Stamp Act Definition — What Was the Stamp Act?
The Stamp Act of 1765 was an act of Parliament that imposed a direct tax on the British colonies in America. It required documents to be printed on paper embossed with a stamp. The money raised from the tax would be used to fund the British army in North America.
Stamp Act Dates
- Date Introduced: On February 6, 1765, the Stamp Act was introduced to the House of Commons.
- Date Passed by Commons: On February 27, 1765, the House of Commons passed the Stamp Act.
- Date Passed by Lords: On March 8, 1764, the House of Lords passed the Stamp Act.
- Royal Assent: On March 22, 1765, Royal Assent was given for the Stamp Act.
- Date of Enforcement: On November 1, 1765, the Stamp Act went into effect.
- Date of Repeal: The Stamp Act was repealed on March 18, 1766.
This is a proof of a 1p Stamp Act from 1765. Image Source: Smithsonian Institution.
Stamp Act Facts
- The concept of a Stamp Act was suggested by Prime Minister George Grenville as early as April 1764.
- Money collected from the Stamp Act was to be used to help pay the costs of defending and protecting the American colonies along the western frontier.
- Unlike the Sugar Act, which raised money by regulating trade, the Stamp Act was the first direct tax that Parliament imposed on colonial Americans.
- Parliament passed the Stamp Act on March 22, 1765. It received Royal Assent from King George III on March 22.
- The law required that a stamp be purchased and placed on all legal documents and printed material such as newspapers and pamphlets, and even playing cards.
- Stamp Agents were chosen by Parliament to act as distributors for the stamped paper.
- Americans objected to the Stamp Act on the grounds that it was imposed by a governing body — Parliament — in which they had no representation. The slogan “No Taxation Without Representation” became popular.
- Benjamin Franklin wanted to be a Stamp Agent but changed his mind after he saw how Americans reacted.
- The Stamp Act went into effect on November 1, 1765, but was not widely enforced because British officials were afraid they would be attacked by angry mobs.
- The Stamp Act was repealed on March 18, 1766, due to pressure from British merchants who lost money because of the trade boycott.
The Stamp Act Crisis — How did the Colonies React to the Stamp Act?
The Stamp Act Crisis was a political and civil reaction in America against the Stamp Act. It included the slogan “No Taxation Without Representation,” the formation of the Sons of Liberty, the Stamp Act Congress, and the Stamp Act Riots. It created the blueprint for American reaction to British laws.
Stamp Act Crisis Facts
- The passage of the act caused the Stamp Act Crisis in America.
- The Stamp Act Crisis included intense political protest, violent demonstrations, and disruption of business through a boycott of British products.
- The popular slogan for the Stamp Act Crisis was “No taxation without representation.”
- The Sons of Liberty groups formed in Boston, New York, and other cities and towns throughout the colonies during the Stamp Act Crisis.
- Political leaders in the colonies held an intercolonial meeting — the Stamp Act Congress — to discuss a unified response to the Stamp Act.
- The Stamp Act Congress produced a Declaration of Rights and Grievances, which challenged the authority of Parliament to levy taxes on the American Colonies.
- During the Stamp Act Crisis, the Sons of Liberty forced nearly all the Stamp Agents to resign or publicly declare they would not sell the stamped paper.
- The Sons of Liberty also targeted British officials, like Thomas Hutchinson and Cadwallader Colden, by vandalizing their homes and property.
- Planters in Westmoreland County, Virginia signed the Leedstown Resolves and formed the Westmoreland Association, for the purpose of obstructing the enforcement of the Stamp Act.
This illustration shows colonists in Boston reading the Stamp Act. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Stamp Act Purpose — British Treasury Needs Money After the Seven Years’ War
Key Fact — Although Britain won the Seven Years’ War and took control of most French territory in North America, it came with a massive long-term cost that forced the British Treasury to rush to find ways to come up with the money needed to pay off the debt and cover new expenses.
After the French and Indian War, the British Treasury needed to raise revenue for two main reasons:
- Rising national debt due to the French and Indian War.
