The Stamp Act of 1765

In 1764 the sugar-duties were somewhat reduced, as a boon to the colonies, but new duties were imposed on articles which had hitherto been imported free; at the same time, Lord Grenville proposed a new impost in the form of a stamp-tax. All pamphlets, almanacs, newspapers, all bonds, notes, leases, policies of insurance, together with all papers used for legal purposes, in order to be valid were to be drawn on stamped paper, to be purchased only from the king's officers appointed for that purpose. This plan met with the entire approbation of the British Parliament, but its enactment was deferred until the following year, in order that the colonies might have an opportunity of expressing their feelings on the subject. Though deference was thus apparently paid to their wishes, the intention of the British government was no longer concealed. The preamble of the bill openly avowed the intention of raising revenue from "his majesty's dominions in America;" the same act gave increased power to the admiralty courts, and provided more stringent means for enforcing the payment of duties and punishing their evasion.

The colonies received the news of these proposed measures with strong indignation. Massachusetts instructed her agent in London to deny the right of Parliament to impose duties and taxes on a people who were not represented in the House of Commons. "If we are not represented," said they, "we are slaves." A combination of all the colonies for the defence of their common interests was suggested.

Otis, who had published a pamphlet on Colonial Rights, seeing the tide of public indignation rising very high, inculcated "obedience" and "the duty of submission;" but this was not a doctrine which the Americans were then in a state of mind to listen to. Better suited to their feeling was Thacher's pamphlet against all Parliamentary taxation. Rhode Island expressed the same; so did Maryland, by the secretary of the province; so did Virginia, by a leading member of her House of Burgesses. Strong as the expression of resentment was in the colonies, addresses in a much milder strain were prepared to the king and Parliament from most of them, New York alone expressing boldly and decidedly the true nature of her feelings, the same tone being maintained by Rhode Island.

But the minds of the British monarch and his ministers were not to be influenced either by the remonstrances and pleadings of the colonies or their agents in London, or of their few friends in Parliament. Grenville, the minister, according to prearrangement, brought in his bill for collecting a stamp-tax in America, and it passed the House of Commons five to one, and in the House of Lords there was neither division on the subject nor the slightest opposition. This act was to come into operation on the 1st day of November of the same year. It was on the occasion of its discussion in the House of Commons that Colonel Barre, who had fought with Wolfe at Louisburg and Quebec, electrified the House with his burst of eloquence in reply to one of the ministers who spoke of the colonists as "children planted by our care, nourished by our indulgence, and protected by our arms." "They planted by your care!" retorted Barre. "No; your oppression planted them in America. They nourished by your indulgence! They grew up by your neglect of them. They protected by your arms! Those sons of liberty have nobly taken up arms in your defence. I claim to know more of America than most of you, having been conversant in that country. The people, I believe, are as truly loyal subjects as the king has, but a people jealous of their liberties, and who will vindicate them should they ever be violated."

The day after the Stamp Act had passed the House, Benjamin Franklin, then in London as agent for Philadelphia, wrote the news to his friend Charles Thomson. "The sun of liberty," said he, "is set; you must light up the candles of industry and economy." "We shall light up torches of quite another kind," was the reply.

Although the British Parliament had passed, and refused to repeal, highly oppressive acts regarding commerce and manufactures, it had never hitherto attempted to levy direct taxes. The nearest approach to this was in the rates for postage; but in these the pay was voluntary and for services rendered, and it provoked no opposition. The proposition, therefore, to lay a direct tax on the colonies was received by them all with disapproval, though the degrees of outspoken dissent widely differed. In Boston, which had always been the centre of democratic sentiment in America, the protest was made in no uncertain tone. The House of Representatives resolved, "That the imposition of duties and taxes by the Parliament of Great Britain, upon a people not represented in the House of Commons, is absolutely irreconcilable with their rights." The pamphlet issued by James Otis, mentioned in the preceding article, vigorously asserted this principle, and declared, "If we are not represented, we are slaves." He maintained, as one of the "natural rights of man," that taxes could not be levied upon the people "but by their consent in person or by deputation." The energetic protests published greatly intensified the feeling of resistance to the Parliamentary scheme. The passage of the Stamp Act, therefore, was regarded throughout America as a high-handed violation of the liberties of the people.

Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 2)