OTD in History… March 22, 1765, Britain institutes the Stamp Act first direct tax on the colonies
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history March 22, 1765, Britain implements the Stamp Act the first direct tax on the American colonies, taxing and forcing a stamp to be placed on any paper sold or used in the colonies. This was the third tax Britain imposed on the colonies to pay for the debt Britain incurred during the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) with France fought in the colonies as the French-Indian War. Britain took over the Indian population from the French in the Allegheny Mountains, the natives were hostile to British colonists and Britain decided it needed to maintain a standing army in the colonies as a defense. In 1763, in Pontiac’s Rebellion, Ottawa chief Pontiac led an uprising with tribes all over the frontier from the North in the Great Lakes to the South and Mexico defending their “hunting grounds.”
The uprising made Britain need to keep at least 10,000 troops at all times, which would cost £220,000 per year. (Findling, 65) In 1763, Britain issued the proclamation of 1763 that forbade colonists from settling beyond the Appalachian Mountains. A separate agreement would create a boundary with the natives and then gradually colonists would be able to settle in the west. Colonists objected but as historian Thomas C. Mackey notes, “Instead of viewing the Line and the troops as a beneficial measure, the colonials viewed the policy as an affront to their own interests.” (Findling, 65)
Britain looked to cover the cost of the standing army and the debt from the war with France, which now stood at £147 million. Prime Minister George Grenville decided to look to the colonies to carry the burden particularly taxing imports. After years of the monarchy and the Board of Trade’s policy of salutary neglect, Britain looked to tax the colonies. Britain had the war debt and huge expanse of territory to deal with now and the costs associated with its administration and defense. The young monarch King George III, looked to counter policies of his predecessor and wanted to take a harder stance on the colonies. Grenville agreed because he wanted to reduce the debt at any “means possible.” (Findling, 60) However, Grenville did not force to the colonies to pay the entire war debt from the French-Indian War and he also imposed new taxes in Britain. Grenville believed it was within the rights of Parliament to tax the colonies. Historians John E. Findling and Frank W. Thackeray in their book Events That Changed America in the Eighteenth Century point out, “The chain of events that led ultimately to the American Revolution began in 1763, during Grenville’s ministry.” (Findling, 60)
First, in 1763, Grenville had Parliament pass An Act for the Encouragement of Officers Making Seizures, creating a new vice-admiralty court in Halifax to enforce customs and punish smugglers. Then the British Parliament added new taxes and passed the Sugar Act in 1764 imposing duties on “foreign sugar, textiles, coffee, indigo, rum, wine.” (Remini, 32) The Sugar Act replaced the Molasses Act of 1733, that act was not enforced as the Sugar Act was being “rigorously enforced.” Grenville had the tax lowered by half from “six pence to three pence” believing he would end with more fund s without the ability to smuggle, bribe and circumvent the tax. (Findling, 67) While Britain looked to gain “£45,000 annually” from the colonies with the duties. Colonists would rather boycott out of principle the items including liquors and colonial favorite Madeira wine from Portugal.
The Sugar Act of 1764 marked a drastic change in Britain’s relationship with the North American colonies but also the empire. Historian Robert Remini claims, “The Sugar Act was not simply a customs duty but a program that threatened to disrupt American trade and the livelihood of thousands.” (Remini, 32) Mackey goes further arguing, “The Sugar Act of 1764 must be recognized as the point when British colonial policy regarding the North American colonies altered…. With the Sugar Act, Parliament deliberately taxed the colonies to raise revenue for the empire — an action not previously undertaken by Parliament. In addition, colonials had to pay the tax, a tax dictated by Parliament and not approved by their own local colonial governments. This parliamentary action was new. It marked a turning point in imperial relations both for what it actually achieved (the Sugar Act actually raised far less revenue than Grenville had hoped it would) and for the many questions it raised about the relationship of colonies (potentially any colonies throughout Britain’s worldwide empire) to Parliament and the Crown. Britain’s Sugar Act did not seek merely to regulate commerce between the home country and its overseas colonies; it sought to raise revenue for the empire.” (Findling, 67–68)
Not enough in 1765, the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act the first direct tax on the colonies. When Grenville first introduced the Sugar Act on March 9, 1764, he also floated the idea of a stamp act to Parliament, proposing, “it may be proper to charge certain Stamp duties in the said Colonies and Plantations.” (Middlekauff, 70) Grenville remained vague throughout the spring of 1764 and did not have the Secretary of State for the Southern Department notify colonial governors before presenting the act to Parliament as was usual procedure. Grenville ignored giving the colonies the chance to create their own taxes as historian Robert Middlekauff points out in his book The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789 “what Grenville had in mind was taxation by Parliament. (Middlekauff, 71) On February 6, 1765, Grenville appeared before Parliament about the creation of a stamp act. There was little debate in the House of Commons with the only representative speaking out against the act, Colonel Isaac Barré had served in the colonies, he had firsthand knowledge and defended the colonists calling them “those Sons of Liberty.” (Findling, 69)
Thomas Whately wrote the act presented to Parliament on February 13, 1765, where it had its first reading, the act received its second reading on February 15. By then “colonies and colonial agents” sent “petitions,” to stop or “postpone” the bill but Grenville ignored the colonies. On February 17, 1765, the House of Commons passed the bill with a 205 to 49 vote, and on March 8, the House of Lords unanimously passed the bill and George III gave royal approval on March 22, 1765. (Findling, 70) The tax in the form of a stamp impressed in the paper would be levied on all paper items including “newspapers, legal documents, contracts, playing cards, marriage licenses, land deeds,” among others. (Remini, 32) The Stamp Act also affected “cards, dice, pamphlets, newspapers, and almanacs.”
