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Stamps For America


This New York Vice Admiralty Court seal, circa 1770, will be exhibited in the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown galleries, opening in mid-October 2016. Stamp Act violators were to be tried in admiralty courts instead of before local judges.

When news arrived in America in the spring of 1765 that the British Parliament had enacted a comprehensive new array of taxes and duties on the colonists, the reaction was swift and wide-ranging. Initially the opposition took the form of formal protests and resolutions passed by eleven of the colonial legislative assemblies, but by August violent street riots began in Boston, Massachusetts, and soon spread throughout the other colonies.

The Stamp Act of March 1765 was a new tax imposed on all of Britain’s American colonists; it placed a variable tax on almost every piece of paper used for legal documents and licenses as well as on newspapers and other publications. Englishmen were already paying high taxes, and pressure was mounting in Parliament to make America share the burden. The highest fee, ten pounds, was on attorney licenses. Paper used in legal proceedings, such as deeds, wills and debt cases, was taxed according to a sliding scale ranging from three pence to ten shillings. Such documents had to be produced on stamped paper, which carried an embossed revenue stamp. Even dice and playing cards were taxed. The actual cost of these duties probably would have been relatively small for the average American colonist, certainly compared with what some Englishmen were paying.

The purpose of the Stamp Act was partially to raise revenue to help defray the large national debt Great Britain had incurred during the Seven Years War, but primarily it was to pay for the costs of stationing British troops in America to protect the western frontier from hostile Indian nations. The idea of taxing legal documents by requiring they be written or printed on special embossed or “stamped” paper was not something the British government invented especially for its American colonies. The people of Great Britain had been paying stamp duties on similar items since 1694, and stamp acts had proved to be a successful method of raising revenue without creating too much resistance. Accordingly the British ministry did not expect to encounter the intense protests that followed.

So why did the American colonists react so quickly (and later violently) over a relatively light tax designed to pay for protecting the western frontier – especially since most of the revenue raised would remain and be spent in America? The primary reason the colonists opposed the act was that it set a dangerous precedent allowing Parliament to raise tax revenue in America without the approval of the colonial representative assemblies. Earlier taxes and duties had been enacted as ways to regulate trade and commerce, not solely to raise money. In Virginia, Patrick Henry’s Stamp Act Resolves of May 1765 asserted that Americans had the same rights as Englishmen – not to be taxed without their consent.

Other features of the Stamp Act also disturbed the colonists. The tax had to be paid in British currency, not colonial paper money, and violators were to be tried in admiralty courts instead of before local judges. Many colonists also questioned the need to keep regular British soldiers in North America and wondered if they would be used to enforce British policies. Throughout the colonies groups were soon organized to resist the new taxes – often calling themselves “Sons of Liberty.” The appointed tax collectors were frequently forced to resign through threats of violence. In Boston a mob vandalized and practically destroyed the residence of Lt. Governor Thomas Hutchinson on August 26. Organized mob violence continued to intimidate public officials, and by the late fall most designated stamp distributors had resigned and many colonial courts closed rather than use the stamped paper. In October delegates from nine colonies met in New York to protest the Stamp Act and to petition Parliament, claiming it had no right to tax them since they were not represented in that body. This so-called “Stamp Act Congress” insisted that colonists had all the rights of Englishmen and that only their own assemblies could legally levy direct, internal taxes.

By the end of 1765 it was obvious that the Stamp Act was a total failure. Not only had it failed to raise any revenue, but court closures in America and non-importation measures had paralyzed trade between Great Britain and America. The British merchant community began lobbying Parliament to repeal the act which was hurting their businesses. Despite some misgivings, Parliament finally repealed the Stamp Act in March 1766, but it also passed the Declaratory Act, affirming Parliament’s right to legislate for the colonies in all cases “whatsoever.”

The controversy over the Stamp Act generated the American colonists’ first attempt to forge a unified resistance to British measures they saw as infringing their rights as Englishmen. It is ironic that even today citizens of Great Britain pay a Stamp Duty Land Tax when buying property. In a number of political divisions in the United States, recording a deed requires that a tax be paid, as evidenced by an attached stamp, and even a new deck of playing cards cannot be opened without first breaking the tax stamp.

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