The Stamp Act

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The Stamp Act

Issued by British Parliament

Passed on March 22, 1765; excerpted from Documents of American History, 1958

"There shall be raised, levied, collected, and paid unto his Majesty, his heirs, and successors, throughout the colonies and plantations in America, which now are, or hereafter may be, under the dominion of his Majesty, his heirs and successors, … for every pack of … cards, the sum of one shilling."

From the Stamp Act

In 1764, Great Britain's twenty-seven-year-old king, George III (1738–1820), had ruled for only four years. (George became king in 1760 when his father, George II [1683–1760], died). George III was said to be not very bright—he was eleven years old before he learned to read. As often happened when a new king or queen ascended the British throne, George faced power struggles among the important men who surrounded him. The struggles would decide who had influence over the king and would therefore gain power themselves. In his early days on the throne, George III was more interested in establishing his power and settling on advisers than in dealing with any restlessness in the American colonies. Unfortunately, he did not always appoint the most capable people to advise him.

The king's first man in charge of money matters was George Grenville (1712–1770), regarded by most people, and especially George III, as a terrible bore who thought of nothing but work. But King George was a thrifty man, and he did not disagree when Grenville proposed first the Sugar Act, then the Stamp Act, to raise money in the colonies to pay for the British soldiers stationed there.

Ever since the establishment of the American colonies, the British government had allowed merchants on the Board of Trade to oversee colonial trade. As long as British merchants were happily and profitably trading with the colonies, that was all that mattered. Grenville knew that some colonists smuggled goods into the colonies from the West Indies, which meant that England was not making any money from the exchange of goods.

Grenville convinced King George that it was time to get control of the American colonies and earn some money from them for government expenses. Grenville pointed out to King George that the colonists were paying only a fraction of the taxes that Englishmen paid, and many colonists enjoyed a far higher standard of living than the average Englishman. (This was only partially true. While fighting in America in the French and Indian War, British soldiers had been entertained by wealthy colonials. From this, the soldiers had gotten the impression that all Americans were wealthy. They returned home from the war and spread the news.)

In 1764, Grenville convinced Parliament to pass small taxes on sugar imported into the colonies. These taxes were paid by merchants and ship captains and so did not fall directly on the colonists. The following year, Parliament passed the Stamp Act. As the tax burden upon the colonists was really rather small, Parliament expected no complaints. However, the colonists saw matters differently.

The Stamp Act declared that as of November 1765, certain documents could only be printed on special paper stamped by the British Treasury Office. Taxes were placed on the purchase of items such as dice and playing cards. Lawyers would have to pay taxes before they could be licensed. Stamp distributors named and paid by Parliament would make sure that the terms of the Stamp Act were carried out. Important colonial men eagerly applied to Parliament for the well-paying job of stamp distributor but lived to regret it.

The Stamp Act also ordered that admiralty courts (courts that tried trade cases) would be in charge of making sure the terms of the act were carried out. Admiralty courts were disliked by American colonists, because they enforced unpopular laws, were considered too powerful, and did not use juries in making decisions.

Before the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act, the British Board of Trade had taken care of tax matters in the colonies, levying taxes on trade goods. The Board was a small organization. Colonial businessmen, or their representatives in London, knew the members of the Board, and if they objected to the Board's policies, they could complain and often persuaded the Board to reverse its policies. Now Parliament, a faraway body of complete strangers who had never had anything to do with taxing the colonies, stepped in and claimed the right. Colonial businessmen had no influence over Parliament, nor did they have any representatives there.

The colonists believed that their lawmaking bodies (usually called assemblies) were the only bodies entitled to collect taxes in the colonies, except for taxes on trade. They believed the assemblies were equal to Parliament. The colonists feared that Parliament would not stop at one tax; one tax would lead to another. Colonial assemblies immediately and flatly denied that Parliament had any legal right to tax the colonies.

The stamp tax would affect everyone sooner or later. Newspaper owners and printers would have to pay for stamped paper. Lawyers would have to use special paper for legal documents. Tavern owners would have to put stamps on bottles of alcohol and would have to pay taxes on the purchase of playing cards and dice. Merchants would have to use stamped and taxed paper for most business transactions. These people would have to charge their customers higher prices to make up for paying the tax.

