Benjamin Franklin’s Appearance Before the British House of Commons Advocating Repeal of the Stamp Act

 

Examination of Franklin Benjamin Franklin by the British House of Commons

Benjamin Franklin’s Appearance Before the British House of Commons Advocating Repeal of the Stamp Act

January, 1766

Q. What is your name, and place of abode?

— Franklin, of Philadelphia.

Q. Do the Americans pay any considerable taxes among themselves?

— Certainly many, and very heavy taxes.

Q. What are the present taxes in Pennsylvania, laid by the laws of the colony?

— There are taxes on all estates real and personal, a poll-tax, a tax on all offices, professions, trades, and businesses, according to their profits; an excise on all wine, rum, and other spirit; and a duty of ten pounds per head on all negroes imported, with some other duties.

Q. For what purposes are those taxes laid?

— For the support of the civil and military establishments of the country, and to discharge the heavy debt contracted in the last war.

Q. How long are those taxes to continue?

— Those for discharging the debt are to continue till 1772, and longer, if the debt should not be then all discharged. The others must always continue.

Q. Was it not expected that the debt would have been sooner discharged?

— It was, when the peace was made with France and Spain; but a fresh war breaking out with the Indians, a fresh load of debt was incurred, and the taxes, of course, continued longer by a new law.

Q. Are not all the people very able to pay those taxes?

— No. The frontier counties, all along the continent, having been frequently ravaged by the enemy, and greatly impoverished, are able to pay very little tax. And therefore, in consideration of their distresses, our late tax laws do expressly favour those counties, excusing the sufferers; and I suppose the same is done in other governments.

Q. Are you not concerned in the management of the post office in America?

— Yes; I am deputy post-master general of North America.

Q. Don’t you think the distribution of stamps, by post, to all the inhabitants, very practicable, if there was no opposition?

— The posts only go along the sea coasts; they do not, except in a few instances, go back into the country; and if they did, sending for stamps by post would occasion an expence of postage, amounting, in many cases, to much more than that of the stamps themselves.

Q. Are you acquainted with Newfoundland?

— I never was there.

Q. Do you know whether there are any post-roads on that island?

— I have heard that there are no roads at all; but that the communication between one settlement and another is by sea only.

Q. Can you disperse the stamps by post in Canada?

— There is only a post between Montreal and Quebec. The inhabitants live so scattered and remote from each other, in that vast country, that posts cannot be supported among them, and therefore they cannot get stamps per post. The English colonies too, along the frontiers, are very thinly settled.

Q. From the thinness of the back settlements, would not the Stamp Act be extremely inconvenient to the inhabitants if executed?

— To be sure, it would; as many of the inhabitants could not get stamps when they had occasion for them, without taking long journeys, and spending, perhaps, three or four pounds, that the crown might get sixpence.

Q. Are not the colonies, from their circumstances, very able to pay the stamp duty?

— In my opinion, there is not gold and silver enough in the colonies to pay the stamp duty for one year.

Q. Don’t you know that the money arising from the stamps was all to be laid out in America?

— I know it is appropriated by the act to the American service; but it will be spent in the conquered colonies, where the soldiers are, not in the colonies that pay it.

Q. Is there not a balance of trade due from the colonies where the troops are posted, that will bring back the money to the old colonies?

— I think not. I believe very little would come back. I know of no trade likely to bring it back. I think it would come from the colonies where it was spent directly to England; for I have always observed, that in every colony the more plenty of means of remittance to England, the more goods are sent for, and the more trade with England carried on.

Q. What number of white inhabitants do you think there are in Pennsylvania?

— I suppose there may be about 160,000,

Q. What number of them are Quakers?

— Perhaps a third.

Q. What number of Germans?

— Perhaps another third; but I cannot speak with certainty.

Q. Have any number of the Germans seen service, as soldiers, in Europe?

— Yes, many of them, both in Europe and America.

Q. Are they as much dissatisfied with the stamp duty as the English?

— Yes, and more; and with reason, as their stamps are, in many cases, to be double.

