Author: Archibald Hinschelwood
Eleven years before the Declaration of Independence, a crisis took place that defined the issue that would help provoke the American Revolution: taxation without representation.
In order to raise new revenue, Parliament in 1764 passed the Sugar Act, which imposed new charges on foreign wines, coffee, textiles, and indigo imported into the colonies and enlarged the customs service, requiring shippers to fill out documents detailing each ship’s cargo and destination. The British navy was ordered to patrol the American coast to search for smugglers, who, if caught, were to be tried in a special court without a jury. That same year, the Currency Act banned the colonists from issuing paper money. Since the colonies had trouble getting gold or silver coins, the prohibition on paper money forced many colonists to resort to barter.
Also in 1764, the British ministry announced plans to institute a stamp tax, to go into effect on November 1, 1765, to make the colonists pay part of the cost of stationing British troops in America. This act required the colonists to pay a tax, represented by a stamp, on newspapers, playing cards, diplomas, and legal documents. Violations of the Stamp Act would be tried in Vice-Admiralty Courts, which had traditionally been used only in cases involving maritime law. Thus, the Stamp Act also appeared to threaten the right to trial by jury.
Reactions to the Stamp Act included riots and boycotts of British goods. Crowds calling themselves Sons of Liberty prevented stamped papers from being unloaded from British ships. Daughters of Liberty, organizations formed by colonial women, promoted the manufacture of homespun cloth, as a substitute for imported British cloth, and circulated protest petitions.
In October 1765, delegates from nine colonies met in New York City and prepared a statement protesting the Stamp Act. The Stamp Act Congress, which was the first united action by the colonies against unpopular British policies, acknowledged that Parliament had a right to regulate colonial trade. It denied, however, that Parliament had the power to tax the colonies, since the colonies were unrepresented in Parliament. The power of taxation resided only with the colonists themselves and their representatives.
Under pressure from London merchants, Parliament abolished the Stamp Act in 1766. But at the same time it passed the Declaratory Act, which stated that the King and Parliament had full legislative authority over the colonies in all matters.
In December 1765, John Adams (1735-1826), who would later become the second president of the United States, wrote that this had “been the most remarkable year of my life.” The Stamp Act, “that enormous engine…for battering down all the rights and liberties of America,” had raised a spirit of resistance throughout mainland British North America. “In every colony, from Georgia to New Hampshire inclusively,” he observed, “the stamp distributors and inspectors have been compelled by the unconquerable rage of the people to renounce their offices. Such and so universal has been the resentment of the people, that every man who has dared to speak in the favor of the stamps, or to soften the detestation in which they are held, how great soever his abilities and virtues had been esteemed before, whatever his fortune, connections, and influence had been, has been seen to sink into universal contempt and ignominy.”
Adams was particularly struck by the political consequences of the Stamp Act. “The people, even to the lowest ranks, have become more attentive to their liberties, more inquisitive about them, and more determined to defend them, than they were ever before known…. Our presses have groaned, our pulpits have thundered, our legislatures have resolved; our towns have voted; the crown officers have everywhere trembled, and all their little tools and creatures been afraid to speak and ashamed to be seen….”
The following document offers a first-person account of the escalating conflict over the Stamp Act from a pro-British perspective.
I had the pleasure to receive your letter…and am greatly obliged to you for your kind remembrance of me, and the pains you have taken to get me appointed for the disposal of the stamps in this province [Nova Scotia]….
There is a violent spirit of opposition raised on the continent against the execution of the Stamp Act, the mob in Boston have carried it very high against the Secre[tar]y [Andrew Oliver]…for his acceptance of an office in consequence of that Act. They have even proceeded to sow violence, and burnt him in effigy. They threaten to pull down & burn the stamp office row building; and that they will hold every man as infamous that shall presume to carry the Stamp Act into execution, so it is thought Mr. Oliver will resign.
I don’t find any such turbulent spirit to prevail among us, if it should, the means are in our Hands to prevent any tumults or Insults; what the consequences may be in the colonies who have no military force to keep the rabble in order, I cannot pretend.
Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute