The Declaratory Act
The Declaratory Act
Issued by British Parliament
Passed on March 18, 1766; excerpted from Documents of American History, 1958
"The King's majesty … had, hath, and of right ought to have, full power 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."
From the Declaratory Act
In March 1765, the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act to raise money in America to help pay for British soldiers stationed there. The Stamp Act, scheduled to go into effect on November 1, 1765, taxed printed matter such as newspapers, legal documents, and even dice and playing cards. Much to Parliament's surprise, Americans protested the tax in the strongest terms, in many cases resorting to violence against British officials in America. They also refused to buy British goods.
It became clear that more British soldiers would have to be sent to America to enforce an act that did not promise to raise much money anyway. British merchants suffered from Americans' refusal to buy their goods. Trade between England and America came to a standstill, and merchants protested to Parliament.
Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), sixty years old in 1765 and internationally known as a scientist, inventor, and writer, was in London at the time everyone there was discussing colonial fury over the Stamp Act. At first he had been in favor of complying with the act, but in September 1765, a vengeful mob in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, nearly destroyed
Franklin's home. Soon after that, he set to work convincing his friends in Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act.
In January 1766, members of Parliament debated repeal of the Stamp Act. Franklin was called to testify. In response to questioning, Franklin gave his opinion that Americans would never submit to the Stamp Act. He also testified that Americans objected to Parliament imposing "internal taxes" (taxes like the stamp tax, which they would be forced to pay against their will). Franklin said the colonists had no objection to Parliament imposing "external taxes" (taxes on trade items, which they could refuse to buy). This would turn out to be a bad argument. To England's dismay, from the Stamp Act on, the colonists objected to the placing of any kind of taxes on them.
While the debate went on over repealing the Stamp Act, members of Parliament also pondered how a repeal could occur without England appearing weak to the Americans. The Declaratory Act of 1766 was the answer. The Declaratory Act was the brainchild of new prime minister Charles Watson-Wentworth (1730–1782), also known as the Marquis (pronounced MAR-kwis) of Rockingham (pronounced ROK-ing-im). The Declaratory Act affirmed the right of Parliament to make laws that would bind the colonists "in all cases whatsoever." King George III (1738–1820) approved the repeal of the Stamp Act and the adoption of the Declaratory Act on the same day, March 18, 1766.
Things to remember while reading an excerpt from the Declaratory Act:
- The Declaratory Act opened by summarizing the American argument that only colonial assemblies had the right to impose taxes on Americans. The Act countered the American argument by declaring that the colonies were subject to the king and Parliament, who alone had the right to make laws binding on the colonies "in all cases whatsoever." Furthermore, any colonial lawmaking bodies that denied or questioned Parliament's authority had no legal basis for doing so or even any legal right to exist.
- The Declaratory Act did not mention any intention by Parliament to impose taxes. Members of Parliament assumed their right to tax had existed from the beginning of American settlement in the colonies. Parliament did not buy Benjamin Franklin's theory that there was a distinction between internal (forced) and external (trade) taxes. The Declaratory Act set the stage for Parliament to impose non-trade taxes on the colonies.
Excerpt from the Declaratory Act
WHEREAS, several of the houses of representatives in his Majesty's [George III] colonies and plantations in America, have of late, against law, claimed to themselves, or to the general assemblies of the same, the sole and exclusive right of imposing duties and taxes upon his Majesty's subjects in the said colonies and plantations; and have, in pursuance of such claim, passed certain votes, resolutions, and orders, derogatory to the legislative authority of parliament, and inconsistent with the dependency of said colonies, and plantations upon the crown of Great Britain: … be it declared …, That the said colonies and plantations in America are, and of right ought to be, subordinate unto, and dependent upon the imperial crown and parliament of Great Britain; and that the King's majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the lords spiritual and temporal, and commons of Great Britain, in parliament assembled, had, hath, and of right ought to have, full power 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.
And be it further declared …, That all resolutions, votes, orders, and proceedings, in any of the said colonies or plantations, whereby the power and authority of the parliament of Great Britain, to makelaws and statutes as aforesaid, is denied, or drawn into question, are, and are hereby declared to be, utterly null and void to all intents and purposes whatsoever. (Commager, pp. 60–61)
What happened next …
In America, there was great jubilation over the repeal of the Stamp Act. Wealthy Virginians gathered in Williamsburg, the capital city, for an elegant ball. In Boston, Massachusetts, the Sons of Liberty gathered with other citizens on Boston Common, where wealthy merchant John Hancock (1737–1793) had thoughtfully provided casks of wine for a celebration. New Yorkers voted to erect a lead statue of King George (a few years later, when war broke out, the lead was melted down and made into bullets). Three hundred Philadelphia men agreed to buy new suits made of English cloth to celebrate the resumption of trade between England and America.
Parliament thought it had made a fine bargain with the colonies. It had repealed an unpopular tax but had affirmed what it considered longstanding Parliamentary rights. Americans rejoiced that a wrong had been righted. On top of that, England had been shown what havoc could be caused by an American refusal to buy its goods. Flushed with victory, Americans hardly noticed the Declaratory Act. They expected to continue to pay taxes on trade items; they also expected there would be no more talk of "internal taxes" designed "to raise revenue" (money to pay for British government expenses). But their victory was only temporary. Founding Father and Boston lawyer John Adams (1735–1826) was one of the few who took note of the significance of the Declaratory Act. He wondered whether Parliament would "lay a tax in consequence" of it. He was soon able to read his answer in the Townshend Acts.
Did you know …
- Former prime minister William Pitt (1708–1778) became a hero in America for his passionate speech in favor of the repeal of the Stamp Act. In 1765, when the Act was passed, Pitt was sixty-seven years old and suffering from the mental illness that would continue to plague him for the remainder of his life. Some historians believe this condition was manic-depression, a type of mental illness in which a person suffers severe and prolonged mood swings. Pitt was well enough at the time Parliament was debating the repeal of the Stamp Act to speak in favor of it. In his speech, he said: "I rejoice that America has resisted! Were I but ten years younger I should spend the rest of my days in America, which has given the most brilliant proofs of its independent spirit." Pitt died in 1778 without ever visiting America. American towns erected statues to honor their champion.
Where to Learn More
Commager, Henry Steele. Documents of American History. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1958.
Scheer, George F. Rebels and Redcoats: The American Revolution Through the Eyes of Those Who Fought and Lived It. New York: Da Capo Press, 1988.