A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #2: Settlement, Revolution & War. TOC
Part 2, "Revolution And The 14th Colony" TOC
Ch. 6 - Acts of Parliament (1764-6).

One of the first orders of business after the war, for England, as is the case for all war torn nations, was to attempt to put its finances in order. This attempt led to the passing of a series bills through the English parliament which were to impact on the colonies. The first of these acts which we address is the Revenue Act of 1764, it became known as the Sugar Act because of the taxes imposes on molasses (molasses was used in the colonies for the making of rum). The stated duel purposes of the act was "for the better securing and encouraging the trade of his Majesty’s sugar colonies in America" and for "applying the produce of such duties, and of the duties to arise by virtue of the said act, towards defraying the expenses of defending, protecting, and securing the said colonies and plantations." More than just sugar products were taxed by the Sugar Act, other goods included: indigo, coffee, wine, and cloth. It can be seen from a perusal of it1 that the act is pitched against foreign goods. Certain goods were going to be taxed no matter from where these goods came, except where it came directly from England, in which case preferential rates were applied. The Sugar Act was to come into effect on the 29th of September, 1764.

The Currency Act was another of the acts passed in 1764. The stated purpose of the act is as set forth in its preamble. The British law makers paid no mind to what the colonial legislatures thought convenient for themselves, as the British were of the view that "great quantities of paper bills of credit have been created and issued" and that "such bills of credit have greatly depreciated in their value, by means whereof debts have been discharged with a much less value than was contracted for, to the great discouragement and prejudice of the trade and commerce of his Majesty's subjects, by occasioning confusion in dealings, and lessening credit in the said colonies or plantations." The remedy was that from the first day of September, 1764, the colonies in America were not to create or issue any paper bills and any declarations that such bills are legal tender "shall be null and void."2 The conclusion is that British merchants back in England, at least, wanted to be paid in British currency and not funny colony currency. I think that the concerns of the British merchants were perfectly legitimate. I should have thought that conditions imposed by the bargaining parties themselves should have been sufficient, however, many of the colonists pointed to the Currency Act as another unwanted intervention in colonial affairs, a challenge to the decision makers in the democratically elected legislative houses in the colonies.

The next act with which we shall deal and which upset the colonists is The Quartering Act of 1765. This act of the British parliament required the local authorities in the colonies, where barracks were not available, to furnish quarters and supplies to British troops. The act also provided that "for the better and more regular provision of carriages for his Majesty’s forces in their marches, or for their arms, clothes, or accoutrements, in his Majesty’s said dominions in America" that there be made a "provision for carriages, with able men to drive the same." British officers could not just simply seize wagons and horses. The commanding officer, as provided for in the act, was required to present himself to a Justice of the Peace in the area in which it was suspected that such carriages could be provided, and then a warrant would be made, which warrant would allow the owners of the carriages reasonable time to get their men, teams and carriages together. The provision of accommodations, supplies and carriage would be paid for at rates that seem to have been stipulated in the legislation.3 The legislation was in force only for a two year period; it was a provision of the act that it should go into force on the 24th of March, 1765, and go out of force on the 24th of March, 1767.

Before coming to the infamous Stamp Act, a few words on British taxation. It should be remembered that the colonists were not the only British subjects suffering from taxes. The need for taxes was created by the expenses of the late war. The Seven Years War (1756-63), the very first world war, though it brought great rewards to Britain, proved to be very expensive. Notwithstanding that there are people of little understanding, who think that a government is possessed of a limitless well of money, there are but two choices for government as to anyone: to borrow or to tax -- both, have their limits. Before the war Britain's national debt had stood at 60 million £s; after, in 1764, 133 million. With its borrowing capacity being just about exhausted the government had no choice but to tax the people. The implementation of post-war taxes, however, came at a bad time as the economy was then in recessionary times. In certain parts of the colonies, real estate was selling for half its previous value; people were unemployed; and, merchants were groaning over their ledgers. Back in England people were likewise experiencing hard economic times; the British taxpayers were also paying stamp duties, window taxes, and excise taxes upon malt and cider.4 Drawing revenue from the colonies to help was not politically painful, as no vote was required in parliament. In any event, given that the war bills had to be paid, taxing the colonists struck most to be a fair thing to do. The colonists gained much from the late war (the menacing French were cleared out), and their tax burden was, at the end of the war, a lot less than those back in England: "the public debt in the colonies was eighteen shillings per person; that of Great Britain stood at eighteen pounds per person."5

During the period we are dealing with, governments raised their money by direct taxation6 of goods coming into the country, import duties. This kind of tax not only raised money for the ever thirsty governments, but it could be used for the political objectives of protecting certain home industries. Also, though marked by great difficulties,7 collecting taxes at the national borders proved to be the easiest way to get at the geese.8

