One of the biggest causes of the American Revolution was the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765. The purpose of the Stamp Act was simple: to raise revenue from the colonies to help pay off debt from the French and Indian War.
In the French and Indian War, or the Seven Years’ War as it was known in Europe, the British and its allies defeated the French and their allies across several continents. At the end of the war, the French mostly vacated North America, with a vast majority of its land holdings transferred to the British.
The war was extremely expensive and left the British in great debt. Furthermore, British troubles were not over.
Incidents such as Pontiac’s Rebellion of 1763 showed that while the French were gone from the Americas, the native threat was still present. British and colonial officials wanted a permanent British military presence on the frontier to protect colonial settlers.
With war debt to pay and new permanent British forces to supply, additional tax revenue had to be raised. Taxing British mainland citizens further was out of the question.
These citizens already faced a heavy tax burden, and new proposed taxes led to riots and protests such as those against the 1763 cider bill. The British Parliament decided that new taxes should be levied on the American colonies.
From the British standpoint, it was a logical conclusion. Since the French and Indian war was fought on behalf of the colonies and the new permanent forces on the frontier were for colonial protection, it only made sense that the colonies should pay for this protection.
The colonies did not feel the same way. Increased taxes, such as the Stamp Act, were greatly opposed and went on to further divide the American colonies from Britain.
What did the Stamp Act Do?
The 1765 Stamp Act was a tax levied by the British Parliament on the American colonies. This act consisted of taxing nearly all legal documents including marriage licenses, newspapers, commercial contracts, deeds and mortgages, licenses, and a whole host of other items.
Even mundane items such as playing cards and dice were subject to the stamp act tax. Steep fines and penalties were included to discourage evasion of the tax.
Taxes also had to be paid for in hard currency (British pounds). This proved to be burdensome for colonists where colonial paper money was widespread and British currency was less widely-distributed.
A little-known but highly inflammatory aspect of the Stamp Act involved the courts. Typically, colonial courts would hear violations of the law and citizens would get a trial by a jury consisting of their peers.
The Stamp Act ignored the colonial courts and allowed violators to be tried in admiralty courts controlled by those from outside the colonies. The British simply did not trust that colonial courts would uphold the law and collect the tax revenues that were so desperately needed.
This bypass of the colonial courts and lack of trial by juries incensed colonists who felt that this violated their natural rights as Englishmen.1
A common misconception of the Stamp Act is that King George III was to blame for the tax. In reality, the King was involved very little in the passage of the act given he was ill at the time.2 He only gave his consent by commission to Parliament.
While the young King may have been indifferent to taxing the colonies, he surely is not the one to blame. That can be placed primarily on the shoulders of then-Prime Minister George Grenville.
The Purpose of the 1765 Stamp Act
The purpose of the 1765 Stamp Act was to raise revenues to pay off war debt incurred during the French and Indian War as well as to support a new permanent British army in the Americas to protect colonists from the Native American threat on the frontier.
The British government had taken steps to help avoid conflict with natives such as the Royal Proclamation of 1763 that was massively unpopular with the colonists. A standing army would also help to avoid future wars on the frontier.
Prime Minister Grenville was appalled at the state of the British national debt and quickly devised that taxes needed to be levied on the American colonies. He deduced that in order to successfully collect these taxes, he would need the support of the colonies.
He first responded with the Sugar Act of 1764. This act actually lowered the existing tax on importation of sugar in the colonies (as compared to the Molasses Act of 1733), but it was rigidly enforced thereby making tax evasion by smuggling and/or bribery of customer officials more difficult.1
At the same time as the passage of the Sugar Act in March 1764, Grenville vocalized that he intended to issue a stamp duty in the Americas in the following year. By giving advance notice, Grenville hoped for feedback from the colonies for alternate forms of raising revenue should the stamp duty be unappealing.3
This implicit intent was seemingly lost on colonial assemblies. Though the colonists expressed much opposition, they proposed no serious alternative measures to raise tax revenues .
At heart, the overall issue was the constitutionality of the British Parliament’s ability to tax the colonists. The American colonists and British Parliament had widely differing views over colonial rights and British authority.
Why Did the Stamp Act Anger the Colonists?
The Stamp Act angered the American colonists for a variety of reasons. One of the biggest reasons was over the general issue of taxation.