- Rising Administrative and military costs in North America.
Increase in British National Debt During and After the French and Indian War
- Over the course of the French and Indian War, the national debt of Britain nearly doubled.
- From 1755 to 1764, the national debt grew from around £72 million to roughly £130 million.
- During the war, the British Treasury raised money through taxes on landowners in Britain and also borrowed money.
- Due to the high interest on the money that was borrowed the national debt continued to increase.
Increase in Military and Administrative Expenses in North America
- British territory in North America expanded when the 1763 Treaty of Paris was signed.
- France ceded nearly all of its territory to Britain.
- In March 1763, Prime Minister Lord Bute established a standing army of roughly 10,000 soldiers in North America.
- The estimated annual cost of the standing army in North America was between £220,000 and £400,000 per year.
Stamp Act Purpose — Reasons for a Standing Army in North America
Key Fact — The British Treasury needed to find a way to pay for the army in North America as soon as possible. It could not wait until a plan to reorganize the colonies was developed and put in place and it could not wait to hope the colonial governors would come up with a solution.
British leaders felt the standing army in North America was needed for several reasons:
- To slow down the westward expansion of the colonies while the government worked on a plan to reorganize the colonies.
- To protect the western frontier from the threat of attacks from the French and Native American Indian tribes, like Pontiac’s Rebellion.
- To help enforce the Proclamation Line of 1763.
Slow Down Westward Expansion of the Colonies
- Britain needed time to set up a plan for administration and oversight of the colonies.
- Some leaders, like Governor Francis Bernard of Massachusetts, and even Grenville, had already been developing plans to reorganize and restructure the colonies.
The threat of the French Taking Back the Territory
- Although the French turned the territory over to the British, they did not completely leave North America.
- Quebec was still populated by French-speaking citizens who were Catholic and viewed as a threat by Protestants in the colonies.
- It was possible there would be another war and if France won Britain might have to give the land back to France.
- The French continued to meddle in the Ohio Country and encouraged the Native American Indian tribes to rise up against the British.
Pontiac’s Rebellion Justifies the Need to Protect the Frontier
- Once the French military forces left the Ohio Valley colonists began moving into the region.
- The migration upset the leaders of some Native American Indian tribes because their tribal hunting grounds were in the Ohio Valley.
- Two chiefs, Pontiac of the Ottawa and Kyathushuta of the Seneca, urged tribes in the region to rise up against the British.
- In May 1763, the tribes began a series of loosely coordinated attacks against British forts and settlements.
- The attacks seemed to justify the need for a standing army to defend the frontier.
This illustration depicts the Ottawa chief, Pontiac, taking up the “war hatchet.” Image Source: Wikipedia.
Proclamation Line of 1763
- In October 1763, the government took political action to end Pontiac’s Rebellion.
- King George III announced a proclamation that prohibited colonists from settling west of the Appalachian Mountains.
- The Ohio Valley was reserved as “Hunting Grounds” for the tribes, who were considered British subjects.
- The Proclamation also established four new British colonies.
- East Florida
- West Florida
- Province of Quebec
- The army helped put down the rebellion and to keep settlers out of the Ohio Valley, but it was too small to cover the entire area.
- The uprising lasted roughly a year, but Pontiac did not surrender until 1766.
- Colonists still settled in the area, which Parliament dealt with in 1774 when it passed the Quebec Act.
Stamp Act History — The Molasses Act, The Sugar Act, and Currency Act
Enforcement of the Molasses Act
- In April 1763, George Grenville became Prime Minister and was also First Lord of the Treasury.
- Grenville and the other Lords of the Treasury looked at ways to raise money by taxing the colonies.
- At first, Grenville had British customs officials enforce the Molasses Act of 1733 and then Grenville proposed a series of new taxes that became the Sugar Act.
Parliament’s First Tax on the Colonies
- When Grenville proposed the Sugar Act to Parliament in 1764, he also mentioned the possibility of a stamp act.
- After the French and Indian War, there was an economic depression in the colonies, and the Sugar Act made it worse.
