In 1757, Benjamin Franklin – newspaperman, inventor, Freemason and more – was sent to England by the Pennsylvania Assembly to lobby for the colony.
He was sent to protest the machinations of the Penn family, the proprietors, back when Pennsylvania was and could be privately owned. It had passed into the Penn family’s hands as repayment of a debt owed by the British King Charles II. Franklin and the assembly did not believe the Penns should be able to set aside laws the assembly passed, including taxes levied on the Penns’ land. This is just one of the problems with owning settlements: The inhabitants get their own ideas. Still, Franklin, who spent five years on this work, did not get far at the Court of St. James’s.
He returned to London in 1765, just in time for the debate over the Stamp Act, which taxed the exclusive sale of British goods in the colonies and had to be paid in hard currency.
The crown contended the revenue was necessary to pay for the colonies’ defense. The colonists countered they could not be taxed without their representation, e.g., a colonial assembly, which might tax them for the costs of domestic government. From one British vantage, this was specious and seditious. The colonists went further, gathering for a Stamp Act Congress in New York City – the first such joint response to colonial rule.
In Parliament, Charles Townshend, who supported the tax, asked whether “these Americans, children planted by our care, nourished up by our indulgence until they are grown to a degree of strength and opulence, and protected by our arms,” could really be so selfish.
“Planted by your care?” responded MP Isaac Barré. “No! Your oppression planted ’em in America. They fled from your tyranny.”
Franklin could not prevent the Stamp Act’s passage, on March 22. Being plucky and making the most of a bad situation, he recommended his friend and ally John Hughes to the post of Pennsylvania stamp tax collector. Pennsylvanians, learning this, thought they’d been duped by a conniving Franklin and threatened to pull his house down. Colonial stamp tax collectors were intimidated by mobs and forced to resign. In New York, placards appeared, stating, “the first man that either distributes or makes use of stamped paper let him take care of his house, person and effects.”
At the beginning of 1766, Parliament took up the question of repeal.
“Protection and obedience are reciprocal,” said George Grenville. “Great Britain protects America; America is bound to yield obedience. If, not, tell me when the Americans were emancipated?”
If we can point to one moment when the fuse of the Revolution was lit, this may be it.
“I rejoice that America has resisted,” said William Pitt. “Three millions of people, so dead to all the feelings of liberty as voluntarily to submit to be slaves would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest.”
On the last day of the hearing, Feb. 13, Franklin testified and was thought to have had a powerful effect. If the act was not withdrawn, he said, it would mean a “total loss of the respect and affection the people of America bear to this country.”
On March 18, 1766, the Stamp Act was repealed. On the same day, Parliament passed the Declaratory Acts, holding Parliament supreme in America and asserting its power to legislate for and tax the colonies. Which it did, with what in retrospect were predictable results.
Almost exactly a decade later, on March 17, 1776, British forces were compelled to evacuate Boston under the gaze of George Washington, who had been commissioned commander in chief of the Continental Army eight months before. Now, the question of emancipation was being answered.