What was the Stamp Act?

1p Stamp Act of 1765 proof Scott Catalogue USA: RM19P Smithsonian National Postage Museum

1p Stamp Act of 1765 proof
Scott Catalogue USA: RM19P
Smithsonian National Postage Museum

In April 1763, George Grenville replaced Lord Bute as the Prime Minister. Grenville, a former First Lord of the Treasury, wanted the American colonies to contribute to the costs of maintaining a British Army in North America after the war. Grenville saw this as only fair since the taxes on the British people had increased dramatically during the war.  Grenville proposed a Stamp Act for the colonies. A stamp duty had first been introduced in England in 1694 and proved useful in collecting revenues. The new tax required all legal documents including commercial contracts, newspapers, wills, marriage licenses, diplomas, pamphlets, and playing cards in the American colonies to carry a tax stamp. The Stamp Act was the first direct tax used by the British government to collect revenues from the colonies. Though there were scattered objections in Parliament to using a stamp tax to collect revenue from the colonies, Grenville could not understand how anyone in the colonies could protest a tax which the people in Britain had been paying for over fifty years.

The American reaction to the Stamp Act, however, was swift and intense. The first official opposition to the stamps came from the Virginia House of Burgesses. On May 29, 1765, the House of Burgesses passed five resolves proposed by Patrick Henry, a young, newly-elected member from Hanover County. Though a well known attorney, Henry was considered an upstart firebrand when he won a special election and traveled to Williamsburg to take his seat. Henry’s measures, known as the Virginia Resolves, took the House of Burgesses by storm. The Virginia Resolves tied the liberties and immunities enjoyed by Virginians in 1765 to the first two royal charters granted by King James I in the early 17th century. The third resolve boldly stated, “That the Taxation of the People by themselves, or by Persons chosen by themselves to represent them, who can only know what taxes the people are able to bear, or the easiest Method of raising them, and must themselves be affected by every Tax laid on the people, is the only Security against a burdensome Taxation, and the distinguishing characteristick of British freedom, without which the ancient constitution cannot exist.” The fifth resolve, the most radical of the five resolutions passed by the House, stated that only the General Assembly of Virginia had the power to lay taxes on its inhabitants. This declaration reflected the growing principal in the colonies that there could be no taxation without representation. The day after the five resolves passed the House of Burgesses, conservative and moderate members regrouped to strike the more radical fifth resolve from the official records. The news of Virginia’s courageous stand spread quickly throughout the colonies, and several newspapers in other colonies published all five resolves. Other colonial assemblies followed Virginia’s daring lead. Shortly after Virginia’s action, the Massachusetts lower house proposed a meeting of representatives from all of the colonies. This meeting, known as the Stamp Act Congress, met in New York in October 1765 and produced a document called “The Declaration of Rights and Grievances”. This document raised fourteen points of protest that went well beyond the protests over the Stamp Act and was sent as three petitions to the King, the House of Lords, and the House of Commons. In addition to protests by colonial legislatures, mobs in numerous cities violently demonstrated against the Stamp Act. Many of these crowds often went by such patriotic names as the Sons of Liberty and the Liberty Boys. These secretive and volatile groups, often composed of printers and artisans, were led by some of the most powerful men in the colonies. Samuel Adams led the Sons of Liberty in Boston. These groups protested by hanging effigies of people associated with the tax and ransacking their homes. Occasionally, these groups would “tar and feather” people who represented the royal government. Individuals appointed to be stamp collectors feared for their personal safety. Most tax collectors never claimed their lucrative offices and resigned their positions before ever issuing any stamps. In addition to mob violence, other groups organized efforts to stop the importation of British goods. Many of these groups also punished merchants who violated the boycott of British goods.

News of the violence against the tax collectors and government officials quickly reached London. The British Parliament was strongly divided as to how to proceed, and two major factions swiftly developed within the government. While Lord Rockingham had replaced George Grenville as Prime Minister, Grenville remained a Member of Parliament. He and his faction rejected repealing the Stamp Act, feeling this was a question of Parliamentary supremacy and that there could be no retreat on the issue. Other influential members of Parliament, such as William Pitt and Edmund Burke, urged that the Stamp Act be repealed. This bloc had the critical support of the powerful merchant class in Great Britain which was suffering due to the non-importation of British goods. The testimony of Benjamin Franklin also influenced the issue. Franklin, who had been living in England for a number of years as an agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly, testified before Parliament that the colonists had no objection to external taxes but only objected to internal taxes. Internal taxes were vaguely defined as taxes rising from activities within the colonies, such as the Stamp Act, while external taxes were essentially duties on trade. George Grenville rejected any distinction between external and internal taxes as contrived and artificial. After convincing a reluctant George III that repeal was in the nation’s best interests, Parliament passed a measure to repeal the Stamp Act in March 1766. On the same day, Parliament also passed the Declaratory Act which affirmed the right of Parliament to pass laws over the colonies, “in all cases whatsoever.” The residents of all the colonies celebrated the repeal of the Stamp Act with joy. The news of its repeal gave the American colonists confidence that the British government understood and respected their position regarding taxes. Few recognized or appreciated that Parliament clearly claimed the right to pass laws “in all cases whatsoever” with the Declaratory Act. For some in the British government, they would simply find another way to raise revenue from the colonies.