Stamp Act Crisis Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During the Stamp Act Crisis, the American colonies responded to the first direct tax levied upon the colonists with protests and boycotts. The Stamp Act was soon repealed, but the crisis became the first in a series of events that would culminate in the American Revolution.

Summary of Event

In 1763, the British national debt had soared to a level double that prior to the French and Indian War (1754-1763) French and Indian War. Besides finding revenues to meet the interest on this war debt, George Grenville, the prime minister, needed additional funds Taxation;colonial America to administer a greatly enlarged empire. Although Parliament had never before placed direct taxes on the colonies, Grenville persuaded that body to approve the Sugar Act (1764) Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765. The decision to tax America was momentous in its consequences. The intensity of the colonists’ opposition shocked most people in England, and on both sides of the Atlantic the crisis produced an atmosphere of tension and mistrust that influenced all subsequent British-American relations before the American Revolution. [kw]Stamp Act Crisis (Mar. 22, 1765-Mar. 18, 1766) [kw]Crisis, Stamp Act (Mar. 22, 1765-Mar. 18, 1766) [kw]Act Crisis, Stamp (Mar. 22, 1765-Mar. 18, 1766) Stamp Act Crisis (1765-1766) Prerevolutionary America Stamp Act (1712) [g]American colonies;Mar. 22, 1765-Mar. 18, 1766: Stamp Act Crisis[1780] [g]England;Mar. 22, 1765-Mar. 18, 1766: Stamp Act Crisis[1780] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar. 22, 1765-Mar. 18, 1766: Stamp Act Crisis[1780] [c]Government and politics;Mar. 22, 1765-Mar. 18, 1766: Stamp Act Crisis[1780] [c]Colonization;Mar. 22, 1765-Mar. 18, 1766: Stamp Act Crisis[1780] [c]Trade and commerce;Mar. 22, 1765-Mar. 18, 1766: Stamp Act Crisis[1780] [c]Social issues and reform;Mar. 22, 1765-Mar. 18, 1766: Stamp Act Crisis[1780] Grenville, George Henry, Patrick Dulany, Daniel Rockingham, second marquess of Whatley, Thomas Franklin, Benjamin [p]Franklin, Benjamin;Stamp Act crisis

Grenville, a narrow-minded financial expert, presented impressive statistics to show that the prosperous colonists were lightly taxed compared to the English at home. The Sugar Act grew out of Grenville’s discovery that the American customs service was costing the government more to maintain than it was collecting in revenues. The colonists were evading payment of the import duties—sixpence a gallon—on foreign molasses, which was required under the Molasses Act (1733) Molasses Act of 1733. Grenville revamped the customs service and ordered the Royal Navy to guard against smuggling.

The Sugar Act itself cut the molasses duty to threepence a gallon, a sum Grenville believed would be enforceable without ruining the New England rum industry. It was clear that colonial rum distillers needed more molasses than the British West Indian sugar islands could provide. The new statute placed additional duties on colonial imports, increased restrictions on colonial exports, and added to the difficulties of smugglers by strengthening the system of vice-admiralty courts. The preamble to the Sugar Act, unlike the Molasses Act, made it clear that the law of 1764 was not designed primarily to regulate trade; it stated “that a revenue be raised” in His Majesty’s dominions.

Subsequently, Grenville introduced his Stamp Act, passed by Parliament and signed by the king on March 22, 1765, to become effective on November 1. Taxes fell on every kind of legal document and on playing cards, dice, and almanacs. Each item was to carry a stamp indicating payment of the tax. Offenders were to be tried in vice-admiralty courts (without trial by jury), which formerly had jurisdiction only over affairs relating to the sea and commerce. New taxes meant payments in cash, but money—always scarce in the agriculturally oriented colonies—became tighter than ever because Grenville, in 1764, had persuaded Parliament to adopt the Currency Act (1764) Currency Act, which forbade the provincials from continuing to make their own paper money as legal tender.

The Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser published a symbolic skull and crossbones as part of the masthead of its final issue. The masthead also included “An Emblem of the Effects of the STAMP, O! the fatal Stamp” and a note reading, “The TIMES are Dreadful, Dismal, Doleful, Dolorous, and Dollar-less.”

(Library of Congress)

The colonists found much to displease them in Grenville’s program. Merchants thought the rum industry would not be able to stand the threepence duty on molasses, and they found the new customs procedures complicated and difficult. The currency restrictions promised to make silver in shorter supply than ever. Colonists also thought it was unfair to try Stamp Act offenders in courts, devoid of juries, possessing authority beyond that permitted the courts in England.

Even more important to Americans, Parliament’s Parliament;British direct taxes seemed to deprive them of their rights as British subjects to be taxed only by their elected representatives. The colonists were represented in their own assemblies but not in the House of Commons. They vigorously approved the pamphlet written by Maryland lawyer Daniel Dulany, who denied the contention of Englishman Thomas Whatley that all residents of the empire were, in effect, represented in Parliament, which allegedly looked after the interests of all, regardless of whether one had the opportunity (as many local Englishmen did not) to vote for members of the House of Commons. American writers quoted John Locke, political philosopher of England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, who said that the most esteemed right of people was the right of property, without which both life and liberty were endangered.

