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Historical Background

Stamp Act Crisis

  • British attempted to gain more control over colonies
  • Tax imposed on colonies to cover French and Indian War debt
  • Virginia House of Burgesses passed resolves against Stamp Act
  • Virginia's stamp enactor hanged in effigy

British try for more control after French and Indian War

After the French and Indian War ended in 1763, the British government began a concerted effort to gain more control over the colonies and to collect additional revenues to reduce the debt incurred during the war. The Stamp Act, passed by Parliament and signed by the king in March 1765, was one such measure. It created an excise tax on newspapers, customs documents, licenses, college diplomas, and most legal documents. Violators were to be tried in vice-admiralty courts without benefit of a jury.

English residents applauded Stamp Act on colonies

Residents of England, whose tax rates were much higher than those of their counterparts in the colonies, strongly applauded the passage of the Stamp Act. They often paid such taxes themselves, and the prime minister projected that the yearly revenues from the tax would offset 12 to 20 percent of the North American military expenses. The colonists, they believed, were represented in Parliament (albeit indirectly), and therefore such an act was perfectly within the rights of the British government.

Colonists resented taxation without representation in Parliament

The colonists, however, uniformly resented the Stamp Act and its assumption that Parliament could tax them without their direct representation in Parliament. The colonists taxed themselves through their own local assemblies, and they resisted the limitation on their self-rule.

Four of seven resolves against Stamp Act passed

At the end May 1765, Virginia's House of Burgesses debated the colony's response to the Stamp Act, ultimately passing four of seven proposed Stamp Act Resolves. A young Patrick Henry led the debate, at one point declaring:

"If this be treason, make the most of it!"

The first four resolutions, which ultimately passed without being rescinded, reinforced the principle that the colonists lived under the British constitution and enjoyed the rights of British subjects, including the right to govern their internal affairs by their elected representatives. The fifth resolution, which was adopted and then rescinded, declared that colonies held the power of taxation. The sixth and seventh proposals, neither of which passed, declared that the people of the colony did not need to obey any tax law not passed by the Assembly and that anyone who upheld the authority of Parliament should be branded an enemy of Virginia. Although the more radical Stamp Act Resolves were never passed, they were widely published throughout the colonies. By the end of 1765, eight other colonial legislatures had also objected to British taxation.

Violence erupts in reaction to Stamp Act

Violent reactions to the Stamp Act began to occur throughout the colonies. A mob in Boston hung the stamp distributor in effigy, then beheaded the effigy and "stamped" it to pieces before shattering the windows of his home, destroying his furniture, and tearing out the paneling. The stamp distributor in Newport, Rhode Island, also lost his home, and one in Maryland was so upset upon seeing his store pulled down that he rode off in panic.

Effigy of George Mercer hanged

In Virginia, Richard Henry Lee, who opposed the Stamp Act even before it was enacted, demonstrated against the Stamp Act in September of 1765. His slaves led a procession, which carried effigies of George Mercer, Virginia's stamp distributor. The effigies were hanged at the end of the day, then hanged again the next day and burned after Lee read a satirical "dying speech of George Mercer." [Ironically, it was later revealed that Richard Henry Lee had applied for the job of stamp distributor, but that George Mercer had been chosen for the post.] When Mercer actually arrived in Virginia at the end of October 1765, he was met by angry crowds in both Hampton and Williamsburg. Like the stamp distributors in other colonies who faced such mobs, Mercer resigned the next day.

In October of 1765, representatives of nine colonies met in New York City as the Stamp Act Congress. There, the colonists agreed on the general principle that Parliament lacked authority to levy taxes on the colonies and to deny individuals a jury trial. Virginia was unable to elect a representative to this Congress, as Governor Fauquier had dissolved the Assembly on June 1.

Parliament revoked Stamp Act in 1766

The colonists' resistance to the Stamp Act was successful, and the measure became increasingly unenforceable. In March of 1766 Parliament revoked the Stamp Act, although not before it had reasserted that Parliament had complete legislative authority over the colonies. The colonists were grateful for the repeal of the Stamp Act and were eager to mend their relations with the mother country. At this point, a complete break from England remained unimaginable, but a precedent for colonial defiance and mutual distrust had been created.

The Path Toward Independence, 1765-1775

Despite the repeal of the Stamp Act, underlying philosophical differences remained. The British wanted the colonists to pay the greater part of the cost of royal government in the colonies, whereas the colonists resisted imperial taxation and limits on self-government. This clash led to an atmosphere of mistrust.

Increasing philosophical differences between the British and the colonists

A series of incidents that took place between 1765 and 1775 emphasized these differences. For example, the Townshend Duties of 1767, which taxed imports, led to nonimportation agreements (boycotts of British goods) that injured the British economy and caused the repeal of the Townshend Duties in 1770. Customs racketeering, in which greedy customs officials seized ships and their goods whether or not evidence of smuggling existed, led to widespread violence and to the British occupation of Boston in 1768. The British occupation itself led indirectly to the Boston Massacre of 1770, when an angry mob incited a soldier to fire into the crowd. The ensuing mayhem caused five deaths.

The Boston Tea Party of 1773 and the punitive British response solidified colonial fears that the Crown was attempting to limit traditional English liberties throughout North America. In response to these events, the first Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia in 1774. [Virginia's representatives to the Continental Congress included two of the original opponents of the Stamp Act, Richard Henry Lee and Patrick Henry. George Washington was the third Virginia representative.] The delegates summarized their principles and demands in the Declaration of Rights, which conceded to Parliament the power to regulate colonial commerce, but argued that parliamentary efforts to impose taxes, enforce laws through admiralty courts, suspend assemblies, and unilaterally revoke charters were unconstitutional.

After these incidents, a break from England had become a distinct possibility (although still not a certainty) by 1775.

July of 1775

In July of 1775, when the Randolph family faced its wrenching choices, the colonies as a whole were also torn apart. Most colonists had hoped that their resistance would either convince the king to dismiss the ministers responsible for the repressive legislation or would jolt Parliament into renouncing its authority over all matters in the colonies except trade regulation. As it became clear that neither course would occur, some loyalist colonists accused their contemporaries of creating a rift, or at least inflaming existing problems. Their revolutionary counterparts often browbeat clergymen who preached pro-British sermons, pressured their countrymen to boycott British goods, and coerced merchants to burn British imports.

By July of 1775, battles in what eventually became known as the American Revolution had already taken place: Concord, Lexington, and Bunker Hill. In Williamsburg, Governor Dunmore's order for the removal of guns and powder stored at the Magazine alarmed city residents and nearly led to a violent clash between the colonists and the British. Dunmore soon fled to a British ship in the York River. Determined to regain control of the colony, the governor threatened to offer freedom to all slaves who ran away to the British side, an action he carried out in November of 1775.

Despite this ominous turn of events, not all parties saw the Revolution as inevitable. For example, a majority of the Second Continental Congress, which began meeting in May of 1775, still opposed independence. Even Samuel Adams, among the most radical of the colonists, described himself as "fond of reconciliation."

England did not proclaim that New England was in a state of rebellion until August 23, 1775. The rest of the colonies were declared to be in rebellion in December of that year. Thomas Payne's Common Sense, which influenced many a fence-sitter, was published in 1776, and the Declaration of Independence followed a few months later. Thus, in July of 1775, the course of events was not yet clear.

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