“The right of the people, to resist an unconstitutional law, is absolute and unqualified, from the moment the law is enacted.”

Lysander Spooner penned this line in 1850, but he was tapping into a fundamental principle that evolved during the Revolution – and through the founding era.

Decades earlier, James Iredell, who later became a Supreme Court justice, put it this way:

“The only resource against usurpation is the inherent right of the people to prevent its exercise.”

This was the driving force behind the events that led to the War for Independence. In fact, you could argue that the right to resist was the American Revolution. As John Adams wrote in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, “What do We mean by the Revolution? The War? That was no part of the Revolution. It was only an Effect and Consequence of it. The Revolution was in the Minds of the People, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775.”

The Revolution grew with a combination of rhetoric and resistance. As the British asserted more and more unconstitutional authority over the colonies, Americans responded by formulating well-developed arguments and action plans against British actions. This revolution in thought drove colonial rhetoric that started with opposition to the Writs of Assistance in 1761 and intensified to resistance with the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765.

Colonial opposition to the Stamp Act made it impossible to enforce. On March 18, 1766, Parliament relented and repealed the hated tax. News reached the colonies about two months later. Philadelphian James Gordon described how the repeal “fill’d us all with great joy, the Bells are ringing ever since the vessel arrived in the Morning.”

However, the repeal of the Stamp Act was anything but a surrender by the British government.

The Townshend Acts

On the same day Parliament repealed the hated Stamp Act, it passed the Declaratory Act, asserting that it had the authority to make laws binding the American colonies “in all cases whatsoever.” This set the stage for additional taxes.

In the summer of 1767, Parliament followed up, passing four laws together known as the Townshend Acts. These laws imposed new taxes on the importation of paper, paint, lead, glass, and tea, and expanded the British government’s power to fight smuggling.

The Townshend Acts also included the New York Restraining Act, giving the royal governor the authority to suspend the Assembly of New York’s legislative powers because it refused to authorize funding to provide housing, food, and other necessities for British troops as required under the 1765 “Quartering Act.” The assembly’s refusal to cooperate was an example of passive resistance that the colonists would turn to with increasing frequency as the British attempted to assert more and more power over the colonies.

The passage of the Townshend Acts resulted in another wave of colonial protests and actions.

Letters from a Farmer

John Dickinson was a leader in the fight against the Stamp Act. With the passage of the Townshend Acts, he once again took up his pen, writing a series of essays now known as Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania that were published in The Pennsylvania Chronicle. The impact of the Letters was wide-ranging as the essays were republished in most major colonial newspapers, and became the most widely-read documents on American liberty until publication of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in 1776.

The Letters laid out a constitutional argument conceding that the British had the authority to regulate trade, but asserting Parliament did not have the right to raise revenue from the colonies. Dickinson’s arguments created a foundation for further opposition to the Townshend Acts, and more generally cemented colonial views about their relationship with the mother country.

Dickinson urged the colonies to resist British efforts within the constitutional system through protests and boycotts.

Dickinson warned that failure to confront this assertion of British power then and there would lead to dire consequences and loss of liberty down the road. In the sixth Letter from a Farmer, he argued that letting the government take on even a little bit of new power would eventually lead to bigger and bigger usurpations in the future.

“All artful rulers, who strive to extend their power beyond its just limits, endeavor to give to their attempts as much semblance of legality as possible. Those who succeed them may venture to go a little further; for each new encroachment will be strengthened by a former. ‘That which is now supported by examples, growing old, will become an example itself,’ and thus support fresh usurpations.”

He continued with this theme in the ninth essay, chronicling the ways that the British Parliament, the Crown, and English judges were expanding their authority over the colonies. He concluded the essay with a warning in the form of a Spanish history lesson.

Spain, Dickinson said, was once free. Its governance was similar to that of the colonies. No money could be raised without the people’s consent. But an ongoing war against the Moores required funding. The king received a grant of money to fund the fight, but he was concerned it might not be a sufficient amount to pay for the war effort long-term. So, the king asked that “he might be allowed, for that emergency only, to raise more money without assembling the Cortes.”

