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Stamp Act Resistance

Written by: Bill of Rights Institute

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain how British colonial policies regarding North America led to the Revolutionary War

Suggested Sequencing

Use this Narrative with The Boston Massacre Narrative and The Boston Tea Party Narrative following the Acts of Parliament Lesson to show the growing tensions between England and the colonies.

British prime minister George Grenville wanted the colonists to pay the cost of stationing British troops on the North American frontier after the French and Indian War. To raise the money, the Stamp Act of 1765 imposed taxes on almanacs, legal documents, newspapers, playing cards – in fact, every kind of printed paper document in the colonies – and even dice. The colonies had been paying relatively low imperial taxes under the Navigation Acts and enjoyed the benefits of imperial trade networks, thus becoming very prosperous. The new act, named for the official stamp verifying that the tax had been paid, reversed a decades-long British policy sometimes called salutary neglect, which allowed the colonists to govern themselves without much interference. It also affected the daily lives of nearly all in the colonies. A broad spectrum of people, from wealthy merchants to ordinary artisans, loudly resisted taxation without representation as a matter of an ancient constitutional principle.

A left-hand image shows a close-up of one of these stamps, which depicts a mantle; a circle, with St. Edward's crown inside; and a scepter and sword, which are crossed behind the crown. The circle is labeled with the words

(a) Under the Stamp Act, anyone who used or purchased anything printed on paper had to buy a revenue stamp for it. (b) The Stamp Act protests took many forms, including this mock stamp which reads, “An Emblem of the Effects of the STAMP. O! the fatal STAMP.”

Colonists learned of the impending Stamp Act in late 1764 and immediately petitioned the king and Parliament in protest. The Virginia House of Burgesses claimed the rights of Englishmen under the Magna Carta and argued it was a “fundamental principle of the British constitution . . . that the people are not subject to any taxes but such are laid on them by their own consent.” The burgesses asserted that the violations of their natural and traditional rights made them “slaves of Briton” – an ironic statement coming from slave-owning planters.

In April 1765, the colonists learned that the king had ignored their petitions and approved the Stamp Act. On May 29, Patrick Henry proposed several controversial resolutions in the House of Burgesses that stirred up a lively debate. The burgesses voted for the first four resolutions, which claimed the rights of Englishmen and declared Virginians would tax and govern themselves as a matter of justice. Thomas Jefferson, then a student at the College of William and Mary, observed the “most bloody debate” over the more contentious fifth resolution, which stated that the “General Assembly of this colony have the only and sole and exclusive right and power to lay taxes,” and that any attempt by Parliament to tax the colonies “has a manifest tendency to destroy British as well as American freedom.” The following day, when Henry warned against tyrants, moderate members leaped to their feet, yelling, “Treason!” Despite the verbal fireworks, the fifth resolution passed by a single vote. It was revoked the next day, however, after Henry rode out of Williamsburg.

A painting shows Patrick Henry making a speech to a room full of well-dressed colonists. As Henry gestures dramatically with his arm, the members of his audience look on and whisper to one another.

Peter F. Rothermel painted Patrick Henry Before the Virginia House of Burgesses (1851) nearly one hundred years after Henry’s speech denouncing the Stamp Act. How has the artist romanticized this moment in history?

Colonial newspapers raised the stakes by falsely reporting that the fifth resolution was still law. The Newport Mercury and Maryland Gazette printed the even more radical sixth and seventh resolutions, which Henry had evidently not presented to the House of Burgesses. The sixth asserted that colonists were “not bound to yield obedience to any law or ordinance whatsoever designed to impose any taxation whatsoever upon them.” The seventh warned that anyone who supported the Stamp Act was “an enemy to this his majesty’s colony.” Colonists were electrified by the boldness of what they read.

On the morning of August 14, Boston protesters hanged an effigy of Andrew Oliver, a Massachusetts government official responsible for enforcing the Stamp Act, from a “liberty tree.” Thousands of angry Bostonians then paraded the effigy through the town and tore down Oliver’s “Stamp Office” building. That night, using wood from the destroyed building, they marched to Oliver’s home and built a bonfire. They decapitated the effigy and threw it into the fire before attacking Oliver’s home. Oliver resigned the next day. On the night of August 26, a mob of artisans, laborers, and sailors dismantled the home of Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson, plundering valuables while shouting “Liberty and property!” to protest the Stamp Act and taxation without consent.

