The Declaratory Act

On March 18, 1766, George III approved Parliament's repeal of the Stamp Act and its passage of the Declaratory Act. In the words of a contemporary observer, the intention of the Declaratory Act "was to stifle all differences by the establishment of an undeniable principle" that Parliament had the constitutional power to legislate for the colonies, in case the repeal of the Stamp Act should leave anyone with the mistaken notion that it had given that up. The Declaratory Act made clear that it had "full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever." In addition, the act stated that "all resolutions, votes, orders, and proceedings" in the colonies that denied or questioned Parliament's power and authority to make laws binding the colonies "in all cases whatsoever" were "utterly null and void."

As clear as the language might seem today, to contemporaries the wording of the act was vague enough to allow people of different constitutional persuasions to read into it what they wanted. In particular, the act could be seen as including or excluding the authority to tax (especially if one adhered to the notion that there was a difference between legislation and taxation). In fact, a proposal to include an explicit reference to taxation was expressly rejected as an outright challenge to the colonial position. Of course, the majority of members of Parliament (although certainly not all of them) felt strongly that "in all cases" included taxation, but they did not wish to press the point and renew transatlantic tensions.

Reaching British America along with news of the Stamp Act's repeal, the Declaratory Act caused very little concern in the colonies. It was not until the revolutionary crisis was in full ferment in the 1770s that patriots such as John Hancock would invoke the act as a symbol of parliamentary tyranny. In 1766, those British Americans who did consider the act, such as John Randolph of Virginia, believed that it merely made explicit the constitutional state of affairs established in 1689. Other colonials understandably saw the Declaratory Act of 1766 as a direct parallel to the Dependency of Ireland on Great Britain Act of 1719 (commonly referred to as the Irish Declaratory Act of 1720), which stated that Parliament had the full "authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient validity to bind the Kingdom and people of Ireland." They therefore took some comfort in the fact that Parliament had never exercised that authority to tax the Irish.

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