Stamp Act Summary
The Stamp Act of 1765 was an act of Parliament that levied taxes on the American colonies for the purpose of raising revenue for the British Treasury. The bill received Royal Assent from King George III on March 22, 1765, and went into effect on November 1. It required publishers and printers to buy stamps for all legal documents and printed materials in the American colonies, including newspapers, pamphlets, and even playing cards. Prime Minister George Grenville and Parliament needed the money to help pay for the army in North America that protected the western frontier of the colonies Although the Grenville Ministry and Parliament believed the army was necessary, many Americans did not agree. The Sugar Act had already upset Americans because it hurt the economy, and colonial leaders were certain the Stamp Act would make things worse.
Rumors of the Stamp Act caused trouble in the colonies, Americans were afraid of more taxes and the idea of “taxation without representation” upset them. The Stamp Act Crisis developed in the colonies — an intense political and social movement against Parliament and British colonial policy. Americans protested with pamphlets, just like they had done to voice their displeasure with the Sugar Act. Some of the colonial legislatures passed resolutions against the Stamp Act and American merchants refused to order products from British merchants. In October 1765, the colonies took a bold step toward unification and held the Stamp Act Congress, which produced a document called the Declaration of Rights and Grievances that challenged the authority of Parliament. The Stamp Act Crisis also led to the formation of a secret organization that caused riots, vandalized property, and harassed British officials — the Sons of Liberty.
Ultimately, British officials feared for their safety and did not widely enforce the Stamp Act. The lack of enforcement and complaints from British merchants over lost revenue forced Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act. Unfortunately, the damage to the relationship between Britain and its colonies along the East Coast of North America was significant and helped lead to the American Revolution and the War for Independence.
This illustration shows colonists reading the Stamp Act in Boston. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Causes of the Stamp Act
The direct cause of the Stamp Act was Parliament’s desire to force the American Colonies to help pay part of the cost of a standing army in North America after the French and Indian War was over. However, the causes of the Stamp Act go far beyond that one simple idea, and the roots are found in how England and, later, Britain, used laws and policies to control the economy of the colonies.
The Navigation Acts
Before 1763, most of the laws Parliament passed to govern the American Colonies dealt with two things. First, Parliament controlled when, where, and how merchants could ship goods and products by imposing a complex system of taxes, fees, and fines. Second, Parliament restricted the manufacturing of certain products in the colonies — like hats — in order to protect manufacturers located in England and Ireland.
The laws, which are known as the Navigation Acts, were based on the economic concept of Mercantilism. In the Mercantile System, the colonies existed to provide natural resources for manufacturers in the Mother Country and to provide a market for merchants in the Mother Country to sell finished products to. The Navigation Acts regulated shipping to ensure valuable raw materials went to Britain, kept Americans from making their own products, and forced Americans to buy from British merchants.
The one thing the Navigation Acts did not do was raise revenue simply to line the coffers of the British Treasury. The taxes, fines, and fees associated with them were meant to encourage Americans to comply with the shipping laws, but American merchants were innovative. They found ways around the laws and conducted trade with other nations, especially plantations in the West Indies.
Americans thought they were doing good business, finding the best products at the best prices, which allowed colonial merchants to flourish. However, British officials saw the violations as smuggling — the illegal transportation of goods.
Salutary Neglect Allows Colonial Merchants to Flourish
Britain only complicated the relationship with colonial merchants through an unwritten policy called Salutary Neglect. Salutary Neglect is defined as a policy of the British government under which trade laws and government supervision were not strictly enforced on the American Colonies – they were neglected – by the government and customs officials.
Salutary Neglect was practiced up until 1763, which allowed colonial merchants to flourish, which also benefited British merchants. As Americans prospered, they were able to purchase more products from British merchants.
Britain was also involved in significant wars in Europe, and the British government needed to focus its attention on those events. The reality is, it was almost necessary to leave the Americans alone because there was very little Britain could do to enforce compliance with trade laws. There were no customs officials in the American Colonies, or very few, and it was impossible to check each and every shipment made by an American vessel.
A Standing Army in North America
After the French and Indian War, the situation changed. In the 1763 Treaty of Paris, France ceded most of its territory in North America to Britain. Parliament decided to leave a standing army of around 10,000 soldiers in the colonies to help defend the new territory from foreign armies and hostile Native American Indian tribes.
Parliament decided to force the colonies to help pay for some of the costs of the army. However, colonists were not convinced the army was needed. In fact, they feared the presence of the army. It is very important to understand that up until the late 18th century, standing armies controlled by the government were viewed as a threat by most people.
This is when the trouble with the American Colonies started.
The Sugar Act Sets the Stage for the Stamp Act
Parliament’s first attempt to raise money from the colonies was the Sugar Act of 1764. The Sugar Act was similar to the Navigation Acts because it taxed shipments of goods and products. The Sugar Act actually lowered the tax on molasses but added taxes to other popular goods, like sugar and coffee, that were often imported from foreign manufacturers. However, the Sugar Act marked a significant change in Parliament’s policies toward the American Colonies because it was passed for the purpose of raising revenue from the colonists.