Things to remember while reading an excerpt from the Stamp Act:

  • Few people in England expected the anger that greeted the passage of the Stamp Act. Certainly members of Parliament did not. Even Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) did not, although he was employed by several of the colonies to represent them in London on business matters, and he might be expected to know how people would feel about such a tax. Franklin was in London on colonial business in the summer of 1765, unaware of all the uproar that was going on back home.
  • After the Stamp Act passed, Franklin's attitude was, what's done is done, and one might as well make the best of it. He suggested to two of his friends, John Hughes and Jared Ingersoll, that they apply for jobs as stamp distributors. In the summer of 1765, Ingersoll's Boston home was attacked by an angry mob, while another mob in Philadelphia came close to destroying the homes of Franklin and Hughes. Friends and supporters of Franklin, including his wife Deborah, stood outside the Franklin home to prevent the mob from carrying out their threats. The mob's anger dissolved at the sight of these defenders, and the homes of the two men were not touched.

Excerpt from the Stamp Act

WHEREAS by an act made in the last session of parliament, several duties were granted, continued, and appropriated, towards defraying the expences of defending, protecting, and securing, the British colonies and plantations in America: and whereas it is just and necessary, that provision be made for raising a further revenue within your Majesty's dominions in America, towards defraying the said expences: … be it enacted …, That from and after [November 1, 1765,] there shall be raised, levied, collected, and paid unto his Majesty, his heirs, and successors, throughout the colonies and plantations in America, which now are, or hereafter may be, under the dominion of his Majesty, his heirs and successors,

[There followed an extremely long and detailed list of the items that required special paper, and the items for which stamp taxes had to be paid, and how much everything would cost. Here are some examples.]

For every skin or piece of vellum or parchment, or sheet or piece of paper, on which shall be ingrossed,

written or printed, any declaration, plea, replication, rejoinder, demurrer, or other pleading, or any copy thereof, in any court of law within the British colonies and plantations in America, a stamp duty of three pence ….

For every skin … on which shall be ingrossed … any licence for retailing of spiritous liquors, to be granted to any person who shall take out the same …, a stamp duty of twenty shillings ….

For every skin … on which shall be ingrossed … any probate of a will, letters of administration, or of guardianship for any estate above the value of twenty pounds sterling money; within the British colonies, and plantations upon the continent of America, the islands belonging thereto, and the Bermuda and Bahama islands, a stamp duty of five shillings.

And for and upon every pack of playing cards, and all dice, which shall be sold or used …, the several stamp duties following (that is to say)

For every pack of such cards, the sum of one shilling.

And for every pair of such dice, the sum of ten shillings.

And for and upon every paper, commonly called a pamphlet, and upon every news paper … and for and upon such advertisements as are herein after mentioned, the respective duties following (that is to say)

For every such pamphlet and paper contained in half a sheet, or any lesser piece of paper …, a stamp duty of one half-penny, for every printed copy thereof.

For every such pamphlet and paper (being larger than half a sheet), and not exceeding one whole sheet …, a stamp duty of one penny, for every printed copy thereof….

For every advertisement to be contained in any gazette, news paper, or other paper, or any pamphlet …, a duty of two shillings.

For every almanack or calendar, for any one particular year, or for any time less than a year, which shall be written or printed on one side only of any one sheet, skin, or piece of paper parchment, or vellum …, a stamp duty of two pence.

For every other almanack or calendar for any one particular year…, a stamp duty of four pence.

And for every almanack or calendar written or printed …, to serve for several years, duties to the same amount respectively shall be paid for every such year.

For every skin … on which any instrument, proceeding, or other matter or thing aforesaid, shall be ingrossed …, in any other than the English language, a stamp duty of double theamount of the respective duties before charged thereon…. (Commager, pp. 53–55)

What happened next …

News of the March 22, 1765, passage of the Stamp Act reached the colonies in the spring of 1765. Reaction was mild at first. But then, inflamed by newspaper articles, pamphlets, and complaints about "taxation without representation" (the colonies had no representatives in Parliament), the mood turned defiant. It was a bad time for Parliament to be trying to collect taxes. The colonies were suffering from a smallpox epidemic. Many people lost their jobs at the end of the French and Indian War. Colonists did not like the idea that stamp distributors were going to collect taxes from them and get paid well by Parliament.

Throughout the summer and fall (the Stamp Act was scheduled to go into effect in November 1765), colonial assemblies up and down the East Coast, from Rhode Island to South Carolina, passed strongly worded resolutions against the Stamp Act. They insisted on their right to tax themselves and declared that Great Britain seemed intent on enslaving Americans. In Virginia, Representative Patrick Henry (1736– 1799) spoke eloquently before the House of Burgesses against the

Stamp Act. His fellow representatives were speechless with admiration, but newspapers in England wondered why he was not tossed in jail.

