founding Fathers more than their fair share of attention. Efforts are often made to persuade us that the Founding Fathers were simply a bunch of wealthy white guys, and largely slave-owners to boot, who rebelled against the British because they feared losing their privileged social and economic positions. It's true that the Founding Fathers were generally members of the social elite, but to suppose that their motives were self-serving has little basis. If they had really been interested in holding onto their power, the best thing they could have done would have been to remain loyal to the British, as many other members of the colonial elite choose to do. By following the path they choose, they were committing treason and placing their lives in peril.

I am sad that this anniversary is passing with next to no commemoration. We, the Americans of the early 21st Century, owe a tremendous debt to the brave men who met in New York in 1765. They lit the fuse that would explode on Lexington Green a decade later and give birth to our nation, the United States of America.

Thanks, guys.

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