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250 YearS ago : The STamp acT

250 YearS ago : The STamp acT

The Beginning of the American Revolution

Dr. David E. Schrader
Massachusetts Society
Sons of the American Revolution
SAR Magazine, Fall 2015

On November 1, 1765, 250 years ago, an act called O“Duties in the American Colonies Act 1765,” known to all posterity as “the Stamp Act,” took effect in the British American Colonies. On February 21, 1766, less than four months after it was put into effect, and less than a year after it was initially adopted, the Stamp Act was repealed. Yet somehow this remarkably short-lived tax placed 13 heretofore loyal British Colonies and their mother country of Great Britain on a road of conflict that within 10 years would lead them inexorably to a “rude bridge that arched the flood” where “the embattled farmers stood, And fired the shot heard round the world.” (Emerson)

Three factors give the Stamp Act a unique claim as the spark that ignited the Revolution:

  1. Because of its particular impact on Colonial printers, the Stamp Act galvanized the Colonial press in opposition to parliamentary rule;
  2. The process of resistance to the Stamp Act led to the formation of Sons of Liberty groups across the Colonies; and
  3. The Act gave rise to the first unified action of the 13 American Colonies.

The backdrop to the Stamp Act is what we in the United States call “the French and Indian War.” We think of it as a battle between Great Britain and France for supremacy on the North American continent. Yet it was much more than that. In Europe it was known as the “Seven Years’ War.” Fought largely between 1756 and 1763, it was as close to a world war as might be fought in the 18th century. While Great Britain and France were the primary belligerents, the British were allied with Prussia, Hanover, several smaller German states, Portugal and the Iroquois Confederacy; France was allied with Austria, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Saxony, the Mogul Empire in India, the Wabanaki Confederacy, Algonquin, Ottawa and other Native American tribes. The fighting took place in North and South America, Europe, India and Africa. The British emerged with military victory, but the victory pushed Great Britain to the brink of national bankruptcy,
with a national debt approaching £16.5 billion in today’s currency (Morgan and Morgan, p. 21). The obvious question for Parliament was how to raise money.

At the cessation of the war Britain faced the additional problem of what to do with the large number of soldiers and sailors that had been raised to fight. A number of factors, including lingering tensions with France’s former allies, the Ottawa, led to the stationing of 10,000 British troops in the American Colonies. British political leaders, not surprisingly, thought that the Colonists should bear the costs of those troops.

The idea of a Stamp Act was, of course, much discussed before it was actually enacted on March 22, 1765. From the summer following George Grenville’s appointment as first minister in April 1763, Grenville had been considering a stamp tax (Morgan and Morgan, p. 54). The idea was much discussed on both sides of the Atlantic prior to its introduction in Parliament. Grenville met with Benjamin Franklin, Jared Ingersoll and M.P.s Richard Jackson and Charles Garth, all representatives of American Colonies, on February 2, 1765, to discuss the Stamp Act and other tax options (Thomas, p. 78). The American representatives urged Grenville to require contributions of the several Colonies, leaving the question of how to raise the money to the Colonial assemblies. Grenville found that approach both uncertain and unsatisfactory. Accordingly, the Stamp Act was passed less than two months later.

The act imposed a tax that Grenville and his political allies regarded as both equitable and easy to collect. It required a stamp on virtually every item of paper used in the Colonies. The cost of the stamps ranged from £10 for attorneys’ licenses to smaller amounts on everything from court papers to playing cards, dice and newspapers (Morgan and Morgan, p. 72).

The Stamp Act was a disaster. It was unique because it was the first tax that Parliament had imposed on activities within the Colonies. Morgan and Morgan note that, until the 1760s “New Englanders and other Americans went about their activities unhampered by Parliamentary taxes.” (p. 4) Parliament had enacted various forms of import duties, but these were justified as regulation of trade and were not seen as attempts to raise revenue. Not so for the new tax.