No one was ever brought to trial for the August riots in Boston. Similar threatening actions occurred across the colonies as stamp collectors were forced to resign. Irate citizens burned effigies, tore down collectors’ homes, and even began the process of burying one collector alive until he relented and resigned his office. The protestors began calling themselves the Sons of Liberty.

In October, twenty-seven delegates from nine colonies met in New York to decide on a unified response to British taxes. At this Stamp Act Congress, the delegates issued a declaration of rights, asserting, “It is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that no taxes be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives.” Many colonial merchants agreed not to import British goods, applying pressure by pinching the profits of British merchants and manufacturers. Aided by British merchants who then petitioned the king and Parliament to rescind the taxes, members of the colonial resistance persuaded the new British ministry to repeal the Stamp Act. Parliament, however, also passed the Declaratory Act, insisting that it had the right to legislate for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.”

With Parliament firmly declaring its authority over the colonies while many colonists were encouraged by their successful resistance, the stage seemed set for future conflict. Other outcomes remained possible, however. Would the British allow the colonial legislatures to tax themselves and contribute to the cost of Empire, as had been the custom? The colonists were generally satisfied, loyal subjects who wanted to remain part of the British Empire. Could they moderate their actions? From the vantage point of 1766, the course of imperial relations seemed impossible to predict.

Review Questions

1. Which of the following would not have been taxed by the Stamp Act?

  1. Legal documents
  2. Newspapers
  3. Quills and wax for sealing
  4. Playing cards

2. What was the purpose of the Stamp Act?

  1. To test the limits of the colonists’ tolerance of abuse and tyranny
  2. To punish the colonies for their rebellious, destructive, and violent actions
  3. To demonstrate clearly that the colonies were still subject to the will of Parliament and the king despite salutary neglect
  4. To increase revenue and help defray the cost of keeping British soldiers on the frontier after the Seven Years’ War

3. What does “taxation without representation” mean?

  1. The colonies were taxed directly by the king rather than by representatives in Parliament.
  2. The colonists did not elect the representatives in Parliament who passed the tax.
  3. The tax was applied to all colonies equally without regard for the opinion of their representation in Parliament.
  4. The tax was enforced despite the colonies’ protests and petitions.

4. Which colony was the first to organize a legislative protest against the introduction of the Stamp Act?

  1. Massachusetts
  2. New York
  3. Virginia
  4. South Carolina

5. The Stamp Act overturned the policy of salutary neglect, which for years had

  1. allowed the colonists to govern themselves without too much interference
  2. asserted Britain’s right to legislate for the colonies in any jurisdiction
  3. forbade the colonists to settle west of the Appalachian Mountains
  4. enabled American Indians to become naturalized British citizens after a waiting period

6. Which of the following is the most accurate statement about the Sons of Liberty?

  1. They strictly adhered to the laws passed by Parliament and encouraged others to do the same.
  2. They encouraged and orchestrated protests that sometimes included the burning of effigies and destruction of property.
  3. They protected the tax collectors and held fast that the rule of law allowed people to be free.
  4. They were self-appointed delegates who met to discuss possible peaceful responses to the king and Parliament.

7. Which of the following does not describe a significant effect of the Stamp Act Congress?

  1. It was one of the first intercolonial cooperative congressional bodies.
  2. Its plea to the king contributed to the successful repeal of the Stamp Act.
  3. Its Declaration of Rights formed a basis for later colonial protest.
  4. It represented a turning point in history when the colonists united in their resolution to separate from Great Britain.

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain how the British, given their views of the relationship with British North America, believed themselves justified in imposing the Stamp Act on the colonies.
  2. Explain why the colonists reacted as they did to the Stamp Act. What was the basis of their argument, and what were they trying to achieve?

AP Practice Questions

“The members of this Congress, sincerely devoted, with the warmest sentiments of affection and duty to His Majesty’s Person and Government . . . esteem it our indispensable duty to make the following declarations of our humble opinion, respecting the most essential rights and liberties Of the colonists, and of the grievances under which they labour, by reason of several late Acts of Parliament. . . .

That His Majesty’s liege subjects in these colonies, are entitled to all the inherent rights and liberties of his natural born subjects within the kingdom of Great-Britain.

That it is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that no taxes be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives.

That the people of these colonies are not, and from their local circumstances cannot be, represented in the House of Commons in Great-Britain.

That the only representatives of the people of these colonies, are persons chosen therein by themselves, and that no taxes ever have been, or can be constitutionally imposed on them, but by their respective legislatures. . . .