Q. How many white men do you suppose there are in North America?

— About 300,000, from 16 to 60 years of age.

Q. What may be the amount of one year’s imports into Pennsylvania from Britain?

— I have been informed that our merchants compute the imports from Britain

to be above 500,000l.

Q. What may be the amount of the produce of your province exported to

Britain?

— It must be small, as we produce little that is wanted in Britain. I suppose it cannot exceed 40,000l.

Q. How then do you pay the balance?

— The balance is paid by our produce carried to the West Indies, and sold in our own islands, or to the French, Spaniards, Danes, and Dutch; by the same carried to other

colonies in North America, as to New England, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Carolina,

and Georgia; by the same carried to different parts of Europe, as Spain, Portugal and Italy. In all of which places we receive either money, bills of exchange, or commodities that suit for remittance to Britain; which, together with all the profits on the industry of our merchants and mariners, arising in those circuitous voyages, and the freights made by their ships, centre finally in Britain to discharge the balance, and pay for British manufactures continually used in the province, or sold to foreigners by our traders.

Q. Have you heard of any difficulties lately laid on the Spanish trade?

— Yes, I have heard that it has been greatly obstructed by some new regulations, and by the English men of war and cutters stationed all along the coast in America.

Q. Do you think it right, that America should be protected by this country, and pay no part of the expence?

— That is not the case. The colonies raised, clothed and paid, during the last war, near 25,000 men, and spent many millions.

Q. Were you not reimbursed by parliament?

— We were only reimbursed what in your opinion, we had advanced beyond our proportion, or beyond what might reasonably be expected from us; and it was a very small part of what we spent. Pennsylvania, in particular, disbursed about 500,000l., and the reimbursement, in the whole, did not exceed 60,000l.

Q. You have said that you pay heavy taxes in Pennsylvania; what do they amount, in the pound?

— The tax on all estates, real and personal, is eighteen pence in the pound, fully rated; and the tax on the profits of trades and professions, with other taxes, do, I suppose, make full half a crown in the pound.

Q. Do you know anything of the rate of exchange in Pennsylvania, and whether it has fallen lately?

— It is commonly from 170 to 175. I have heard that it has fallen lately from 175 to 162 and a half, owing, I suppose, to their lessening their orders for goods; and when their debts to this country are paid, I think the exchange will probably be at par.

Q. Do not you think the people of America would submit to pay the stamp duty, if it was moderated?

— No, never, unless compelled by force of arms.

Q. Are not the taxes in Pennsylvania laid on unequally, in order to burden the English trade, particularly the tax on professions and business?

— It is not more burdensome in proportion than the tax on lands. It is intended, and supposed to take an equal proportion of profits.

Q. How is the assembly composed? Of what kinds of people are the members, landholders or traders?

— It is composed of landholders, merchants, and artificers.

Q. Are not the majority landholders?

— I believe they are.

Q. Do not they, as much as possible, shift the tax off from the land, to ease that, and lay the burthen heavier on trade?

— I have never understood it so. I never heard such a thing suggested. And indeed an attempt of that kind could answer no purpose. The merchant or trader is always skilled in figures, and ready with his pen and ink. If unequal burdens are laid on his trade, he puts an additional price on his goods; and the consumers, who are chiefly landowners, finally pay the greatest part, if not the whole.

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

— 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?

— O, very much altered.

Q. Did you ever hear the authority of parliament to make laws for America questioned till lately?

— The authority of parliament was allowed to be valid in all laws, except such as should lay internal taxes. It was never disputed in laying duties to regulate commerce.

Q. In what proportion hath population increased in America?

— I think the inhabitants of all the provinces together, taken at a medium, double in about 25 years. But their demand for British manufactures increases much faster, as the consumption is not merely in proportion to their numbers, but grows with the growing abilities of the same numbers to pay for them. In 1723, the whole importation from Britain to Pennsylvania, was but about 15,000l. sterling; it is now near half a million.

