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The Stamp Act, 1765 – 1772

Another unpopular step England took after the war was to reorganize her defense system in the colonies. The French and Indian War had proved to the British that the colonies could not be depended upon to defend themselves. Some new system had to be worked out in North America, to defend not only the colonies, but also Canada, Florida and the wilderness east of the Mississippi. England decided to leave this task to a standing army of ten thousand British redcoats.

Such an army would cost a great deal of money. Taxpayers in England were already paying very high taxes and could not be asked to pay more. Their taxes supported the powerful British navy, which protected the colonies as well as the mother country. It seemed no more than fair that the colonies should pay at least part of the expenses of the standing army in North America. The soldiers were there, after all, for their own protection.

Accordingly, the colonies were given a year to raise the money themselves. They were warned that England would have to tax them if they failed to do so. For a year the colonists did nothing. They saw no need of supporting an army they had not asked for and did not want. Since the French forces had been driven from American soil, a large standing army seemed unnecessary. The colonists suspected that the real purpose of the army was to strengthen British control over all the colonial governments.

England’s law-making body in London, the British Parliament, finally passed the Stamp Act in 1765. It required the colonists to buy stamps from British tax collectors. These stamps were to be placed on all newspapers, playing cards, dice and almanacs sold in the colonies and also on certain papers having to do with business and law.

Political leaders in the colonies cried out against the tax. They pointed out that England had never before taxed anything within the borders of the colonies. In the Virginia assembly, a new member from the backwoods country, Patrick Henry, made an angry speech in which he said that Virginians did not have to pay any taxes except those of their own colonial government. A short time later, a Stamp Act congress was held in New York, to which mine colonies sent representatives. The congress declared that only the colonial legislatures had the power to tax Americans.

An organization known as the Sons of Liberty was formed to light the tax. Its members argued that taxation without representation was wrong. Since the colonies were not represented in Parliament, Parliament had no right to tax them. The Sons of Liberty held parades and mass meetings to stir up public feeling. They threatened the tax collectors who sold the stamps and forced many of them to resign. Sometimes mobs broke into the homes of tax collectors, smashed furniture and burned piles of stamps in the street.

Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia was in London at the time as an agent of the colony of Pennsylvania. He was called before Parliament and asked, “Do you think it right that America should be protected by this country and pay no part of the expenses?”

Franklin answered, “That is not the case. The colonies raised, clothed and paid during the war twenty-five thousand men and spent many millions.”

He was asked whether Americans would consent to a stamp tax if the tax rate were lower.

“No,” said Franklin, “they would never submit to it.”

Franklin proved to be right. Many colonists decided to “eat nothing, drink nothing, wear nothing” imported from England until Parliament did away with the hated stamp tax. This was a serious blow to British manufacturers. Worried by their business losses, they demanded that Parliament do something about the tax.


So, the stamp tax became an important political question in England itself. Members of Parliament who did not belong to the political party then in control of the government saw that here was a chance to strike at their opponents. They supported William Pitt, who said, “The Americans are the sons of England. As subjects they are entitled to the common right of representation and cannot be bound to pay taxes without their consent.”

stamp act

After much bitter argument, Parliament finally did away with the stamp tax in March of l766. The colonists were so pleased with their victory they closed up their places of business for a day of celebration, but they were still unhappy about the large standing army and the Quartering Act, which required all colonists with vacant houses and barns to make them available as living quarters for British troops whenever necessary. Americans did not like being forced to keep British troops on their private property.


