In 1765, the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which placed a tax on newspapers, almanacs, cards, legal documents, and other paper documents. Although this was not the first tax that Parliament had put on the American colonists, it was the first tax to affect everyone, not just merchants or other special groups of people. As a result, many people in the colonies were angry. They believed that it was unfair to have Parliament make the Americans pay taxes when they had no say in the decision. Most colonial governments were headed by governors appointed by Britain, rather than people elected by Americans. Many felt that they should not be taxed unless they had a representative in Parliament. Most members of Parliament were convinced that Britain ought to be able to collect taxes from the colonists. Thus, they did not bother with the colonists complaints. This made the American protesters even angrier. Groups like the Sons of Liberty started to organize demonstrations against unfair British policies. People like Patrick Henry in Virginia and Samuel Adams in Massachusetts spoke out against British taxes. The Americans who didn't like Britain's taxes started using this slogan: "no taxation without representation."
In 1765, delegates from nine out of the thirteen colonies met in New York City at the Stamp Act Congress. On October 19, 1765, they signed a resolution which stated that it was their right to have "no taxes imposed on them ... [except] with their own consent, given personally or by their representatives." In reply to all the colonial demonstrations, the British Parliament got rid of the Stamp Act, but passed a law called the Declaratory Act, which stated that Parliament had "full power and authority to make laws and statutes ... in all cases whatsoever," including taxation. The argument over this issue was one of the major causes of the Revolutionary War.
Sugar Act. Parliament, desiring revenue from its North American colonies, passed the first law specifically aimed at raising colonial money for the Crown. The act increased duties on non-British goods shipped to the colonies. Currency Act. This act prohibited American colonies from issuing their own currency, angering many American colonists. Beginnings of Colonial Opposition. American colonists responded to the Sugar Act and the Currency Act with protest. In Massachusetts, participants in a town meeting cried out against taxation without proper representation in Parliament, and suggested some form of united protest throughout the colonies. By the end of the year, many colonies were practicing nonimportation, a refusal to use imported English goods.
Sugar Act. Parliament, desiring revenue from its North American colonies, passed the first law specifically aimed at raising colonial money for the Crown. The act increased duties on non-British goods shipped to the colonies.
Currency Act. This act prohibited American colonies from issuing their own currency, angering many American colonists.
Beginnings of Colonial Opposition. American colonists responded to the Sugar Act and the Currency Act with protest. In Massachusetts, participants in a town meeting cried out against taxation without proper representation in Parliament, and suggested some form of united protest throughout the colonies. By the end of the year, many colonies were practicing nonimportation, a refusal to use imported English goods.
Quartering Act. The British further angered American colonists with the Quartering Act, which required the colonies to provide barracks and supplies to British troops.
Stamp Act. Parliament's first direct tax on the American colonies, this act, like those passed in 1764, was enacted to raise money for Britain. It taxed newspapers, almanacs, pamphlets, broadsides, legal documents, dice, and playing cards. Issued by Britain, the stamps were affixed to documents or packages to show that the tax had been paid.
Organized Colonial Protest. American colonists responded to Parliament's acts with organized protest. Throughout the colonies, a network of secret organizations known as the Sons of Liberty was created, aimed at intimidating the stamp agents who collected Parliament's taxes. Before the Stamp Act could even take effect, all the appointed stamp agents in the colonies had resigned. The Massachusetts Assembly suggested a meeting of all the colonies to work for the repeal of the Stamp Act. All but four colonies were represented. The Stamp Act Congress passed a "Declaration of Rights and Grievances," which claimed that American colonists were equal to all other British citizens, protested taxation without representation, and stated that, without colonial representation in Parliament, Parliament could not tax colonists. In addition, the colonists increased their nonimportation efforts.
The Stamp Act of 1765 was ratified by the British parliament under King George III. It imposed a tax on all papers and official documents in the American colonies, though not in England.
King George III imposed a tax on official documents in American colonies
Included under the act were bonds, licenses, certificates, and other official documents as well as more mundane items such as plain parchment and playing cards. Parliament reasoned that the American colonies needed to offset the sums necessary for their maintenance. It intended to use the additional tax money to pay for war expenses incurred in Great Britain’s struggles with France and Spain.
Many American colonists refused to pay Stamp Act tax
The American colonists were angered by the Stamp Act and quickly acted to oppose it. Because of the colonies’ sheer distance from London, the epicenter of British politics, a direct appeal to Parliament was almost impossible. Instead, the colonists made clear their opposition by simply refusing to pay the tax.
Prominent individuals such as Benjamin Franklin and members of the independence-minded group known as the Sons of Liberty argued that the British parliament did not have the authority to impose an internal tax. Public protest flared and the ensuing violence attracted broad attention. Tax commissioners were threatened and quit their jobs out of fear; others simply did not succeed in collecting any money. As Franklin wrote in 1766, the “Stamp Act would have to be imposed by force.” Unable to do so, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act just one year later, on March 18, 1766.
American separatist movement grew during protest of Stamp Act
The colonists may well have accepted the stamp tax had it been imposed by their own representatives and with their consent. However, the colonists’ emerging sense of independence — nurtured by the mother country and justified by their multiple interactions with other trading nations — heightened the colonists’ sense of indignation and feelings of injustice. Even had they submitted to it, there is little doubt that many would have been troubled by the negative impact of a tax on the free press.
Scholars contend that the American separatist movement gained a great deal of influence as a result of its success in protesting the Stamp Act.
Stamp Act aftermath influenced constitutional safeguards, First Amendment
The act and the violence that erupted with its passage remained fresh in the young country’s memory. The crafters of the Constitution were careful to include safeguards against usurpations of freedom and the violence such acts could breed. Article 5 provides for a constitutional amending process, allowing for changes in the laws without resort to violent revolution.
The First Amendment secures freedom of speech, the right to peacefully assemble, and the right to petition government. It also protects the freedom of the press.
This article was originally written in 2009. Stefanie Kunze has a PhD in Political Science and is a Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Kunze specializes in perpetrators of ethnocide, and more specifically Native American experiences with settler colonialism.Send Feedback on this article
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