Life of George Washington

Subsequent ministers adopted a widely different policy. During the progress
of the French war, various projects were discussed in England with regard
to the colonies, which were to be carried into effect on the return of
peace. The open avowal of some of these plans, and vague rumors of others,
more than ever irritated the jealous feelings of the colonists, and put the
dragon spirit of New England on the alert.

In 1760, there was an attempt in Boston to collect duties on foreign sugar
and molasses imported into the colonies. Writs of assistance were applied
for by the custom-house officers, authorizing them to break open ships,
stores, and private dwellings, in quest of articles that had paid no duty;
and to call the assistance of others in the discharge of their odious task.
The merchants opposed the execution of the writ on constitutional grounds.
The question was argued in court, where James Otis spoke so eloquently in
vindication of American rights, that all his hearers went away ready to
take arms against writs of assistance. “Then and there,” says John Adams,
who was present, “was the first scene of opposition to the arbitrary claims
of Great Britain. Then and there American Independence was born.”

Another ministerial measure was to instruct the provincial governors to
commission judges. Not as theretofore “during good behavior,” but “during
the king’s pleasure.” New York was the first to resent this blow at the
independence of the judiciary. The lawyers appealed to the public through
the press against an act which subjected the halls of justice to the
prerogative. Their appeals were felt beyond the bounds of the province, and
awakened a general spirit of resistance.

Thus matters stood at the conclusion of the war. One of the first measures
of ministers, on the return of peace, was to enjoin on all naval officers
stationed on the coasts of the American colonies the performance, under
oath, of the duties of custom-house officers, for the suppression of
smuggling. This fell ruinously upon a clandestine trade which had long been
connived at between the English and Spanish colonies, profitable to both,
but especially to the former, and beneficial to the mother country, opening
a market to her manufactures.

“Men-of-war,” says Burke, “were for the first time armed with the regular
commissions of custom-house officers, invested the coasts, and gave the
collection of revenue the air of hostile contribution. … They fell so
indiscriminately on all sorts of contraband, or supposed contraband, that
some of the most valuable branches of trade were driven violently from our
ports, which caused an universal consternation throughout the colonies.”
[Footnote: Burke on the state of the nation.]

As a measure of retaliation, the colonists resolved not to purchase British
fabrics, but to clothe themselves as much as possible in home manufactures.
The demand for British goods in Boston alone was diminished upwards of
L10,000 sterling in the course of a year.

In 1764, George Grenville, now at the head of government, ventured upon the
policy from which Walpole had so wisely abstained. Early in March the
eventful question was debated, “whether they had a right to tax America.”
It was decided in the affirmative. Next followed a resolution, declaring it
proper to charge certain stamp duties in the colonies and plantations, but
no immediate step was taken to carry it into effect. Mr. Grenville,
however, gave notice to the American agents in London, that he should
introduce such a measure on the ensuing session of Parliament. In the mean
time Parliament perpetuated certain duties on sugar and
molasses–heretofore subjects of complaint and opposition–now reduced and
modified so as to discourage smuggling, and thereby to render them more
productive. Duties, also, were imposed on other articles of foreign produce
or manufacture imported into the colonies. To reconcile the latter to these
impositions, it was stated that the revenue thus raised was to be
appropriated to their protection and security; in other words, to the
support of a standing army, intended to be quartered upon them.

We have here briefly stated but a part of what Burke terms an “infinite
variety of paper chains,” extending through no less than twenty-nine acts
of Parliament, from 1660 to 1764, by which the colonies had been held in

The New Englanders were the first to take the field against the project of
taxation. They denounced it as a violation of their rights as freemen; of
their chartered rights, by which they were to tax themselves for their
support and defence; of their rights as British subjects, who ought not to
be taxed but by themselves or their representatives. They sent petitions
and remonstrances on the subject to the king, the lords and the commons, in
which they were seconded by New York and Virginia. Franklin appeared in
London at the head of agents from Pennsylvania, Connecticut and South
Carolina, to deprecate, in person, measures so fraught with mischief. The
most eloquent arguments were used by British orators and statesmen to
dissuade Grenville from enforcing them. He was warned of the sturdy
independence of the colonists, and the spirit of resistance he might
provoke. All was in vain. Grenville, “great in daring and little in views,”
says Horace Walpole, “was charmed to have an untrodden field before him of
calculation and experiment.” In March, 1765, the act was passed, according
to which all instruments in writing were to be executed on stamped paper,
to be purchased from the agents of the British government. What was more:
all offences against the act could be tried in any royal, marine or
admiralty court throughout the colonies, however distant from the place
where the offence had been committed; thus interfering with that most
inestimable right, a trial by jury.