- Colonists protested the Sugar Act with pamphlets and articles that argued Parliament did not have the right to levy taxes on them without their consent.
- Colonists also organized boycotts and refused to buy products from British merchants.
Currency Act Prohibits Paper Money
- Hard money in the form of gold and silver — or species — was hard to come by in the colonies.
- Many merchants and colonists paid for goods and products with paper money that was printed and issued by the individual colonies.
- In order to discourage smuggling and bribery, Parliament decided to make paper money illegal.
- If anyone was found guilty of breaking the laws of the Sugar Act, the fines had to be paid in hard money.
- The lack of paper money led to inflation in the colonies.
- Some merchants were concerned they would have to resort to bartering in order to continue to do business.
End of Salutary Neglect
- For decades, colonists had been able to avoid paying the taxes that were required by the Navigation Acts, including the Molasses Act.
- Salutary Neglect was an unwritten policy that instructed British customs officials to allow the colonists to avoid paying the taxes. In other words, the officials were encouraged to “neglect” doing the job they were paid to do.
- As a result, colonists smuggled a significant amount of molasses from the French West Indies into the colonies, especially New England.
- When their ships reached port with the molasses, many of the merchants would simply pay the customs officials a bribe. So they still paid a fee, but it was significantly less than the Molasses Act required, and the money went directly into the pocket of the customs official.
- When Grenville instructed customs officials and the Royal Navy to start enforcing the Molasses Act, it ended Salutary Neglect.
Stamp Act — Important Facts and Details
Preparation of the Bill
- The bill was drafted by Thomas Whately, Secretary of the Treasury.
- Unlike the Sugar Act, which was an extension of the old Molasses Act, Grenville and Whately discussed the provisions of the Stamp Act with colonial representatives like Jarod Ingersoll of Connecticut and William Knox of Georgia.
Implementation of the Stamp Act
- The act applied to many printed documents, including passports, shipping papers, insurance policies, newspapers, playing cards, almanacs, and pamphlets.
- Printers were required to buy the paper from licensed Stamp Agents, who were appointed by the British government.
- It was likely Parliament would have needed to set up print shops and warehouses in the colonies in order to print, store, and distribute the paper.
Enforcement of the Stamp Act
- The American Stamp Office was established in London, with five Commissioners.
- The Colonies were divided into nine districts, with 23 subdistricts.
- A Stamp Agent would be assigned to each subdistrict.
- All taxes collected under the act would need to be paid in hard money — gold and silver — which was in short supply in the colonies.
- Stamp Agents would receive a percentage of the funds, which would be very lucrative.
- The money would be sent to the Deputy Paymaster of the British Army in North America.
The Stamp Act Crisis in America — Important Facts and Details
Key Fact — Americans were already upset over the Sugar Act, which they believed violated their rights in various ways. News of the proposed Stamp Act reached the colonies in April 1764 and made the situation worse. In addition to legislative protests, Americans throughout the colonies resorted to street violence, harassment of tax collectors, and the destruction of property to express their opposition to the Stamp Act.
Political Opposition to the Stamp Act — Speeches and Resolves
- On February 6, 1765, Colonel Isaac Barre gave a speech and criticized the members of Parliament for taxing the colonies. He believed it would do significant harm to the relationship between Britain and the colonies.
- On May 29, Patrick Henry delivered a speech before the Virginia House of Burgesses. The next day, the Burgesses adopted five of his ideas as the Virginia Resolves, which declared that Virginians should enjoy the same liberties and privileges as other Englishmen. By the end of the year, 10 other colonies passed similar resolutions.
- The legislatures of numerous colonies, including Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Connecticut sent letters to England protesting the Stamp Act.
The Stamp Act Congress
- On June 8, 1765, the Massachusetts Assembly sent a circular letter to the legislatures of the other colonies to “consult together on the present circumstances of the colonies.”
- On October 7, 1765, 27 delegates from 9 of the 13 colonies assembled at a meeting in New York, known as the Stamp Act Congress, to discuss how the colonies could work together to show their opposition to the Stamp Act. Nearly a decade later, four of the attendees signed the Declaration of Independence.
