Stamp Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Responding to an appeal from Queen Anne to curb the licentiousness of the press, England’s Parliament enacted a tax of one-half cent per sheet on periodical publications. The tax became an important source of revenue and was expanded several times during the eighteenth century. As a vehicle for censorship, it was largely ineffective.

Summary of Event

Over the course of the tumultuous seventeenth century, English society developed an appetite for printed news. Journalism;England During the English Civil Wars (1642-1651), both sides produced volumes of highly polemical pamphlets and news sheets; the press was essentially free of government restraints. With the restoration of the monarchy (1660) came censorship. Under the Licensing Act of 1662, Licensing Act (1662) only twenty presses, all but two of them in London, were permitted to operate, and anything of a political nature required the approval of the government. Theological works came under the scrutiny of the archbishop of Canterbury. For domestic news, other than the meager offerings of the quasi-official London Gazette, people relied on handwritten newsletters circulated through coffeehouses. [kw]Stamp Act (1712) [kw]Act, Stamp (1712) Stamp Act (1712) Taxation;England Censorship;England Freedom of the press;England Newspapers;England [g]England;1712: Stamp Act[0350] [c]Communications;1712: Stamp Act[0350] [c]Government and politics;1712: Stamp Act[0350] Bolingbroke, first Viscount Oxford, first earl of (Robert Harley) Anne, Queen Cobbett, William Defoe, Daniel

The expiration of the unpopular Licensing Act Licensing Act (1693) in 1693 left a vacuum in press regulation, which the publishing industry was quick to exploit. Increasing public literacy, Literacy;and journalism[journalism] coupled with technological innovations in printing and papermaking that lowered the cost of printed papers, created a market where none had previously existed. In the resulting explosion of periodical publications, much was created of lasting value, and many precedents were set that, over the course of half a century, determined the form that journalism was to take in a free market economy.

There was also a good deal of irresponsible journalism. Faced with restrictions on access to domestic news, some journalists resorted to inventing stories, and others mixed fact with fiction to suit partisan ends. The “licentiousness of the press” forming the subject of Queen Anne’s message to Parliament in 1712 encompassed not only political and religious dissent but also libel, fraud, and pornography.

The line between religious and political dissent on one hand and outright treason on the other was by no means as well defined during the reign of Queen Anne as it was later in the century. The restoration of the monarchy under Charles II had reestablished the Anglican Church, excluding Calvinist Puritans from public life and proscribing publications espousing their unique theology as blasphemous. The Presbyterian Church remained strong in Scotland, where it became associated with nationalism and separatism. In Parliament, the moderate Whig faction espoused tolerance for these Protestant Dissenters, favoring integrating them into public life; it was unclear how far such advocacy could go before becoming a real threat to the monarchy and the established church.

By the terms of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the Roman Catholic James II was removed from the throne of England and replaced by his eldest daughter, Mary II, and her Protestant husband, William III. Neither they nor Anne, James’s second daughter, who ascended the throne of England in 1702, had surviving heirs. According to the Royal succession as established by Parliament in 1688, Anne’s successor was to be George, elector of Hanover, but substantial public sentiment supported making James II’s son James Edward (the “Old Pretender”) king despite his Roman Catholicism. The extreme Tory position advocating a Roman Catholic monarch backed by France (with which England was at war) was frankly treasonous. Ironically, in 1712 the supporters of James Edward included Queen Anne’s principal ministers, Robert Harley and the first Viscount Bolingbroke, as well (with reservations) as Anne herself.

On February 12, 1712, Parliament agreed to take into consideration a message from Queen Anne complaining of “false and scandalous libels, such as are a reproach to any government” and calling for “a remedy equal to the mischief.” The speech may have been prompted by Harley; the monarch’s addresses to Parliament at the opening of the session were generally written in collaboration with the Privy Council. Harley was well aware of the power of the press and used it to his advantage. For many years he employed the celebrated writer Daniel Defoe as a progovernment apologist.

In the ensuing debate, various direct methods of controlling the press were discussed, but only a measure requiring an author’s name to appear on each publication passed into law. In an era when pseudonymous authorship was the rule even in scholarly discourse, this law was never enforced.