Prior to the Stamp Act, the primary method of British taxation on the colonies was on import duties to help regulate trade. Though certainly a tax, the duties initially weren’t designed to bring in much revenue. They were mainly there to help regulate and encourage trade between the colonies and Britain.
The colonists viewed these acts as an external tax, or taxes on products they imported. Britain had never before imposed an internal tax, or taxes on items directly made, produced, or disseminated from the colonies. Only colonial legislatures in which the colonists were locally represented were seen to have that ability.
All this changed with the Stamp Act which was widely-considered an internal tax by the colonists. The tax was designed to be spread across the entirety of the colonial social classes, instead of merely drawing the ire of the wealthiest members.3
However, those who ended up bearing the largest burden of the Stamp Act tax were lawyers, printers, and merchants.4 These people also happened to form the most literate portion of the colonists.
Printers did not take kindly to the new law that could eventually force some out of business. At the time newspapers were the most common way of spreading news, but with the Stamp Act, printers discovered a new use: shaping public opinion.4
As the tax uniformly affected all colonies equally, newspapers from around the Americas united to shape public opinion against the Stamp Act. The printers of the day were successful in their ability to use propaganda to promote fear that the British would strip away the colonists’ liberties through unconstitutional acts.
This fear-mongering successfully angered the public and led to mass riots, protests, and demonstrations around the Americas. British tax collectors were prevented from taking their posts through actual or threatened mob violence.
The collective uproar against the Stamp Act was arguably the first time all colonies banded together against a British law. It would go on to plant the seeds for the eventual American Revolution.
British Response to the Stamp Act
The British response to colonial backlash over the Stamp Act was decidedly mixed. At first, the British were confident that reaction to the Stamp Act would not be an issue.
At the time, stamp duties were well-established in Britain. Stamp taxes had first been passed in Britain in 1694, so British citizens on the British Isles had been paying stamp duties for nearly seventy years before the passage of the Stamp Act in the Americas.3
In addition, colonial legislatures themselves had passed stamp taxes in the past. Both Massachusetts and New York each had temporary stamp duties collected in 1755 and 1757, respectively.3
The Stamp Act was passed in March 1765 and meant to go into effect in November 1765. Upon hearing reports of the fierce resistance of the colonists, immediately after the Act went into effect, Parliament began to debate its repeal.
Some, such as former Prime Minister, now member of Parliament George Grenville, argued the Stamp Act should remain in place. Caving into colonial demands would set a dangerous precedent and eventually erode British authority.
Others in Parliament, such as William Pitt, debated whether Parliament truly even had the authority to directly tax the colonies. Merchants were also in favor of repeal.
The Sugar and Stamp Acts combined were disastrous for trade with the colonies. The unpopularity of the Stamp Act led the cities of New York and Philadelphia to sign non-importation agreements to make Britain feel the economic strain as well.
When the vote to repeal the Stamp Act finally came in February 1766, it passed by a vote of 176-168. Forty-six of fifty-two merchants voted for its repeal.3
Though the hated Stamp Act was repealed, Parliament followed up by immediately passing the Declaratory Act. In it, Parliament reasserted its ultimate authority to levy taxes and pass laws in the colonies.
The colonists largely ignored this ruling, instead celebrating their collective triumph over the British. Though the purpose of the Stamp Act was to help raise British tax revenues, it only brought in an estimated ~4,000 pounds vs the nearly ~100,000 pounds expected.3
It is safe to say the Stamp Act was a complete disaster for Britain.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Hodge, Helen Henry. “The Repeal of the Stamp Act.” Political Science Quarterly, vol. 19, no. 2, [Academy of Political Science, Wiley], 1904, pp. 252–76, https://doi.org/10.2307/2140283.
2) Laprade, William T. “The Stamp Act in British Politics.” The American Historical Review, vol. 35, no. 4, [Oxford University Press, American Historical Association], 1930, pp. 735–57, https://doi.org/10.2307/1837570.
3) Oats, Lynne, and Pauline Sadler. “ACCOUNTING FOR THE STAMP ACT CRISIS.” The Accounting Historians Journal, vol. 35, no. 2, The Academy of Accounting Historians, 2008, pp. 101–43, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40698393.
4) Schlesinger, Arthur M. “The Colonial Newspapers and the Stamp Act.” The New England Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 1, New England Quarterly, Inc., 1935, pp. 63–83, https://doi.org/10.2307/359430.