Patrick Henry - Virginia Stamp Resolutions

 

In 1765 the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which placed a tax on newspapers, almanacs, pamphlets and broadsides, all kinds of legal documents, insurance policies, ship's papers, licenses, dice and playing cards. This led to widespread protest in the American colonies, and to the slogan, "No taxation without representation!"


Patrick Henry was elected from Louisa County to the House of Burgesses, the legislative body of the Virginia colony, in 1765 to fill a vacated seat in the assembly. When he arrived in Williamsburg the legislature was already in session. Only nine days after being sworn in Henry introduced the Virginia Stamp Act Resolutions, "in language so extreme that some Virginians said it smacked of treason”. The freshman representative waited for an opportunity where the mostly conservative members of the House were away (only 24% was considered sufficient for a quorum). In this atmosphere, he succeeded, through much debate and persuasion, in getting his proposal passed. It was possibly the most anti-British American political action to that point, and some credit the Resolutions with being one of the main catalysts of the Revolution. The proposals were based on principles that were well established British rights, such as the right to be taxed by one's own representatives. They went further, however, to assert that the colonial assemblies had the exclusive right to impose taxes on the colonies and could not assign that right.


The Virginia legislature did not actually adopt the fifth and sixth resolves, which were quite radical, but this document, including all six resolves, was published widely in newspapers across the colonies. Therefore, colonists were exposed to Henry's radical ideas, and this document served as influential propaganda for the cause. Eight other colonies followed suit and had adopted similar resolves by the end of 1765.


Virginia Resolves on the Stamp Act
Patrick Henry
30 May 1765


Virginia Resolves. On May 29, 1765, the House of Burgesses of Virginia came to the following resolutions:


Whereas the honorable House of Commons in England have late drawn into question how far the general assembly of this colony has power to enact laws for laying taxes and imposing duties payable to the pope of this his majesty's most ancient colony — For settling and ascertaining the same to all future times, the House of Burgesses of this present general assembly have come to the several following resolutions:


Resolved, That the first adventurers and settlers of this his majesty's colony and dominion of Virginia brought with them and transmitted to their posterity and all others, his majesty's subjects since inhabiting in this is majesty's colony, all the privileges and immunities that have at any time been held, enjoyed, and possessed by the people of Great Britain.


Resolved, That by the two royal charters granted by King James the First, the colonists aforesaid are declared entitled to all privileges of faithful, liege, and natural born subjects, to all intents and purposes, as if they had been abiding and born within the realm of England.


Resolved, That his majesty's liege people of this his most ancient colony have enjoyed the right being thus governed by their own assembly, in the article of taxes and internal police; and that the same have never been forfeited or any other way yielded up, but have been constantly recognized by the kind and people of Great Britain.


Resolved therefore, That the general assembly of the colony, together with his majesty or his substitute have in their representative capacity the only exclusive right and power to levy taxes and impositions on the inhabitants of this colony and that every attempt to vest such a power in any person or persons whatsoever other than the general assembly aforesaid is illegal, unconstitutional, and unjust, and has a manifest tendency to destroy British, as well as American freedom.


Of the following resolves, only the fifth was passed and the next day a motion was made, and the fifth resolution was expunged from the record.


Resolved, That his majesty's liege people, the inhabitants of this colony, are not bound to yield obedience to any law or ordinance whatsoever designed to impose any taxation whatsoever upon them, other than the laws and ordinances of the general assembly aforesaid.


Resolved, That any person who shall by speaking or writing maintain that any person or persons other than the general assembly of this colony have any right or power to impose or lay any taxation whatsoever on the people here shall be deemed an enemy to this his majesty's colony.


All of the resolves were published widely in newspapers, with an additional resolution. There were also some variations from publication to publication.


The above "Virginia Resolves" should not be confused with another set, drafted by George Mason, introduced by George Washington, and adopted unanimously by the Virginia House of Burgesses on May 16, 1769, as a protest to the 1767 Townshend Acts, enacted by the British Parliament after the repeal of the 1765 Stamp Act in 1766, which had been the target of the 1765 "Virginia Resolves" above.


Upon Henry’s death, a sealed envelope was found among his belongings which contained the original hand written draft of his Virginia Resolves. On the back of the paper, Henry wrote further comments which, as William Wirt aptly declared in his book on Henry, “I will not withhold from the reader a note of this transaction from the pen of Mr. Henry himself. It is a curiosity and highly worthy of preservation.”


“The within resolutions passes the House of Burgesses in May, 1765. They formed the first opposition to the stamp act and the scheme of taxing America by the British parliament. All the colonies, either through fear, or want of opportunity to form an opposition, or from influence of some kind or other, had remained silent. I had been for the first time elected a burgess, a few days before, was young, inexperienced, unacquainted with the forms of the house, and the members that composed it. Finding the men of weight averse to opposition, and the commencement of the tax at hand, and that no person was likely to step forth, I determined to venture, and alone, unadvised, and unassisted, on a blank leaf of an old law book wrote the within. Upon offering them to the house, violent debates ensued. Many threats were uttered, and much abuse cast on me, by the party for submission. After a long and warm contest, the resolutions passed by a very small majority, perhaps of one or two only. The alarm spread throughout America with astonishing quickness, and the ministerial party were overwhelmed. The great point of resistance to British taxation was universally established in the colonies. This brought on the war, which finally separated the two countries, and brought on independence to ours. Whether this will prove a blessing or a curse will depend upon the use our people make of the blessings which a gracious God hath bestowed on us. If they are wise, they will be great and happy. If they are of a contrary character, they will be miserable. Righteousness alone can exalt a nation. Reader! Whoever thou art, remember this: and in thy sphere, practice virtue thyself, and encourage it in others, - P. Henry.”

Sources: www.constitution.org; Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry by Thomas Wirt (1833); Text of Virginia Resolves from Morrison, Sources and Documents; Wikepedia

Contributed by Kathryn Currier

Posted December 22, 2009

 

 

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