When British authorities devised the idea of the Stamp Act in 1765 as a way to ease the high national debt resulting from years of their own warfare, they set off a storm of protest unlike any seen before in the American Colonies.
In simple terms, the act was a sort of sales tax on certain legal transactions and documents (like deeds), as well as on sales of paper, newspapers, playing cards and other items.
What Was the Stamp Act?
"Merchants, shopkeepers, newspaper printers and legal authorities would pay the British government for the stamps, so that would put the money into the British Treasury," says Barbara Clark Smith, curator of the division of political history for the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution, in an email interview. "Then people buying these items, or making various legal transactions, would pay for the stamp in addition to the retail price or basic transaction cost."
England had enacted a similar tax that applied to the English population earlier in the 1700s, according to Smith. "Since the representative body of the realm — the Parliament's House of Commons — originated this tax, people in England recognized the tax as legitimate, if not necessarily welcome," she says. "But the act of 1765 was aimed at the population in Colonial North America, rather than on the people of Britain at home."
The British Treasury had amassed its debt during the Seven Years War with France, which ended in 1763. In North America, this war (called the French and Indian War in the U.S.) engaged troops from Britain and Colonial forces against French troops and their Native American allies.
"At the end of the war, France ceded territorial claims to colonies to Britain," says Smith. "British authorities now would incur further expense to secure and administer those new territories. Some in Britain saw the war as resulting in a benefit to existing colonists (and taxes in Britain were already fairly high), so Parliament devised a tax that would fall on those colonists."
What Was the Colonists' Reaction to the Stamp Act?
The colonists objected to the British Parliament taxing them, writing letters and petitions to authorities in England, and publishing arguments in newspapers and pamphlets in the Colonies, as well as in London. The various Colonial assemblies wrote protests, and nine of those assemblies sent delegates to New York to a "Stamp Act Congress."
Street demonstrations against the new and arguably "unconstitutional" law also ensued, with groups of artisans, tradesmen and laborers forming groups and calling themselves "Sons of Liberty" to oppose the execution of the Stamp Act, according to Smith. "In various seaport towns in the Colonies, crowds urged Stamp Masters (men appointed to distribute the stamps and collect the stamp duties) to resign rather than enforce the act," she says. "In some places, crowds seized and burned stamps to establish their refusal to recognize the Stamp Act as legitimate. Colonial merchants and storekeepers also decided to stop importing some British goods, and consumers agreed not to buy those goods as a way of putting pressure on British merchants and manufacturers."
Even Colonial women took part in these boycotts (or non-importation agreements) of British goods and in producing home manufactured goods to replace them, she adds. "So, the reaction engaged the participation of a range of free colonists — not just political theorists or elected leaders, but more ordinary men and also some women, or 'Daughters of Liberty' as well. For many of these people, taking a public and political stance was an unusual thing," Smith says.
Why Did They Consider the Act Unfair?
The primary issue wasn't that the tax was too high, even if people probably thought that, too, according to Smith. More accurately, the colonists considered it contrary to the British Constitution, the normal and established forms of government.
"Simply put, the colonists were simply not 'anti-tax' so much as they were 'pro-representative government,'" says Smith. "They objected to Parliament presuming jurisdiction. They defended the rights of their own elected legislative assemblies (lower houses) to be the sole bodies who might tax them. They wanted representative men — residents in the districts they represented, subject to the laws they passed in the colonial assemblies, and accountable to their neighbors both at the next election and in day-to-day local life — to be the sole group empowered to tax or pass other laws binding them.
"Members of Parliament (MPs) did not rely on the colonists' vote and did not live among them or answer to them," she adds. "In fact, as some observed, it would serve the MPs' constituents best if Parliament passed all of the tax burden on to colonists rather than taxing people in Britain. That wasn't how representation was supposed to work."
Why Was the Stamp Act So Significant?
The Stamp Act brought to the surface a basic issue of whether and how far British authorities on the one hand and Colonial inhabitants on the other were committed to representative government, says Smith. "The debate became focused on whether Parliament was representative of the colonists, so that it could legitimately claim jurisdiction over them by passing taxes and other laws that would be binding," she explains. "Parliament's claim to 'virtually' represent the colonists threatened the powers of each Colony's elected assembly, or lower house of the legislature in each Colony."
That meant colonists' elected legislators couldn't use their power of the purse as a source of leverage in negotiations with Colonial upper houses and governors generally appointed by the king. It also meant that Colonial voters would lose their ability to influence and inform decisions about the taxes they would be charged or the policies those taxes funded.
"The colonists did not elect any members to Parliament, and they came to realize that, even if they were able to elect a representative or two to Parliament, that body would still not reflect their needs and interests," says Smith. "What mattered to them — and what resonates today in our current political crisis — was the insistence on the accountability of the people's 'representatives' in government through the actual power of the vote. Just over a decade after the Stamp Act, with the Declaration of Independence, Americans began setting up new governments based entirely on representation of the people, and to varying degrees they expanded the vote to make that representation more 'actual.' The idea of government through consent of the people as the basis of all government authority became embodied in these new state constitutions and, eventually, in the U.S. Constitution. The central issue remains that of the nature of the relationship between governors and governed. How far are those elected to rule us actually accountable to the people?"
Also vital, the "Sons of Liberty" or "patriots" (names they gave themselves) who objected to the Stamp Act insisted on representation not only in their legislatures, which passed taxes and laws, but also in their institutions of justice. "The Stamp Act also bypassed the colonists' usual system of enforcing laws," says Smith. "Those suspected of violating the act would be tried not in the usual courts of common law, where a local jury of their peers would decide guilt or innocence, but in 'vice admiralty' courts, where there were no juries. Only an appointed judge would decide."
So, another key objection to the Stamp Act was that it bypassed the jury system, through which colonists considered themselves to be represented in the administration of justice in courtrooms. "The key point is that the colonists wanted to be actually represented both in institutions that passed taxes and laws and in institutions that enforced those taxes and laws," says Smith.
What About Its Repeal?
Parliament backed down and did repeal the act, given the strong and extensive colonial objections. (Some British colonies in the Caribbean protested, as well as the mainland ones.) Still, Parliament never truly accepted the claims of the colonists. "Members of Parliament generally still thought they had the right to tax the colonies," says Smith, "so they got into trouble by coming up with other forms of taxing them in the following years."