The War of American Independence
But the prosperity of America was now to receive a sudden check, and a contest to begin, more important to her and more momentous in its consequences, than any which the world had ever witnessed. England was oppressed by a heavy debt, which had been more than doubled by the heavy expenses of the late war, and the people were overburdened with taxes. In an evil hour, it occurred to the Chancellor of the Exchequer that this pressure might be lightened, if the American Colonies could be made to contribute to the general expenses of the empire.
Mr. Grenville introduced into parliament his bill for imposing a stamp tax on the American Colonies, and it became a law with little opposition February 6th, 1765. Stamped papers, upon which a considerable impost was to be paid, were required for all judicial proceedings, clearances at the custom-house, bills of lading, and even the diplomas granted by seminaries of learning. The law was not to take effect for about seven or eight months after its passage. The news that the bill had become a law arrived in Boston early in April; and the effect was as if a cannon had been fired so near the ears of the people that they were all stunned by the explosion. They seemed stupefied at first; there was no popular outbreak, no meeting for the passage of violent resolutions. But it was the lull which precedes, and not that which follows, the tempest. The legislative body assembled in May, and they immediately resolved that the other Colonies should be invited to unite with them in sending delegates to a Congress, to be held in New York in October, to consult together on the present state of affairs and the recent acts of parliament. This was a significant intimation that the Colonies were at last aware of the strength and firmness which they might acquire by concert and union.
Delegates from nine of the colonies assembled at the Congress in New York, and assurances were received from two other Colonies that they would acquiesce in the result. The proceedings of this Congress were singularly moderate, considering the excited temper of the people. They only published a declaration of the Rights and Grievances of the Colonies, and addressed a petition to the king, and memorials to the two houses of parliament; and the tone of these documents, though firm, was mild, argumentative, and respectful. They claimed all the privileges of British subjects, and especially that of not being taxed without their own consent. When these papers were signed, the Congress was dissolved, after a session of little more than a fortnight. The chief advantage derived from it was, that it made the patriot leaders from the different Colonies acquainted with each other, and enabled them to give assurances of mutual support. November came, but the stamps were nowhere used and the business even of the courts of justice, after a short suspension, was resumed. The act was practically nullified, with the assent, either free or enforced, of the judges and the governors.
The cause of the Colonies, which they pleaded with much earnestness and ability, soon found sympathy in the whole of Europe; and in England itself, it was embraced by a powerful party, which opposed the measures of government both in speech and writing. At the head of this opposition stood the great statesman and orator, the elder William Pitt, afterwards Earl of Chatham; and he was actively supported by Conway, Col. Barre, and Lord Camden, afterwards Lord Chancellor, and next to Lord Mansfield, the highest legal authority in the realm. This powerful opposition produced a change of ministry in July, 1765, and, after a vehement debate, after Dr. Franklin had undergone a memorable examination before the House of Commons, in which he declared that the Act could never be enforced, the Stamp Act was repealed. But a bill was passed at the same time, March, 1766, declaratory of the power and right of parliament to bind America in all cases whatsoever. In the Colonies, the news of the repeal was received with great rejoicing, the accompanying act being justly regarded as a mere contrivance to save the honor of government. Lord. Camden, indeed, in the House of Lords, had strenously opposed the declaratory bill as 'absolutely illegal.' 'Taxation and representation,' he declared, 'are inseparably united; God hath joined them, and no British parliament can put them asunder.' Indemnity was demanded from the Colonies for those officers of the crown who had suffered from the late riots; and both New York and Massachusetts granted them full compensation.