What Was the Stamp Act?

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The Stamp Act of 1765 was a law passed by Parliament taxing all paper used for printed materials in the colonies. The Stamp Act was passed on March 22, 1765 but it didn’t take effect until November 1 of 1765.

The following are some facts about the Stamp Act:

The Stamp Act was an act passed by Parliament that required that all materials printed in the colonies be printed on paper embossed with an official revenue stamp. These printed materials included magazines, newsletters, legal documents and newspapers.

The purpose of the Stamp Act was to generate revenue to pay down Great Britain’s war debt from the French and Indian War and to raise money for British troops who were stationed in North America in order to protect the new land won in the war and prevent uprising from the French colonists living there.

Parliament felt that since colonists would benefit the most from the protective presence of the soldiers, they should pay for the cost.

Image of a One Penny Stamp used in the Stamp Act of 1765

Image of a One Penny Stamp used in the Stamp Act of 1765

The colonist’s reaction to the Stamp Act was one of anger and outrage. Many felt it was a blatant attempt to make money off the colony.

Since they had no legal representation in Parliament at the time the act was passed, the colonists argued that the act violated their rights as English citizens by taxing them without their consent, according to the book American Passages: A History of the United States:

“Colonists of all walks of life found the Stamp Act offensive. Everyone who engaged in public business, whether to buy a newspaper or sell property, would have to pay the tax. Because Parliament, not their own provincial assemblies, passed the act, Americans considered it a violation of their rights as British subjects. As they understood the British constitution, the people must consent to taxes through their representatives. The provinces could not send delegates to Parliament, so that body should not tax them to raise revenue. As one Philadelphia merchant said succinctly, ‘The point in dispute is a very important one, if the Americans are to be taxed by a Parliament where they are not nor can be represented, they are no longer Englishmen but slaves.’”

Although the price of the stamps was actually very little, the colonists worried that if they allowed this law to happen, there would be plenty more to follow. They understood the significance of the Stamp Act and knew that it had the potential to lead to even more abuse of power by the British government in the future.

The Stamp Act Protests and Riots:

Many of the colonies protested the Stamp Act by forming a Stamp Act Congress, according to the book Conceived in Liberty:

“The major effort of official protest was the Stamp Act Congress, called in June by the Massachusetts House at the behest of James Otis and the Boston Town Meeting. The congress, which met in New York City on October 7, consisted of delegates from each of the colonial assemblies – with the exception of those of Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia, whose governors prevented the assembles from meeting, and of New Hampshire, which declined to attend. Delaware and New Jersey met the same obstruction from their governors, but their assemblymen defied the governor by meeting informally and selecting delegates anyway. All in all, twenty-seven delegates from nine colonies attended this early example of united intercolonial resistance.”

The names of these Stamp Act Congress delegates are as follows:
James Otis Jr
Timothy Ruggles
Oliver Partridge

Rhode Island:
Henry Ward
Metcalf Bowler

Eliphalet Dyer
William Samuel Johnson
David Rowland

New York:
Robert R. Livingston
Philip Livingston
William Bayard
John Cruger
Leonard Lispenard

New Jersey:
Robert Ogden
Joseph Gordon
Hendrick Fisher

John Dickinson
George Bryan
John Morton

Thomas McKean
Caesar Rodney

Edward Tilghman
Thomas Ringgold
William Murdock

South Carolina:
Christopher Gadsden
Thomas Lynch
John Rutledge

The Stamp Act Congress passed a declaration deeming the Stamp Act a violation of their rights as citizens. Although he didn’t attend the congressional meetings, Virginia lawmaker Patrick Henry spoke out publicly against the law and King George III in the Virginia House of Burgesses, reportedly declaring:

“Caesar had his Brutus; Charles the First his Cromwell; and George the Third ….may he profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it!”

Political groups, such as the Sons of Liberty, held public protests that often turned violent and destructive. Riots occurred in New Hampshire, Maine, New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

The Stamp Act Riots in Boston, illustration published in The youths’ history of the United States from the discovery of America, circa 1886

In August of 1765, a number of particularly destructive riots took place in Boston, during which mobs threatened to tar and feathered tax collectors, hung an effigy of tax commissioner Andrew Oliver from the Liberty tree on Boston common, looted Oliver’s home and office, burned down his stable along with his coach and chaise, and looted and damaged the mansion of the Governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, as well as the homes of a number of other customs officials.

