Taxation without representation at issue
It was not so much the new duties that caused consternation among New England merchants. It was rather the fact that steps were being taken to enforce them effectively, an entirely new development. For over a generation, New Englanders had been accustomed to importing the larger part of their molasses from the French and Dutch West Indies without paying a duty. They contended that payment of even the small duty imposed would be ruinous. As it happened, the Sugar Act's preamble gave the colonists an opportunity to rationalize their discontent on constitutional grounds. The power of Parliament to tax colonial commodities for the regulation of imperial trade had been long accepted in theory though not always in practice, but the power to tax "for improving the revenue of this Kingdom" as stated in the Revenue Act of 1764 was new and hence debatable.
The constitutional issue became an entering wedge in the great dispute which was finally to split the empire asunder. "One single act of parliament," wrote James Otis, an early patriot, "has set more people a-thinking in six months, more than they had done in their whole lives before." Merchants, legislatures, and town meetings protested against the expediency of the law, and colonial lawyers like Samuel Adams found in the preamble the first intimation of "taxation without representation," the atchword which was to draw so many to the cause of the patriots against the mother country.
Later in the same year, Parliament enacted a Currency Act "to prevent paper bills of credit hereafter issued in any of His Majesty's colonies from being made legal tender." Since the colonies were a deficit trade area and were constantly short of "hard money," this added a serious burden to the colonial economy. History of American Money Equally objectionable from the colonial viewpoint was the Billeting Act, passed early in 1765, which required colonies where royal troops were stationed to provide quarters and certain supplies for their support.
Strong as was the opposition to these acts, it was the last of the measures inaugurating the new colonial system which set off organized resistance. This was the famous Stamp Act. It provided that revenue stamps be affixed to all newspapers, broadsides, pamphlets, licenses, leases, or other legal documents, the revenue so secured to be expended for the sole purpose of "defending, protecting, and securing" the colonies. Only Americans were to be appointed as agents to collect the tax, and the burden seemed so evenly and lightly distributed that the measure passed Parliament with little debate or attention.
So violent was its reception in the thirteen colonies, however, that it astonished moderate men everywhere. It was the act's peculiar misfortune that it aroused the hostility of the most powerful and the most articulate groups in the colonies: journalists, lawyers, clergymen, merchants, and businessmen, and that it bore equally on all sections of the country-north, south and west. Soon leading merchants whose every bill of lading would be taxed organized for resistance and formed nonimportation associations. Business came to a temporary standstill, and trade with the mother country fell off enormously in the summer of 1765. Prominent men organized as "Sons of Liberty," and political opposition was soon expressed in violence. Inflamed crowds paraded the crooked streets of Boston. From Massachusetts to South Carolina, the act was nullified, and mobs forced luckless agents to resign their offices and destroyed the hated stamps.
The great significance of the Stamp Act lay not alone in its precipitation of revolutionary resistance but also in the fact that it forced Americans to formulate a theory of imperial relations that would accommodate itself to American conditions. The Virginia Assembly, for example, passed, on the instigation of Patrick Henry, a set of resolutions denouncing taxation without representation as a dangerous and unprecedented innovation and a threat to colonial liberties. A few days later, the Massachusetts House invited all the colonies to appoint delegates to a Congress in New York to consider the Stamp Act menace. This Congress-in October 1765-was the first intercolonial meeting summoned on American initiative. Twenty-seven bold and able men from nine colonies seized this opportunity to mobilize colonial opinion against parliamentary interference in American affairs. And after considerable debate, the Congress adopted a set of resolutions asserting that "no taxes ever have been or can be constitutionally imposed on them, but by their respective legislatures" and that the Stamp Act had a "manifest tendency to subvert the rights and liberties of the colonists."