What was the Declaratory Act of 1766?

By Chuck Springston
An 18th century cartoon shows a funeral for the Stamp Act.
An 18th century cartoon shows a funeral for the Stamp Act.
--Library of Congress

When Britain repealed the Stamp Act, 250 years ago this month, the Colonies celebrated, but that same day the king signed another law that ultimately became even more detested.

    That law was called the Declaratory Act, and it declared that the king and Parliament had  “full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever.”
    Today the Stamp Act is probably more familiar to most Americans, but  “the Declaratory Act was more important than the repeal of the Stamp Act, because the former provided the lasting source of colonial disaffection,” wrote Theodore Draper, in A Struggle for Power: The American Revolution (Times Books; 1996).
    The repeal of the Stamp Act and approval of the Declaratory Act on March 18, 1766, are intertwined events, tied together by political maneuvering to diffuse a stamp tax revolt that had been taking place not only in America but also in England since the tax was  imposed a year earlier.
   Here are some key facts about those legislative actions in the British Parliament:

The backstory: Parliament passed the Stamp Act on March 22, 1765, to raise money that could help the British pay off the costs of fighting the French and their Indian allies during a war waged from 1754 to ’63. The act placed a tax on various types of documents and paper, which had stamps indicating the amount of the tax.
    The Colonists decried the tax as a violation of their rights because the British government  levied it without the consent of America’s elected representatives in Colonial legislatures. They showed their outrage with words, boycotts of British goods and sometimes threats of violence against British officials. A Stamp Act Congress, attended by representatives of nine Colonies, met in New York in October 1765 and drafted petitions asking Parliament to repeal the tax. Parliament ignored the petitions.

So why was the Stamp Act repealed? The Americans weren’t the only ones protesting the act. Merchants and manufacturers in Britain were also complaining because the colonial boycott of British products was hurting them.
    In a petition presented to the House of Commons on Jan. 17, 1766, a group of London merchants recounted the importance of trade with the Colonies. They declared that because of Stamp Act  “this commerce, so beneficial to the state, and so necessary for the support of multitudes, now lies under such difficulties and discouragement, that nothing less than its utter ruin is apprehended.”
    The merchants had a strong ally in the new prime minister: Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd marquess of Rockingham. In July 1765 Lord Rockingham had replaced Prime Minister George Grenville, who had pushed through the Stamp Act and was a fierce opponent of repeal. Rockingham wanted not only to help the merchants but also to cool the rising fever of revolt in America. He was ready to repeal the Stamp Act.

How much support did Rockingham have for repeal? At first not enough. A heated debate over repeal began on Jan. 14, 1766. Three central arguments on repeal  emerged—summarized below from accounts of the debates by Edmund S. Morgan and Ellen M. Morgan, in The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution, (University of North Carolina Press; 1995):

  1. The Stamp Act should not be repealed because Parliament had the right to levy the tax.
  2. The Stamp Act should be repealed, but only because it was causing problems. Parliament still had the right to levy the stamp tax and other taxes if it wished to do so.
  3. The Stamp Act should be repealed because the British government did not have the right to tax the Colonies since the Americans had no representation in Parliament. But Britain did have the right to impose nontax laws on the Americans without their consent, such as regulations on international trade. In this way of thinking, taxes could be imposed only to the degree that they were necessary to regulate trade. They could not be levied solely to raise revenue for the British government.

    An example of allowable taxes would be duties on products shipped into the Colonies from places outside the British empire to make them more expensive than products from Britain’s own merchants, who would benefit from the lower price. In the jargon of the time, Parliament could impose on the Colonies “external” taxes to regulate trade but not “internal” taxes just to raise revenue, which is what the stamp tax did.

What decided the outcome of the debate? In large measure, it was a speech on Jan. 14, 1766, by William Pitt, a prominent member of Parliament who had successfully overseen Britain’s management of the French and Indian War and was considered a friend of the American Colonies.
    In one of the most famous speeches during the run-up to the American Revolution, Pitt argued forcefully for the third argument in the repeal debate. He said the Stamp Act must “be repealed absolutely, totally and immediately” because “it was founded on an erroneous principle.” He added that Britain’s authority over the Colonies allowed it to  “bind their trade, confine their manufactures, and exercise every power whatsoever—except that of taking their money out of their pockets without their consent.”
    Rockhingham used the basic points of Pitt’s speech to cobble together repeal legislation he thought could pass Parliament. He crafted two bills. One repealed the Stamp Act. The other was the Declaratory Act, with wording that Parliament had the power to impose laws on the Colonies “in all cases whatsoever.” Taxation of the Colonies was not specifically mentioned as one of those powers, however.

Did that omission mean those powers included taxation or not? One group in Parliament favoring repeal thought “in all cases” included taxation of the Colonies. Other repeal advocates believed the declaration could not include taxation because that would be a violation of colonial rights. Rockingham needed both groups to get his majority for repeal.In drawing up the Declaratory Act, he deliberately phrased it in such a way as to leave the meaning uncertain to those whom it might offend,” Morgan writes.

What was the final outcome? Rockingham introduced a resolution seeking approval of the Declaratory Act on Feb. 3, 1766, and it was debated in the House of Commons until 4 a.m. the next day, when it was approved on a voice vote. “I believe from the sound there were not more than ten dissenting voices,” wrote Charles Garth, a member of Parliament and agent for South Carolina and Maryland, in a report to the Maryland General Assembly.
    A resolution to repeal the Stamp Act was introduced in the House of Commons on Feb. 21 and after intense debate was approved at 2 a.m. on Feb. 22. The resolution passed with 62 percent of the vote, 275-167.
    The two resolutions were then written up as bills and went through a series of other votes in the House of Commons and House of Lords in accordance with legislative procedures required for final passage. King George III signed them into law on March 18, 1766.

What was the reaction in the Colonies? In a letter to Massachusetts clergyman Jedidiah Morse on Jan. 1, 1816, John Adams recalled that when the Stamp Act was repealed, “Universal rejoicings had ran like wild fire through the continent,” but the Declaratory Act “hung like a cloud over the whole American continent. Thinking men and discerning eyes saw it, and amid all the popular rejoicings dreaded its ominous appearance.” Much of the public, however, thought Parliament’s declaration of power was a “mere device, to preserve the nominal dignity of G. Britain, without any intention of ever bringing it forward into action,” Adams wrote.
    Benjamin Franklin, who was in London as an agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly during the repeal debates, reported on the results to assemblyman Joseph Fox in a March 1, 1766, letter. He wrote that the Declaratory Act was passed “merely to save appearances, and to guard against the effects of the clamor made by the late ministry, as if the rights of this nation [Britain] were sacrificed to America: And I think we may rest secure, notwithstanding such act, that no future ministry will ever attempt to tax us.”
    Franklin, who was often right, was wrong that time, as he would soon discover.
    In 1767, Parliament took advantage of the “external tax” loophole in the repeal debate to add  a multitude of new taxes on imports. But these external taxes were designed primarily to raise revenue, not to regulate trade, in violation of Pitt’s principle. They included a tax on tea. It didn’t go over well in the Colonies.

    Note: In some historic documents and correspondence, spelling, capitalization and punctuation have been modernized. No words have been changed.  



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