Professor Andrew Trees, Roosevelt University
The Stamp Act aroused widespread opposition throughout the colonies and led to the calling of the Stamp Act Congress. Nine colonies sent representatives to the Congress, which was the first collective action of the colonies to resist British taxation and which ultimately led to the American Revolution. Likely drafted by John Dickinson, the Declaration, although moderate in tone, asserted that the colonists enjoyed all the rights of Englishmen. The Declaration also rested upon the crucial concept of constitutionality, giving it a role in establishing the theoretical foundation for both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
There are a couple of general questions you can ask students about this document. First, which rights are named in this document and in the Bill of Rights? Second, do you notice any differences in the language used for those rights? And are those differences important to how that right might have been understood at the time?
Declaration of Rights and Grievances of the Stamp Act Congress
The members of this congress, sincerely devoted, with the warmest sentiments of affection and duty to His Majesty’s person and government, inviolably attached to the present happy establishment of the Protestant succession, and with minds deeply impressed by a sense of the present and impending misfortunes of the British colonies on this continent; having considered as maturely as time would permit, the circumstances of said colonies, esteem it our indispensable duty to make the following declarations, of our humble opinions, respecting the most essential rights and liberties of the colonists, and of the grievances under which they labor, by reason of several late acts of Parliament.
1st. That His Majesty’s subjects in these colonies owe the same allegiance to the crown of Great Britain that is owing from his subjects born within the realm, and all due subordination to that august body, the Parliament of Great Britain.
2d. That His Majesty’s liege subjects in these colonies are entitled to all the inherent rights and privileges of his natural born subjects within the kingdom of Great Britain.
In this section, the Congress laid claim to the same rights as Englishmen. As the constitutional tug of war between Great Britain and the American colonies intensified during the next decade, colonists would gradually move away from this assertion and ground their claim to rights on the basis of natural law.
3d. That it is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted rights of Englishmen, that no taxes should be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives.
4th. That the people of these colonies are not, and from their local circumstances cannot be, represented in the House of Commons in Great Britain.
5th. That the only representatives of the people of these colonies are persons chosen therein, by themselves; and that no taxes ever have been or can be constitutionally imposed on them but by their respective legislatures.
6th. That all supplies to the crown, being free gifts of the people, it is unreasonable and inconsistent with the principles and spirit of the British constitution for the people of Great Britain to grant to His Majesty the property of the colonists.
7th. That trial by jury is the inherent and invaluable right of every British subject in these colonies.
Even in 1765, the colonists were concerned about the right to a trial by jury, which was unsurprising given how long this practice had been enshrined in English jurisprudence.
8th. That the late act of Parliament entitled, “An act for granting and applying certain stamp duties, and other duties in the British colonies and plantations in America, etc.,” by imposing taxes on the inhabitants of these colonies, and the said act, and several other acts, by extending the jurisdiction of the courts of admiralty beyond its ancient limits, have a manifest tendency to subvert the rights and liberties of the colonists.
Courts of admiralty used royally-appointed judges (rather than juries) to decide cases.
9th. That the duties imposed by several late acts of Parliament, from the peculiar circumstances of these colonies, will be extremely burthensome and grievous, and, from the scarcity of specie, the payment of them absolutely impracticable.
10th. That as the profits of the trade of these colonies ultimately center in Great Britain, to pay for the manufactures which they are obliged to take from thence, they eventually contribute very largely to all supplies granted there to the crown.
11th. That the restrictions imposed by several late acts of Parliament on the trade of these colonies will render them unable to purchase the manufactures of Great Britain.
12th. That the increase, prosperity, and happiness of these colonies depend on the full and free enjoyment of their rights and liberties, and an intercourse, with Great Britain, mutually affectionate and advantageous.
At this early stage, the Stamp Act Congress referred in a broad and general way to “their rights and liberties” (in contrast to the specific enumeration of rights in the Bill of Rights).
13th. That it is the right of the British subjects in these colonies to petition the king or either house of Parliament.
The right to petition will also be named in the First Amendment.
Lastly, That it is the indispensable duty of these colonies to the best of sovereigns, to the mother-country, and to themselves, to endeavor, by a loyal and dutiful address to His Majesty, and humble application to both houses of Parliament, to procure the repeal of the act for granting and applying certain stamp duties, of all clauses of any other acts of Parliament whereby the jurisdiction of the admiralty is extended as aforesaid, and of the other late acts for the restriction of the American commerce.