The Stamp Act Congress met 253 years ago today in New York, an effort that led nine Colonies to declare the English crown had no right to tax Americans who lacked representation in British Parliament.
The crown and British Parliament didn’t exactly agree with that idea, and within 10 years, the sides would be at war over some of the concepts endorsed by the 27 delegates in three documents sent by ship to England.
The turmoil started earlier in 1765 when Parliament approved a little-noticed measure in Britain called the Stamp Act. On March 22, 1765, Parliament required colonists to pay taxes on every page of printed paper they used. The tax also included fees for playing cards and dice.
The proceeds from the Act would “further defray… the expenses of defending, protecting, and securing” the Colonies from attacks; it was a measure to make the Colonies pay costs for hosting British troops on the continent.
The new tax amounted to a sales tax for the Colonies, which didn’t sit well with many residents who considered themselves quite removed from such measures. The protests were based on a legal principle that only the colonial legislatures had the power to tax residents who had representatives in those legislatures. Some colonies had official agents to Parliament, like Benjamin Franklin, but no colonies had sitting representatives in the British Parliament.
In May 1765, Virginia’s Patrick Henry wrote the Virginia Resolves, which made clear the “taxation without representation” argument. The protests against the Stamp Act also were particularly strong in Massachusetts. That summer, Massachusetts called for a meeting of all the colonies – a Stamp Act Congress – to be held in New York in October 1765. Committees of Correspondence were also formed in the colonies to protest the Act.
On October 9, 1765, representatives from half the British colonies on the continent showed up at New York City’s Federal Hall. The legislatures in Virginia and Georgia didn’t allow representatives to go to a meeting that some felt went against British constitutional law.
The 27 delegates included several men who would later sign the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, or play a role fighting for, or against, American independence. John Dickinson, William Samuel Johnson, and John Rutledge would have roles at the Constitutional convention in 1787; Thomas McKean, Robert Livingston, Philip Livingston, Caesar Rodney, and John Morton were other prominent delegates.
But there was also conflict between two representatives from Massachusetts. Timothy Ruggles, a moderate former Massachusetts House speaker, was chosen as Congress President. James Otis, a firebrand lawyer, had popularized the phrase “taxation without representation is tyranny” in a series of public arguments.
In 1764, Otis wrote in “Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved” that “the very act of taxing, exercised over those who are not represented, appears to me to be depriving them of one of their most essential rights, as freemen; and if continued, seems to be in effect an entire disfranchisement of every civil right.”
The Stamp Act Congress met for 18 days. On October 19, the delegates approved the Declaration of Rights and Grievances, which stated the joint position of the delegates for other colonists to read.
Resolutions three, four and five made clear that while the delegates repeatedly stressed their loyalty to the crown, the issue of taxes was at the forefront.
“That it is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that no taxes be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives. That the people of these colonies are not, and from their local circumstances cannot be, represented in the House of Commons in Great-Britain. That the only representatives of the people of these colonies, are persons chosen therein by themselves, and that no taxes ever have been, or can be constitutionally imposed on them, but by their respective legislatures,” read the passage.
Another resolution complained about admiralty courts conducting direct trials. “Trial by jury is the inherent and invaluable right of every British subject in these colonies,” it read.
The Stamp Act Congress then ended on a controversial note, as the delegates drafted three petitions to send to the King, House of Lords and House of Commons. Ruggles opposed the petitions and left without signing them.
The petitions were ignored when they arrived in Britain, but boycotts and financial pressure exerted by the colonists led to the Stamp Act’s repeal the next year. Parliament then passed the Declaratory Act, which stated its right in principle to tax the colonies as it saw fit.
At that point, momentum had begun within the colonies for more economic independence and guarantees from the crown about the protection of colonists’ natural rights.