The Stamp Act

stamp act
A tax stamp with a face value of four pence

The most revolutionary event of the 1760s was the passing of the Stamp Act by the British parliament – no single policy attracted as much criticism, incited as much action and stirred so many people. From the aristocracy down to out-of-work sailors scrambling for pennies in Boston, colonists rose up against this new tax with a unity never before seen in America. It helped popularise the best-known of the revolution’s catchphrases, ‘no taxation without representation’, a slogan that had been around since 1750 but was picked up and popularised by James Otis and Patrick Henry. Yet despite all the tumult, the passage of a stamp duty by Westminster was not unusual and probably not unfair. Stamp duties were not uncommon; this particular one aimed to raise a mere £60,000 to help offset the cost of defending the American colonies. At the time the act passed through parliament, one of the revolution’s most notable figures, Benjamin Franklin, was in London. Acting on instructions from home, Franklin petitioned the king and leading parliamentarians in opposition to the Stamp Tax. However there is also a suggestion that Franklin made sizeable purchases of the embossed stamp paper as an investment, thinking that despite the opposition in the colonies the implementation of the tax was inevitable.

Stamp duties had been around in Britain since 1689, introduced back then as an emergency measure to fund wars. By the time of the American Revolution the British public were quite used to being taxed via stamps on official documents. Facing a debt of more than £130 million from the French and Indian War, as well as the prospect of maintaining thousands of troops in America indefinitely in case of native uprisings or border disputes, parliament opted for a form of direct taxation on the colonies. The stamp tax was significantly different to the Sugar and Currency Act, since its sole purpose was to raise revenue, not to regulate trade or finance. It is worth noting, however, that money collected from the sale of tax stamps was to remain in America to provide the salaries of crown officials – it was not intended for export back to England. Like the stamp levies in England, the colonial tax was to be collected on a wide variety of official and semi-official documents: newspapers, pamphlets, almanacs, contracts, bills of sale, indentures, wills, titles, broadsheets and so forth. Since gambling paraphernalia was also in common use, dice and playing cards would also be due a small tax (this might seem unusual but governments have a long history of drawing revenue from the regulation or licensing of gambling). The wide range of documents requiring a tax stamp meant that a wide range of classes and occupations were subsequently affected. Rowdy sailors, drunkards and gamblers were liable, as were the influential vocations: lawyers, journalists and colonial politicians.

“Grenville introduced the Stamp Act to Parliament as part of his budget program. In debating the issue, Parliament decided that three new vice-admiralty courts should be created, in Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston, to help enforce the act. The new tax raised, as Grenville had intended, the basic issue of parliamentary sovereignty over the colonies. When the Americans paid the duty, they would not only contribute to defraying the cost of their own defence, but they would also acknowledge Parliament’s authority to tax and govern the colonies.”
Francis D. Cogliano, historian

Contrary to popular belief the Stamp Act did not appear in the colonies out of the blue: the parliament in London had been considering such a measure for more than a year, and had sent investigatory notes to America to gauge the likely response to a stamp tax. Most colonies objected, but not vehemently enough to prevent Westminster from eventually passing the bill. The parliamentarians were certainly guilty of a gross underestimation of the colonial response, which was swift, loud and unified. Some elements of the act seemed grossly unfair, for example lawyers in America had to acquire a £10 stamp before admission to the bar, when the comparable tax in Britain was just two pounds. The main colonial argument, however, was based not on the tax itself (though many grizzled about having to pay it) but on the principle of the parliament passing a new revenue tax over a people who enjoyed no representation in that parliament. This argument – no taxation without representation – would become the cornerstone of American revolutionary ideology.

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