As a result of the Sons of Liberty’s activities, all of the tax collectors resigned their positions before the act even became law on November 1st of that year, according to the book The United States of America: 1765-1865:

“November 1st arrived, the day on which the act was to come into force. Not a stamp could be bought. There was no one in America authorized either to open the packages of stamped paper or to sell stamps. In the condition of temper then prevailing among the people, no royal official seemed disposed to stretch a point to get the stamps into circulation. Soon the royal officials were themselves obliged to violate the act and to clear vessels without using stamped paper – though such clearances were plainly illegal. A few clearances on stamped paper issued by the collector at Savannah, Georgia, were the only instances in which the act was observed. The judges were obliged, after a brief period of waiting, to open the courts regardless of the law. In one case, a clerk of the court, who refused to use unstamped paper, was threatened by the judge with confinement for contempt of court if he persisted in his refusal. The newspapers appeared with a death’s head or some ingenious device in the corner were the stamp should have been.”

"The Repeal, or the Funeral Procession, of Miss America Stamp," cartoon depicting the repeal of the Stamp Act, circa 1766. The coffin is carried by George Grenville, who is followed by Bute, the Duke of Bedford, Temple, Halifax, Sandwich, and two bishops.

“The Repeal, or the Funeral Procession, of Miss America Stamp,” cartoon depicting the repeal of the Stamp Act, circa 1766. The coffin is carried by George Grenville, who is followed by Bute, the Duke of Bedford, Temple, Halifax, Sandwich, and two bishops.

American merchants joined in on the cause by organizing nonimportation associations to pressure British exporters to rally against the Stamp Act.

Since one-quarter of all British exports were sold in the colonies, they reasoned that a boycott of their goods would hurt British merchants financially and force them to join the cause.

Repeal of the Stamp Act:

The Stamp Act was repealed on March 18, 1766, but the repeal was more the result of a change in management than boycotts and protests, according to the book A People and a Nation: Volume I:

“In March 1766, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act. The nonimporation agreements had indeed created allies for the colonies among wealthy London merchants. But boycotts, petitions, and crowd actions were less important in winning repeal than was the appointment of a new prime minister, chosen by George III for reasons unrelated to colonial politics. Lord Rockingham, who replaced Grenville in the summer of 1765, had opposed the Stamp Act, not because he believed Parliament lacked authority to tax the colonies, but because he thought the law unwise and divisive. Thus, although Rockingham championed repeal, he linked it to the passage of a Declaratory Act, which asserted Parliament’s authority to tax and legislate for Britain’s American possessions ‘in all cases whatsoever.’”

Widespread celebrations were planned throughout Boston and the colonies to commemorate the repeal, which included fireworks, celebratory cannon fire, bonfires and decorating ships and houses in flags and streamers.

The celebrations were shortsighted though since what the colonists didn’t realize at the time was that the Declaratory Act would later pave the way for Parliament to pass even more acts during the American Revolution, such as the Townshend Acts, that would once again threaten the colonist’s autonomy and way of life and would continue the American Revolution in Massachusetts.

Norton, Mary Beth and Jane Kamensky, Carol Sheriff, David W. Blight, Howard Chudacoff. A People and a Nation, Volume I: to 1877. Cenage Learning, 2015
Channing, Edward. The United States of America, 1765-1865. Cambridge University Press, 1896
Rothbard, Mary Newton. Conceived in Liberty. Arlington House Publishers, 1975
Ayers, Edward L. Lewis L. Gould, David M. Oshinsky, Jean R. Soderlund. American Passages: A History of the United States. Wadsworth, Cenage Learning,  2011
Miller, John C. Sam Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda. Stanford University Press, 1936
“The Stamp Act Riots & Tar and Feathering.” PBS, www.pbs.org/ktca/liberty/popup_stampact.html
“Summary of the 1765 Stamp Act” History.org, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, www.history.org/history/teaching/tchcrsta.cfm

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the author and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance journalist and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

2 thoughts on “What Was the Stamp Act?

  1. Ben Talman

    Hi Rebecca, once again a brilliant article. This gives me a certain insight to my great grandfather’s situation, as the printer of the Boston Gazette and Country Journal and the impact that this would have had on his business. I have seen advertisements and requests from his time, asking for rags and cloths to help supplement his manufacturing of paper for printing. It is interesting to note that in Australia where I live we still have ‘stamp duty’ on official documents, such as conveyancing documents for real estate and other instruments of an official or legal nature.
    With thanks
    Ben Talman (great grandson of Benjamin Edes, the Boston Printer)

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