On this day (Oct. 15) in 1765, the 27 delegates attending the Stamp Act Congress were heatedly debating and drafting what would finally emerge as a “Declaration of Rights and Grievances.”
This “declaration,” which claimed for the colonists all the rights of the king’s subjects in Great Britain, passed on Saturday, Oct. 19. This intercolonial meeting was called at the behest of the Massachusetts assembly, upon the motion of James Otis Jr., which had, on June 8, 1765, sent out a circular letter to each colonial assembly suggesting that a congress meet in New York City “to consult together on the present circumstances of the colonies” (i.e., to seek relief from the universally hated Stamp Act passed by the British Parliament March 22, 1765, and due to become effective Nov. 1, 1765).
The Stamp Act was the first parliamentary act that levied a direct (internal) tax on the colonists. It levied taxes on newspapers, legal and business documents, playing cards, dice, almanacs and pamphlets. It therefore adversely affected lawyers, printers, merchants and clergymen (i.e.,”the movers and shakers” of colonial society).
The Stamp Act Congress, which met from Oct. 5-25, 1765, in the New York City Hall, was only one form of colonial opposition to the hated tax. Violent opposition, primarily by the “Sons of Liberty,” and increasingly effective non-importation, non-consumption agreements had resulted in the resignation of all 13 tax collectors, thereby making implementation almost impossible. It would lead to Parliament repealing the Act on March 18, 1766.
The Stamp Act Congress was the first important step toward colonial union. It was the occasion for many of the delegates to meet the men with whom they would later conduct a successful Revolutionary War and create the new American republic.
Prominent among the delegates from nine of the 13 colonies (New Hampshire declined to attend; Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia were prevented from sending delegations because of their governors’ refusal to convene their legislative assemblies to elect delegates) were Timothy Ruggles (elected chairman from Massachusetts), James Otis Jr. (Massachusetts), William Samuel Johnson (Connecticut), Robert R. Livingston (New York), Thomas McKean (Delaware), John Dickinson (Pennsylvania), and Christopher Gadsden (South Carolina), and John Rutledge (South Carolina).
Soon after the first meeting on Saturday, Oct. 5, two distinct factions emerged:
1. The majority (conservative) group, led by chairman Ruggles, Dickinson and Livingston, were determined to petition the king and Parliament to assert, in respectful terms, colonial rights, but not infringe upon the prerogatives of the crown and the constitutional powers of Parliament.
2. The more vocal minority (radical) group, led by Otis, Gadsden and Rutledge, favored petitioning only the crown on the ground that the American colonists did not hold their rights from Parliament.
The “Declaration of Rights and Grievances” that was debated and drafted on this day and on the three following days was a clear victory for the conservatives. Actually written by the “Penman of the Revolution” (i.e., John Dickinson), the “Declaration” declared that, “The members of this Congress” were “sincerely devoted with the warmest sentiments of affection and duty to His Majesty’s person and Government” and are only exercising, humbly and respectfully, the right to petition “to procure the repeal” of the” Stamp Act.
The legacy of the Stamp Act Congress was that it was an important first step in fostering American nationalism, which would lead almost inevitably to American independence.
• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of “The American Revolution” and “Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.” Email him at email@example.com.