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The Stamp Act

first "spark" of the Revolutionary War

The 55-resolution Stamp Act was introduced before the British Parliament by George Grenville on February 6, 1765. The act was passed on February 17, approved by the House of Lords on March 8, and ordered in effect by King George III on March 22. The purpose of the act was to raise funds to help offset the costs of protecting the American colonies during the French and Indian War. It was passed without debate, and with no idea that it would be controversial.

The Stamp Act decreed that stamps must be purchased and affixed to every " or piece of vellum or parchment, or sheet or piece of paper..." used for deeds, mortgages, liquor licenses, law licenses, playing cards, etc. Publishers of pamphlets, newspapers, almanacs, etc., were also required to buy stamps, and duties were imposed on "every advertisement ... in any gazette, news paper, or other paper, or any pamphlet."

One of the "offending stamps."
one of the offending stamps

Despite British opinion that the tax was fair, American colonists began objecting even before official word of its passage had reached American shores. The principal American objection had little to do with the paying of taxes per se, but rather with the concept of taxes being levied for the express purpose of raising money. To Americans, taxes and duties should only ever be used to regulate commerce, not as a means of collecting revenue.

Although many Americans believed the Stamp Act to be unfair, few thought they had little choice but to buy the required stamps and pay the tax. The Virginia House of Burgesses, however, proved them wrong after it passed Patrick Henry's Stamp Act Resolves. These resolves declared, among other things, that Americans had the same rights as Englishmen, especially the right to be taxed only by their own representatives; that Virginians should pay no taxes except those voted by the House of Burgesses; and, that anyone supporting the right of Parliament to tax Virginians should be considered an enemy of the colony. The House of Burgesses defeated the most extreme of Henry's resolutions, but adopted four of them. Governor Fauquier did not approve the resolutions, however, and dissolved the House in response to its actions.

New Hampshire citizens hang a stamp agent in effigy.
New Hampshire citizens hang a stamp agent in effigy

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts House of Representatives invited all colonies to send delegates to a general congress for the purpose of debating the Stamp Act (and other British-enacted laws) and the most appropriate American response. The invitation was ultimately accepted by New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Connecticut, Maryland, South Carolina, and Massachusetts. The Stamp Act Congress met in New York on October 19, and declared that stamp taxes could not be collected without the people's consent.

Organized protest to the Stamp Act was widespread across the American colonies, and few Americans bothered to buy the required stamps. In addition, many colonial merchants refused to import from Britain until the tax was repealed, and British exports to America fell by half within 20 months. The protests ultimately had little to do with the final demise of the Stamp Act, however. British merchants complained that the act had seriously damaged their trade with America, and it was their complaints that Parliament heard. In addition, it soon became apparent that the cost of collection was far higher than the total amount of duties collected. The Stamp Act was repealed by Parliament on March 18, 1766.

A British print depicting a "funeral" for the Stamp Act.
funeral for the Stamp Act


Colonial Williamsburg Foundation

See Also

King George III
French and Indian War
Patrick Henry

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The Robinson Library >> The Revolution, 1775-1783 >> Causes

This page was last updated on February 06, 2019.