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.
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?
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 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
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.
IN CONGRESS IN NEW YORK
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.
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.