Stamp Act Congress
The Stamp Act Congress (October 7 – 25, 1765), also known as the Continental Congress of 1765, was a meeting held in New York, New York, consisting of representatives from some of the British colonies in North America. It was the first gathering of elected representatives from several of the American colonies to devise a unified protest against new British taxation. Parliament had passed the Stamp Act, which required the use of specialty stamped paper for legal documents, playing cards, calendars, newspapers, and dice for virtually all business in the colonies starting on November 1, 1765.
The Congress consisted of delegates from nine of the eighteen British colonies in mainland North America. All of the attending delegations were from the Thirteen Colonies that eventually formed the United States. Although sentiment was strong in some of the other colonies to participate in the Congress, a number of royal governors took steps to prevent the colonial legislatures from meeting to select delegates.
The Congress met in the building now known as Federal Hall and was held at a time of widespread protests in the colonies, some violent, against the Stamp Act's implementation. The delegates discussed and united against the act, issuing a Declaration of Rights and Grievances in which they claimed that Parliament did not have the right to impose the tax because it did not include any representation from the colonies. Members of six of the nine delegations signed petitions addressed to Parliament and King George III objecting to the Act's provisions.
The extralegal nature of the Congress caused alarm in Britain, but any discussion of the congress's propriety were overtaken by economic protests from British merchants, whose business with the colonies suffered as a consequence of the protests and their associated non-importation of British products. The economic issues prompted the British Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act, but it passed the Declaratory Act the same day, to express its opinion on the basic constitutional issues raised by the colonists; it stated that Parliament could make laws binding the American colonies "in all cases whatsoever."
In the aftermath of the French and Indian War, the British Parliament sought to increase revenues from its overseas colonies, where the cost of stationing troops had become significant. Parliament first passed the Sugar and Currency Acts in 1764, specifically aimed at raising money for the Crown by tighter regulation of colonial trade. The acts had brought protests from colonial legislatures but had skirted the idea of direct taxation by structuring their revenues as trade-related excise duties. British Prime Minister George Grenville noted at the time of the Sugar Act's passage that a stamp tax might also be necessary, immediately raising concern and protest in the colonies.
With the Stamp Act of 1765, Parliament attempted to raise money by direct taxation on the colonies for the first time. The act required that all sorts of printed material carry a stamp (purchased from a government agent) to show that the tax had been paid. The use of the stamped paper was required for newspapers, books, court documents, commercial papers, land deeds, almanacs, dice, and playing cards. The revenue was to help finance the operations of the empire, including the cost of stationing troops in the colonies, without seeking revenue through the established colonial assemblies, which had a history of failure.
In June 1765, the Massachusetts Assembly drafted a letter, which was sent to the legislatures of "the several Colonies on this Continent" to "consult together on the present circumstances of the colonies." Nine colonies ultimately selected delegates to attend the congress: Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and South Carolina. All of the delegates selected were members of their colonial legislative bodies.
The methods by which delegates were selected were in some cases unorthodox. In Delaware, then known as the "Three Lower Counties" of the Penn proprietors, assembly members held informal meetings in each of the three counties, in each case selecting the same three delegates In New York, the assembly had been prorogued and was judged unlikely to be summoned by Lieutenant Governor Colden to consider the Massachusetts letter. The assembly's committee of correspondence, consisting of its New York City delegates, discussed the letter and decided under the circumstances to assume the authority to represent the colony. New Jersey's assembly politely declined to send delegates before adjourning in late June, but after political sentiment against the Stamp Act became more pronounced, Speaker Robert Ogden called an extralegal assembly (since only the governor could officially call it into session) in late September that chose three delegates. Governor William Franklin was upset at the action but took no action beyond protesting the unusual meeting. Maryland's assembly, prorogued because of a smallpox outbreak, was finally called into session by Governor Horatio Sharpe to consider the Massachusetts letter on September 23, and delegates were chosen.
