The Precursor to the Declaration of Independence
This month marks 250 years since the de facto start of the Revolution. Passage of the Stamp Act irretrievably set the stage for revolution. The act went into effect November 1, 1765, the first direct British tax on Americans.
It was the principle, not the magnitude of the tax that infuriated the colonists. If taxation without representation was allowed to stand, Americans would be at risk of taxes on an unlimited array of targets. They would become slaves on a British tax plantation rather than citizens of a democracy.
Parliament passed the act in March 1765 to finance debt from European wars. All official documents, including wills, deeds, and bonds, had to be drafted upon "stamped" paper to indicate that they were taxed. A wide range of items was subjected to taxation, including newspapers, pamphlets, playing cards, and dice.
The act was Pelosian, over 13,000 words. Two months after enactment, Patrick Henry briefly succeeded in getting Virginia to enact a sharp response, including a borderline treasonous clause declaring that the colonial legislature possessed sole authority to tax its citizens. In September, Pennsylvania enacted a resolution declaring taxation without representation unconstitutional. In October, nine states convened the Stamp Act Congress in New York, issuing the Declaration of Rights and Grievances to declare the Stamp Act unconstitutional. In November, a Maryland court ruled the law invalid.
The revolutionary fuse was lit 39 days after the act took effect. On December 10, New London, Connecticut citizens unanimously passed a resolution refusing to obey. In January, New York City sent a delegation to New London to draft a mutual defense pact.
The New London resolution presaged much to come. It consists of six resolutions and four implementation recommendations:
At a meeting of a large assembly of the respectable populace in New London the 10th of December 1765, the following resolves were unanimously come into.
Resolved, 1st. That every form of government rightfully founded, originates from the consent of the people.
2d. That the boundaries set by the people in all constitutions are the only limits within which any officer can lawfully exercise authority.
3d. That whenever those bounds are exceeded, the people have a right to reassume the exercise of that authority which by nature they had before they delegated it to individuals.
4th. That every tax imposed upon English subjects without consent is against the natural rights and the bounds prescribed by the English constitution.
5th. That the Stamp Act in special, is a tax imposed on the colonies without their consent.
6th. That it is the duty of every person in the colonies to oppose by every lawful means the execution of those acts imposed on them, and if they can in no other way be relieved, to reassume their natural rights and the authority the laws of nature and of God have vested them with.
And in order effectually to prevent the execution thereof, it is recommended:
1st. That every officer in this colony duly execute the trust reposed in him, agreeable to the true spirit of the English constitution and the laws of this colony.
2d. That every officer neglecting the exercise of his office may justly expect the resentment of the people, and those who proceed may depend on their protection.
3d. It is presumed no person will publicly, in the pulpit or otherwise, inculcate the doctrine of passive obedience, or any other doctrine tending to quiet the minds of the people, in a tame submission to any unjust impositions.
4th. We fully concur with the respectable body of the populace in all their Resolves made at Windham the 26th November 1765 and published in the New-London Gazette.
Parliament rescinded the act after six months. Repeal consisted of a 203-word sentence:
... continuance of the said Act ... may be productive of consequences greatly detrimental to the commercial interests of these kingdoms[.] ... [T]he above-mentioned Act, and the several matters and things therein contained, shall be, and is and are hereby repealed and made void to all intents and purposes whatsoever.
The Stamp Act was never enforced in New London, a hotbed of radicalism making it too dangerous for the Crown's agents to implement. Throughout the colonies, Crown agents pre-emptively resigned prior to the effective date rather than face mobs. Many were burnt, beheaded, or hung in effigy.
In the years between the New London Resolution (NLR) and 1776, other municipalities and states issued their own statements of independence. When Jefferson composed the final Declaration, he availed himself of passages from the original New London Resolution, which had been widely circulated in the colonies. The NLR saves its truly radical conclusion until the last clause of the final of its six points, asserting the "duty" of all Americans "to reassume their natural rights and the authority the laws of nature and of God have vested them with." This marked a distinct break from all official American reactions to the Stamp Act prior to that date. By asserting the primacy of natural rights, the Crown's sovereignty was declared void, marking the start of what would erupt into warfare over a decade later.
What the NLR reserved for its conclusion, Jefferson used for the preface of the final declaration:
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them[.]
A comparison between the NLR and the Declaration of Independence (DOI) reveals the paternity of several concepts. Phrasing from five of six clauses in the NLR survived into the DOI:
NLR: That every form of government, rightfully founded, originates from the consent of the people.
DOI: Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed ...
NLR: That whenever those bounds are exceeded, the people have a right to reassume the exercise of that authority, which by nature they had,
DOI: That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government,
NLR: That every tax imposed upon English subjects without consent, is against the natural rights and bounds prescribed by the English constitution. ... That the Stamp Act in special, is a tax imposed on the colonies without their consent.
DOI: For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent.
No one knows who drafted the NLR. One guess is Richard Law, a Yale graduate. Law became a Continental Congress delegate, Connecticut's chief justice, and a federal judge. Illness prevented Law from signing the DOI.
In its concise eloquence, the NLR stands alone as a freedom manifesto. Its closing admonition against "passive obedience" and "tame submission" offers a timeless prescription against tyranny.