Later in the session, a stamp tax on newspapers was inserted into a general appropriations bill. Newspapers were taxed at one-half cent per sheet, and advertisements were taxed at two shillings per insertion. This tax nearly doubled the cost of a newspaper to the consumer and caused a temporary drop in circulation. Some newspapers went out of business altogether. Others adopted a pamphlet format, evading the tax until 1725, when an act of Parliament Parliament;British closed this loophole. Advertising revenues and outside subsidies assumed greater importance relative to subscriptions. Single-sheet anonymous broadsides, costing a farthing and hawked by unlicensed itinerant vendors, satisfied the public’s appetite for “scandalous libel.” Page sizes increased while type size diminished.

As a measure to “curb the licentiousness of the press” and to stifle political and religious dissent, the Stamp Act was quite ineffective. Increasing reliance on subsidies translated into greater partisan bias. Newspapers became less discriminating in the quality of the advertising they accepted and ran more product endorsements masquerading as news stories. Because the per-copy profit to the printer declined, a periodical needed a larger minimum circulation to stay afloat, and publications such as Defoe’s innovative Review, with a maximum circulation of about four hundred, no longer appeared.

Taxing newspapers did provide the government with a significant new source of revenue. This revenue aspect has received less attention from historians than the censorship implied in taxing the press. In an era when excise taxes provided the bulk of government revenue, periodicals represented a commodity that was easy to track and was not an absolute necessity of human existence. The tax on periodicals was raised and expanded to include more categories of publications several times over the course of the eighteenth century.

Significance

The perception of the 1712 Stamp Act as a measure of censorship rather than revenue dates from the early nineteenth century, when the conditions of public life and the conduct of the press had altered considerably. Viewing taxation of the press as an oppressive measure also gains credence from the controversies surrounding the 1765 Stamp Act, Stamp Act (1765) which extended the provisions of various English taxes on paper documents to the American colonies. In practice, prosecutions for blasphemy, breach of privilege, and libel eclipsed taxation as a means for government control of the press in Britain in the eighteenth century.

Because any commercial enterprise will vigorously oppose a tax restricting its profits, and represent its objections as defense of the public good, newspaper editorials on the Stamp Tax need to be taken with a grain of salt. The high price of newspapers was one factor making the dissemination and consumption of news a public activity in Georgian Britain. This encouraged debate and increased the likelihood that a person of moderate means would be exposed to various shades of opinion, rather than relying on a private subscription to a single newspaper.

At the close of the century, radicals such as William Cobbett maintained that taxes on periodicals selectively stifled political messages aimed at the poor. The large circulation of some unstamped broadsides, pamphlets disguised as sermons, and the illegally distributed “twopenny trash” version of the Political Register would seem to bear this out. By then, improvements in press technology had made a genuinely cheap periodical possible, and increasing literacy had created a market that had not existed in 1712.

One legacy of the Stamp Tax, its enlargements, and the agitation for its repeal has been the exemption of the British and American press from government regulations affecting other types of commercial activities—from sales taxes, child labor laws, and regulations affecting street vendors, for example. Today’s press was shaped by a century of regulation followed by two centuries of deregulation. Taxation was part of that process, though not, as sometimes claimed, primarily as an enforcer of political conformity.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clarke, Bob. From Grub Street to Fleet Street: An Illustrated History of English Newspapers to 1899. London: Ashgate, 2004. Includes a clear explanation of all aspects of newspaper publishing in the early 1700’s, with specific examples.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cobbett, William, ed. A.D. 1733-1737. Vol. 7 in The Parliamentary History of England: From the Earliest Period to the Year 1803. London: T. C. Hansard, 1810. Includes Queen Anne’s address to Parliament on the licentiousness of the press, and a summary of the debate.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harris, Michael. London Newspapers in the Age of Walpole: A Study of the Origins of the English Press. London: Associated University Presses, 1987. Discusses the economic impact of the Stamp Act on newspaper publishers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hunt, F. Knight. The Fourth Estate: Contributions Towards a History of Newspapers and of the Liberty of the Press. London: David Bogue, 1850. Presents the case for the conventional view that the 1712 Stamp Act was mainly an attempt to limit press freedom.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Raymond, Joad, ed. News, Newspapers, and Society in Early Modern England. Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 1999. Main emphasis is on the seventeenth century; includes information on the economic impact of the stamp tax on the publishing industry.

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Queen Anne; First Viscount Bolingbroke; Daniel Defoe. Stamp Act (1712) Taxation;England Censorship;England Freedom of the press;England Newspapers;England

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