On March 22, 1765, the British Parliament passed a law called the Stamp Act. This law required the North American colonists to pay for every printed document that they used. The Stamp Act (as well as the Sugar Act and Currency Act that came before it) was an attempt by the British Parliament to replenish its drained treasury after the costly Seven Years’ War/French and Indian War. The tax, however, was unpopular among the colonists and caused considerable unrest in the British colonies. These events are recorded on the Biblical Timeline Poster with World History during that time.
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Debt and Taxes: The Financial Realities of the French and Indian War
The Seven Years’ War between Britain and France (along with its North American theater, the French and Indian War) finally ended in 1763. Britain not only gained Canada, but also the land between Quebec and Florida which was bounded by the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. British troops and colonists soon moved west and built outposts in the area. This land, however, had long been home to Native Americans. The desire of one group of people to claim an area already inhabited by another once again brought armed conflict on both sides.
Pontiac, leader of the Ottawa and a confederation of allied tribes, led his warriors in attacking British garrisons and settlements in the occupied area. Anxious to avoid more hostilities with the Native Americans, Britain forbade white colonists from settling in the area between the Appalachian and the Mississippi through the Royal Proclamation of 1763. As expected, the Royal Proclamation angered the colonists. They felt that they had been robbed of their reward in their participation in the wars and that their participation had been for nothing.
Their feelings of discontent intensified when the British Parliament passed the Sugar Act in April 1764. The British government had incurred debts during the French and Indian War. It was also forced to pay for the defense of the colonies to protect its gains after the war. The most urgent question for the British government at that time was where should it get money to pay off these debts and expenses.
The British government wanted to tap into the revenues from the colonial trade but was deterred by the rampant smuggling of goods (especially the smuggling of molasses used in making rum) and bribery in the Customs. To curb smuggling and bribery (as well as motivate merchants to pay taxes), the British Prime Minister George Grenville proposed to halve the tax imposed on imported molasses from six pence to three pence per gallon. Parliament allowed a number of goods from France, Spain, and their colonies to be imported into the North American colonies. Higher customs duties, however, were imposed on these imported goods.
British authorities started to crack down on lax or corrupt customs deputies to ensure better collection of duties. They also required merchants operating in the colonies to post bonds to ensure that they would follow the new rules. Smugglers would be tried in the vice admiral’s court in distant Nova Scotia and were required to pay for their own travel expenses. In addition, they were to be tried by judges who would receive incentives whenever they hand out guilty verdicts. Grenville also discouraged colonial trade by prohibiting the American colonies from minting or printing their own currencies (the Currency Act).
These measures were met by the colonial population with an explosion of protests in affected colonies. The taxes, they complained, had been passed without their knowledge and consent since they did not have a representative in the British Parliament. For the colonial population, the Sugar Act and Currency Act was nothing more than a way to control them.
The Stamp Act 1765
Despite the unpopularity of the Sugar Act and the Currency Act, Grenville proposed an additional tax to be imposed on the colonists. This new law was the Stamp Act, and it was passed in the British Parliament on March 22, 1765. In the Stamp Act, all printed documents in the colonies–such as contracts, wills, bills of sale, bills of lading, and the like–should be taxed from anywhere between three pence and four pounds sterling (gold and silver coins, not paper currency). Pamphlets, playing cards, broadsides, newspapers, and others were also taxed. The documents would then be stamped by government agents as proof of payment.
News of the passage of the Stamp Act soon reached the colonies. Before the law could take effect later that year, however, the colonists–particularly those whose profession made frequent use of paper–were already vocal in their opposition to the Act. Some of the most fervent opposition came from a radical organization called the Sons of Liberty who made “No Taxation without Representation” their motto.
Mobs began attacking stamp agents in the colonies, forcing most of them to resign from their posts. The Americans also threatened to boycott British goods if the Parliament insisted on enforcing the Act. Benjamin Franklin himself traveled to London to protest in the British Parliament. Representatives of all colonies except Georgia, North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Virginia also petitioned King George III to scrap the tax act before it could be implemented. He passed the petition to the Parliament for review.
The king was already dissatisfied with Grenville, so he was dismissed in July 1765. He was replaced by the Marquis of Rockingham whose administration decided to repeal the deeply unpopular Stamp Act on March 18, 1766. The repeal came only when British merchants expressed their concerns for the boycott of their goods in the colonies. Britain tried to save face by issuing the Declaratory Act (which asserted the Crown’s sovereignty in the British colonies) and the Revenue Act (which sought to discourage smuggling and bribery by reducing the tax on molasses to a penny per gallon).
Allison, R. J. The American Revolution: A Concise History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Fleming, Thomas. Liberty!: The American Revolution. New York: Penguin, 1997.
Raphael, Ray. The First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord. New York: New Press, 2002
Schmittroth, Linda. American Revolution. Detroit: U.X.L., 2000.
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