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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

October 7, 2015: Before the Revolution: The Stamp Act Congress

[October 7th marks the 250th anniversary of the convening of the Stamp Act Congress, one of the most significant moments in pre-Revolutionary American history. So this week I’ll highlight and AmericanStudy three such pre-Revolution moments, including the Congress itself on Wednesday. Leading up to a weekend post on some of the best scholars of this period, past and present!]
On how the 1765 gathering anticipated the Continental Congress, and how it didn’t.
250 years ago today, the Stamp Act Congress (also known as the First Congress of the American Colonies) convened in New York’s City Hall (known today as Federal Hall). Composed of 27 elected delegates from nine British colonies, including such famous figures as Massachusetts’ James Otis and South Carolina’s John Rutledge, the Congress met for two and a half weeks; by its October 25th conclusion, it had drafted a Declaration of Rights and Grievances (likely written by Pennsylvania delegate John Dickenson, perhaps with the aid of New York delegate John Cruger) against the Stamp Act, as well as a number of other petitions to King George III and Parliament. Sent to England’s Lord Dartmouth (the colonial secretary, on whom more in tomorrow’s post), these documents contributed both to rising tensions between the colonies and England and to the eventual successful efforts (led by England’s Rockingham Ministry) to repeal the Stamp Act—a repeal passed concurrently, however, with the 1766 Declaratory Act, which granted Parliament “full power and authority to make laws to bind the colonies in all cases whatsoever.”
Taken together, the Stamp Act repeal and the Declaratory Act reflect the conflicts both within England and between England and the colonies that would develop fully over the subsequent pre-Revolutionary decade. Moreover, the Stamp Act Congress itself can be seen as a direct predecessor and model for the Continental Congress, the multi-year 1770s convention that embodied the colonies’ steps toward the Revolution. A handful of the Stamp Act Congress delegates would go on to serve in one or more of the Continental Congresses, the Declaration of Rights and Grievances served as a primary model for the Declaration of Independence produced by those Congresses, and the process of electing and convening the Congress itself reflected perhaps the first (and certainly the most impressive) such coordinated, colonies-wide political effort, one without which the Continental Congresses might never have gotten off the ground at all. That last point is perhaps the most easily overlooked: in an era when travel of any kind was laborious and challenging, and when the individual colonies existed far more separately than in our Revolutionary images of them as a united community, the common cause of the Stamp Act Congress brought together delegates from Massachusetts to South Carolina.
On the other hand, those delegates did not remain in agreement over subsequent Revolutionary events. Indeed, precisely as many delegates (five) as would go on to serve in the Continental Congresses would become ardent Revolutionary-era Loyalists, with one (New York’s William Bayard) raising a regiment for the British Army during the Revolution. Another delegate who seemed to support independence, Rhode Island’s Metcalf Bowler, has subsequently been discovered to have served as a British spy throughout the war. These individuals and stories reflect the divided nature of the American political and social communities in this period, but they also illustrate the danger in analyzing the Stamp Act Congress solely as a predecessor to the Continental Congresses. Seen in retrospect, history can seem all too inevitable, a natural procession toward subsequent moments and events. Yet it’s vital in analyzing any one moment to recognize not only its own specifics and complexities, but also the many possible futures toward which it might have led. For these Loyalist delegates in particular, it’s fair to say that the goal of the Stamp Act Congress might well have been to redress English wrongs in such a way as to produce a more harmonious relationship between the colonies and England—which would make the Declaration of Rights and Grievances quite different from, if not indeed opposite to, the Declaration of Independence.
Next pre-Revolutionary post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Pre-Revolution moments you’d highlight?

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