The Declaratory Act of 1766 resulted from the crisis caused by the Stamp Act in the preceding year. The Stamp Act of 1765, a highly unpopular measure in the colonies, was Parliament's first major attempt to raise taxes in America. The hated bill engendered protest, violence, and colonial political unity that included nonimportation of British goods. Responding to the pleas of British merchants, Parliament repealed the measure, but not without reasserting what it believed to be its prerogative: supreme legislative authority over all colonies of the British Empire. The Declaratory Act was specifically designed to mollify factions within Parliament upset over the repeal of the Stamp Act, but it set in place the framework for the next decade of British-American relations and colored British thinking about the colonies.
The colonists' responses to the Stamp Act threw into question the right of Parliament to legislate for the colonies. Protests and violence in America were matched by increased colonial unity at the Stamp Act Congress. Colonists claimed that because they were unrepresented in Britain's Parliament, it had no right to legislate for them. Colonial boycotts of British goods in 1765 were such an effective economic weapon that many British manufacturers and merchants called on Parliament to restore peaceful British-American relations. Parliament, sharply divided on the constitutional issue of taxation and representation, split into two camps: the government under the Marquess of Rockingham and the opposition unified by William Pitt the Elder. Pitt urged conciliation and negotiation with American colonists, whereas Rockingham preferred to avoid discussing these weighty constitutional issues altogether. Because of these factional divisions, Rockingham's government could not muster a clear majority for its position. Although Rockingham's Whig faction had not supported the Stamp Act, it could not just sweep away the legislation without garnering the support of more conservative parliamentarians who thought the Americans should be put in their place.
The result of this division was the Declaratory Act, passed on March 18, 1766, the same day the hated Stamp Act was repealed. Its official title, "An act for the better securing the dependency of his majesty's dominions in America upon the crown and parliament of Great Britain," left little doubt as to what the role of America was to be within the British Empire. In plain language, the act outlined Parliament's rights to legislate for all the empire and further averred that the colonists' notions of autonomy and taxation prerogatives were unconstitutional. In addition, all colonial measures that called the imperial relationship into question were henceforth null and void; no colonial government had authority over Parliament. The act, however, was vague about Parliament's other rights. Most members assumed that it granted the body authority to tax, but others worried that the language was too forceful and lacked specificity. Significantly, the act did not address the issue at the heart of colonial concerns: would the colonists have representation in Parliament? The final vote did not reflect these underlying tensions—most members of Parliament supported the measure. In any event, the act established the constitutional precedent of parliamentary supremacy that would dominate British colonial policy for the remainder of the decade.
News of the repeal of the Stamp Act was received with tremendous joy and celebration throughout the colonies. The celebrations over the repeal overshadowed much of the apprehension about the accompanying Declaratory Act. Soon, however, many colonists began to wonder about the ramifications of the Declaratory Act. John Adams presciently worried that it foreshadowed yet another hated tax from a Parliament assured of its own power. Still, colonists were largely willing to ignore the Declaratory Act in the hope that it was merely designed as a face-saving measure. As the act did nothing to resolve the constitutional crisis over colonial representation, many colonists treated it as mere rhetoric, easy to ignore and convenient to rail against.
In Massachusetts, discussions in the colonial assembly about compensation for property damage during the Stamp Act crisis brought up several ideas that were in flagrant violation of the Declaratory Act. Radicals, among them Samuel Adams and James Otis Jr., both prominent voices of opposition to the Crown, and their friend Joseph Hawley proposed that Britain had no right to legislate for the colonies. Furthermore, they maintained, the colonial assembly would have the power to grant pardons to the individuals responsible for property destruction the previous year—many of whom happened to be followers of Samuel Adams. Pardons had, heretofore, been a royal prerogative. Such statements and the resulting legislation, perhaps the most inflammatory to occur in the immediate aftermath of the Declaratory Act, were clear signals to Parliament that the act was an impotent measure in the colonies. Despite nullifying the Massachusetts bill, Parliament was unable to prevent it from becoming de facto policy in the colony.
Although Parliament had hoped that the Declaratory Act would settle the issue of legislative authority, colonists largely ignored it. Whereas Parliament viewed the document as the authoritative legal basis for creating new policies for colonial taxation and governance, the colonies saw it only as one more example of British legislators' blindness to the realities of American political and social life. Colonists considered the act something to be treated warily but with disdain. It was among a growing list of policies that merely increased the gap between British and American constitutional viewpoints and that would ultimately lead to the complete breakdown of civil relations.
- The Coming of the Revolution, 1763-1775 New York: Harper, 1954. .
- "Great Britain: Parliament, the Declaratory Act; March 18, 1766." Avalon Project at Yale Law School, http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/amerrev/parliament/declaratory_act_1766.htm (accessed June 15, 2008).
- From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776 New York: W. W. Norton, 1972. .
- The Birth of the Republic, 1765-1789 Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956.
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