Q. In what light did the people of America use to consider the parliament of Great Britain?

— They considered the parliament as the great bulwark and security of their liberties and privileges, and always spoke of it with the utmost respect and veneration. Arbitrary ministers, they thought, might possibly, at times, attempt to oppress them; but they relied on it, that the parliament, on application, would always give redress. They remembered, with gratitude, a strong instance of this, when a bill was brought into parliament, with a clause to make royal instructions laws in the colonies, which the House of Commons would not pass, and it was thrown out.

Q. And have they not still the same respect for parliament?

— No; it is greatly lessened.

Q. To what cause is that owing?

— To a concurrence of causes; the restraints lately laid on their trade, by which the bringing of foreign gold and silver into the colonies was prevented; the prohibition of making paper money among themselves; and then demand a new and heavy tax by stamps; taking away at the same, trials by juries, and refusing to receive and hear their humble petitions.

Q. Don’t you think they would submit to the Stamp Act, if it was modified, the obnoxious parts taken out, and the duty reduced to some particulars, of small moment?

— No; they will never submit to it.

Q. What do you think is the reason that the people of America increase faster than in England?

— Because they marry younger, and more generally.

Q. Why so?

— Because any young couple that are industrious, may easily obtain land of their own, on which they can raise a family.

Q. Are not the lower rank of people more at their ease in America than in England?

— They may be so, if they are sober and diligent, as they are better paid for their labour.

Q. What is your opinion of a future tax, imposed on the same principle with that of the Stamp Act, how would the Americans receive it?

— Just as they do this. They would not pay it.

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?

— Yes, I have heard of such resolutions.

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

— They will think them unconstitutional and unjust.

Q. Was it an opinion in America before 1763, that the parliament had no right to lay taxes and duties there?

— I had never heard any objection to the right of laying duties to regulate commerce; but a right to lay internal taxes was never supposed to be in parliament, as we are not represented there.

Q. On what do you found your opinion, that the people in America made any such distinction?

— I know that whenever the subject has occurred in conversation where I have been present, it has appeared to be the opinion of every one, that we could not be taxed in a parliament where we were not represented. But the payment of duties laid by act of parliament, as regulations of commerce, was never disputed.

Q. But can you name any act of assembly, or public act of any of your governments, that made such distinction?

— I do not know that there was any; I think there was never an occasion to make any such act, till now that you have attempted to tax us; that has occasioned resolutions of assembly, declaring the distinction, in which I think every assembly on the continent, and every member in every assembly, have been unanimous.

Q. What then could occasion conversation on that subject before that time?

— There was, in 1754, a proposition made (I think it came from hence) that in case of a war, which was then apprehended, the governors of the colonies should meet, and order the levying of troops, building of forts, and taking every other necessary measure for the general defence; and should draw on the treasury here, for the sums expended, which were afterwards to be raised in the colonies by a general tax, to be laid on them by act of parliament. This occasioned a good deal of conversation on the subject, and the general opinion was, that the parliament neither would, nor could lay any tax on us, till we were duly represented in parliament, because it was not just, nor agreeable to the nature of an English constitution.

Q. Don’t you know there was a time in New York, when it was under consideration to make an application to parliament, to lay taxes on that colony, upon a deficiency arising from the assembly’s refusing or neglecting to raise the necessary supplies for the support of the civil government?

— I never heard of it.

Q. There was such an application under consideration in New York; and do you apprehend that they could suppose the right of parliament to lay a tax in America was only local, and confined to the case of a deficiency in a particular colony, by a refusal of its assembly to raise the necessary supplies?

— They could not suppose such a case, as that the assembly would not raise the necessary supplies to support its own government. An assembly that would refuse it, must want common sense, which cannot be supposed. I think there was never any such case at New York, and that it must be a misrepresentation, or the fact must be misunderstood. I know there have been some attempts, by ministerial instructions from hence, to oblige the assemblies to settle permanent salaries on governors, which they wisely refused to do; but I believe no assembly of New York, or any other colony, ever refused duly to support government, by proper allowances, from time to time, to public officers.

