Stamp Act — Isaac Barré Speaks for the Rights of the Colonies

Isaac Barré by Hugh Douglas Hamilton, c. 1765

1726 in Dublin, Ireland
20 July 1802 in London, England


In the very early debate in Parliament on the merits of the Stamp Act, Isaac Barré extemporaneously defended the rights of the American colonies. Jared Ingersoll, a lawyer and delegate to the Continental Congress, was so impressed with the speech that he reported it to Thomas Fitch, colonial governor of Connecticut.

Following is an excerpt from the letter. Note that the phrase Sons of Liberty soon became the name of the freedom organization in the colonies.

Letter from Jared Ingersoll to Thomas Fitch

Mr. Barre … is one of the finest Speakers that the House can boast of, having been some time in America as an Officer in the Army, & having while there contracted many friendships with American Gentlemen, & I believe Entertained much more favourable Opinions of them than some of his profession have done, Delivered a very handsome and moving Speech upon the bill & against the same, Concluding by saying that he was very sure that Most who Should hold up their hands to the Bill must be under a Necessity of acting very much in the dark, but added perhaps as well in the Dark as any way.

After him Mr. Charles Townsend spoke in favour of the Bill — took Notice of several things Mr. Barre had said, and concluded with the following or like Words: — []And now will these Americans, Children planted by our Care, nourished up by our Indulgence until they are grown to a Degree of Strength & Opulence, and protected by our Arms, will they grudge to contribute their mite to relieve us from the heavy weight of that burden which we lie under?[] When he had done, Mr. Barre rose and having explained something which he had before said & which Mr. Townsend had been remarking upon, he then took up the beforementioned Concluding words of Mr. Townsend, and in a most spirited & I thought an almost inimitable manner, said —

They planted by your Care? No! your Oppressions planted em in America. They fled from your Tyranny to a then uncultivated and unhospitable Country — where they exposed themselves to almost all the hardships to which human Nature is liable, and among others to the Cruel ties of a Savage foe, the most subtle and I take upon me to say the most formidable of any People upon the face of Gods Earth. And yet, actuated by Principles of true english Lyberty, they met all these hardships with pleasure, compared with those they suffered in their own Country, from the hands of those who should have been their Friends.

They nourished up by your indulgence? they grew by your neglect of Em: — as soon as you began to care about Em, that Care was Excercised in sending persons to rule over Em, in one Department and another, who were perhaps the Deputies of Deputies to some Member of this house — sent to Spy out their Lyberty, to misrepresent their Actions & to prey upon Em; men whose behaviour on many Occasions has caused the Blood of those Sons of Liberty to recoil within them; men promoted to the highest Seats of Justice, some, who to my knowledge were glad by going to a foreign Country to Escape being brought to the Bar of a Court of Justice in their own.

They protected by your Arms? they have nobly taken up Arms in your defence, have Exerted a Valour amidst their constant & Laborious industry for the defence of a Country, whose frontier, while drench'd in blood, its interior Parts have yielded all its little Savings to your Emolument. And believe me, remember I this Day told you so, that same Spirit of freedom which actuated that people at first, will accompany them still. — But prudence forbids me to explain myself further. God knows I do not at this Time speak from motives of party Heat, what I deliver are the genuine Sentiments of my heart; however superiour to me in general knowledge and Experience the reputable body of this house may be, yet I claim to know more of America than most of you, having seen and been conversant in that Country. The People I believe are as truly Loyal as any Subjects the King has, but a people Jealous of their Lyberties and who will vindicate them, if ever they should be violated — but the Subject is too delicate & I will say no more.

These Sentiments were thrown out so intirely without premeditation, so forceably and so firmly, and the breaking off so beautifully abrupt, that the whole house sat awhile as Amazed, intently Looking and without answering a Word. I own I felt Emotions that I never felt before & went the next Morning & thank'd Col. Barre in behalf of my Country for his noble and spirited Speech.

In 1789 the South and especially Virginia had been the impelling force in creating the nation. By 1815 the South and slaveholders still seemed to be in control of the national government. President Madison was a slaveholder. So too were Speaker of the House, Henry Clay, James Monroe, the secretary of state, and George W. Campbell, the secretary of the treasury. All Republican leaders of the House were slaveholders. In 1815 the United States had four missions in Europe: two of them were held by slaveholders. The chief justice of the United States was a slaveholder, as were a majority of the other members of the Court. Since 1789 three of the four presidents, two of the five vice-presidents, fourteen of the twenty-six presidents pro tempore the Senate, and five of the ten Speakers of the House had been slaveholders.

Gordon S. Wood
Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789–1815 (2009)