The Cortes was the Spanish representative body — similar to the Parliament.

Dickinson noted that the proposal was “violently opposed by the best and wisest men in the assembly.” But the majority approved the measure. And thus began a slide down a slippery slope. As Dickinson described it “this single concession was a PRECEDENT for other concessions of the like kind, until at last the crown obtained a general power of raising money, in cases of necessity.”

The legislature gave an inch and the king took a mile. Dickinson wrote:

“From that period the Cortes ceased to be useful—the people ceased to be free.”

He closed the letter with these Latin words of instruction:

Venienti occurrite morbo.

“Oppose a disease at its beginning.”

Massachusetts Steps Up to the Plate

The Farmer essays helped solidify the colonists’ perception that Parliament’s actions created a constitutional crisis. Samuel Adams and James Otis Jr. built on the Farmer’s arguments in the Massachusetts Circular Letter.

The Massachusetts legislature approved the letter in February 1768 and it circulated throughout the colonies.

The thrust of the argument was that the taxes were unconstitutional because Massachusetts was not represented in Parliament.

“It is, moreover, their humble opinion, which they express with the greatest deference to the wisdom of the Parliament, the Acts made there, imposing duties on the people of this province, with the sole and express purpose of raising a revenue, are infringements of their natural and constitutional rights; because, as they are not represented in the British Parliament, his Majesty’s commons in Britain, by those Acts, grant their property without their consent.”

Otis and Adams argued that the meaning of the constitution – even the unwritten British Constitution – could not be altered at the whim of Parliament, and they asserted that to do so destroys the very foundation of the constitutional system.

“In all free states the constitution is fixed, and as the supreme legislative derives its power and authority from the constitution, it cannot overleap the bounds of it without destroying its own foundation; that the constitution ascertains and limits both sovereignty and allegiance…” [Emphasis added]

The Earl of Hillsborough had recently been appointed Secretary of State for the colonies. He sent the Massachusetts General Court a letter demanding that the body retract the document.

Massachusetts Governor Francis Bernard delivered the earl’s message to the legislature knowing the Massachusetts representatives would not take it well. He told the assembly, “I am merely ministerial in this Business, having received his Majesty’s Instructions for all I have to do in it.”

If Earl Hillsborough thought his demands would get the colonists in line and sway the Massachusetts General Court to renounce the Circular Letter, he was badly mistaken. Instead, Otis delivered a blistering speech that lasted nearly two hours.

Bernard said the speech was “of the most violent & virulent Nature,” and that Otis, “abused all Persons in Authority both here and at home.” Otis didn’t go so far as to attack the King himself, but Bernard said he “traduced his Government with all the Bitterness of Words.“

In just one example Bernard recounted, Otis said, “that the King appointed none but Boys for his Ministers; that they had no Education but travelling thro’ France, from whence they returned full of the slavish Principles of that Country; that they knew Nothing of Business when they came into their Offices, and did not stay long enough to acquire that little Knowledge which is gained from Experience; that all Business was really done by the Clerks, & even they were too frequently changed to understand what they were about; that the People in England did not know what the Rights of Englishmen capable of composing so elegant so pure and so nervous a Writing as the Petition to the King which passed the last Session.”

After Otis gave his fiery speech, the assembly formed a committee to take Hillsborough’s message into consideration.

Bernard said that the committee “consisted entirely of the most violent of the Heads of the Faction viz the Representatives of the Town of Boston & 3 of those whom I had refused to admit into the Council upon Account of their having been distinguished by their fomenting the Troubles of Government, with two others. Thus the House seemed to prejudge this Business in the Appointment of a Committee: and indeed the Appointment of a Committee at all shewed a Disposition to argue rather than submit.”

As historian J.L. Bell put it, “Things weren’t looking good for a quiet, obedient retraction of the circular letter as the Earl of Hillsborough had demanded.”

