Declaratory Act

Declaratory Act of 1765

The Declaratory Act was passed along with the repeal of the Stamp Act in March, 1766 to assert Parliament's authority to rule over the American colonies. Members of Parliament knew they had to repeal the Stamp Act because it had brought the British economy to a standstill after the Americans boycotted British goods.

Many members were reluctant to repeal the Stamp Act though, because they thought it would make Britain look weak and would send the message that all people had to do was protest and riot against Parliament and they would back down to their demands.

The remedy was the Declaratory Act, which stated that Parliament had "full power and authority 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." Learn more about the Declaratory Act below.

Background of the Declaratory Act

Colonists sacking the home of Lt. Gov. Thomas Hutchinson

The Stamp Act was passed by the British Parliament on March 22, 1765 and was set to go into effect on November 1st of that year. To the surprise of Parliament, the colonists rose up in one accord and protested against its implementation.

Stamp distributors were harassed, marched through the streets and forced to sign statements renouncing the Act. Some had their homes and personal property destroyed or damaged. Other officials and Royal Governors were threatened at gunpoint. In Massachusetts, the Lieutenant Governor had his house burned to the ground. Newspapers and prominent citizens published articles criticizing Parliament for taxing them without their consent. They challenged Parliament's right to make any laws governing them at all, since they were not represented in Parliament.

Many prominent merchants signed non-importation agreements, meaning they would not import British made goods, until the Stamp Act was repealed. This turned out to be the most impactful protest of the colonists because it brought the British economy to a standstill.

Merchants and manufacturers in Britain began to suffer immediately from the boycott. Many had ships full of cargo intended for the colonies that could not sail, waiting in British ports. Their bills began to go unpaid and tens of thousands of workers were let go in Britain's manufacturing towns, such as London, Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester.

These British merchants and workers began pressing their members of Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act so they could go back to work and pay their bills. On December 6, 1765, the Committee of Merchants in London sent a letter to the mayor of London stating that many businesses would soon be forced to shut down if the Stamp Act was not repealed. You can read this Letter from the London Merchants Urging Repeal of the Stamp Act here. Very soon, a strong coalition rose up in Parliament to see the repeal through.

Prime Minister Charles Rockingham

Prime Minister George Grenville, who had championed the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act, fell out of power and was replaced in July, 1765. Charles Watson-Wentworth, the Marquis of Rockingham, succeeded Grenville. Lord Rockingham was much more favorable to the Americans and he wanted to see the Stamp Act repealed himself. Rockingham and his assistant, Edmund Burke began to organize resistance to the Stamp Act by encouraging merchants to press their members of Parliament to repeal the law.

After the Christmas break, Parliament reconvened on January 14, 1766 and Rockingham presented his plan for repeal. Some wanted to simply amend the Stamp Act to make it more palatable to the colonists. Others wanted a complete repeal. Some wanted no repeal at all because they thought it would make Parliament look weak.

William Pitt made a famous speech defending the colonists. In it, he agreed that Parliament was "sovereign and supreme, in every circumstance of government and legislature whatsoever," but he also said it was his "opinion that this Kingdom has no right to lay a tax upon the colonies." He said that the colonies acknowledged the King's "authority in all things, with the sole exception that you shall not take their money out of their pockets without their consent."

This speech made Pitt into one of Parliament's great defenders of the colonists. You can read his speech, called In Defense of the Colonies here.

Lord Rockingham even invited Ben Franklin, who was living in London at the time, to speak to Parliament about the values and policies of the American colonies. Franklin was there representing several colonies to the Crown and was already a famous inventor and writer by this time. Many scholars believe Franklin's frank discussion with Parliament opened the eyes of many members to realize they were not going to win this fight. You can read the transcript of the Examination of Benjamin Franklin before the House of Commons here.

Parliament's ideas vs the colonists' ideas

As the debate raged on through January and February, most members began to see that the repeal of the Stamp Act was the only way to solve the present crisis and get the economy moving again. They realized the Americans would not submit to the stamp taxes and would continue their boycott, stalling the entire British economy, until the Act was repealed.

Benjamin Franklin

They had serious disagreements with two of the Americans' main arguments though. First, the Americans believed that Parliament had no right to tax them. The Americans, according to the testimony of Ben Franklin, made a distinction between internal taxes, which meant taxes on daily activities solely inside the colonies, and external taxes, which meant taxes on imported items from nations outside the colonies.

Franklin showed Parliament that the Americans would agree to external taxes, but not to internal taxes and the only reason they would agree to external taxes was because royal officials were necessary to monitor imports and exports and it was necessary to have funds to support them. Any other taxes though, especially those meant solely to raise revenue to fund various activities of Parliament, were viewed as evil, illegal and unconstitutional.

