“Contrary to the fundamental laws of nature”? The passage of the Declaratory Act, March 1766

250 years ago this week Parliament passed the ‘Declaratory Act’, aimed at limiting the damage of the earlier repeal of the Stamp Act. In the second of two blogs on the issue, Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow in the House of Lords 1660-1832 section, discusses the debates on the issue – whether the British parliament could, in principle, tax its colonies when they did not enjoy parliamentary representation…

In the early months of 1766 in response to the outpourings of popular resentment shown by the American colonists at the imposition of the Stamp Act, Parliament acceded to their complaints and resolved to overturn the legislation. The climb-down was much resented by representatives of the former ministry and by key figures at court, but for the while the arguments of those associated with the prime minister, the marquess of Rockingham, and by others represented by William Pitt proved too strong to counter and Parliament resolved on repeal. In order to save face, though, and largely at the prompting of the somewhat reluctant attorney general, Charles Yorke, the administration resolved not to hearken to Pitt’s view that taxing the colonies was unjustifiable without representation in Parliament and to promote alongside repeal, as a declaration of principle, a new act insisting on Parliament’s inalienable right to tax the colonies.

The resulting Declaratory Act, as it was termed, enjoyed a relatively uninterrupted run through both Houses, though it did encounter some opposition. In early February Pitt himself spoke against it in the Commons as did other prominent members of his set such as Isaac Barré. Although proceedings in the Lords running in tandem with those in the Commons witnessed a clash between two old rivals, Charles Pratt, earl of Camden (against the bill) and William Murray, earl of Mansfield (for it), the resulting division saw just five peers voting against: Camden, joined by Vere Poulett, 3rd Earl Poulett, William Petty, 2nd earl of Shelburne, Charles Cornwallis, 2nd Earl Cornwallis, and George Byng, 4th Viscount Torrington. Undeterred, the following month Camden was again to the fore as part of a vocal minority arguing against the bill. In his earlier manifestation as lord chief justice Pratt, Camden had achieved distinction as the man responsible for discharging John Wilkes from court over the North Briton affair and declaring general warrants to be illegal. Both an associate of Pitt’s and a resolute believer in the liberties of the subject, Camden now dismissed the new legislation as, ‘illegal, absolutely illegal, contrary to the fundamental laws of nature, contrary to the fundamental laws of this constitution.’ In arguing against the measure, Camden insisted that for as long as the colonies lacked representation they could not be so imposed upon.

My position is this – I repeat it – I will maintain it to my last hour, – taxation and representation are inseparable; – this position is founded on the laws of nature; it is more, it is itself an eternal law of nature; for whatever is a man’s own, is absolutely his own; no man hath a right to take it from him without his consent, either expressed by himself or representative; whoever does it, commits a robbery; he throws down and destroys the distinction between liberty and slavery. [PH xvi. 178]

Camden concluded with an appeal to the writings of John Locke, ‘that consummate reasoner and politician’ as well as with a more emotional harangue:

The forefathers of the Americans did not leave their native country, and subject themselves to every danger and distress, to be reduced to a state of slavery: they did not give up their rights; they looked for protection, and not for chains, from their mother country; by her they expected to be defended in the possession of their property, and not to be deprived of it: for, should the present power continue, there is nothing which they can call their own. [PH xvi. 180-1]

Camden’s performance was not to everyone’s taste. It was dismissed by Henry Fox, Lord Holland for two reasons: ‘His arguments were absurd, But his flattery of Mr Pitt, much more so.’ Holland’s old friend and correspondent, John Campbell, was more unyielding still and dismissed both Pitt and Camden as traitors for taking the stance they did. [Correspondence of John Campbell MP, PH texts and studies 8, pp.299, 301]

For all Camden’s efforts, support for the new act proved overwhelming and it passed without difficulty on 18 March. Nevertheless, attitudes to the Declaratory Act remained starkly divided. For many of the Rockinghams it was little more than an empty statement of principle, which they had little interest in enforcing, while many Americans chose simply to ignore it. Not all were so sanguine. One former Rockinghamite, Sir William Meredith, by the mid-1770s was attributing to the Declaratory Act all of the ills faced by Britain in its poor relations with its colonies and on 6 April 1778 he moved for the act to be repealed. The question (with regard to America) was finally resolved by the recognition of the United States following the end of the American War five years later.


You can read Dr Eagles’ earlier blogpost on the Repeal of the Stamp Act here.

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