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The Events Leading to Independence

9b. The Stamp Act Controversy

"The Repeal or the Funeral Procession of Miss Americ-Stamp"
When Britain repealed the Stamp Act in 1766 — only a year after it had been issued — colonists celebrated in the streets, as this satirical cartoon from 1766 depicts.

Something was dreadfully wrong in the American colonies.

All of sudden after over a century and a half of permitting relative self-rule, Britain was exercising direct influence over colonial life. In addition to restricting westward movement, the parent country was actually enforcing its trade laws.

Puttin' on the Writs

Writs of assistance, or general search warrants, were granted to British customs inspectors to search colonial ships. The inspectors had long been charged with this directly but, until this time, had not carried it out. Violators did not receive the benefit of a trial by jury; rather, they were at the mercy of the British admiralty courts.

Worst of all, the British now began levying taxes against American colonists. What had gone wrong?

A tax stamp
All pieces of paper fell under the Stamp Act of 1765. Legal documents, newspapers, and playing cards were also levied with the tax. Britain had several stamps to mark these documents as official.

The British point of view is not difficult to grasp. The Seven Years' War had been terribly costly. The taxes asked of the American colonists were lower than those asked of mainland English citizens. The revenue raised from taxing the colonies was used to pay for their own defense. Moreover, the funds received from American colonists barely covered one-third of the cost of maintaining British troops in the 13 colonies.

The Americans, however, saw things through a different lens. What was the purpose of maintaining British garrisons in the colonies now that the French threat was gone? Americans wondered about contributing to the maintenance of troops they felt were there only to watch them.

True, those in England paid more in taxes, but Americans paid much more in sweat. All the land that was cleared, the Indians who were fought, and the relatives who died building a colony that enhanced the British Empire made further taxation seem insulting.


That the colonists, black and white, born here are freeborn British subjects, and entitled to all the essential civil rights of such is a truth not only manifest from the provincial charters, from the principles of the common law, and acts of Parliament, but from the British constitution, which was re-established at the Revolution with a professed design to secure the liberties of all the subjects to all generations.

– James Otis, The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved, 1764


In addition to emotional appeals, the colonists began to make a political argument, as well. The tradition of receiving permission for levying taxes dated back hundreds of years in British history. But the colonists had no representation in the British Parliament. To tax them without offering representation was to deny their traditional rights as English subjects. This could not stand.

The Stamp Act of 1765 was not the first attempt to tax the American colonies. Parliament had passed the Sugar Act and Currency Act the previous year. Because tax was collected at ports though, it was easily circumvented. Indirect taxes such as these were also much less visible to the consumer.

The Currency Act of 1764

The colonies were plagued by a shortage of legal British currency. To offset the problem, the colonies began printing their own Bills of Credit. These notes were not regulated, not backed by hard silver or gold currency, and their use and value varied depending on where they were issued. The result was confusion compounded by fear due to the erratic colonial economy. To assuage anxious British merchant-creditors, Parliament passed the Currency Act on September 1, 1764.

Essentially, the Currency Act gave Parliament control of the colonial currency system. It abolished the Bills of Credit altogether and put the colonists at a further economic disadvantage in their trade relations with British merchants.


WHEREAS great quantities of paper bills of credit have been created and issued in his Majesty's colonies or plantations in America, by virtue of acts, orders, resolutions, or votes of assembly, making and declaring such bills of credit to be legal tender in payment of money: and whereas such bills of credit have greatly depreciated in their value, by means whereof debts have been discharged with a much less value than was contracted for, to the great discouragement and prejudice of the trade and commerce of his Majesty's subjects, by occasioning confusion in dealings, and lessening credit in the said colonies or plantations: for remedy whereof, may it please your most excellent Majesty, that it may be enacted; and be it enacted by the King's most excellent majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the lords spiritual and temporal, and commons, in this present parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, That from and after the first day of September, one thousand seven hundred and sixty four, no act, order, resolution, or vote of assembly, in any of his Majesty's colonies or plantations in America, shall be made, for creating or issuing any paper bills, or bills of credit of any kind or denomination whatsoever, declaring such paper bills, or bills of credit, to be legal tender in payment of any bargains, contracts, debts, dues, or demands whatsoever; and every clause or provision which shall hereafter be inserted in any act, order, resolution, or vote of assembly, contrary to this act, shall be null and void.

– excerpt from the Currency Act of 1764


The Stamp Act

When Parliament passed the Stamp Act in March 1765, things changed. It was the first direct tax on the American colonies. Every legal document had to be written on specially stamped paper, showing proof of payment. Deeds, wills, marriage licenses — contracts of any sort — were not recognized as legal in a court of law unless they were prepared on this paper. In addition, newspaper, dice, and playing cards also had to bear proof of tax payment. American activists sprang into action.

Resolutions of the Stamp Act Congress, 1765

IN CONGRESS IN NEW YORK
OCTOBER, 1765

The members of this Congress, sincerely devoted, with the warmest sentiments of affection and duty to His Majesty's Person and Government, inviolably attached to the present happy establishment of the Protestant succession, and with minds deeply impressed by a sense of the present and impending misfortunes of the British colonies on this continent; having considered as maturely as time will permit the circumstances of the said colonies, esteem it our indispensable duty to make the following declarations of our humble opinion, respecting the most essential rights and liberties of the colonists, and of the grievances under which they labour, by reason of several late Acts of Parliament.