After Henry's stirring words, the Virginia House passed its resolution declaring: "Resolved therefore, That the General Assembly of this Colony have the only and sole exclusive right and power to lay taxes and impositions upon the inhabitants of this Colony, and that every attempt to vest such power in any person or persons whatsoever other than the General Assembly aforesaid has a manifest tendency to destroy British as well as American freedom…. " Furthermore, "any personwho shall, by speaking or writing, assert or maintain that any person or persons other than the General Assembly of this Colony, have any right or power to impose or lay any taxation on the people here, shall be deemed an enemy to His Majesty's Colony." These were strong words, indeed, and a direct challenge to Parliament's authority.

In Boston, Governor Francis Bernard (1712–1779), who, like other colonial governors, had been appointed by Parliament, urged the assemblymen to remember that acts of Parliament must be observed. Finally, members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives decided to invite representatives of all the colonies to a Stamp Act Congress to decide on a course of action. Nine of the thirteen colonies responded to the invitation, sending representatives to New York City (October 7–25, 1765). The Stamp Act Congress adopted a Declaration of Rights and Grievances, which denied Parliament's right to tax the colonies and urged repeal of the Stamp Act.

At the same time the assemblies were meeting and debating, a secret anti-British organization called the Sons of Liberty was formed and took violent action to express unhappiness with British policies. The unfortunate men who had accepted jobs as stamp distributors felt the anger of mobs who destroyed their property and hanged or burned images or dummies of them to show contempt. On the cross of one such "hanged" Boston stamp distributor was a paper bearing the words: "What greater joy did New England see/Than a stampman hanging on a tree."

In his book The Reluctant Rebels, writer Lynn Montross described the disorder following the passage of the Stamp Act: "Mobs of howling Liberty Boys surged through the streets of every town in America. There was a great deal of spectacular hell-raising, which reached a climax when forts occupied by British [soldiers] were attacked in New York and both Carolinas."

American resistance was not limited to words and violence. A nonimportation policy was adopted, in which colonial merchants refused to accept imported British goods. Soon British merchants were crying out for the repeal of the Stamp Act, before it had even gone into effect!

By early November, nearly every stamp distributor in America had been thoroughly frightened into inactivity by the actions of the Sons of Liberty. One by one, they resigned their positions as distributors of stamps and paper.

Some people who should have been obeying the Stamp Act carried on with business as usual, pointing out, rightly, that they had never received an official copy of the Act and could not be expected to obey it. Others did not plead ignorance but acted in a spirit of defiance. In Rhode Island, for example, Governor Samuel Ward (1715–1776) refused to carry out the terms of the Stamp Act. In other colonies, courts closed to protest the required stamps on legal documents, and trading ships set sail without bothering to obtain the proper, stamped papers. Printers continued to print on unstamped paper, and newspapers continued to publish—including many articles on the danger of the Stamp Act to American liberties.

As it turned out, the Stamp Act was put into effect in only one colony—Georgia, and even there it was enforced in only a small way. On April 26, 1766, less than six months after the Stamp Act went into effect, the colonies received news of two Parliamentary actions: Parliament had repealed the Stamp Act, but it had replaced the Act with something that would prove just as bothersome, the Declaratory Act. But America was so busy rejoicing over the repeal of the one that they paid little attention to the other. And Americans learned a valuable lesson from their experience: that Parliament could be forced to back down if the opposition was loud enough.

