William Pitt opposes the Stamp Act (1766)


William Pitt the Elder was a prominent British parliamentarian. He served as prime minister between 1766 and 1768. Prior to this Pitt had been an outspoken critic of the Stamp Act, describing it as a dangerous policy founded on undemocratic principles. The following text contains extracts from a speech to parliament, given by Pitt in January 1766:


“Gentlemen, I have been charged with giving birth to sedition in America. They have spoken their sentiments with freedom against this unhappy act, and that freedom has become their crime. Sorry I am to hear the liberty of speech in this house imputed as a crime. No gentleman ought to be afraid to exercise it…

The gentleman tells us America is obstinate; America is almost in open rebellion. I rejoice that America has resisted. Three million of people so dead to all feelings of liberty, as voluntarily to submit to be slaves, would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest. I come not here armed at all points, with law cases and acts of parliament, with the statute book doubled down in dog’s-ears, to defend the cause of liberty. If I had, I would have cited the two cases of Chester and Durham. I would have cited them, to have shown that even under former arbitrary reigns, parliaments were ashamed of taxing a people without their consent, and allowed them representatives…

The gentleman mentioned the stockholders. I hope he does not reckon the debts of the nation as a part of the national estate. Since the accession of King William, many ministers – some of them great, others of more moderate abilities – have taken the lead of government. None of these thought, or ever dreamed, of robbing the colonies of their constitutional rights…

I am no courtier of America; I stand up for this kingdom. I maintain that the parliament has a right to bind, to restrain America. Our legislative power over the colonies is sovereign and supreme. When it ceases to be sovereign and supreme, I would advise every gentleman to sell his lands, if he can, and embark for that country. When two countries are connected together, like England and her colonies, without being incorporated, one must necessarily govern; the greater must rule the less; but so rule it as not to contradict the fundamental principles that are common to both…

The gentleman asks: when were the colonies emancipated? But I desire to know: when were they made slaves?

The Americans have not acted in all things with prudence and temper. They have been wronged. They have been driven to madness by injustice. Will you punish them for the madness you have occasioned? Rather let prudence and temper come first from this side. I will undertake for America, that she will follow the example…

Upon the whole, I will beg leave to tell the House what is really my opinion. It is that the Stamp Act be repealed absolutely, totally, and immediately; that the reason for the repeal should be because it was founded on an erroneous principle. At the same time, let the sovereign authority of this country over the colonies be asserted in as strong terms as can be devised, and be made to extend every point of legislation whatsoever: that we may bind their trade, confine their manufactures, and exercise every power whatsoever – except that of taking money out of their pockets without their consent.”

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