Stamp Act Congress, Resolutions of (October 19, 1765)

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These resolutions, adopted by the delegates of nine American colonies meeting in an intercolonial congress, expressed the basis of the American constitutional position in the quarrel with Great Britain leading to the american revolution. The mother country, financially exhausted by a great war from which the American colonies stood to gain the most, decided to retain an army in America and to require the colonists to pay a small fraction of the cost of their defense. Parliamentary legislation aimed at raising a revenue in America was, however, unprecedented before the Sugar Act of 1764. That act provoked the first constitutional protests from the colonies. In form the 1764 legislation had regulated their ocean trade, thus imposing an "external" tax. The Stamp Act of 1765 imposed "internal" taxes on every sort of legal document and most business documents; on college diplomas, liquor licences, and appointments to offices; and on playing cards, newspapers, advertisements, almanacs, books, and pamphlets. Admiralty courts, which operated without juries and used inquisitional procedures, had jurisdiction over offenses against the act. American opposition was so vehement and widespread that the act proved to be unenforceable.

The Stamp Act Congress addressed itself to two constitutional issues raised by the act of Parliament. After asserting that the colonists were entitled to all the rights and liberties of Englishmen, the congress resolved that Parliament, a body in which the colonists were not represented and which could not represent them, had no constitutional authority to tax them. Several resolutions condemned taxation without representation and endorsed the principle that only their own assemblies could constitutionally tax the American colonists. The congress also endorsed the right to trial by jury and condemned the unprecedented extension of admiralty court jurisdiction as subversive of colonial liberties.

The Stamp Act was in force for only four months before Parliament repealed it, not because of the American constitutional protests but because of the protests of British merchants who suffered from a boycott of their goods by American importers. To save face, Parliament accompanied its repealer with the Declaratory Act of 1766, which insisted that Great Britain had full power to make laws for America "in all cases whatsoever." The American position, that "no taxes … can be constitutionally imposed … but by their respective legislatures," was founded on a different view of the British constitution, even a different understanding of the meaning of a constitution and of the word "unconstitutional." A local court in Virginia gratuitously condemned the Stamp Act as unconstitutional and therefore not binding.

Leonard W. Levy


Morgan, Edmund S. and Helen M. 1953 The Stamp Act Congress. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.