It was an ominous sign that the first burst of opposition to this act
should take place in Virginia. That colony had hitherto been slow to accord
with the republican spirit of New England. Founded at an earlier period of
the reign of James I., before kingly prerogative and ecclesiastical
supremacy had been made matters of doubt and fierce dispute, it had grown
up in loyal attachment to king, church, and constitution; was
aristocratical in its tastes and habits, and had been remarked above all
the other colonies for its sympathies with the mother country. Moreover, it
had not so many pecuniary interests involved in these questions as had the
people of New England, being an agricultural rather than a commercial
province; but the Virginians are of a quick and generous spirit, readily
aroused on all points of honorable pride, and they resented the stamp act
as an outrage on their rights.

Washington occupied his seat in the House of Burgesses, when, on the 29th
of May, the stamp act became a subject of discussion. We have seen no
previous opinions of his on the subject. His correspondence hitherto had
not turned on political or speculative themes; being engrossed by either
military or agricultural matters, and evincing little anticipation of the
vortex of public duties into which he was about to be drawn. All his
previous conduct and writings show a loyal devotion to the crown, with a
patriotic attachment to his country. It is probable that on the present
occasion that latent patriotism received its first electric shock.

Among the Burgesses sat Patrick Henry, a young lawyer who had recently
distinguished himself by pleading against the exercise of the royal
prerogative in church matters, and who was now for the first time a member
of the House. Rising in his place, he introduced his celebrated
resolutions, declaring that the General Assembly of Virginia had the
exclusive right and power to lay taxes and impositions upon the
inhabitants, and that whoever maintained the contrary should be deemed an
enemy to the colony.

The speaker, Mr. Robinson, objected to the resolutions, as inflammatory.
Henry vindicated them, as justified by the nature of the case; went into an
able and constitutional discussion of colonial rights, and an eloquent
exposition of the manner in which they had been assailed; wound up by one
of those daring flights of declamation for which he was remarkable, and
startled the House by a warning flash from history: “Caesar had his Brutus;
Charles his Cromwell, and George the Third–(‘Treason! treason!’ resounded
from the neighborhood of the Chair)–may profit by their examples,” added
Henry. “Sir, if this be treason (bowing to the speaker), make the most of

The resolutions were modified, to accommodate them to the scruples of the
speaker and some of the members, but their spirit was retained. The
Lieutenant-governor (Fauquier), startled by this patriotic outbreak,
dissolved the Assembly, and issued writs for a new election; but the
clarion had sounded. “The resolves of the Assembly of Virginia,” says a
correspondent of the ministry, “gave the signal for a general outcry over
the continent. The movers and supporters of them were applauded as the
protectors and assertors of American liberty.” [Footnote: Letter to
Secretary Conway, New York, Sept. 23.–_Parliamentary Register_.]



Washington returned to Mount Vernon full of anxious thoughts inspired by
the political events of the day, and the legislative scene which he
witnessed. His recent letters had spoken of the state of peaceful
tranquillity in which he was living; those now written from his rural home
show that he fully participated in the popular feeling, and that while he
had a presentiment of an arduous struggle, his patriotic mind was revolving
means of coping with it. Such is the tenor of a letter written to his
wife’s uncle, Francis Dandridge, then in London. “The stamp act,” said he,
“engrosses the conversation of the speculative part of the colonists, who
look upon this unconstitutional method of taxation as a direful attack upon
their liberties, and loudly exclaim against the violation. What may be the
result of this, and of some other (I think I may add ill-judged) measures,
I will not undertake to determine; but this I may venture to affirm, that
the advantage accruing to the mother country will fall greatly short of the
expectation of the ministry; for certain it is, that our whole substance
already in a manner flows to Great Britain, and that whatsoever contributes
to lessen our importations must be hurtful to her manufactures. The eyes of
our people already begin to be opened; and they will perceive, that many
luxuries, for which we lavish our substance in Great Britain, can well be
dispensed with. This, consequently, will introduce frugality, and be a
necessary incitement to industry. … As to the stamp act, regarded in a
single view, one of the first bad consequences attending it, is, that our
courts of judicature must inevitably be shut up; for it is impossible, or
next to impossible, under our present circumstances, that the act of
Parliament can be complied with, were we ever so willing to enforce its
execution. And not to say (which alone would be sufficient) that we have
not money enough to pay for the stamps, there are many other cogent reasons
which prove that it would be ineffectual.”