The issue of taxation without representation had been brewing for some time. The phrase, “no taxation without representation,” had been a part of popular political dialogue at least since its introduction by Boston Pastor Jonathan Mayhew in a 1749 sermon commemorating the 100th anniversary of the execution of King Charles I. It was well recognized that the British “Bill of Rights” of 1689 allowed taxation only by the authority of Parliament, that is, by the authority of the elected representatives of the people. This lay at the root of the proposal of Franklin and the other American representatives in February 1765 to delegate the issue of Colonial taxes for support of the British Army to the Colonial assemblies. British political leaders in illegitimacy of “taxation without representation,” asserting that the Colonials were in the same situation of “virtual representation” as many native Britons, such as those who failed to meet the property requirements for voting. This idea of virtual representation amounted to the assertion that members of Parliament held the right to speak for all British subjects, not merely those who elected them. There were also some among the British who saw the Colonials as primitives, lacking the political maturity required for real British citizenship.

Reaction in the American Colonies was swift. As Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr. noted, the Stamp Act “saddled the burden directly upon the backs of the printers, lawyers, and merchants who (along with the clergy) formed the most literate and articulate section of the Colonial public” (p. 65). Because the Stamp Act had placed a tax on newspapers of one shilling per sheet of paper, the tax was particularly onerous to the printers of the Colonies. By the mid-1760s there were 24 weekly newspapers in the 13 Colonies. Every colony but New Jersey had at least one, and New Jersey was served by newspapers from both Philadelphia and New York (Schlesinger, p. 64). Not surprisingly, one unanticipated but important consequence of the Stamp Act was an almost total erosion of newspaper support for Parliamentary rule. The general trend of Colonial newspapers becoming hostile to rule from London had two areas of impact. First, it helped to erode royal support among the reading public. “At no later stage of the controversy with England did the Colonial newspapers display so united a front.” (Schlesinger, p. 72) Second, it contributed to improved communication among the Colonies and among groups that were moving in the direction of advocating independence.

Chief among those were the various Sons of Liberty groups that by 1765 had become “active in most of the Colonies, encouraged by and encouraging the news-writers.” (Schlesinger, p. 72) In Boston, a group was formed in 1765 called “The Loyal Nine.” One of the nine was Benjamin Edes, who along with John Gill, published The Boston Gazette, a major publicist of anti-Parliamentary sentiment. As the Loyal Nine expanded its reach, the Massachusetts Sons of Liberty was born (Morgan and Morgan, p. 127). The story was similar in the other Colonies. Across the Colonies, resistance rendered regular
Act, was accomplished.” (Morgan and Morgan, p. 207)

The Colonial assemblies however, continued to work. In June 1765 the Massachusetts Assembly issued a call to the legislatures of “the several Colonies on this Continent” to “consult together on the present circumstances of the Colonies.” (Weslager, 60) Nine of the 13 Colonies sent delegates to New York where The First Congress of the American Colonies was held from October 7 to October 25, 1765, while a 10th, New Hampshire, gave formal approval of all the resolutions and petitions of the Congress (Morgan,
p. 324). The Congress was chaired by Massachusetts conservative (and later Tory) Timothy Ruggles. Ruggles had been appointed by Massachusetts Gov. Francis Bernard in the hope that Ruggles might limit the effectiveness of the Congress (Morgan and Morgan, pp. 109f.). Among the delegates were Thomas McKean and Caesar Rodney (Del.), Philip Livingston, (N.Y.), John Dickinson (Pa.), and John Rutledge (S.C.), all of whom would later serve as delegates to the Second Continental Congress. Among the most vocal of the delegates was James Otis Jr., (Mass.) whose later mental decline left him ineffective after the 1760s.

The Stamp Act Congress, as it was more popularly known, adopted a “Declaration of Rights and Grievances” on October 19, 1765, which served as the basis for a set of petitions sent to King George III and the House of Lords, and a more detailed set of petitions sent to the House of Commons (Weslager, pp. 200ff.). The petitions affirmed the loyalty of the Colonists, as British citizens, to the British government. Additionally, they affirmed that the traditional rights of Englishmen required representation as a precondition for taxation and reaffirmed the right to trial by jury. Finally, the petitions challenged the constitutional legality of the Stamp Act in particular (Weslager, pp. 204ff.).

The reaction to the Stamp Act Congress’ petitions was complicated. Lord Dartmouth, the Colonial secretary, refused to accept the petition to the House of Lords claiming that it was “a memorial which that house never accepts.” (Thomas, p. 189n.) The House of Commons also refused to accept the petitions, asserting that they came from an unconstitutional assembly and that they questioned the right of Parliament to levy taxes, contrary to the 1689 Constitution (Thomas, pp. 189f.).