Lastly, That it is the indispensable duty of these colonies, to the best of sovereigns, to the mother country, and to themselves, to endeavour by a loyal and dutiful address to his Majesty, and humble applications to both Houses of Parliament, to procure the repeal of the Act for granting and applying certain stamp duties. . . .”

Stamp Act Congress, October 19, 1765

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. Which of the following statements best describes the purpose of the Stamp Act Congress as demonstrated by the excerpt?

  1. To develop a plan for declaring independence from the British government
  2. To create rules and procedures for enforcing the tax fairly throughout the colonies
  3. To develop a unified plan for protesting the unjust Stamp Act throughout the colonies
  4. To write petitions to King George III and Parliament calling for the repeal of the Stamp Act

2. The Stamp Act Congress based its grievances on which of the following principles?

  1. Parliament’s relationship to the citizens of England is similar to the colonial legislature’s relationship with the British colonies.
  2. The king’s relationship to the citizens of England is similar to the colonial legislature’s relationship to the British colonies.
  3. The prime minister’s relationship to the citizens of England is similar to the colonial governors’ relationship to the British colonies.
  4. The General Assembly’s relationship to the citizens of England is similar to the colonial governors’ relationship to the British colonies.

3. Which of the following best describes the way the English tradition of rights shaped colonial resistance to the Stamp Act?

  1. The Stamp Act stripped certain citizens of their rights, which was taken as an offense against all colonists.
  2. The Stamp Act was viewed as an impediment to self-government, which the practice of salutary neglect had encouraged.
  3. The Stamp Act meant the colonies no longer benefitted economically from British rule, and thus the colonists’ rights were injured.
  4. The Stamp Act was permitted under the English tradition of taxing those whose rights are protected, which the colonists disagreed with.

“Q. Do you think it right that America should be protected by this country, and pay no part of the expense?

A. That is not the case. The Colonies raised, cloathed and paid, during the last war, near 25000 men, and spent many millions. . . .

Q. Do you not think the people of America would submit to pay the stamp duty, if it was moderated?

A. No, never, unless compelled by force of arms. . . .

Q. What was the temper of America towards Great-Britain before the year 1763?

A. The best in the world. . . .

Q. And what is their temper now?

A. O, very much altered.

Q. Did you ever hear the authority of parliament to make laws for America questioned till lately?

A. The authority of parliament was allowed to be valid in all laws, except such as should lay internal taxes. It was never disputed in laying duties to regulate commerce.

Q. In what light did the people of America use to consider the parliament of Great-Britain?

A. They considered the parliament as the great bulwark and security of their liberties and privileges, and always spoke of it with the utmost respect and veneration. . . .

Q. And have they not still the same respect for parliament?

A. No; it is greatly lessened.”

Benjamin Franklin Testimony in the British House of Commons, 1766

Refer to the excerpt provided.

4. A historian might use the excerpt provided to support

  1. the gradual shift toward colonial resistance to Great Britain’s ruling government after the French and Indian War
  2. a successful example of unbiased and direct testimony from a witness
  3. the evolution of colonial fashion and style as distinct subset of British culture
  4. the diverging use of language as the colonists tried to distinguish themselves from the British

5. Which of the following best describes the response to the excerpt provided?

  1. Encroachment of imperial rivals on colonial territory in the Southeast
  2. Prohibition of settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains
  3. Increased British legislation that introduced direct taxes on the colonists
  4. Heightened levels of patriotism throughout the colonies after the Seven Years’ War

6. Which of the following groups would most likely support the sentiments and viewpoints provided in the previous answers?

  1. American Indians
  2. Patriots
  3. Loyalists
  4. Tories

Primary Sources

“The resolutions of the Stamp Act Congress, October 19 1765.” American History. University of Groningen.

Revere, Paul.A View of the Obelisk under Liberty-Tree in Boston on the Rejoicings for the Repeal of the Stamp Act(1766), engraving. Library of Congress.

Virginia Resolves, May 1765.

Suggested Resources

Archer, Richard. As If an Enemy’s Country: The British Occupation of Boston and the Origins of Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Beeman, Richard R. Patrick Henry: A Biography. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.

Maier, Pauline. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776. New York: Norton, 1972.

Meade, Robert Douthat. Patrick Henry: Patriot in the Making. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1957.

Morgan, Edmund S. and Helen M. Morgan. The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1953.

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