While there may have been differences between those in the colonies and those at home; all were Englishmen; all had "rights." The colonies possessed representative assemblies just as existed back home. It is to be kept in mind that a long time was to pass, both in America and in Britain, before there was wide suffrage.9 The cry of "Taxation without Representation," might have been the cry of American Patriots, but equally, too, it might have been the cry of all British citizens. If it is true that the American colonists were not represented in parliament back home; it is also true that a number of "English citizens" in the British Isles were not, either. In England, these were the days of the "rotten boroughs": "Twenty-nine out of thirty Englishmen did not enjoy the suffrage; and a majority of the House of Commons was elected by a few thousand voters who, it was said, were willing to 'sell their birth-right to the best bidder, be his extraction from the dunghill, his manners from the beargarden, his morals from the brothel, and his understanding of the meanest cast.'"10 Those that did sit in Parliament were of the view that they represented all Englishmen, both in England and abroad, notwithstanding, that the vast majority had no say as to who was to represent them: this is what was called the doctrine of virtual representation. The theory is that a member of Parliament represented the property and interests of England rather than individuals and was expected to promote the welfare of the whole empire rather than that of his own constituents.11

The Stamp Act:

The Stamp Act12 made it necessary, in all of the American colonies, Nova Scotia included; for all bills, bonds, leases, insurance policies, newspapers, and legal documents to be written on stamped paper, which was to be sold by public officers at established prices. It was passed by the British parliament in February of 1765, "with less opposition than a turnpike bill."13 It was to take effect on November 1st, 1765. It is no mystery as to the purpose of the act; it is set out in its preamble: it was to provide revenue to the British government by way of duties "in the British colonies and plantations in America, towards further defraying the expenses of defending, protecting, and securing the same.14 There was to be a duty levied for "every skin or piece of vellum or parchment, or sheet or piece of paper" used in connection with any legal ecclesiastical proceedings in the range of three pence to two shillings.15 There was to be a stamp duty of two pounds on "any degree taken in any university, academy, college, or seminary of learning, within the said colonies and plantations." There was to be a stamp duty of ten pounds on "any license, appointment, or admission of any counselor, solicitor, attorney, advocate, or proctor, to practice in any court, or of any notary within the said colonies and plantations." On every bill of lading "for any kind of goods, wares, or merchandize, to be exported from ... the said colonies" (four pence). Stamp duties were applied to a "licence for retailing of spirituous liquors." The list goes on and on. In addition there was to be a charge on "every pack of playing cards [one shilling], and all dice [ten shillings]." The Stamp Act also provided for taxes to be charged on advertisements, almanacs and calendars. Also, every "deed, instrument, note, memorandum, letter, or other instrument or writing" in respect to any commercial transaction was taxed. By the act, the press, which to government, was then becoming quite troublesome16 was to be taxed:

"And for and upon every paper, commonly called a pamphlet, and upon every news paper, containing publick news, intelligence, or occurrences, which shall be printed, dispersed, and made publick, within any of the said colonies and plantations, and for and upon such advertisements as are herein after mentioned, the respective duties following (that is to say)
For every such pamphlet and paper contained in half a sheet, or and lesser piece of paper, which shall be so printed, a stamp duty of one halfpenny, for every printed copy thereof."
It was not thought that enforceability of the Stamp Act would pose a problem. For example, legal documents that did not bear stamps were void. As reluctant as they would be to pay the stamp tax, people could ill afford having their valuable contract thrown out of court. People, it was foreseen, would simply line up and pass their money over. The act was not to immediately come into force but rather a period of time was to pass before its implementation; this would allow time for the collection mechanisms to get in place. A position as a "stamp master," incidently, was seen by prominent colonists, with a salary of three hundred pounds a year, to be a political plum.17 A "flood of applications" came in for this office, one regarded as "genteel."18

As November 1st approached, protests mounted up. Citizens of all stripes wore homespun, an act meant to deny English textile mills. Colonial merchants who owed accounts back in England conveniently refused to pay: English business, on both sides of the Atlantic was disrupted. In America, church bells were muffled and flags were hung at half mast. Surprisingly there was no rioting in Boston. In New York there was, but this rioting mob hauled up short of the British fort, though the garrison consisted only of 151 men and officers, "they had no stomach for assaulting British cannon and fortifications with small arms. Only the older more established colonies were there any real difficulties experienced. In the newer colonies the act was executed without difficulty, likewise in the West Indian Islands: "Barbados and Jamaica submitted quietly."19 So too, did Quebec and Nova Scotia:

