The Stamp Act

A tax on Britain's American colonies was introduced on 22 March 1765.

The act never went properly into effect, but it had greater consequences than many which did. Passed through Parliament against little opposition and signed into law by George III, the Stamp Act imposed on the British colonies in North America a tax on printed documents, including legal papers, contracts, bills of sale, licenses, wills, ships' papers, advertisements, newspapers and magazines. Books were not affected, but playing cards and dice were. The items had to carry revenue stamps, sent from Britain. The act was to come into effect from the beginning of November and the money would pay for troops stationed in the colonies to defend them against attack.

The British government, struggling with mountainous debts, considered this entirely reasonable, but the colonists did not. The colonies had their own democratic assemblies, but they had no Members of Parliament at Westminster and the old principle of 'no taxation without representation' was increasingly invoked.

In May the Massachusetts politician Samuel Adams told the Boston Town Meeting that: 'If taxes are laud upon us in any shape without our having a legal representation where they are laid, are we not reduced from the character of free subjects to the miserable state of tributary slaves?' In Virginia a lawyer and member of the House of Burgesses, Patrick Henry, reminded the House that Julius Caesar had his Brutus and Charles I his Cromwell and said that no doubt 'some good American would stand up in favour of his country'. He proposed resolutions to the effect that only Virginia had the right to tax Virginians and the resolutions were passed.

Other colonial assemblies came out against the new tax and when the first revenue stamps arrived they were often seized and destroyed. Protest turned to violence. The official responsible for distributing the stamps in Massachusetts was hanged in effigy on Boston Common from what was called the Liberty Tree, a mob wrecked part of his house and he resigned. A mob threatened to lynch the official in Connecticut unless he resigned, which he did. The official in Maryland had to run for his life.Many other distributors were pressured into resigning and the tax was never effectively collected. The strength of feeling surprised many of the colonial upper class, but there was no stemming it and it seemed to offer a justification for violence.

There were not remotely enough British troops to enforce the act, colonists were boycotting British exports with damaging effects on British business and opinion across the Atlantic shifted. In March 1766 the Stamp Act was repealed, but it had been a key link in the chain of events that led to an independent US.