Ultimately, the Massachusetts General Court refused, overwhelmingly voting to reject retracting the letter by a 92-17 vote. This prompted Bernard to dissolve the assembly.

The colonists reacted with violent protests. Mobs attacked customs officials, making it impossible for them to perform their duties. With the situation deteriorating, Lord Hillsborough escalated the situation, sending four regiments of British soldiers to Boston.

From Words to Actions

As with the Stamp Act, published protests led to more concrete action.

In March 1768, a committee of Boston merchants drafted a series of resolutions establishing an agreement to stop buying most goods imported from England. John Rowe, a prominent Boston businessman included a copy of the resolutions in his diary.

The resolutions stated the merchants’ grievances, asserting that they were “loosing (sic) many Inestimable Blessings & advantages of the British Constitution which Constitution we have ever Rever’d as the Basis & Security of all we enjoy in this Life.”

Therefore, the merchants resolved to stop importing “European Commoditys excepting Salt, Coals, Fishing Lines, Fish Hooks, Hemp, Duck, Bar Lead, Shot, Wool Cards & Card Wire.”

The merchants also committed to inviting “the trading towns in the province & other provinces in New England together with those in New York New Jersy & Pensilvania,” to join the boycott.

The committee circulated the resolutions to neighboring towns, but many didn’t have the fortitude to take concrete action – yet.

In April, New York merchants drafted a similar agreement and tried to enlist a group of businessmen in Philadelphia, but could not overcome widespread reluctance to initiate a boycott.

Finally, on Aug. 1, 1768, approximately 60 Boston merchants and traders signed an agreement based on resolutions. Only 16 Boston merchants refused to do so.

The merchants agreed to take the following actions.

  • First, that we will not send for or import from Great Britain, either upon our own account or upon a commission, this fall, any other goods than what are already ordered for the fall supply.
  • Secondly, that we will not send for or import any kind of goods or merchandise from Great Britain, either on our own account, or on commissions, or any otherwise, from the 1st of January 1769, to the 1st of January 1770, except salt, coals, fish hooks and lines, hemp, and duck bar lead and shot, wool- cards and card wire.
  • Thirdly, that we will not purchase any factor, or others, any kind of goods imported from Great Britain, from January 1769 to January 1770.
  • Fourthly, that we will not import, on our own account, or on commissions or purchase of any who shall import from any other colony in America, from January 1769 to January 1770, any tea, glass, paper, or other goods commonly imported from Great Britain.
  • Fifthly, that we will not, from and after the 1st of January 1769, import into this province any tea, paper, glass, or painters colours, until the act imposing duties on those articles shall be repealed.

The Boston group also managed to cobble together enough support to initiate a broader boycott including the ports of New York, Philadelphia, and other northeastern ports.

In support of the boycott, patriots urged their neighbors to buy products produced in the colonies and to spurn imported goods. Locally, patriot supporters established boycotts of merchants who refused to abide by the non-importation agreement.

Smuggling illegal goods from the Netherlands, Spain, France, and other countries also helped to support the boycott. The Sons of Liberty used smuggling operations to fund their activities. Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere were all involved in smuggling.

With the boycott in place, Boston merchants and traders reduced their imports of British goods by almost half, but their efforts were undermined by neighboring ports that didn’t support the agreement.

In August 1769, ships, owners, and merchants who didn’t participate in the agreement were exposed on the front page of the Boston Chronicle. The revelation of widespread noncompliance with the boycott angered many who were suffering financial hardships due to their commitment to the agreement, and the revelations undermined the movement.

The non-importation agreement expired on Jan. 1, 1770. Despite their efforts, Boston merchants were unable to formally extend the boycott.

Nevertheless, in May, word that Parliament had repealed the Townshend taxes except for the levy on tea reached Boston. With the taxes no longer an issue, the non-importation movement collapsed. But it wouldn’t be long before British actions would spark more determined and organized boycotts.