The colonies that were not represented at the congress did not send delegates for a variety of reasons. The Virginia and Georgia assemblies were deliberately prevented from meeting by their governors. New Hampshire chose not to send delegates because of an ongoing financial crisis in the colony; by the time some assembly members sought to reconsider that decision, the assembly had adjourned, and Governor Benning Wentworth refused to call it into session. North Carolina Lieutenant Governor William Tryon had prorogued the assembly for other reasons, and there was apparently no action taken to request a special session despite public protests and opposition to the act by Speaker John Ashe. Nova Scotia, which then included present-day Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick, declined to send delegates despite significant economic connections to Massachusetts and a strong presence of expatriate New Englanders in its assembly. Dominated by financial interests connected to England, the assembly never even considered a protest resolution against the Stamp Act. Quebec, Newfoundland, and East and West Florida did not have colonial assemblies and were not invited.
The Declaration of Rights contains fourteen statements. The first six lay groundwork, proclaiming loyalty to the crown and asserting that according to the Rights of Englishmen and the more general "freedom of a people", only representatives chosen by the colonists could levy taxes. Because Parliament did not have such representatives, it could not levy taxes. The seventh statement asserts that the Rights of Englishmen afford all colonists the right to trial by jury. The remaining statements protest the unconstitutionality of the Stamp Act; express the economic consequences, which, among other things, would reduce trade to the detriment of English manufacturers; and reiterated the rights of the colonists to petition the crown and Parliament.
The petitions directed to the House of Lords and the king were written in flattering tones, gently stating the liberties the colonists had enjoyed as British subjects and hoping they would retain them. The petition to the Lords specifically acknowledged "due Subordination to that August Body the British Parliament." In contrast, the petition addressed to the House of Commons was more detailed, advancing economic arguments against the Stamp Act and requesting the repeal of legislation creating a jury-less vice admiralty court at Halifax. It also reiterated the supremacy of Parliament.
Copies of the petitions left New York on two ships, including one that had arrived during the Congress, carrying stamped paper. Lord Dartmouth, the colonial secretary, rejected the petition to the Lords, saying it was an inappropriate document. The House of Commons cited several reasons not to consider the petition, including that it had been submitted by an unconstitutional assembly, it denied Parliament's right to levy taxes, and acceptance of the petition would constitute an admission that Parliament had erred. The weak Rockingham Ministry, laboring for support against political opponents, rallied merchant interests in opposition to the Stamp Act, and it was repealed primarily on the strength of economic arguments advanced by these interests on March 18, 1766. To address the constitutional issues raised by the North American protests, Parliament also passed the Declaratory Act, claiming the authority to legislate for the colonies "in all cases whatsoever".
This Congress is generally viewed as one of the first organized and co-ordinated political actions of the American Revolution although its participants were not at all interested in independence from Great Britain. Despite significant political differences and disagreements between the Thirteen Colonies, tensions occasioned by the harsh Parliamentary response to the 1773 Boston Tea Party prompted the calling of the First Continental Congress, which produced a united response to the Intolerable Acts of 1774. Colonies such as Quebec and Nova Scotia, which had only moderate opposition to the Stamp Act, continued to act moderately through the rising protests and remained Loyal during the American Revolutionary War.
Most of the official papers of the Congress have not survived. One copy of its journal, from the papers of Caesar Rodney, survives in the library at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey, and a second exists in the Connecticut state archives. The Maryland copy of the journal, although the original is lost, was transcribed into its assembly's records and printed in 1766. Inconsistencies within and between the documents make it uncertain whether any is an accurate representation of the official journal (which was probably taken to Massachusetts and was not located by Weslager in his research).
Books by Stamp Act Congress
On June 8, 1765 James Otis, supported by the Massachusetts Assembly sent a letter to each colony calling for a general meeting of delegates. The meeting was to be held in New York City in October. Representatives from nine colonies met in New York. T...