Stamp Act and Stamp Act Congress
STAMP ACT AND STAMP ACT CONGRESS
After the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), the government of Great Britain faced a financial crisis. During the war, Britain's national debt had doubled, from approximately £70 million to £140 million. More significantly, the cost of administering Britain's North American colonies skyrocketed with the acquisition of Canada from the French and Florida from the Spanish. The government planned to maintain an army of 7,500 soldiers in its newly acquired territory, a substantial portion to be posted in remote garrisons along the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys. This military establishment would cost about £350,000 annually. American customs, the chief source of revenue for the British government from its colonies, generated only about £2,000 annually.
Faced with these financial realities, Prime Minister George Grenville proposed in early 1764 that Parliament enact a stamp tax in the American colonies. The proposed tax was actually a series of duties levied on legal and economic transactions. Newspapers and legal documents would have to be printed on stamped paper purchased from a royally appointed stamp distributor. Liquor licenses and land patents would also be subject to a stamp duty, as would some common nonessential consumer items, such as playing cards and dice. Such a system of taxation already existed in Britain, where the king's subjects paid at a rate higher than that proposed by Grenville for America. Colonial agents in London objected to Grenville's proposal but offered no alternative other than having the crown requisition funds as needed from colonial assemblies, a system that had failed to raise adequate revenues in the past.
When Parliament passed the Stamp Act in March 1765, no one in Britain or America anticipated the furor it would unleash in the colonies. The colonists objected to the Stamp Act primarily on two grounds. First, they claimed it violated their right as British subjects to no taxation without representation because no American representatives sat in Parliament. Patrick Henry famously made this argument in a speech before the Virginia House of Burgesses in May 1765, sparking the passage of a series of resolutions against the Stamp Act that were widely circulated and imitated among the other colonial assemblies. Second, the colonists objected to a provision in the Stamp Act that gave vice-admiralty courts jurisdiction over cases arising from enforcement of the tax. The colonists considered this measure another violation of their rights, because vice-admiralty courts
typically tried crimes committed on the high seas and did not use juries.
At the suggestion of the Massachusetts assembly, nine of the colonies sent delegations to a meeting in New York in October 1765 to frame joint petitions to the crown and Parliament against the Stamp Act. The twenty-seven delegates at the Stamp Act Congress—representing Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and South Carolina—spent two weeks carefully drafting these petitions, which acknowledged their loyalty and submission to the king and Parliament but stated unequivocally their constitutional claim to no taxation without representation.
While elites met in assembly halls, the common folk practiced a different kind of politics out-of-doors. The first crowd actions occurred in Boston in August 1765, when a mob tore down the home of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson and ran Andrew Oliver, the person expected to be appointed the colony's stamp distributor, out of town. Similar riots and intimidation of stamp distributors occurred in Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and South Carolina. As the stamped paper necessary to carry out the Stamp Act arrived in colonial harbors, it was either destroyed by mobs or locked up by government officials for safekeeping. When the date set for the act to take effect, 1 November 1765, arrived, neither a single sheet of stamped paper nor a single stamp distributor was available to anyone who might have wished to comply with it. Merchants, lawyers, and printers cautiously resumed business once it became apparent that the act was unenforceable.
Meanwhile, changing political winds in Britain opened the door to repealing the act. For reasons unrelated to its American policy, the Grenville ministry fell out of favor and a new one led by Charles Watson-Wentworth, second Marquis of Rockingham, took over. British merchants who feared the disruption of their American trade organized petition drives for repeal in seaports and manufacturing towns. In February 1766 Parliament debated the subject. The political hero of the Seven Years' War, William Pitt, gave a famous speech defending the American position, and Benjamin Franklin, working in London as a colonial agent, acquitted himself brilliantly as a defender of American liberties. With the tide of opinion clearly against enforcing the Stamp Act, the Rockingham ministry devised a solution to the crisis. The act of repeal was accompanied by the Declaratory Act, which asserted Parliament's power to legislate for the colonies "in all cases whatsoever." Both measures became law on 18 March 1766.
The Stamp Act brought forth the constitutional issues on which the colonies and Britain would split. The colonists, believing they had achieved a great victory for their rights as British subjects, never budged from their contention that Parliament had no right to tax them. In Britain, subsequent measures intended to ease the government's financial burden in America, such as the Townshend Act (1767) and the Tea Act (1774), tried to raise money by levying imposts on the colonists' overseas trade, but like the Stamp Act, they met stiff American resistance. The Stamp Act Congress had proved the efficacy of united colonial opposition to such measures, and mob actions remained the most prominent tactic in the Patriot cause.
Bullion, John L. A Great and Necessary Measure: George Grenville and the Genesis of the Stamp Act, 1763–1765. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1982.
Morgan, Edmund S., ed. Prologue to Revolution: Sources and Documents on the Stamp Act Crisis, 1764–1766. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959.
Morgan, Edmund S., and Helen M. Morgan. The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution. Rev. ed. New York: Collier, 1963.
Thomas, P. D. G. British Politics and the Stamp Act Crisis: The First Phase of the American Revolution, 1763–1767. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.
Timothy J. Shannon