Ornamental Separator
Colonial Williamsburg Wax Seal

The Stamp Act

American colonists have been taxed by Parliament with duties associated with trade or commerce before, but The Stamp Act is different. While it might seem to be a small tax for the gentry, for the less wealthy it is a burden that has a significant effect. Virginia is a credit economy in which middling folks often use the courts to collect debt. The Stamp Act promises to add to those costs. The Stamp Act sets a troubling precedent for a legal system driven by precedent, the colonists feel they are no longer in control of their own legislation-a right granted them as Englishmen. Nobody could know it then but coordinated resistance against the Act will set in motion actions that will eventually lead to Revolution.

New Beginnings

London, England

In 1760 a 22-year-old is crowned King George the III of Great Britain and Ireland. Great Britain is mired in a world war that stretches across the world from the European continent to the Americas, Africa, and India. The British have invaded Canada, and French forces are on the road to defeat in North America. Soon the Iroquois allies of the French will sign a peace treaty with Great Britain. The Following year in 1761 George marries 17-year-old Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz at the Royal Chapel in St. James’s Palace, London. In 1762 the Anglo-Cherokee war ends, following which a Cherokee delegation visits that same young King in London, England.

24-year-old George the Third in 1762
17 year old Queen Charlotte in 1762
Cherokee leaders visit London 1762

Treaties

London, England

For the past nine years Parliament has been spending vast sums on a European war that began on the American continent as the French and Indian War. That war has spread across the world and will become known as the Seven Years War. Now the British army has defeated the French in North America, which means the British Crown has increased its territory to almost the entire eastern third of the Continent. This also means the country is broke. To help the country out of this situation Lord Bute institutes as Tax on Cider production in Britain, resulting in outrage and riots there. Parliament asks her British colonists to help pay for the protection of the newly acquired territories in America. Because the money was to be spent in America, Parliament saw no problem with Americans paying for this. Parliament plans to pass several acts to make colonists pay an extra tax to support their defense. These pervasive taxes spell doom rule from Parliament in England. For the colonists it marks a violation of their right as English subjects-to be taxed only with their consent. It is the first of a chain of events that leads to American independence – although at this stage no-one foresees the consequences of these actions.

1763 Cunne Shote, or Cummacatogue Cherokee leader, Black and white mezzotint engraving by James McArdell after Francis Parsons

Opening Acts

London, England

In Parliament George Grenville announces the intention to renew the 1733 Sugar and Molasses Act by instituting the American Revenue Act. The act taxes Sugar in an attempt to raise money to protect the colonies, and to curb smuggling of sugar and molasses, but the action prompts protests in America instead. Another act, the Currency Act was also extended, this time in an attempt to regulate the issue of paper money in the colonies. It too is quickly protested, and calls are soon made for its repeal. These acts steadily sensitize the colonies to future Parliamentary actions. Grenville’s proposals are a tax on duties – a direct tax levied on everyday items. American colonists feel their rights are trampled upon. When petitions are sent to parliament by colonies Parliament is perplexed by the colonists’ response. When the time comes, they will be prepared to protest the Stamp Act before it is even introduced.

A North Carolina currency hoard with notes from 1748-1771

Spring – The Act Initiated

North America

On March 22nd 1765 Parliament passes a further act that is to come into effect the following November. This act is called The Stamp Act and will be a tax on paper products like playing cards. Virginians are outraged because Parliament is continuing to attempt to legislate a tax without consulting them. Virginians are used to taxing themselves through their own local representatives in the House of Burgesses (EXPLAIN) – not by a Parliament reaching into their pockets from across the ocean. The tax will set a precedent in a legal system driven by precedents, and while it might seem to be a small tax for the gentry, for less wealthy it is a burden that would have a significant effect. In each of the 13 colonies the same measures are happening, the tax is scheduled to come into effect but there is no one is left to collect it. United in their protests, colonists from Boston, MA to Savannah, GA bully their respective stamp collectors into not commencing their duties. Only in Georgia is the stamp collector able to distribute the stamped papers, but he is forced to flee shortly afterwards.

