England’s Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) and its counterpart waged in America, the French and Indian War (1754–1763), doubled Britain’s national debt. In order to recoup some of the losses Britain incurred defending its American colonies, Parliament decided for the first time to tax the colonists directly. One such tax, the 1765 Stamp Act required all printed documents used or created in the colonies to bear an embossed revenue stamp. Stamp Act violations were to be tried in vice-admiralty courts because such courts operated without a jury.
Colonial assemblies denounced the law, claiming the tax was illegal on the grounds that they had no representation in Parliament. Colonists were likewise furious at being denied the right to a trial by jury. Many viewed the tax as an infringement of the rights of Englishmen, which contemporary opinion held to be enshrined in Magna Carta. Protests throughout the colonies threatened tax collectors with violence. Parliament finally bowed to pressure and repealed the Stamp Act in March 1766, but the colonial reaction set the stage for the American independence movement.
Declaration of Rights and Grievances
The Stamp Act of 1765, which Parliament imposed on the American colonies, placed a tax on paper, legal documents, and other commodities; limited trial by jury; and extended the jurisdiction of the vice-admiralty courts. The act generated intense, widespread opposition in America with its critics labeling it “taxation without representation” and a step toward “despotism.” At the suggestion of the Massachusetts Assembly, delegates from nine of the thirteen American colonies met in New York in October 1765. Six delegates, including Williams Samuel Johnson (1727–1819) from Connecticut, agreed to draft a petition to the king based on this Declaration of Rights.
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Proceedings of the Stamp Act Congress
In the fall of 1765, American colonists convened a Stamp Act Congress in New York and called for a boycott of British imports. The congress was attended by twenty-seven delegates from nine states, whose mandate was to petition the king and Parliament for repeal of the tax without deepening the crisis. The congress emphasized the point that the colonists possessed all the “inherent rights and privileges of Englishmen.” It adopted thirteen points, the third of which stated that “it is inseparably essential to the freedom of the people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that no taxes should be imposed on them but with their own consent, given personally or by their representatives.”
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Affixing the Stamp
The British government enacted the Stamp Act to raise revenue from its American colonies for the defense of North America. Prime Minister George Grenville (1712–1770) also wanted to establish Parliament’s right to levy an internal tax on the colonists. Because the Stamp Act required that a revenue stamp be affixed to all print publications, its economic impact fell most heavily on printers. This issue of William Bradford’s Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser shows a skull and crossbones representing the official stamp required by the act.
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Patriotic Farmer—John Dickinson
John Dickinson (1732–1808), the influential Pennsylvania politician and author of Letters of a Pennsylvania Farmer, was one of the leading figures at the Stamp Act Congress of 1765. Dickinson was a chief contributor to the Declaration of Rights and Grievances that the congress sent to King George III and Parliament to petition for the repeal of the Stamp Act. In this engraving of Dickinson, his right arm rests on Magna Carta. Coke’s Institutes, whose interpretation of Magna Carta inspired American legal and political thought in the eighteenth century, can be seen on the bookshelf behind him.
The Patriotic American Farmer J-n D-k-ns-n Esqr. Barrister at Law [John Dickinson]. Engraving, between 1870–1880. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (028)
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Stamp Act Parody
This 1766 cartoon depicts a mock funeral procession along the Thames River in London for the American Stamp Act. The act, which encountered intense opposition in America, was believed by many Americans to violate central rights that were guaranteed to all Englishmen. Following widespread public protests, colonial leaders channeled popular opposition to the tax by way of petitions to the king and Parliament. Bowing to the pressure, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in 1766. In this cartoon, a funeral procession to the tomb of the Stamp Act includes its principal proponent, Treasury Secretary George Grenville, carrying a child’s coffin, marked “Miss Ame-Stamp born 1765, died 1766.”
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