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Stamp Act

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Stamp Act

During the French and Indian War, the Seven Years’ War in North America, colonial forces fought alongside British troops to gain large swathes of North America. How did that relationship worsen to the point that fighting broke out and started the American War of Independence in the span of only a decade?

Motives for Britain's New Colonial Policies

After the Seven Years’ War ended in 1763, Britain was left with a huge territory in North America: much of which it had won from Spain and France, such as Quebec. However, this land was incredibly expensive to maintain and Britain’s debt nearly doubled to between £132 million and £135 million during this expansion.1

Naturally, Britain turned to its American colonies as a source of revenue to reduce its debt. Parliament passed the Revenue Act of 1762 in an attempt to halt bribery and collect taxes from its colonies. This act enforced taxes on all British Colonies, not only American British ones.

The British Prime Minister, George Grenville, wanted to tighten British control over the British American colonies. He believed that the colonies had indulged for “far too long”. His time in power marks the end of the period of salutary neglect.

Salutary Neglect was a British foreign policy introduced by Prime Minister Robert Walpole. It relaxed strict trade laws which had been imposed on the Colonies in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, giving them greater autonomy and subjecting them to less supervision by Great Britain. In return, the Colonies had to remain loyal to the Crown.

Acts Imposed on the Colonies

Several Acts were passed imposing taxes on goods in the Colonies to save and raise money so that Britain could reduce its debt.

Sugar Act 1764

This act was aimed at ending the smuggling of sugar and molasses from the French and Dutch West Indies. This act impacted the economies of the New England colonies the most because they were heavy consumers of molasses. This is because these colonies used sugar and molasses to make rum: an important export in their trade with other countries.

The Colonies were unwilling to pay the taxes, and the smuggling continued.

This was particularly significant because colonists were beginning to rebel against British rule on the grounds that it was “unconstitutional”. Separatist sentiment was beginning to emerge in the Thirteen Colonies.

Stamp Act 1765

The Stamp Act, officially the Duties in American Colonies Act, placed a tax on all printed materials. This included newspapers, magazines, legal documents, and playing cards. When the tax was paid, a stamp was placed on each of the goods. Furthermore, all of these materials had to be printed on official British stamped paper and the tax had to be paid in British, rather than Colonial currency.

Stamp Act Proof Sheet of Penny Stamps 1765 StudySmarter

Proof sheet of penny stamps, 1765,
Wikimedia Commons

Stamp Act Summary

The tax raised by this act was ostensibly to pay to station British troops in the Colonies to pre-empt a French invasion. However, there was no serious worry among the Colonists of a French invasion, and they were frustrated given that they felt they had already paid their fair share towards defeating the French during the Seven Years' War given they had fought on the side of the British.

The Stamp Act was extremely unpopular among Colonists. They showed their displeasure with the Act by boycotting British goods, rioting, and attacking tax collectors. Many considered this act to be a violation of their rights as Englishmen to be taxed only with their consent. The only way for the Colonists to give their consent would be through Colonial legislatures. This idea birthed the famous phrase "No taxation without representation".

Quarter Act 1765

Shortly after the passage of the Stamp Act, Great Britain passed the Quarter Act. This Act required Colonial governments to provide barracks and food for any British troops stationed in their Colony, saving the British government money. However, it was repealed in 1770 when Parliament realised that enforcing it actually cost more than the money they saved by forcing the Colonies to pay for the troops' food and board.

Opposition to the Stamp Act

The Stamp Act was deeply unpopular with the Colonists. They can be split into two groups: the elite and the lower class. While both groups viewed British rule as tyrannical and disagreed with the legislation, the elite kept their distance from the violence that the lower class was committing.

Essentially, the lower class formed groups to attack the stamp collectors. The 'Sons of Liberty' were formed in Boston in 1765 and spread across several colonies within a year.

The Sons of Liberty were a group of American Patriots who used organised violence and destruction to combat what they saw as the oppressive British regime. They were formally disbanded after the eventual repeal of the Stamp Act, but several fringe groups continued to use the name afterwards.

"Tarring and feathering" was a method of torture carried out on British tax collectors by American Patriots. They would boil tar and pour it on a tax collector and then throw feathers at them. This was a particularly cruel act and the upper class tried to distance themselves from these vigilante tactics employed by the lower class.

Colonial Stamp Act Reaction

Stamp Act Boston Liberty Tree 1765 StudySmarterA later image of Boston's Liberty Tree in 1765, Library of Congress.