The act affected the legal profession the most but also “merchants and businessmen, journalists, and clergymen,” with attorney licenses costing the most at £10. (Findling, 60, 69) Colonists could not escape the tax and although mostly not that much it was the principle of Parliament taxing them. (Findling, 70) The Stamp Act would go into effect on November 1, 1765. The act also had a religious provision stating, the act would cover legal documents associated with “exercising ecclesiastical jurisdiction,” which led many colonists to fear that Britain intended to impose Anglican Bishops on them.
Britain further imposed and inconvenienced the colonists by issuing the Quartering Act on March 24, 1765. The act would require colonists to provide provisions and “lodging for troops stationed” in their areas. The troops could take and use unused buildings such as inns. Colonists would be forced to do so without any compensation. New York was most affected because the military headquarters were located in the colony. The colonist felt their freedom was threatened in that they were required to pay for a standing army and that army could be used to enforced Parliament laws including the Stamp Act. As Mackey explains, “In this way, then, the Quartering Act threatened the colonists’ property and their rights, and coming on the heels of the Stamp Act, the Quartering Act appeared part of a plan to use troops to impose parliamentary taxes on them.” (Findling, 70)
Colonists resisted and protested the act. On May 30 and 31, 1765, young lawyer Patrick Henry in the Virginia House of Burgesses introduced resolutions against the Stamp Act and Britain taxing the colonies in a stirring speech on the House floor. Henry wrote, “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.” (Middlekauf, 81) Henry’s impassioned argument caused dissension with the Speaker of the House even stopping him for what he believed was a treasonous argument, Henry, however, did not back down from his resolutions or his position on Parliament taxing the colonies and interring in their autonomy. The newspapers reprinted Virginia’s resolutions and urged their state legislatures to do the same. By the end of 1865, eight colonial lower houses passed similar resolutions against the Stamp Act and the Parliament imposing taxes on the colonies.
They boycotted, trade with Britain fell £300,000. Two groups formed to protest, the Sons of Liberty and the Daughters of Liberty. Colonists became violent; the Sons of Liberty forced stamp collectors to resign, turned the locals against stamp supporters and politicians and burned the stamped paper. The violence and riots were so widespread and went unpunished. On August 14, 1765, Boston merchants the Loyal Nine, who opposed the tax and later became the Sons of Liberty, led a mob to attack the home of Andrew Oliver, the Massachusetts stamp tax collector. They burned an effigy of Oliver, then attacked his home with him in it vowing to kill him, until he escaped, then they destroyed his home stealing or burning all his furnishing and even the architectural trimmings of his home. (Findling, 64)
On August 26–27, 1765, riots broke first at the customs and admiralty offices at the lieutenant governor and chief justice of Massachusetts Thomas Hutchinson’s home. Hutchinson defended his brother-in-law Oliver during the protests and was a representative of the crown, historians Edmund S. and Helen M. Morgan claim, “a friend of the Stamp Act and the enemy of colonial rights.” (Findling, 64) Hutchinson’s home was one of the finest homes in Boston, an example of the classical style. Hutchinson fled but the rioters stole anything they could carry and destroyed the rest, including silver, furnishing and Hutchinson’s private papers. The rioters went on the roof but it took them hours to destroy the cupola and make a hole in the roof. (Findling, 60–61) Riots continued in the colonies until November and they forced most stamp collectors to quit, while colonial importers refused to pay English merchants and trade with them while the act was valid.
On June 8, 1765, The Massachusetts legislature suggested a “general meeting” with delegates from each colony to “to consider of a general and united, dutiful, loyal and humble Representation of their Condition” and to “meet and to take action against the Stamp Act.” (Remini, 32, Findling, 72) Otis would go to coin the phrase “Taxation without representation is tyranny,” which represented the colonists’ struggle. From October 7 to 25, 1765, nine of the twelve colonies met in New York as the Stamp Act Congress with 27 delegates in attendance. Among the colonies attending were Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and South Carolina.