The second policy of the Americans that Parliament disagreed with was their assertion that Parliament had no authority whatsoever to make any law of any kind regarding the colonies! The colonists relied on the age old English tradition that it was unjust for a governing body to make laws over people that had no representation in that lawmaking body. The colonists had no representatives in Parliament and therefore, in their minds, Parliament had no legal right to make laws for them. Instead, each colony had its own elected legislature and those elected legislatures were the proper place to make laws for the colonies.

Many members of Parliament were incredulous at this idea. They viewed Parliament as the supreme authority and its laws as binding on everyone in the Empire. They believed that if the Stamp Act were to actually be repealed, it would undermine Parliament's authority. It would make Parliament look weak and would send the message that all a person had to do was protest and riot to make Parliament change its mind. It would make the people supreme, instead of Parliament!

The solution - the Declaratory Act

Many members threatened that they would not sign the Stamp Act repeal unless some statement affirming Parliament's sovereignty accompanied it. This would make it appear that Parliament merely perceived that this particular law was a bad law, but would show that they were not agreeing with the American ideas that they had no authority to tax or make laws regarding the colonies.

The Declaratory Act, also called American Colonies Act 1766, was the result of this compromise. A large group of members agreed to sign the repeal bill, if a statement affirming Parliament's authority to make laws for the colonies was passed along with it. Lord Rockingham accepted the deal in order to get the Stamp Act repealed, even though he didn't necessarily agree with the ideas in the Declaratory Act.

Stamp Act Repeal Announcement London Gazette

In the end, both houses of Parliament voted for the repeal and the Declaratory Act was simply attached by a voice vote, not even with an official count. The Stamp Act was repealed and the Declaratory Act was passed by Parliament on March 17, 1766. King George III came to Parliament the following day and signed them both into law. Since the two bills were passed together, they became known as the "Twin Brothers."

The Declaratory Act proclaimed three main things:

  • That the colonial assemblies did not have the sole and exclusive right of imposing duties and taxes upon their colonial subjects.
  • That Parliament had "full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America... in all cases whatsoever," just as it had in Britain.
  • And that any laws or resolutions made by the colonial assemblies denying Parliament's rightful authority to make laws governing them were repealed and made utterly null and void.

Results of the Declaratory Act

Obelisk erected in Boston for the Repeal of the Stamp Act celebrations

Of course, once word arrived in the colonies that the Stamp Act was repealed, the colonists rejoiced up and down the seaboard. Celebrations were held, bonfires were lit, merchants agreed to buy British goods once again. A statue of King George was even erected on the Bowling Green in New York City. In all the celebration, little notice was paid to the Declaratory Act. They had fought a good fight and felt satisfied that Britain had learned its lesson.

A few colonial leaders, however, though they were joyful at the Stamp Act's repeal, saw the Declaratory Act as the ominous sign that it was. Even though the colonists had won this battle, Parliament still was asserting its right to tax them and make binding laws upon them for any reason. It seemed that more unreasonable laws and taxes might be soon upon them.

Patriot leaders such as John Adams, Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry saw trouble coming as a result of the Declaratory Act as well. The Declaratory Act was taken nearly word-for-word from the Irish Declaratory Act of 1719, which had removed Ireland's ability to govern itself as well and put it into a position of servitude to Parliament.

Thomas Jefferson later wrote that,

"By one act they have suspended the powers of one American legislature and by another have declared they may legislate for us themselves in all cases whatsoever. These two acts alone form a basis broad enough whereon to erect a despotism of unlimited extent."

Thomas Jefferson

The fears of these leaders were soon to be realized when a set of acts known as the Townshend Acts were passed in 1767. This series of five acts was designed to raise revenue for the salaries of colonial officials, to enforce trade laws on the colonies and to punish the colony of New York for disobeying the Quartering Act of 1765. The colonists realized that the victory in having the Stamp Act repealed was lost and that Parliament did indeed intend to rule over them with an iron hand.

Of all the Acts of Parliament that angered the American colonists and led to the Revolutionary War, the Declaratory Act is probably the least well-known, but may be one of the most important. It stated Parliament's clear intent and belief system regarding the colonies. The colonists were subjects of the Crown who could be ruled over at Parliament's pleasure, having no say in their own internal affairs.

Clearly, this was diametrically opposed to the colonists' belief that no power across the sea, where they had no representation, had any legal or moral authority to rule over them. The clash between these two points would end in a bloody revolution that would begin in only a few short years.

Interestingly, the Declaratory Act was still on the law books of Great Britain until 1964! The law asserted that Great Britain had full authority to make laws for all its colonies in the Western Hemisphere, including in the Caribbean, South America and Canada, not just in those colonies that would become the United States.

The last of these remaining colonies were given the right to have their own constitutions with the West Indies Act of 1962, making the Declaratory Act meaningless. Even though this law had been on the books since 1766, Parliament never again tried to tax its colonies after 1778, showing that the message that "taxation without representation" was wrong, had truly gotten through.

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