A letter of the same date to his agents in London, of ample length and
minute in all its details, shows that, while deeply interested in the
course of public affairs, his practical mind was enabled thoroughly and
ably to manage the financial concerns of his estate and of the estate of
Mrs. Washington’s son, John Parke Custis, towards whom, he acted the part
of a faithful and affectionate guardian. In those days, Virginia planters
were still in direct and frequent correspondence with their London factors;
and Washington’s letters respecting his shipments of tobacco, and the
returns required in various articles for household and personal use, are
perfect models for a man of business. And this may be remarked throughout
his whole career, that no pressure of events nor multiplicity of cares
prevented a clear, steadfast, undercurrent of attention to domestic
affairs, and the interest and well-being of all dependent upon him.

In the mean time, from his quiet abode at Mount Vernon, he seemed to hear
the patriotic voice of Patrick Henry, which had startled the House of
Burgesses, echoing throughout the land, and rousing one legislative body
after another to follow the example of that of Virginia. At the instigation
of the General Court or Assembly of Massachusetts, a Congress was held in
New York in October, composed of delegates from Massachusetts, Rhode
Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware,
Maryland, and South Carolina. In this they denounced the acts of Parliament
imposing taxes on them without their consent, and extending the
jurisdiction of the courts of admiralty, as violations of their rights and
liberties as natural born subjects of Great Britain, and prepared an
address to the king, and a petition to both Houses of Parliament, praying
for redress. Similar petitions were forwarded to England by the colonies
not represented in the Congress.

The very preparations for enforcing the stamp act called forth popular
tumults in various places. In Boston the stamp distributor was hanged in
effigy; his windows were broken; a house intended for a stamp office was
pulled down, and the effigy burnt in a bonfire made of the fragments. The
lieutenant-governor, chief justice, and sheriff, attempting to allay the
tumult, were pelted. The stamp officer thought himself happy to be hanged
merely in effigy, and next day publicly renounced the perilous office.

Various were the proceedings in other places, all manifesting public scorn
and defiance of the act. In Virginia, Mr. George Mercer had been appointed
distributor of stamps, but on his arrival at Williamsburg publicly declined
officiating. It was a fresh triumph to the popular cause. The bells were
rung for joy; the town was illuminated, and Mercer was hailed with
acclamations of the people. [Footnote: Holmes’s Annals, vol. ii., p. 138.]

The 1st of November, the day when the act was to go into operation, was
ushered in with portentous solemnities. There was great tolling of bells
and burning of effigies in the New England colonies. At Boston the ships
displayed their colors but half-mast high. Many shops were shut; funeral
knells resounded from the steeples, and there was a grand auto-da-fe, in
which the promoters of the act were paraded, and suffered martyrdom in

At New York the printed act was carried about the streets on a pole,
surmounted by a death’s head, with a scroll bearing the inscription, “The
folly of England and ruin of America.” Colden, the lieutenant-governor, who
acquired considerable odium by recommending to government the taxation of
the colonies, the institution of hereditary Assemblies, and other Tory
measures, seeing that a popular storm was rising, retired into the fort,
taking with him the stamp papers, and garrisoned it with marines from a
ship of war. The mob broke into his stable; drew out his chariot; put his
effigy into it; paraded it through the streets to the common (now the
Park), where they hung it on a gallows. In the evening it was taken down,
put again into the chariot, with the devil for a companion, and escorted
back by torchlight to the Bowling Green; where the whole pageant, chariot
and all, was burnt under the very guns of the fort.

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