The Virginia House of Burgesses, prodded by young Patrick Henry, took the lead in drafting remonstrances against parliamentary taxation. Soon afterward, the Massachusetts legislature issued a call for a congress from all the colonies to meet to consider ways of securing relief. The Stamp Act Congress Stamp Act Congress, meeting October 7 to 27, 1765, in New York and attended by delegates from nine colonies, acknowledged Parliament’s authority to regulate trade (to legislate) for the welfare of the whole empire, while rejecting its right to tax America. By November 1, the date the stamps were to go on sale, none were available. The Sons of Liberty Sons of Liberty had “persuaded” almost every designated stamp distributor to resign. Colonial merchants also aided the cause by curtailing imports from Britain until the oppressive Stamp Act was repealed.

Patrick Henry addresses the Virginia Assembly, in a speech opposing the stamp tax.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

In 1766, Grenville was out of office (for reasons unrelated to America), and the ministry was under the second Marquess of Rockingham. The marquess, who had opposed the Stamp Act, now listened to the outcries of British merchants suffering from the colonial economic boycott. By stressing the disruption of trade and ignoring American rioting, and by employing Benjamin Franklin’s erroneous testimony that the colonists opposed only internal taxes (the Stamp Act), Rockingham secured repeal of the Stamp Act on March 18—the same day that Parliament passed the vaguely worded Declaratory Act (1766) Declaratory Act. The latter bill affirmed Parliament’s right to “make laws and statutes . . . to bind the colonies . . . in all cases whatsoever.” Americans rejoiced at the outcome without knowing the Declaratory Act’s precise meaning.

Significance

In the latter half of the twentieth century, many historians posited that the American Revolution was not predestined, at least not in the third quarter of the eighteenth century, especially if the mother country had displayed more enlightened leadership. Some historians placed the blame for the first imperial controversy squarely upon George Grenville. Grenville, although pretending otherwise, had made no real effort to allow the colonies to raise revenues on their own to aid in the upkeep of the empire; in fact, the prime minister discouraged Massachusetts and the agents of various colonies and London from devising means to acquire needed revenue in America.

From this viewpoint, the American colonies appear to have been less irresponsible in facing up to their imperial obligations than their traditional depictions would suggest. The actual stamp tax would have been a small expense to almost all the colonists; the crux of the American opposition was therefore a philosophical rejection of taxation without representation. Later historians also part company from previous historians by demonstrating that Americans objected not only to internal taxes (the Stamp Act) but also to external taxes (the Sugar Act) in 1765-1766. During the following decade, the colonists consistently adhered to the principle that legitimate taxes could be levied only by the representatives of those taxed, while they continued to recognize the need for Parliament to legislate in the interest of harmonious trade and commerce and the welfare of all parts of the empire.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Breen, T. H. The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Breen argues that colonists’ experience as consumers helped them develop new forms of social action, such as boycotts, that ultimately resulted in revolution. Includes information about the Stamp Act and the colonists’ boycotts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bridenbaugh, Carl. Mitre and Sceptre: Transatlantic Faiths, Ideas, Personalities, and Politics, 1689-1775. New York: Oxford University Press, 1962. Asserts that American fears of an Anglican establishment throughout the colonies were a factor in the growth of American nationalism and a hitherto neglected cause of the American Revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gipson, Lawrence H. The Coming of the Revolution, 1763-1775. New York: Harper & Row, 1954. Representative of the traditional imperial school of American historiography, Gipson sees the American Revolution as an inevitable development, with growing American nationalism as the prime cause.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Allen S. A Prologue to Revolution: The Political Career of George Grenville, 1712-1770. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1997. Recounts the events of Grenville’s ministry, including the passage of the Stamp Act and the American reaction to it.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knollenberg, Bernhard. Origin of the American Revolution, 1759-1766. New York: Macmillan, 1960. Complements and amplifies the Morgans’ account (see below) of the first imperial crisis. Knollenberg discovers little evidence of colonial unhappiness with the British Empire as it existed before the Seven Years’ War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morgan, Edmund S., and Helen M. Morgan. The Stamp Act Crisis. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. Provides a revisionist look at the events surrounding the Stamp Act crisis and blames Grenville for the crisis. Focuses on constitutional principles and the ideas of the Revolutionists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Raphael, Ray. A People’s History of the American Revolution: How Common People Shaped the Fight for Independence. New York: New Press, 2001. Describes the role that farmers, laborers, women, and other “ordinary people” played in the Revolution. Includes information about the Stamp Act and the American demonstrations against the legislation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, P. D. G. British Politics and the Stamp Act Crisis. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1975. A study of the policies and attitudes of Great Britain toward the American colonies in the years leading up to the American Revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weslager, C. A. The Stamp Act Congress. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1976. A thorough documentation of the Stamp Act Congress, wherein the principles of opposition to the Stamp Act were first formulated. Contains the first available journal of the Stamp Act Congress in its entirety.

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