John Dickinson of Pennsylvania wrote the “Declaration of Rights and Grievances,” with “thirteen grievances.” (Findling, 73) The declaration urged Parliament to repeal the act and expressed that only their elected state legislature could tax them and not parliament beginning the revolutionary cries of no taxation without representation. The third resolution specifically stated, “That it is inseparately 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.” (Findling, 73) Remini explains, “Thus the delegates to this Stamp Act Congress represented a collection of individual and distinct entities who considered themselves as having rights and powers as Englishmen by which they had full power to enact legislation for the benefit of the people living in their respective colonies.” (Remini, 38)
The colonies still pledged allegiance to the crown but at the same time claimed it and Parliament had no right to tax them a contradiction that would take time for the colonies to clarify this contradiction on jurisdiction. The pamphleteers were more to the point as Middlekauf, “The colonists were English, and Englishmen could be governed only by their own consent given through their representatives.” (Middlekauf, 125) The colonists understood that Parliament had a right to exert control over trade but internal taxes should be up to the colonies and their representative government. The infringement on this right led to the colonial rebellion and protests, which the colonies intended to go further if the act was enforced and not repealed. In Britain, Benjamin Franklin “warned Parliament” if they enforce the act with “troops” there will be a “rebellion.” (Remini, 33) Middlekauf notes that “the prolonged crisis that began with the passage of the Stamp Act” led colonial “hard working freemen” to become “committed to constitutional government.” (Middlekauf, 135)
A turning point was the appointment of a new Prime Minister Charles Watson-Wentworth, the Marquis of Rockingham, who was more sympathetic to the colonists than Grenville. Additionally, English merchants suffered the most from the protests and boycotts and “pressured” Parliament to repeal the act. The Stamp Act was becoming more of a hindrance and to enforce it Parliament realized military force would be necessary and counterproductive. Early on February 22, 1766, the House of Commons repealed the Stamp Act; the Declaratory bill was compensation to Parliament for repealing the Stamp Act. The House of Commons passed the repeal with a vote of 275 to 167, however, they “unanimously passed” the Declaratory Act proclaiming their authority to tax the colonies. (Findling, 74) The act declared that the colonies “ have been, are, and of right ought to be, subordinate unto and dependent upon the imperial Crown and Parliament of Great Britain” and Parliament had the “full power and authority . . . to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever.” (Nevins, 70; Remini, 33)
When news of the repeal reached the colonies it was May 1766, and King George III birthday. The colonists celebrated with hearing or being concerned about the Declaratory Act that put the colonies in peril of new taxes by the British Parliament. There were barbeques and drank beer freely, New York’s assembly commissioned an “equestrian statue of George III,” and “a statue of William Pitt,” who passed the repeal through parliament. At a Massachusetts celebration future founding father and president John Adams observed “these affairs ‘tinge the minds of the people; they impregnate them with the sentiments of liberty; they render the people fond of their leaders in the cause, and averse and bitter against all opponents.’” (Findling, 62)
In the next decade, the colonies would be faced with Parliament further attempting to exert their influence to tax them. However, the Stamp Act Congress would serve as a forerunner to the Continental Congress, which would ultimately lead to independence. As Mackey indicates, “The Stamp Act crisis succeeded in one other important area: it unified the previously disparate colonies in ways they had never experienced before. Instead of believing that each colony’s primary tie was to Great Britain, the Stamp Act crisis and the Stamp Act Congress suggested that intercolonial issues were of primary importance.” (Findling, 75)
Historians Edmund S. Morgan and Helen M. Morgan in their classic and definitive book, The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution, claim the significance in the Stamp Act and the colonial reaction is that “social movements must ultimately be measured by their impact on politics, on law, and on the constitutions that direct lawmaking and politics. In the ideas and ideals that animate politics and find their way into laws and constitutions, we discover a people’s understanding of themselves, including the crucial ideas that enable them to think of themselves as a people… For a collection of human beings to be or become a people, to learn to see themselves as a people, is not a simple matter. The ideas generated by the Stamp Act crisis were crucial to the creation of that vision among Americans of all kinds.” (Morgan, viii)
The convening of the Stamp Congress, Franklin’s warning and the colonies reaction proved that colonies could rally and rebellion was possible if Parliament continued to exercise their right to taxation without representation on the colonies. Just over a decade, later the colonies would have enough, they would unite to form the First and Second Continental Congresses and their military rebellion would lead the start of the American Revolution. The “Shot Heard Round the World” with the first Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, and then a year later on July 2, 1776, they would declare independence as the United States of America.
SOURCES AND READ MORE
Findling, John E, and Frank W. Thackeray. Events That Changed America in the Eighteenth Century. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Remini, Robert V. A Short History of the United States. New York [etc.: Harper Perennial, 2009.
Middlekauff, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Wood, Gordon S. The Radicalism of the American Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in Judaic Studies at Concordia University. She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896,” and contributed the overviews and chronologies to the “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789–2008.” She is a journalist, librarian and historian and a former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has over a dozen years of experience in education and political journalism.