To make matters worse, Britain soon came up with another scheme to solve her serious money problems. Charles Townshend, a new minister in the king’s cabinet, believed the colonies had been against the stamp tax mainly because it was collected within the colonies. He felt the Americans would not object to import taxes, which would be collected at the borders. He persuaded Parliament to pass the Townshend Acts, which placed taxes on all lead, glass, paints, tea and paper imported by the colonies. Furthermore, anyone caught smuggling could be tried without a jury. The British believed in trial by jury, but they knew from past experience that colonial juries looked upon smugglers as heroes and refused to find them guilty. The only practical way of punishing smugglers, therefore, was to try them without juries. The colonists were very much concerned that their rights, as Englishmen, to trial by jury were now being taken from them. Why, they were being treated as if they were no longer free men!

stamp act

Leading citizens in every colony quickly joined the fight against the Townshend Acts. They pointed out that the old import taxes of the trade laws had been passed to discourage the buying of goods from other lands. That had been legal, they said, because Parliament had the right to regulate foreign trade. It did not have the right to pass import taxes for the purpose of raising money. Colonial merchants in the North and some in the South stopped buying goods from England. In Virginia, George Washington and other plantation owners organized a group who agreed to stop buying goods from England so long as the Townshend Acts remained in force.

At the suggestion of Samuel Adams, the Massachusetts assembly wrote letters to other colonial assemblies, asking them all to join in the fight against the Townshend Acts. People in Boston treated the tax collectors so badly that many of them feared for their lives. British troops were brought into the city to protect them and to restore order. Then came the night of the Boston Massacre. The bloodstains on the snow soon disappeared, but Samuel Adams never let the people forget that British redcoats had shot down unarmed citizens in the street. Through his efforts the Boston Massacre brought the colonies one step closer to open revolt and also helped bring about the repeal of the Townshend Acts later that year.

All the import taxes were repealed except for the one on tea — and the colonists were able to avoid that by smuggling in tea from Holland. The next two years were peaceful. Business conditions improved and most people were so pleased with their lot that they were beginning to look upon Samuel Adams and his kind as radicals and troublemakers.

In Providence, Rhode Island, long an important smuggling center, almost everyone was benefiting directly or indirectly from the business of smuggling tax-free tea from Holland. Then the British sent the coast guard schooner Gaspee, commanded by Lieutenant Dudingston, to make war on smugglers along the broken coast of Rhode Island. Dudingston did his work so well that he soon became the most unpopular man in Providence. On the evening of June 8, 1772, the Gaspee ran aground in the shallows off Point Namquit and the people of Providence had a chance to strike back. After a drummer had gone about the town announcing that the Gaspee was helplessly aground, a large number of people gathered at Sabin’s tavern in the center of town. There they molded bullets in the kitchen, loaded their guns and planned their attack. Presently they set out in rowboats for the grounded schooner seven miles to the south.

Sometime later, they caught sight of the masts of the Gaspee looming tall and dark against the sky. They approached quietly. Just as they were about to board the ship, a cry came from the deck. The men of Providence answered it with a few musket shots and swarmed up over the side. Dudingston and his crew were taken completely by Surprise. They were rowed to a small rocky island nearby and left stranded there, while the Gaspee was set ablaze. Flames leaped from the vessel, sparks swirled into the night sky and by morning it had burned to its water line.

The British were enraged. They sent investigators to Providence to arrest the raiders and to bring them to London for trial. But no arrests were ever made. No one in Providence seemed to be able to identify even a single raider.

Samuel Adams smiled when he heard the news of the Gaspee. For the most part, though, Americans were too contented to suit him. There was little he could do about it until a report came from London that England was planning to pay the salaries of colonial governors out of money collected from import taxes. This meant that the colonial assemblies, which had previously paid the salaries of the king’s appointed governors, would no longer be able to control the governors by threatening to withhold their salaries. Adams warned that if the governors were paid directly by England, they would rule over the colonies as they pleased. The time had come, he said, when the people had to decide whether they were to be “freemen or slaves.”

At a Boston town meeting in November, 1772, Samuel Adams, his second cousin John Adams, James Otis and other leaders re-organized the Committee of Correspondence. The committee had been set up to exchange political information and views with other colonists. Soon more than eighty towns in Massachusetts had formed similar committees. In Virginia, the legislature appointed a Committee of Correspondence and most of the other colonies soon followed her example. The committees united the colonies and stirred up public opinion against England.

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