The 1765 tax on paper goods included playing cards

Patrick Henry’s Role

Williamsburg, VA

It’s May 29th 1765, Patrick Henry’s birthday. Two months after it was passed in Parliament, Henry presents his provocative views on the Stamp Act at a meeting of Virginia’s House of Burgesses, in Williamsburg VA. Henry argues that colonists hold the same rights as the people of Great Britain, especially the right to only be taxed by their own local representatives. When shocked representatives suggest some of his ideas amount to treason, he utters words that will become history, shouting, “If this be treason, make the most of it!” These ‘Stamp Act Resolves’ are presented to the House of Burgesses for approval. They will be sent to England along with other grievances of the Burgesses for the British government to see and consider a repeal. Henry presents in total seven “resolutions,” laying out his opposition to the tax, four of them are accepted. Although they were not written for public consumption, selections of Henry’s fiery rhetoric begin to be published widely in newspapers throughout the Colonies. Patrick Henry’s words are joined by propaganda satire, slogans and songs. The tax with obscure legislative roots has become a major barrier to good relations between Britain and its Colonies in North America.

Autumn– In Williamsburg

Williamsburg, VA

It’s Wednesday October 30th, 1765, and merchants and gentry from across Virginia are meeting to do business in Williamsburg. They have been inflamed by the news of the Stamp Act. A crowd begins harassing a man as he walks from the direction of the Capitol down Duke of Gloucester Street. The group surrounds him demanding to know if he will be commissioner in charge of introducing the Stamp Act. He attempts to delay a response, saying he will answer them on Friday at 10’o clock once he has met with the colony’s royal governor. The mob is loud, and it grows as it moves, and further demands are made of the man. The man didn’t know it, but another angry mob had just last month been organized to burn an effigy of him outside a courthouse about 70 miles north in Westmoreland. The man is Virginia-born George Mercer. Once an aide-de-camp to George Washington in the French and Indian war, he has recently been appointed government Stamp Tax Collector for all of Virginia and Maryland.

The 1765 Coffeehouse ‘riot’
Burning of an effigy of George Mercer 1765

An Act Repealed, More to Come…

London, England

The British parliament realizes its mistake and repeals the Stamp Act, but the damage is done. The colonists have discovered they have the power to unite against Parliament. Boycotts, “tea parties,” and slogans pop up on teapots and propaganda spreads through the colonies in newspapers and songs. Parliament has a different take on the repeal, it follows it by passing the Declaratory Act which states that it is still authorized to directly tax its colonies. After the repeal of the Stamp Act many colonists ignore the Declaratory Act, they feel the crisis is over and things can now go back to normal.

1766 “No Stamp Act” teapot
"Stamp Act" Tablespoon, 1766-67
1766 "No Stamp Act" button

Over...but not over.

North America

In 1767, a new act called the Townshend Act is proposed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townsend, and attempts to collect taxes on tea, glass, lead, paint and paper. John Dickinson, sometimes called “The Penman of the American Revolution” publishes his “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania.” These simply worded and concise editorials help win colonials over to the tax protesters cause. The following year in 1768, British Troops Arrive in Boston, Massachusetts to quell unrest and enforce customs regulations. Boston roils with discontent which reaches is head in 1770, when a musket shot of undetermined origin sparks an event history that will be remember as The Boston Massacre. In 1772 at Providence, Rhode Island, locals seize the opportunity to burn a revenue-collector’s ship, The Gaspee, when it runs aground. The following year protestors dressed as Native Americans to emphasize their ‘American’ heritage, empty three ships’ worth of tea into Boston Harbor. This “tea party” inspires similar protests through the colonies. This resistance is notable in the southern colonies too, such as Edenton, NC. where women sign a document vowing to forego importing tea and wearing British cloth. By 1774, England resolves to punish Massachusetts for the acts of the Boston Tea Party with acts that curtail the state of self-rule. Americans retaliate with a boycott of English goods, striking a blow against England’s export economy. Ultimately, this becomes the Continental Association, which bans both imports and exports. The following year -1775- the future is sealed by the acts at the Battles of Lexington and Concord, and this American revolution changes its tone from one of protest to armed revolt.

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