Stamp Act Congress
STAMP ACT CONGRESS
The Stamp Act Congress, which met in New York City from October 7 to 25, 1765, was the first gathering of representatives from several American colonies to devise a unified protest against British taxation. The congress adopted petitions to the British government spelling out the colonial grievances that would eventually lead to the Revolution while simultaneously laying the groundwork for future cooperation between the colonies. It was the forerunner of the Continental Congresses that would meet nearly a decade later to coordinate resistance to British polices.
The costs of fighting the French and Indian War (1754–1763) had left Great Britain burdened with an immense debt. British officials believed that the American colonists, who had benefited from the war by the expulsion of the French from Canada, and who were being protected from their Native American neighbors by British troops, should pay part of the expenses.
The first measure designed to increase revenues from the colonies, the Sugar Act of 1764, imposed import duties on foreign molasses while tightening enforcement of customs laws to reduce smuggling. Although many Americans disliked the Sugar Act, opposition was limited because the colonists accepted the British government's right to impose trade duties. But the next colonial revenue law, the Stamp Act, provoked fierce opposition.
The Stamp Act, passed in February 1765 and modeled on a tax already collected in Britain, required colonists to pay a small fee for newspapers, diplomas, wills, and other items. Unlike customs duties, which the colonists considered external taxes levied throughout the British Empire, the Stamp Act was an internal tax, to be levied within the colonies themselves. Americans believed that only their own elected legislatures could impose internal taxes.
By stepping beyond what Americans considered its legal limits, the British government's actions aroused fears that colonial liberties were in danger. Most colonists believed that corrupt government officials might next attempt to deprive the people of their rights and property, and that the first step in such a conspiracy would be un-just taxation. Frightened by the possibility that the Stamp Act was part of such a plan, angry colonists protested in a variety of ways.
Colonial legislatures petitioned the king and Parliament, declaring their loyalty but insisting that the stamp duties violated Americans' right to be taxed only through their own legislatures. Other forms of protest included boycotts of imported British goods; appeals to the public, through newspaper essays and pamphlets, to resist the Stamp Act; and eventually violence. The act was scheduled to take effect on November 1, 1765, and as that date approached the colonists held mock funerals for liberty, demanded the resignation of the officials appointed to collect the tax, and sometimes burned them in effigy. Many stamp agents promptly resigned; some of those who showed reluctance were threatened and their property was attacked by mobs. The most violent protests occurred in Boston, where a crowd devastated the home of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson in retaliation for his support of the act.
The Massachusetts legislature took the lead in organizing the Stamp Act Congress by inviting other colonial legislatures to send representatives to meet and formulate a common policy of opposition. The congress convened in New York City on October 7, 1765, with delegates from nine of the thirteen colonies attending; Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and New Hampshire did not participate. The delegates chose Timothy Ruggles of Massachusetts as president and spent over two weeks discussing colonial rights and taxation. They produced petitions to the king and Parliament in which they clearly laid out the colonial position on these issues. The petitions stated that the colonists could only be taxed by their own consent, given through their elected representatives in the colonial legislatures. Since they were not represented in Parliament, and since their distance from London made such representation impractical, Parliament had no authority to tax the colonies. The congress also eliminated the distinction between internal and external taxation and asserted the colonists' right to tax themselves in all circumstances.
Protests from British merchants hurt by the American boycott and from the West Indies colonies, where the tax was also unpopular, together with the unrest in America, convinced Parliament to abolish the Stamp Act early in 1766. Colonial opposition had been so strong that officials had not been able to collect the tax in any of the thirteen colonies except Georgia. Parliament, however, passed the Declaratory Act at the same time it repealed the Stamp Act. This repudiated the claims of the Stamp Act Congress by asserting that Parliament had the authority to pass laws binding on the colonies in all possible cases.
The Stamp Act Congress had summarized the colonists' beliefs in their political rights while uniting them in opposition to British policy. Parliament had replied with its own assertion of supremacy. Thus the lines of argument were drawn, and they would produce a decade of disputes and eventually a colonial revolt against the British government.
Morgan, Edmund S., and Morgan, Helen M. The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1995.
Proceedings of the Congress at New York (1766). Boston: John Carter Brown Library, 1938.