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1765 – Stamp Act

What was the Stamp Act?

The Stamp Act was a tax imposed by the British government on the American colonies. British taxpayers already paid a stamp tax and Massachusetts briefly experimented with a similar law, but the Stamp Act imposed on colonial residents went further than the existing ones. The primary goal was to raise money needed for military defenses of the colonies.

This legislative act was initiated by the British prime minister George Grenville and adopted by the British Parliament. The decision was taken on March 1765 but did  not take effect until November 1st of the same year.

The Act imposed a tax that required colonial residents to purchase a stamp to be affixed to a number of documents. In addition to taxing legal documents such as bills of sale, wills, contracts and paper printed for official documents, it required the American population to purchase stamps for newspapers, pamphlets, posters and even playing cards.  The tax was payable in scarce silver and gold coins and not in paper money which was the most common method of payment in the colonies. According to Oliver M. Dickerson, more than one hundred thousand pounds worth of stamps were shipped to America.

 

Stamps showing that the tax had been paid. They show the value in British currency.

American colonies under their own chapters of the Sons of Liberty had more than half a year to voice their opinion to the motherland during which riots and protests occurred in what is known as the Stamp Act Crisis. The reason colonists protested is that for the first time the British government imposed an “internal” American tax which differed from the previous taxes such as the Sugar Act which was viewed as a trade tax. The people most affected by this tax were lawyers, printers, merchants and ministers – some of the most influential people in society.

The British were not able to enforce the act as resistance by colonists was fierce. The Stamp Act Congress, held in New York in October 1765, was the first attempt to organize the opposition. Nine of the thirteen colonies sent  a total of 27 representatives. Congress approved thirteen resolutions in the Declaration of rights and grievances, including \”no taxation without representation\”, among others.

The repeal of the Stamp Act took effect on March 18th, 1766 in part because of economic concerns expressed by British merchants. In order to reassert their right to tax the colonies British Parliament issued the Declaratory Act as a reaction to the failure of the Stamp Act as they did not want to give up on the principle of imperial taxation.

The Stamp Act was a political and economic failure for the British. Politically they were facing the beginning of an organized effort to get rid of their British. Economically, the revenue collected was a mere £3,292, of which £45 came from Georgia and the rest from the West Indies, Canada and Florida. See table for revenue by colony.

 

Value in £ of stamp consignment, cash revenue, stamp returns and stamp unaccounted for by colony

(see notes for explanation)

ColonyConsignmentCashReturnsBalances
Connecticut8,7026,7941,909
New Hampshire4,1471,6582,488
Pennsylvania11,8527,9503,902
Virginia9,6844,9494,735
New Jersey5,4133,5541,859
Maryland7,4284,9492,479
North Carolina7,4474,9672,480
New York12,93418112,753
Massachusetts12,4138,2454,168
Rhode Island7,0603,2373,823
South Carolina10,81910,8190
Georgia4,151453,821285
Florida, Canada and West Indies172,5873,293105,13964,155
Total102,0513,33861,12040,886
Notes: Consignments are the nomial value of stamped parchment supplied to the colonial distributors
Cash is the amount of money returned to Britain.
Returns are the nominal value of the unsold stamped paper returned to Britain.
Balances are the unsold stamped paper, burned, destroyed or lost.
Source: Adolph Koeppel, "New Discovery from British Archives on the 1765 Tax Stamps for America", Boyertown, PA:Publication of the American Revenue Association, 1962.

 

List of documents affected by the Stamp Act

Stamps had to be affixed to documents or products in order to have legal value. Among them are: Legal documents, ship’s papers, wills, licenses, newspapers, pamphlets, advertisement, bills of sale, almanacs, calendars, any kind of declarations, pleas to courts, donations, inventory, testimonials, diplomas and certificates of university, college, seminary or academy of learning;  affidavits, bails, business license, writ of covenant for levying of fines, writ of entry for suffering a common recovery, court orders, dice and playing cards among others. See original text for more.

Origin and purpose of the Stamp Act

British Prime Minister, George Grenville, originated the law and Parliament passed it virtually without any debate. This decision was justified as it was considered an extension of the stamp tax which already existed in Great Britain.

The purpose of the Stamp Act was to raise revenue to pay for the military expenses incurred during the French Indian War and for the military troops stationed in the newly conquered territories set by the Royal Proclamation of 1763. The war developed from 1754 to 1763, Americans and Englishmen fought together against the French and were victorious. Britain annexed the French Canadian territories and Acadia, both colonies had approximately 80,000 French Roman Catholic residents. In order to gain their support parliament passed the Quebec Act in 1774 which included reforms favorable to French Catholics. France also ceded the territories along the west of the thirteen colonies. These lands were inhabited by Native American Indians who supported the French during the war. This war changed the geopolitical and economic relations between America, France and Britain.

Map showing the territories before (top) and after (bottom) the French Indian War

Since western territories were now under British authority many colonist started moving west looking for opportunities. Indian tribes were not receptive to this new invasion and started a short lasting war led by a chief named Pontiac. All they wanted was to protect their land. In October 1763 King George III issued an order known as The Royal Proclamation of 1763. This law prohibited settlement on lands west of the Allegheny Mountains without Royal permission. The proclamation was not just to protect Native Indians but also to maintain control of their American colonies. Many in the British government feared that by residents migrating west they would start trading with the Spanish and French which would mean a decrease in trade between England and its American colonies. Residents should be kept close to the coastline near the current 13 colonies. Britain had to send more troops to make sure that the proclamation was obeyed which cost a lot of money.

As the enemy was defeated and England had new territories to defend, the motherland started looking at its new possessions with a different perspective. Since all the money and sacrifice had come from England it was the colonies’ turn to pay back as they were the ones benefiting from their attachment to the motherland. The British view for imposing a revenue tax on its colonies was that it was time residents of the colonies paid for part of the cost of defending and protecting their own territory.


Related Information

 

Facts about the Stamp Act

Interesting known and unknown facts about the Stamp Act.

Repeal of the Stamp Act

The boycott of English goods by the colonies forced the British Parliament to repeal the original Stamp Act on March 18, 1766.

Stamp Act crisis and significance

The act allowed the revolution movement to gain tactical experience and set a pattern of resistance that led to the American independence.

Original text of the Stamp Act

Text of the original document of the act as enacted by the British Parliament.

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