Q. But in case a governor, acting by instruction, should call on an assembly to raise the necessary supplies, and the assembly should refuse to do it, do you not think it would then be for the good of the people of the colony, as well as necessary to government, that the parliament should tax them?

— I do not think it would be necessary. If an assembly could possibly be so absurd as to refuse raising the supplies requisite for the maintenance of government among them, they could not long remain in such a situation; the disorders and confusion occasioned by it must soon bring them to reason.

Q. If it should not, ought not the right to be in Great Britain of applying a remedy?

— A right only to be used in such a case, I should have no objection to, supposing it to be used merely for the good of the people of the colony.

Q. But who is to judge of that, Britain or the colony?

— Those that feel can best judge.

Q. You say the colonies have always submitted to external taxes, and object to the right of parliament only in laying internal taxes; now can you show that there is any kind of difference between the two taxes to the colony on which they may be laid?

— I think the difference is very great. An external tax is a duty laid on commodities imported; that duty is added to the first cost, and other charges on the commodity, and when it is offered to sale, makes a part of the price. If the people do not like it at that price, they refuse it; they are not obliged to pay it. But an internal tax is forced from the people without their consent, if not laid by their own representatives. The Stamp Act says, we shall have no commerce, make no exchange of property with each other, neither purchase nor grant, nor recover debts; we shall neither marry nor make our wills, unless we pay such sums, and thus it is intended to extort our money from us, or ruin us by the consequences of refusing to pay for it.

Q. But supposing the internal tax or duty to be laid on the necessities of life imported into your colony, will not that be the same thing in its effects as an internal tax?

— I do not know a single article imported into the northern colonies, but what they can either do without or make themselves.

Q. Don’t you think cloth from England, absolutely necessary to them?

— No, by no means absolutely necessary; with industry and good management, they may very well supply themselves with all they want.

Q. Will it not take a long time to establish that manufacture among them; and must they not in the mean while suffer greatly?

— I think not. They have made a surprising progress already. And I am of opinion, that before their old clothes are worn out, they will have new ones of their own making.

Q. Can they possibly find wool enough in North America?

— They have taken steps to increase the wool. They entered into general combination to eat no more lamb, and very few lambs were killed last year. This course persisted in, will soon make a prodigious difference in the quantity of wool. And the establishing of great manufactories, like those in the clothing towns here, is not necessary, as it is where the business is to be carried on for the purposes of trade. The people will all spin and work for themselves, in their own houses.

Q. Can there be wool and manufacture enough in one or two years?

— In three years, I think, there may.

Q. Does not the severity of the winter, in the northern colonies, occasion the wool to be of bad quality?

— No, the wool is very fine and good.

Q. In the more southern colonies, as in Virginia, don’t you know that the wool is coarse, and only a kind of hair?

— I don’t know it. I never heard it. Yet I have been sometimes in Virginia. I cannot say I ever took particular notice of the wool there, but I believe it is good, though I cannot speak positively of it; but Virginia, and the colonies south of it, have less occasion for wool; their winters are short, and not very severe, and they can very well clothe themselves with linen and cotton of their own raising for the rest of the year.

Q. Are not the people in the more northern colonies obliged to fodder their sheep all the winter?

— In some of the most northern colonies they may be obliged to do it some part of the winter.

Q. Considering the resolution of parliament as to the right, do you think, if the Stamp Act is repealed, that the North Americans will be satisfied?

— I believe they will.

Q. Why do you think so?

— I think the resolutions of right will give them very little concern, if they are never attempted to be carried into practice. The colonies will probably consider themselves in the same situation, in that respect, with Ireland; they know you claim the same right with regard to Ireland, but you never exercise it. And they may believe you never will exercise it in the colonies, any more than in Ireland, unless on some very extraordinary occasion.

Q. But who are to be the judges of that extraordinary occasion? Is not the parliament?

— Though the parliament may judge of the occasion, the people will think it can never exercise such right, till representatives from the colonies are admitted into parliament, and that whenever the occasion arises, representatives will be ordered.