"In Halifax, the citizens did not mark their disapproval with even a riot -- which caused many royal governors who found the more southerly colonies too hot for comfort to look to that port, hitherto regarded as a frigid place of banishment, as a haven in a storm. Likewise, Quebec offered no resistance, largely because the French-speaking inhabitants had no traditions of home rule and because the English-speaking settlers were too few to organize opposition."20
Well, there may not have been any riots at Halifax over the Stamp Act, but, there was to be some opposition. As an example, we refer to the February 13th, 1766 edition of the Halifax Gazette; it was to cause quite a stir.21 Now each sheet of paper had to bear a stamp. Isaiah Thomas who worked for the paper, as a personal statement as to what he thought of the Stamp Act and who was in charge of the printing press, ran a sheet through that day in such a way that the impressed stamp was to show upside down in the upper left hand corner of page two instead of the intended position, at the lower right of the first page. Further, closely "framing the stamp was a black block print of a devil with a huge pitchfork aimed at the stamp, at the top and bottom of which was the inscription 'Behold me the Scorn and Contempt of AMERICA, pitching down to destruction. D--ils clear the Way for B--s and STAMPS.'" Secretary Bulkeley himself was to call on Thomas and after some "smart repartee," Bulkeley reminded Thomas that he was no longer in New England.22

Another incident, presumably occurring at about the same time that Thomas was to get into trouble with the printing of the Gazette, was when there appeared, one Saturday night, high up on the citadel overlooking Halifax, a set of mock gallows with suspended effigies of a stamp man, a devil and a boot.23

The authorities in London became inundated with petitions; parliamentary debates ensued. Though we have not been left with any verbatim recordings of Pitt's speeches there are snatches.24 In favour of the repeal of the Stamp Act, he was to bawl out to The House: "Taxation is no part of the governing power. The taxes are a voluntary gift and grant of the Commons alone." "Sir, I have been charged with giving birth to sedition in America. The Americans have spoken their sentiments with freedom against this unhappy Act, and that freedom has become their crime." "I draw my ideas of freedom from the vital powers of the British constitution, not from the crude and fallacious notions too much relied upon, as if we were but in the morning of liberty." "The gentleman asks, When were the colonies emancipated? I desire to know when they were made slaves." "And shall a miserable financier come with a boast that he can fetch a peppercorn into the exchequer to the loss of millions to the nation's [trade]." And with reference to the real problem of smuggling when commodity taxes are laid on: "... let not an English minister become a custom-house officer for Spain or for any foreign power." "It is not repealing a piece of parchment that can restore America; you must repeal her fears and her resentments."25 These speeches had a deep impact. But, what was at issue, was the supremacy of parliament, an issue which by its very nature, notwithstanding Pitt's eloquence, swung the majority over to the government side. Even Burke, who, in one of his first noteworthy speeches, came out in support of the government's motion, one which was handily carried.26

In London, in 1766 there was to be an examination of Benjamin Franklin in the House of Commons, which led to this exchange:

Q. What was the temper of America towards Great Britain before the year 1763?

A. The best in the world. They submitted willingly to the government of the crown, and paid, in all their courts, obedience to acts of parliament. Numerous as the people are in the several old provinces, they cost you nothing in forts, citadels, garrisons or armies, to keep them in subjection. They were governed by this country at the expence only of a little pen, ink, and paper. They were led by a thread. They had not only a respect, but an affection for Great Britain, for its laws, its customs and manners, and even a fondness for its fashions, that greatly increased the commerce. Natives of Britain were always treated with particular regard; to be an Old-England man was, of itself, a character of some respect, and gave a kind of rank among us.

Q. And what is their temper now?

A. O, very much altered.

Q. Have not you heard of the resolution of this House, and of the House of Lords, asserting the right of parliament relating to America, including a power to tax the people there?

A. Yes, I have heard of such resolutions.

Q. What will be the opinion of the Americans on those resolutions?

A. They will think them unconstitutional and unjust.27

Given all these demonstrations caused by the Stamp Act of 1765 throughout the colonies, even in the quiet and obedient colony of Nova Scotia -- it should cause little wonder that within a year of its enactment: it was repealed. Bearing in mind the adage -- "Be wise to-day; Next day the fatal precedent will plead" -- The British parliament upon the repeal of the Stamp Act promptly passed the very short two paragraph act, the Declaratory Act (1766) whereby the English Parliament asserted that it had supreme power over the colonies, "in all cases, whatsoever"; thus to affirm what it thought was its constitutional right to legislate for the colonies in matters of taxation.28

By June of 1766, the news was circulating in Nova Scotia that the dreaded Stamp Act had been repealed. Simeon Perkins wrote in his diary on June 3rd: "Day of rejoicing over the repeal of the Stamp Act. Cannon at Point Lawrence fired, colours flown on shipping. In the evening the company marched to the home of Major John Doggett and were entertained. People made a bon-fire out of the old house of Capt. Mayhew, a settler here, and continued all night, and part of next, carousing."

In 1766, in England, "from March to August rain had fallen almost every day, so that the grain crops were damaged and the harvest practically ruined ... the lower classes became apprehensive and excited. There were riots throughout the country. In the western counties these were of a very serious nature. Farmhouses were wrecked; the corn was carried off to prevent the possibility of its exportation, or was sold at prices fixed by the rioters. Where there was any suspicion of concealment of stores the barns were burned down. Complete prohibition of export was loudly demanded."29

[NEXT: Pt. 2, Ch. 7 - "The Right Mix for Revolution."]

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[Settlement, Revolution & War -- Book 2 (1760-1815)]
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