A letter from London written by a patriot sympathizer reveals that despite widespread violations of the agreement, the British felt the impact of the movement. He warned that the British were planning to send troops to Boston to protect those defying the boycott.

“If the foregoing be true, it shows how important the Non-importation agreement has been,even in the opinion of administration; how great a pity it is therefore, that the merchants did not continue it, at least one season longer.”

Virginia Takes Up the Cause

Protests and boycotts weren’t limited to the northern colonies. There was also a non-importation movement in the South.

In May 1769, the Virginia House of Burgesses passed the Virginia Association, a series of non-importation agreements that established a boycott of British goods.

George Washington initiated the agreement and George Mason drafted the language along with Richard Henry Lee.

Signers of the Virginia Association agreed that they would “not at any Time hereafter, directly or indirectly import, or cause to be imported, any Manner of Goods, Merchandize, or Manufactures, which are, or shall hereafter be taxed by Act of Parliament, for the Purpose of raising a Revenue in America.”

The Virginia Association preamble took up the argument advanced by earlier protests against the Townshend Acts – that they were unconstitutional violations of the colonists’ rights.

“The Difficulties, under which we now labour, are owing to the Restrictions, Prohibitions, and ill advised Regulations, in several late Acts of Parliament of Great-Britain, in particular, that the late unconstitutional Act, imposing Duties on Tea, Paper, Glass, &c. for the sole Purpose of raising a Revenue in America, is injurious to Property, and destructive to Liberty, hath a necessary Tendency to prevent the Payment of the Debt due from this Colony to Great-Britain, and is, of Consequence, ruinous to Trade.”

As was the case in the northern colonies, the impact of the boycott was limited by the number of merchants who refused to participate.


Overall, exports from Great Britain to the American colonies declined by about 38 percent in 1769. While not as significant as patriot leaders might have hoped, the boycott and protests got the attention of British officials.

On March 5, 1770, Lord North, the new prime minister, proposed a partial repeal of the Townshend taxes. Some members of Parliament advocated for a complete repeal, but North argued they needed to keep the duty on tea in place to assert “the right of taxing the Americans.”

This set the stage for the Boston Tea Party and ultimately more organized colonial resistance.

While one could argue that the protests against the Townshend Acts weren’t particularly successful from a practical standpoint, they weren’t a failure. In fact, they created a foundation that ultimately led to independence.

The Townshend protests solidified the colonists’ constitutional arguments. This philosophical framework was crucial to legitimizing colonial resistance. Action without justification would only be perceived as mob violence. By emphatically asserting they were defending the “rights as Englishmen,” the Americans could justify resistance.

Efforts to establish a boycott in 1769 also created a foundation for future action. As the Boston merchants and Virginia leaders pushing for boycotts learned, it’s difficult to organize people, especially when you’re asking them to make sacrifices. Lessons learned during the Stamp Act and Townshend protests helped colonial leaders organize resistance to British actions. The lessons learned and strategies developed would prove invaluable in the years ahead.

Mike Maharrey

The 10th Amendment

“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”



Featured Articles

On the Constitution, history, the founders, and analysis of current events.

featured articles


Tenther Blog and News

Nullification news, quick takes, history, interviews, podcasts and much more.

tenther blog


State of the Nullification Movement

232 pages. History, constitutionality, and application today.

get the report


Path to Liberty

Our flagship podcast. Michael Boldin on the constitution, history, and strategy for liberty today

path to liberty


maharrey minute

The title says it all. Mike Maharrey with a 1 minute take on issues under a 10th Amendment lens. maharrey minute

Tenther Essentials

2-4 minute videos on key Constitutional issues - history, and application today


Join TAC, Support Liberty!

Nothing helps us get the job done more than the financial support of our members, from just $2/month!



The 10th Amendment

History, meaning, and purpose - the "Foundation of the Constitution."

10th Amendment



Get an overview of the principles, background, and application in history - and today.