Q. Did you never hear that Maryland, during the last war, had refused to furnish a quota towards the common defence?

— Maryland has been much misrepresented in that matter. Maryland, to my knowledge, never refused to contribute, or grant aids to the crown. The assemblies every year, during the war, voted considerable sums, and formed bills to raise them. The bills were, according to the constitution of that province, sent up to the council, or upper house, for concurrence, that they might be presented to the governor, in order to be enacted into laws. Unhappy disputes between the two houses, arising from the defects of that constitution principally, rendered all the bills but one or two abortive. The proprietary’s council rejected them. It is true, Maryland did not contribute in proportion, but it was, in my opinion, the fault of the government, not of the people.

Q. Was it not talked of in the other provinces as a proper measure to apply to parliament to compel them?

— I have heard such discourse: but as it was well known that the people were not to blame, no such application was ever made, or any step taken towards it.

Q. Was it not proposed at a public meeting?

— Not that I know of.

Q. Do you remember the abolishing of the paper currency in New England, by act of assembly?

— I do remember its being abolished in the Massachusett’s Bay.

Q. Was not lieutenant governor Hutchinson principally concerned in that transaction?

— I have heard so.

Q. Was it not at that time a very unpopular law?

— I believe it might, though I can say little about it, as I lived at a distance from that province.

Q. Was not the scarcity of gold and silver an argument used against abolishing the paper?

— I suppose it was.

Q. What is the present opinion there of that law? Is it as unpopular as it was at first?

— I think it is not.

Q. Have not instructions from hence been sometimes sent over to governors, highly oppressive and unpolitical.

— Yes.

Q. Have not some governors dispensed with them for that reason?

— Yes, I have heard so.

Q. Did the Americans ever dispute the controuling power of parliament to regulate the commerce.

— No.

Q. Can any thing less than a military force carry the Stamp Act into execution?

— I do not see how a military force can be applied to that purpose.

Q. Why may it not?

— Suppose a military force sent into America, they will find nobody in arms; what are they then to do? They cannot force a man to take stamps who chuses to do without them. They will not find a rebellion; they may indeed make one.

Q. If the act is not repealed, what do you think will be the consequences?

— A total loss of the respect and affection the people of America bear to this country, and of all the commerce that depends upon that respect and affection.

Q. How can the commerce be affected?

— You will find, that if the act is not repealed, they will take very little of your manufactures in a short time.

Q. Is it in their power to do without them?

— I think they may very well do without them.

Q. Is it their interest not to take them?

— The goods they take from Britain are either necessaries, mere conveniences, or superfluities. The first, as cloth, &c. with a little industry they can make at home: the second they can do without, till they are able to provide them among themselves; and the last, which are much the greatest part, they will strike off immediately. They are mere articles of fashion, purchased and consumed, because the fashion in a respected country, but will now be detested and rejected. The people have already struck off, by general agreement, the use of all goods fashionable in mournings, and many thousand pounds worth are sent back as unsaleable.

Q. Is it their interest to make cloth at home?

— I think they may at present get it cheaper from Britain, I mean of the same fineness and neatness of workmanship; but when one considers other circumstances, the restraints on their trade, and the difficulty of making remittances, it is their interest to make every thing.

Q. Suppose an act of internal regulations connected with a tax, how would they receive it?

— I think it would be objected to.

Q. Then no regulation with a tax would be submitted to?

— Their opinion is, that when aids to the crown are wanted, they are to be asked of the several assemblies according to the old established usage, who will, as they have always done, grant them freely. And that their money ought not to be given away, without their consent, by persons at a distance, unacquainted with their circumstances and abilities. The granting aids to the crown, is the only means they have of recommending themselves to their sovereign, and they think it extremely hard and unjust, that a body of men, in which they have no representatives, should make a merit to itself of giving and granting what is not its own, but theirs, and deprives them of a right they esteem of the utmost value and importance, as it is the security of all their other rights.

Q. But is not the post office, which they have long received, a tax as well as a regulation?

— No; the money paid for the postage of a letter is not of the nature of a tax; it is merely a quantum meruit for a service done; no person is compellable to pay the money, if he does not chuse to receive the service. A man may still, as before the act, send his letter by a servant, a special messenger, or a friend, if he thinks it cheaper or safer.