Politics, however, is ever filled with ironies. While the Stamp Act Congress’s petitions were rejected out-of-hand, the government did repeal the Stamp Act. George Grenville had resigned his ministry in the summer of 1765, before the petitions had been rejected, and was replaced by Lord Rockingham. Rockingham’s ministry was politically fragile. To strengthen his political support, he curried the favor of a merchant class that was itself opposed to the Stamp Act because American boycotts were damaging British trade (Morgan and Morgan, p. 272). On February 21, 1766, less than a year after it was adopted, the Stamp Act was repealed.

At first glance, this might have appeared to be a political victory for the American Colonials. In fact, however, quite the opposite was true. While Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, at the same time it addressed the constitutional questions raised by the Stamp Act Congress by passing The American Colonies Act 1766, better known as the Declaratory Act. The Declaratory Act asserted that Parliament’s authority to legislate for the Colonies “in all cases whatsoever” (Morgan and Morgan, pp. 287–290). Essentially, the Act declared that Parliament’s authority over the American Colonies, whose people were not represented in Parliament, was the same as Parliament’s authority over the mother country, whose people were represented in Parliament.

One historical fact of which we Americans tend to be notoriously ignorant is the extreme political instability of Great Britain in the years leading up to the American Revolution. When Lord North became prime minister at the beginning of 1770, he became the seventh prime minister since King George III assumed the crown less than 10 years earlier. This instability was reflected in instability in policy toward the Americans. The one constant had been the need to raise money. The Declaratory Act created a second constant, the strong assertion of Parliamentary authority over the Colonies. The Townshend Acts (Revenue Act of 1767) were passed. One important aspect of the Townshend Acts was the use of part of the tax revenues to pay royal governors. The purpose of this particular feature was to ensure the governors’ loyalty and responsibility to the government that paid their salaries. Before the Townshend Acts, the governors’ salaries were paid by act of the Colonial assemblies. The Townshend Acts were partially repealed in 1770, leaving the tax on tea and the British payment of governors’ salaries. The Boston Tea Party of 1773 led Parliament to reaffirm its authority with the passage of the Intolerable Acts, closing the port of Boston and severely curtailing self-government in Massachusetts.

But the die had been cast. The American Colonies were profoundly changed by the events surrounding the Stamp Act. In an important sense, America was born. The newspapers, among the most important shapers and disseminators of public opinion, became united at a critical time. Not unrelated, the Sons of Liberty was born and significantly united across the Colonies. Finally, the 13 Colonies had their first experience with concerted action. While four Colonies—Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, and New Hampshire—did not send delegations to the Stamp Act Congress, nine states did, and New Hampshire formally endorsed the work of the Congress. All but Georgia would attend the First Continental Congress nine years later. And Georgia would join them for the Second Continental Congress the following year.

In the aftermath of the Stamp Act, the Declaratory Act had expressed Parliament’s commitment to tax the Colonials, and to govern them in whatever manner it might wish. At the same time, in the aftermath of the Stamp Act, the political leaders of the American Colonies had solidified their commitment to the institutions of self-government for the Colonies. Moreover, they had worked to develop a coordinated set of institutions to achieve self-government throughout the Colonies. In the decade following the enactment of the Stamp Act, the American Colonists and the British Empire found themselves on a collision path. It is difficult to see how either side could have significantly retreated. That path led to the United States of America, with stops along the way at Concord, Massachusetts, and Yorktown, Virginia.

Works Cited

  1. Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Concord Hymn.”
  2. Morgan, Edmund S. “Colonial Ideas of Parliamentary Power 1764 – 1766.” William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 5, No. 3. (July, 1948). pp. 311 – 341.
  3. Morgan, Edmund, and Helen Morgan. The Stamp Act Congress: Prologue to the American Revolution. Collier,
  4. Schlesinger, Arthur M. “The Colonial Newspapers and the Stamp Act,” The New England Quarterly, Vol. 8, No 1.
    (March 1936). pp. 63 – 83.
  5. Thomas, Peter D.G. British Politics and the Stamp Act Crisis: The First Phase of the American Revolution. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.
  6. Weslager, C.A. The Stamp Act Congress. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1976.

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