AMERICA – Part 3 – The Stamp Act Crisis

England’s prime minister, Grenville, if he had tried, could not have devised a better way of antagonizing the colonists than by introducing the Stamp Act of 1756 ( ), which placed a tax on almanacs, newspapers, pamphlets, legal documents, insurance policies, sip’s papers, operating licenses for taverns and shops, and even dice and playing cards. The Sugar Act of 1764 had largely affected New England merchants, whose business it hampered. The Stamp Act, by contrast, affected all Americans, and as a result, evoked opposition from some of the wealthiest and most powerful groups in the colonies: lawyers, merchants, printers, tavern owners and land speculators.

The colonists were not as upset about the costs of the Stamp Act as they were about the precedent it had apparently established. Prior to the Stamp Act, taxes were used to regulate trade and commerce, not to directly raise money for the British Empire. Colonists were almost unanimous in their opposition to a direct tax, fearing that if they did not resist, more burdensome taxes would follow. Moreover, Parliament had failed to obtain the consent of the colonial assemblies before imposing the tax. Some of the delegates to the Virginia House of Burgesses ( ) proceeded to challenge the legality of the Stamp Act and by implication, the right of Parliament to tax the colonies at all without first securing their consent.

Patrick Henry also introduced seven resolutons in which he asserted that Americans, as subjects of the Crown, had the same rights as Englishmen, and that only local representatives could levy taxes on the colonies. Virginians, Henry declared, should pay no taxes except those voted by the Virginia Assembly, and anyone who advocated the right of Parliament to tax Virginians should be deemed an enemy of the colony. The House of Burgesses defeated the most radical of Henry’s proposals, but all of them were printed and circulated throughout the colonies as the “Virginia Resolves“.

Foremost among the Virginia protestors was Patrick Henry. On May 29, 1765, Henry made a dramatic speech in the house of Burgesses in which he concluded that George III, like earlier tyrants, might lose his throne and perhaps his head if he did not reverse current policies. Henry is reputed to have ended his speech with the famous injunction: “Caesar had his Brutus; Charles the First, his Cromwell; and George the Third may profit by their example. It this be treason, make the most of it“.

In Massachusetts, James Otis similarly persuaded his fellow legislators that the Stamp Act was illegitimate. He called for an inter-colonial congress to act against it. In October 1765, the Stamp Act Congress met in New York, composed of delegates from nine colonies. They decided to petition the king and both houses of Parliament for redress. The petition conceded that Americans owned Parliament “all due subordination”, but at the same time it denied that Parliament could tax the colonies.

Meanwhile, during the summer of 1765, serious riots had broken out in several cities along the Atlantic seaboard, the most serious of them in Boston. Men – shopkeepers and artisans (originally called The Loyal Nine and who were against the Stamp Act) later became the newly organized Sons of Liberty who then terrorized stamp agents and set the stamps ablaze. Many agents hastily resigned, and the sale of stamps in the colonies virtually ceased.

The violence in Boston continued to escalate when a mob attacked such pro-British aristocrats as the lieutenant governor, Thomas Hutchinson. Privately, Hutchinson opposed the Stamp Act, but as an officer of the Crown, he felt an obligation to uphold it. For his devotion to duty, Hutchinson paid a high price. An angry mob pillaged and destroyed his elegant home.

The Stamp Act thus provoked serious tension between the British government and the American colonies. The crisis subsided when Parliament backed down. It was not the colonial protests, speeches, resolutions, petitions, or even riots that deterred authorities in London; their attitude changed as the result of economic pressure.

 Beginning in 1764, many colonists boycotted English goods to protest the Sugar Act. By 1765, they had extended the boycott to include goods covered by the Stamp Act. The Sons of Liberty intimidated those colonists who refused to participate. Having lost their colonial markets, English merchants implored Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act

…to be continued with Part 4 – The Townshend Acts


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