Q. But do they not consider the regulations of the post-office, by the act of last year, as a tax?

— By the regulations of last year the rate of postage was generally abated near thirty per cent. through all America; they certainly cannot consider such an abatement as a tax.

Q. If an excise was laid by parliament, which they might likewise avoid paying, by not consuming the articles excised, would they then not object to it?

— They would certainly object to it, as an excise is unconnected with any service done, and is merely an aid which they think ought to be asked of them, and granted by them if they are to pay it, and can be granted for them, by no others whatsoever, whom they have not impowered for that purpose.

Q. You say they do not object to the right of parliament, in laying duties on goods to be paid on their importation; now, is there any kind of difference between a duty on the importation of goods and an excise on their consumption?

— Yes; a very material one; an excise, for the reasons I just mentioned, they think you can have no right to lay within their country. But the sea is yours; you maintain, by your fleets, the safety of navigation in it, and keep it clear of pirates; you may have therefore a natural and equitable right to some toll or duty on merchandizes carried through that part of your dominions, towards defraying the expence you are at in ships to maintain the safety of that carriage.

Q. Does this reasoning hold in the case of a duty laid on the produce of their lands exported? And would they not then object to such a duty?

— If it tended to make the produce so much dearer abroad as to lessen the demand for it, to be sure they would object to such a duty; not to your right of laying it, but they would complain of it as a burden, and petition you to lighten it.

Q. Is not the duty paid on the tobacco exported a duty of that kind?

— That, I think, is only on tobacco carried coastwise from one colony to another, and appropriated as a fund for supporting the college at Williamsburgh, in Virginia.

Q. Have not the assemblies in the West Indies the same natural rights with those in North America?

— Undoubtedly.

Q. And is there not a tax laid there on their sugars exported?

— I am not much acquainted with the West Indies, but the duty of four and a half per cent., on sugars exported, was, I believe, granted by their own assemblies.

Q. How much is the poll tax in your province laid on unmarried men?

— It is, I think, fifteen shillings, to be paid by every single freeman, upwards of twenty one years old.

Q. What is the annual amount of all the taxes in Pennsylvania?

— I suppose about 20,000l. sterling.

Q. Supposing the Stamp Act continued, and enforced, do you imagine that ill humour will induce the Americans to give as much for worse manufactures of their own and use them, preferably to better of ours?

— Yes, I think so. People will pay as freely to gratify one passion as another, their resentment as their pride.

Q. Would the people at Boston discontinue their trade?

— The merchants are a very small number compared with the body of the people, and must discontinue their trade if nobody will buy their goods.

Q. What are the body of the people in the colonies?

— They are farmers, husbandmen or planters.

Q. Would they suffer the produce of their lands to rot?

— No; but they would not raise so much. They would manufacture more, and plough less.

Q. Would they live without the administration of justice in civil matters, and suffer all the inconveniencies of such a situation for any considerable time, rather than take the stamps, supposing the stamps were protected by a sufficient force, where every one might have them?

— I think the supposition impracticable, that the stamps should be so protected as that every one might have them. The Act requires sub-distributors to be appointed in every county town, district, and village, and they would be necessary. But the principal distributors, who were to have had a considerable profit on the whole, have not thought it worth while to continue in the office, and I think it impossible to find sub-distributors fit to be trusted, who, for the trifling profit that must come to their share, would incur the odium, and run the hazard that would attend it; and if they could be found, I think it impracticable to protect the stamps in so many distant and remote places.

Q. But in places where they would be protected, would not the people use them rather than remain in such a situation, unable to obtain any right, or recover, by law, any debt?

— It is hard to say what they would do. I can only judge what other people will think, and how they will act, by what I feel within myself. I have a great many debts due to me in America, and I had rather they should remain unrecoverable by any law than submit to the Stamp Act. They will be debts of honour. It is my opinion the people will either continue in that situation, or find some way