The most significant 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 excited so many people. From the colonial 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 would popularise the best-known of the American Revolution’s catchphrases, ‘no taxation without representation’, a slogan popularised by James Otis and Patrick Henry.
Yet for all the tumult, Westminster’s introduction of a stamp tax was not unusual and probably not unfair.
Stamp duties had been around in Britain since 1689, introduced then as an emergency measure to fund wars. By the mid-1700s they were not uncommon, just as they are not uncommon today. The British public was certainly quite used to paying stamp duties on official documents.
Facing a war debt of more than £130 million, as well as the prospect of having to maintain thousands of troops in America indefinitely to deal with native uprisings or border disputes, parliament opted for a form of direct taxation on the colonies. The stamp tax proposed in 1765 aimed to raise a mere £60,000 to help offset the cost of defending the American colonies.
Purpose of the stamp tax
The stamp tax was significantly different from the Sugar Act and Currency Act because its express purpose was to raise revenue directly from the American colonies, not to regulate trade or finance. The tax would impact ordinary people, not just merchants, importers and cargo lines.
It is worth noting that money collected from the sale of tax stamps would not be remitted back to England. It was to remain in America to provide the salaries of crown officials.
Like the stamp levies in England, the colonial tax would be collected on a wide variety of official and semi-official documents: newspapers, pamphlets, almanacks, 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 subject to a small tax.
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.
Contrary to popular belief, the Stamp Act did not appear in the colonies out of the blue. London had been considering the policy for more than a year and had sent investigatory notes to America to gauge the likely response. Most colonies objected – but not vehemently enough to prevent the introduction and passing the bill.
As the Stamp Act bill was being drafted for submission to parliament, Benjamin Franklin was in London. Acting on instructions from home, Franklin petitioned the king and leading parliamentarians in opposition to the Stamp Tax.
Despite his vociferous objections to the proposed stamp tax, there is also a suggestion that Franklin made sizeable purchases of embossed stamp paper as an investment. This suggests that despite opposition to the measure in the colonies, Franklin, at least, thought the implementation of the tax quite inevitable.
The parliamentarians were certainly guilty of a gross underestimation of the colonial response, which was swift, loud and unified.
It did not help their cause that some elements of the act were grossly unfair. For example, lawyers in America had to acquire a £10 stamp before admission to the bar. 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 it on financial grounds). Their objection was against a parliament passing a new tax over a people who enjoyed no representation in that parliament. This argument – no taxation without representation – was to become the cornerstone of American revolutionary ideology.
A historian’s view:
“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