- On October 19, 1765, the Stamp Act Congress adopted a “Declaration of Rights and Grievances,” which stated:
- Only the colonial assemblies had a right to tax the colonies.
- Trial by jury was a right, and the use of Admiralty Courts violated that right.
- Colonists possessed all the Rights of Englishmen.
- Without voting rights, Parliament could not represent the colonists.
- The Declaration was the first time an intercolonial governing body from the British Colonies in North America spoke out against British policies and said they violated the rights of the colonists as British subjects.
Public Opposition to the Stamp Act — The Rise of the Sons of Liberty, the Westmoreland Association, and the Stamp Act Riots
- The Sons of Liberty formed to coordinate resistance to the Stamp Act. The first Sons of Liberty groups were most likely in Boston and New York, but they spread to other colonies. Men that were involved with the Sons of Liberty early on — Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren, James Otis — would have a significant impact on the next decade of upheaval and resistance.
- On August 14, 1765, a violent demonstration took place in Boston. Andrew Oliver, the Stamp Agent for the district, was burned in effigy and his office was attacked.
- On August 26, another riot took place in Boston. This time the angry mob attacked the home of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson.
- On October 31, New York merchants met and agreed to stop buying and selling British goods until the Stamp Act was repealed.
- The day the Stamp Act went into effect, a riot took place in New York. It is referred to as the “General Terror of November 1–4.” Cadwallader Colden, the acting Governor of New York, took refuge in Fort George, which was attacked by an angry mob. Colden was forced to turn the stamped paper over to city officials.
- In Virginia, the Westmoreland Association prohibited the enforcement of the Stamp Act and harassed merchants who tried to use stamped paper.
This illustration shows an angry mob abducting a Stamp Agent to take him to be tarred and feathered. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Stamp Act Repealed — Outcome of the Stamp Act Crisis
- The riots and treatment of British officials made it clear to Parliament that passing the Stamp Act was one thing, enforcing it was another.
- The Sons of Liberty realized they had the ability to force officials into resigning from their jobs.
- Most of the Stamp Agents resigned, so there were no distributors. Most of the Governors refused to enforce the Stamp Act and said they had not been authorized to do so.
- In some places, the courts and businesses stopped, because there were no stamps and in others, people simply ignored the requirements and went about their business.
- More trade boycotts were set up and when the business of British merchants suffered enough, the merchants appealed to their friends in Parliament and asked them to have the Stamp Act repealed.
Repeal of the Stamp Act, Passage of the Declaratory Act
- On March 18, 1766, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, but on the same day passed the Declaratory Act, which asserted that Parliament “had, hath, and of right ought to have, full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America…in all cases whatsoever.”
Stamp Act Effects — The Stamp Act and the American Revolution
- The Stamp Act Congress was the first time the colonies called their own intercolonial meeting. The previous congress — the Albany Congress in 1754 — had been called for by the Board of Trade.
- The Stamp Act Crisis brought the colonies together under the common goal of protecting their own self-interests against those of Britain.
- Before the Virginia Resolves, no legislature had ever approved resolutions that said only the legislature had the authority to levy taxes.
- The Stamp Act Crisis changed the way colonial legislatures thought about their relationship with Parliament and their role in governing the colonies.
- The Quartering Act was also still in place, and a source of continued dissent, especially in New York. In 1767, more British troops were sent to New York City, and the colonial legislature refused to provide funds to pay for food and housing for the troops. Conflicts between the New York Sons of Liberty and British troops led to the Battle of Golden Hill in 1770.
- The repeal was celebrated in America, but clouded by the passage of the Declaratory Act.
- Tension grew between King George III and Grenville, which led to the removal of Grenville as Prime Minister. He was replaced with Charles Watson-Wentworth, Second Marquis of Rockingham.
- The repeal of the Stamp Act led to the Townshend Acts.
- For the remainder of the American Revolution, Americans followed the process they used during the Stamp Act Crisis to oppose British tax laws and political policies.
This political cartoon depicts a funeral procession for the Stamp Act. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.