  1. That His Majesty's subjects in these colonies, owe the same allegiance to the Crown of Great-Britain, that is owing from his subjects born within the realm, and all due subordination to that august body the Parliament of Great Britain.
  2. That His Majesty's liege subjects in these colonies, are entitled to all the inherent rights and liberties of his natural born subjects within the kingdom of Great-Britain.
  3. That it is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that no taxes be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives.
  4. That the people of these colonies are not, and from their local circumstances cannot be, represented in the House of Commons in Great-Britain.
  5. That the only representatives of the people of these colonies, are persons chosen therein by themselves, and that no taxes ever have been, or can be constitutionally imposed on them, but by their respective legislatures.
  6. That all supplies to the Crown, being free gifts of the people, it is unreasonable and inconsistent with the principles and spirit of the British Constitution, for the people of Great-Britain to grant to His Majesty the property of the colonists.
  7. That trial by jury is the inherent and invaluable right of every British subject in these colonies.
  8. That the late Act of Parliament, entitled, An Act for granting and applying certain Stamp Duties, and other Duties, in the British colonies and plantations in America, etc., by imposing taxes on the inhabitants of these colonies, and the said Act, and several other Acts, by extending the jurisdiction of the courts of Admiralty beyond its ancient limits, have a manifest tendency to subvert the rights and liberties of the colonists.
  9. That the duties imposed by several late Acts of Parliament, from the peculiar circumstances of these colonies, will be extremely burthensome and grievous; and from the scarcity of specie, the payment of them absolutely impracticable.
  10. That as the profits of the trade of these colonies ultimately center in Great-Britain, to pay for the manufactures which they are obliged to take from thence, they eventually contribute very largely to all supplies granted there to the Crown.
  11. That the restrictions imposed by several late Acts of Parliament, on the trade of these colonies, will render them unable to purchase the manufactures of Great-Britain.
  12. That the increase, prosperity, and happiness of these colonies, depend on the full and free enjoyment of their rights and liberties, and an intercourse with Great-Britain mutually affectionate and advantageous.
  13. That it is the right of the British subjects in these colonies, to petition the King, Or either House of Parliament.

Lastly, That it is the indispensable duty of these colonies, to the best of sovereigns, to the mother country, and to themselves, to endeavour by a loyal and dutiful address to his Majesty, and humble applications to both Houses of Parliament, to procure the repeal of the Act for granting and applying certain stamp duties, of all clauses of any other Acts of Parliament, whereby the jurisdiction of the Admiralty is extended as aforesaid, and of the other late Acts for the restriction of American commerce.

– "Resolutions of the Stamp Act Congress," 1765

Taxation in this manner and the Quartering Act (which required the American colonies to provide food and shelter for British troops) were soundly thrashed in colonial assemblies. From Patrick Henry in Virginia to James Otis in Massachusetts, Americans voiced their protest. A Stamp Act Congress was convened in the colonies to decide what to do.

The colonists put their words into action and enacted widespread boycotts of British goods. Radical groups such as the Sons and Daughters of Liberty did not hesitate to harass tax collectors or publish the names of those who did not comply with the boycotts.

Soon, the pressure on Parliament by business-starved British merchants was too great to bear. The Stamp Act was repealed the following year.

The crisis was over, but the uneasy peace did not last long.

On the Web
A Summary of the 1765 Stamp Act
The Stamp Act encompassed much more than a simple tax on stamps — it called for a tax on every piece of printed paper, as well as newspapers, playing cards, and literature. This Colonial Williamsburg website offers a summary of the Stamp Act, including its background, colonial response to it, its repeal, and links to biographies of key players.
William Pitt's Defense of the American Colonies
English leaders and even families were divided over the issues the Stamp Act raised. Prime Minister George Grenville was a staunch supporter of it, but his brother-in-law William Pitt, also a powerful leader, spoke eloquently for its repeal. Here are exce
Biography of Grenville
The man primarily responsible for the issue of the Stamp Act, Prime Minister George Grenville, was unpopular not only with the American colonists. This short biography from Britannia reveals the major reasons he remained in office only two years.
Money in North American History
Think paying taxes today is a headache? During the colonial period, official British coins were in chronic short supply. The colonies responded to this shortage by using substitutes. By 1775, North Carolina alone recognized 17 forms of money as legal tender. This site traces the history of American money from wampum and tobacco to electronic funds transfer.
The Quartering Act March 24, 1765
Issued alongside the Stamp Act, the Quartering Act required the colonies to provide food, housing, and supplies to British troops. Read the text of the Quartering Act at this website devoted to laws of America.
James Otis
One of the leading Boston patriots, James Otis resigned from his position as Advocate-General of Massachusetts in order to argue against the Writs of Assistance. He publicly denounced these general search warrants before the Superior Court of Massachusetts in 1761. This website presents an excerpt of his speech.
James Otis: Against the Writ of Assistance
In February 1761, Otis delivered a five-hour-long speech against these general search warrants. Although the beginning of his speech has survived, the final part exists only in the form of a summary by John Adams. Both pieces are offered here.
The Stamp Acts Riots and Tar and Feathering
One way colonists reacted to taxation was with acts of violence. Tarring and Feathering, a medieval form of torture, was the choice for some reactionists. This PBS website offers a brief overview of this practice.
The Stamp Act
The Stamp Act wasn't just one law, but a bill that included 55 resolutions. George Grenville proposed the measure, and Parliament denied a motion to read petitions from the colonies. This U.S. history website presents the text of the Stamp Act as well as the texts of other British laws passed during this period. Important people and events are also covered in detail. Just click on the drop-down window at the top of the page for an index of Revolution topics.
The Sugar Act
Although the Sugar Act predated the Stamp Act, it did not cause the controversy that the later tax did. This website describes the Sugar Act and how colonists got around it.
James Otis, "The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved"
James Otis came out against British tryanny in the early years of the American Revolution. After arguing against British search warrents, Otis published "The Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved" in 1764. This pamphlet was one of the first legal criticisms of Parliament's taxation policies and the full text is available at this website.
Why weren't there any stamp commissioners remaining in the colonies on the day the Stamp Act officially went into effect?
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