Declaratory Act, 1766

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DECLARATORY ACT, 1766. The first defining fact of the Declaratory Act of 1766 was that it followed hard on the heels of Parliament's repeal of the detested Stamp Act of 1765, England's first major retreat in the face of colonial American resistance. The Declaratory Act, in mid-March, affirmed England's right "to bind the colonies … in all cases," whether it be the right to tax, enforcement of all parliamentary laws, or crown prerogatives over its colonies in general; all were subject always to British sovereignty. In basking in their immediate political victory, Americans lost sight of the significance of the Declaratory Act. It was almost a word-for-word reprise of the 1719 Irish Declaratory Act that delivered Ireland into disastrous bondage to the crown. The same was meant to be the fate of America as well.

The second defining fact, often overlooked by historians, was that it established once and for all the British Customs Service on the ground in America. Whitehall, at Parliament's behest, sent to the American colonies experienced British customs supervisors who acted as the American Board of Customs Commissioners. These Englishmen—centered on Boston at first, then other ports in New England, then the middle colonies and the South—supervised the rapid spread of customs enforcement to all major and most minor American ports. Within a year after the Declaratory Act, trade laws were enforced with a vengeance for the first time in American waters. The duties imposed by the Townshend Acts of 1767, under the broad mandate cast by the Declaratory Act and sustained by columns of British redcoats in Boston, were collected eventually in American harbors large and small.

As always, with armed foreign troops standing by, Boston was the place where enforcement met the most resistance. "Tidesmen" were now sent aboard vessels before unloading could begin. The seizure of two of John Hancock's vessels for smuggling violations in early 1768 touched off an organized colonial resistance. Boston's Sons of Liberty confronted the customs commissioners. With the power of the Declaratory Act in place, the customs commissioners did what Whitehall would not and used armed troops to repress organized rioting; the Boston Massacre in March 1770 was the defining moment in the new round of violence and repression. While Parliament may have wavered, the military, customs, and civil authorities on the scene in Boston did not.

Whitehall responded with characteristic lack of resolve and repealed the Townshend duties, with the exception of the tax on tea. The customs commissioners, relying on the intent of the Declaratory Act, resolved to enforce that levy. The collection of the tea tax rankled the now-organized colonials, and the inevitable denouement came in the form of the Boston Tea Party in December 1773. While the Sons of Liberty's action in Boston Harbor was the overt event, the looming blanket terms of repression found in the Declaratory Act remained the proximate cause of mounting opposition in America, as demonstrated a few months later in the American revolutionaries' militant reaction to the Intolerable Acts.

The harsh terms of the Declaratory Act, affirming as it did "Parliament's right as the sovereign legislature" to rule the American colonies without limit, made the Intolerable Acts' passage in London virtually inevitable. In retrospect, the die was cast, and the American Revolution in the spring of 1774 moved inexorably forward.


Namier, Louis B. England in the Age of the American Revolution. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1962. The original edition was published in 1930.

Prince, Carl E., and Mollie Keller. The U.S. Customs Service: A Bicentennial History. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1989.

Rakove, Jack N. The Beginnings of National Politics: An Interpretive History of the Continental Congress. New York: Knopf, 1979; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982.

Carl E.Prince

See alsoRevolution, American: Political History .

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Declaratory Act, 1766

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