In response to the Stamp Act, nine Colonies came together and convened the Stamp Act Congress. This was the first time Colonies united to respond against British policies. Moderate representatives of these nine Colonies framed resolutions of “rights and grievances” and petitioned the King and Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act. Merchants also supported repealing the Stamp Act too, as the smuggling which resulted from the taxes meant that they were losing business. The Stamp Act Congress would influence the calling of the First Continental Congress in 1774.

The Prime Minister, Lord Rockingham, adopted a very conciliatory approach and persuaded Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act in March 1766. Although this pacified the Colonies for a time, his party quickly lost favour and he was replaced by William Pitt. During Rockingham’s time as Prime Minister, Parliament passed the Declaratory Law, stating that only Parliament could make laws concerning the Colonies.

Committees of Correspondence

The Committees of Correspondence were a series of political groups which helped colonial leaders communicate with Parliament about the colonists’ rights. They can be viewed as the successors to the Stamp Act Congress. More importantly, they helped facilitate the spread of ideas and information within and between the Thirteen Colonies. They were therefore instrumental in garnering public support for independence from Britain.

Stamp Act - Key takeaways

  • After the Seven Years' War, Great Britain had amassed considerable debt.

  • In order to pay off this debt, Great Britain imposed new taxes on its American colonies.

  • Colonists viewed these acts as unconstitutional and unfair since they had no representation ('No Taxation without Representation')

  • The Thirteen Colonies begin to feel a greater sense of unity with each other.

  • Colonists rebelled against these British acts using various methods such as harassing tax collectors, boycotts and sabotaging the imports (Boston Tea Party)

  • Britain responded by passing a series of strict laws that only served to alienate the colonists further.

  • Colonial opposition to British rule began to spread throughout the Thirteen Colonies.


1John Brewer, The Sinews of Power: War, Money, and the English. State, 1688-1783 (New York, 1989), p.30; J.J. Grellier, The History of the National Debt in the Revolution (London, 1810).

Frequently Asked Questions about Stamp Act

Boycotts of British goods, mob violence and general opposition to British rule; the Committees of Correspondence were formed to organise official opposition to the British

An Act introducing tax on all printed goods, which also had to be stamped with an official seal to prove the tax had been paid - hence the name

1765

It led to the first real official, organised Colonial opposition to British rule

Three facts about the Stamp Act:

- It was placed on all printed materials like newspapers, magazines, legal documents, and even playing cards.

- Colonists opposed the act by boycotting British goods.

- The opposition to the Stamp Act birthed the famous phrase "No taxation without representation".

Final Stamp Act Quiz

Question

What was the significance of the Seven Years' War for the Sugar Act and Stamp Act?

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Answer

The debts resulting from the war effort left the British government looking for new means of raising money. George Grenville, the prime minister, believed that the British American colonies needed to pay their share.

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Question

The Sugar Act was passed in 1764. What did it tax? Why were colonists angry?

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Answer

The Sugar Act was a tax on sugar and molasses. Colonists were upset because they used sugar and molasses to make rum--a product they used to import to other countries.

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Question

What is the famous quote that colonists cited for why they viewed British rule as unfair?

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Answer

“No Taxation without Representation”

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Question

What did the Quarter Act do? 


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Answer

Colonial governments had to feed and house British troops that were stationed in their colony.

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Question

Name one action that the Daughters of Liberty did to protest British legislation. 


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Answer

  • They switched from coffee to tea
  • They spun clothes by hand

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Question

Was the colonial reaction against the Stamp Act successful?

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Answer

Yes, the British parliament was pressured into repealing the Stamp Act in 1766.

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Who were the Sons of Liberty?

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Answer

A group of American colonists that agitated against the Stamp Act and other perceived over-reaches by the British parliament.

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Question

What was "Salutory Neglect"?

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Answer

The practice of successive British governments for much of the early 18th century whereby the British colonies in North America would largely be left to their own devices and not be heavily taxed.

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How did ideas spread from colony to colony? 


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Answer

Through the Committees of Correspondence

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Question

Why did Britain pass so many pieces of legislation?


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Answer

After the French and Indian War, Britain’s territory spanned the entire Atlantic coast. With this new territory came a significant debt. In order to reduce this debt, Britain imposed taxes on all of its colonies.

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Question

What was significant about the Stamp Act Congress for the American Revolution?


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Answer

The First Continental Congress of 1774 would be based on the model provided by the Stamp Act Congress.

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Question

What did the Stamp Act do?

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Answer

The Stamp Act taxed printed materials sold in the British American colonies. Items taxed would bear a stamp marking the tax paid.

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Question

Why were the Committees of Correspondence important?


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Answer

The Committees of Correspondence helped spread and exchange ideas within and among the colonies. While initially, the Committees of Correspondence were used to discuss the colonists’ displeasure with the British legislation, eventually, it was used to gain public support for independence from Britain.

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