The Sugar Act also included provisions that required British customs officials to start enforcing the Navigation Acts and gave commanders of ships in the Royal Navy the authority to stop merchant vessels to check their cargo. The Sugar Act also provided financial rewards to customs officials and naval officers for accusing merchants of smuggling. The Sugar Act made it easy to collect the reward because trials of accused smugglers were held in the Vice-Admiralty Courts. In those courts, decisions were made by a judge, not a jury. If the trial was held in a court where the judge was a British official then the American merchant was usually found guilty of smuggling, regardless of the evidence.
In passing the Sugar Act, Parliament did three important things, all of which contributed to how Americans would respond to the Stamp Act.
- It levied taxes on the colonies to raise money.
- It ended the unwritten policy of Salutary Neglect.
- It violated the right of Americans who were accused of a crime to have their case heard in a trial by a jury of their peers.
Americans responded to the Stamp Act in two ways.
First, they started writing pamphlets and newspaper articles that criticized Parliament and the provisions of the Sugar Act. Those writings laid the foundation for the idea of “No Taxation Without Representation” and brought men like James Otis, Samuel Adams, and Stephen Hopkins into the spotlight as leaders of the Patriot cause.
Second, some merchants joined together to form trade boycotts against British merchants. American merchants simply refused to buy goods from British merchants. Although it was an effective tactic, and one reason the Sugar Act was eventually repealed, the effort was not well-coordinated between the colonies, or even between major cities in the colonies.
Soon after the Sugar Act went into effect, Parliament was working on another law that would raise revenue from the colonies — Stamp Act.
Effects of the Stamp Act — The Stamp Act Crisis
News of the Stamp Act arrived in the American Colonies in the spring of 1765 and was met with immediate outrage, even though it would not go into effect until November 1. What outraged the colonists about the Stamp Act was it went beyond the idea of taxing shipments of goods and products and introduced a direct tax on Americans throughout the colonies, not just merchants. Printers and publishers were affected, as were their customers, who had to pay higher prices for newspapers, playing cards, and legal documents.
This is a proof of a 1p Stamp Act from 1765. Image Source: Smithsonian Institution.
The Virginia Resolves
Colonial legislatures responded to the Stamp Act by passing resolutions that condemned Parliament for levying new taxes without their consent. The most famous of those resolutions are the Virginia Resolves, which were written by Patrick Henry.
The Sons of Liberty
Outside of the legislatures, Americans continued to write pamphlets and newspapers in protest of British taxation. However, the people took things further and started to hold violent protests that turned into riots. The most significant riots took place in Boston and New York, and much of the public opposition to the Stamp Act was coordinated by a new organization that called itself the Sons of Liberty. The Sons of Liberty were also responsible for helping to organize additional trade boycotts.
The Stamp Act Congress
In October, merchants and politicians — many who were also embers of the Sons of Liberty — met in New York City to discuss how the colonies could respond to Parliament and the King. The idea was to create a single, unified response that represented the interests of the colonies as a whole. It was the first time the colonies had done such a thing on their own. In 1754, something similar had been done with the Albany Congress, but that meeting had been called by the British Board of Trade. This meeting in New York City, known as the Stamp Act Congress, was the first time the colonies had decided to call such a meeting on their own. As a result, some governors thought the meeting was illegal and even bordered on treason, so they refused to send delegates. Although only 9 of the 13 colonies send delegates, the meetings produced the first unified challenge to Parliamentary authority in colonial history. Congress produced a document called the Declaration of Rights and Grievances that challenged the authority of Parliament to levy taxes on the colonies without the consent of the colonial legislatures.
The Leedstown Resolves and the Westmoreland Association
In February 1766, planters in Westmoreland County, Virginia signed the Leedstown Resolves. The document established the Westmoreland Association, which successfully prohibited the enforcement of the Stamp Act. Unlike the Sons of Liberty, the Westmoreland Association was a formal organization.
Outcome of the Stamp Act
Parliament was shocked by the reaction of the colonies and also received criticism from British merchants, who suffered due to the boycotts. Parliament succumbed to pressure from the British merchants and repealed the Stamp Act on March 18, 1766. However, Parliament asserted its authority to pass laws to govern the colonies as it saw fit by passing the Declaratory Act on the same day.
Impact of the Stamp Act
The impact of the Stamp Act was significant because it led Americans to stand up to Parliament politically, socially, and economically. Most important was that it led the colonies to start communicating with each other on a more consistent, organized basis. The organized communication contributed to the colonial legislatures taking a stand against Parliament, the Stamp Act Congress, and the rise of the Sons of Liberty as forces of resistance against British policies governing the American Colonies.
Primary Source Documents for the Stamp Act of 1765
- Stamp Act of 1765 (full text)
- Stamp Act Repeal
- Stamp Act Congress, Declaration of Rights and Grievances
- Massachusetts Circular Letter Proposing the Stamp Act Congress
- Virginia Stamp Act Resolves — May 29, 1765
- Rhode Island Stamp Act Resolves — September 15, 1765
- Pennsylvania Stamp Act Resolves — September 21, 1765
- Massachusetts Stamp Act Resolves — October 29, 1765
- New York Merchants Non-Importation Agreement — October 31, 1765
- South Carolina Stamp Act Resolves — November 29, 1765
- New Jersey Stamp Act Resolves — November 30, 1765
- Connecticut Sons of Liberty, Resolutions on the Stamp Act, December 10, 1765