Did you know …

  • In January 1765, just as George Grenville was preparing to introduce the Stamp Act for debate in Parliament, King George was stricken for the first time with a major attack of "madness." Although the disease he suffered from was misunderstood in King George's time, it is now believed he had porphyria (pronounced por-FEAR-ee-uh). Porphyria is an inherited chemical abnormality that can produce both physical and mental symptoms. King George became feverish and agitated, but he recovered in time to sign the Stamp Act in March 1765. A 1994 movie, The Madness of King George, explores his bouts with porphyria, which grew increasingly severe until his death in 1820.
  • King George once complained about the hardworking but dull Grenville, author of the Stamp Act: "When he has wearied me for two hours, he looks at his watch to see if he may not tire me for an hour more." By the time the Stamp Act was repealed, Grenville had already been replaced by a new man. Grenville never again held public office, and he died in 1770. He holds a reputation as the man who did much to bring on the American Revolution.
  • Among the earliest voices speaking out against the Stamp Act was that of Isaac Barré, son of a Frenchman, soldier, and member of Parliament. He had fought for England in the French and Indian War and knew and understood Americans' independent spirits. He is credited with coining the term "Sons of Liberty" to describe the colonists in a passionate speech he made early in 1765. He warned Parliament that people who had "fled tyranny [harshness] … [and] exposed themselves to almost all the hardships to which human nature is liable" were not likely to put up with British oppression.
  • Samuel Adams (1722–1803), second cousin of future U.S. president John Adams (1735–1826), is credited with founding the Sons of Liberty and inspiring some of their violent deeds. He is not as well remembered as other towering figures of revolutionary times, but his contemporaries appreciated his contributions. Thomas Jefferson called him "truly the Man of the Revolution." Samuel Adams was not very popular in England. John Adams called him "a man of humanity … as well as integrity," but he added in his 1782 conversation with an English gentleman: "In England … you may have been taught to believe… that he eats little children."

Where to Learn More

Commager, Henry Steele. Documents of American History. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1958.

Cornish, Rory T. George Grenville: 1712–1770. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing, 1992.

Donovan, Frank, ed. The John Adams Papers. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1965.

Farley, Karin Clafford. Samuel Adams: Grandfather of His Country. Austin, TX: Raintree/Steck Vaughn, 1994.

Fradin, Dennis Brindell. Samuel Adams: The Father of American Independence. New York: Clarion Books, 1998.

"George III" in Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Edited by Mark M. Boatner III. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994.

Green, Robert. King George III. New York: Franklin Watts, 1997.

Hibbert, Christopher. George III: A Personal History. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Montross, Lynn. The Reluctant Rebels. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1950.

Morgan, Edmund S., and Helen M. Morgan. The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution. New York: Collier Books, 1962.

George Washington Reacts to the Stamp Act

George Washington (1732–1799) had an undistinguished childhood that gave no hint of the greatness that he would later achieve. His formal schooling ended when he was fifteen years old, and the only subject he excelled in was mathematics. Although he was not a great writer and composed no pamphlets setting forth the rights of Americans, he left behind hundreds of letters and diary entries that began when he was sixteen years old.

He inherited Mount Vernon, the family estate, on the death of his older half-brother in 1752. In 1759, he married a wealthy widow, Martha Dandridge Custis, and with her property now added to his own, he became one of the richest men in the colonies. He spent the time before the American Revolutionary War overseeing the planting of crops on his estate and serving in the Virginia House of Burgesses (that colony's lawmaking body). His diary entries and letters from the period show him to be a practical man, very interested in his business affairs.

In a letter written on September 20, 1765, to one of his wife's relatives, Francis Dandridge, Washington commented on the recently passed Stamp Act. Washington's comments were of a practical rather than eloquent nature. He saw no advantage to be gained by Great Britain in the measure, because the colonists did not have the money to pay for stamps and would simply have to learn to get along without the items that required stamps. This would, therefore, result in lost income for Great Britain. He wrote:

The Stamp Act Imposed on the Colonies by the Parliament of Great Britain engrosses the conversation of the Speculative [thinking] part of the Colonists, who look upon this unconstitutional method of Taxation as a direful attack upon their Liberties, and loudly exclaim against the Violation; what may be the result of this and some other (I think I may add) ill judged Measures, I will not undertake to determine; but this I may venture to affirm, that the advantage accrueing to the Mother Country will fall greatly short of the expectations of the Ministry; for certain it is, our whole Substance [all our money] does already in a manner flow to Great Britain and that whatsoever contributes to lessen our Importation's must be hurtful to their Manufacturers. And the Eyes of Our People, already beginning to open, will perceive, that many Luxuries which we lavish our substance to Great Britain for, can well be dispensed with whilst the necessaries of Life are (mostly) to be had within ourselves. This consequently will introduce frugality [not wasting things], and be a necessary stimulation to Industry. If Great Britain therefore Loads her Manufactures with heavy Taxes, will it not facilitate [make easy] these Measures? They will not compel us I think to give our Money for their exports, whether we will or not, and certain I am none of their Traders will part from them without a valuable consideration. Where then is the Utility [usefulness] of these Restrictions?

Washington became a major force behind the adoption of nonimportation agreements in the late 1760s. Nonimportation agreements were refusals to accept British goods. Washington argued that "Parliament hath no more right to put their hands into my pocket, without my consent, than I have to put my hands into yours for money."

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The Stamp Act

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