3. 1765-66: Stamp Act Crisis
If the act is not repealed, what do you think will be the consequences?
A total loss of the respect and affection the people of America bear to this country, and of all the commerce that depends on that respect and affection.
Benjamin Franklin, testimony to Parliament on the Stamp Act, February 1766
One month after Benjamin Franklin's testimony to Parliament, the Stamp Act was repealed. Exultant Americans celebrated across the colonies—church bells were rung, days of public rejoicing were held, thanksgiving sermons were delivered and widely published. Just three years earlier Americans were celebrating victory with Britain, not against
Britain. Although their opposition to the Sugar and Currency Acts in 1764 had been sincere, the Stamp Act sparked the first widespread eruption of anti-British resistance. What had happened? Why had Parliament passed the tax? Why did so many Americans vociferously oppose it? How did opponents of American resistance state their positions? Where was America headed?
"Until the British began to tighten the empire in the 1760s," states historian Alan Taylor, "the colonists had a very good deal—and they knew it. They resisted the new taxes in the hope that the British would back down, preserving their loose relationship with the mother country. But, of course, the British would not back down, which brought on a long and bloody war that no one really wanted."1 In these readings we view the colonists' first widespread resistance to British authority, and how they responded to their first "victory" in the revolutionary era. Why did they fail to object as sternly to the Declaratory Act, passed the same day as the Stamp Act's repeal, that reasserted Parliament's authority to "make laws . . . to bind the colonies and people of America . . . in all cases whatsoever"?
Parliamentary debate on the Stamp Act, 1765, selections. In early 1765 Parliament was struggling to meet the cost of defending its empire in North America—vastly expanded after the French and Indian War. The task required a standing army (fulltime soldiers maintained during peacetime) since the new territories lacked enough Englishmen to constitute local defense forces. Prime Minister George Grenville stated the matter in its simplest terms: "The money for these expenses must be raised somewhere." To the British it was perfectly logical to raise the money in the colonies; they, after all, were the chief beneficiaries of Britain's military exertions. Parliament settled on a simple way to obtain the needed funds, an easy-to-collect tax on documents, i.e., the paper on which they would be printed. These selections from the Parliamentary debate on the Stamp Act illuminate how British politicians viewed the issue of colonial taxation—especially the question of taxation without representation. Written in the clipped, abbreviated style of notes taken in haste, they record remarks made on February 6, 1765, eight days before the Stamp Act was passed. How did the supporters and opponents of the Stamp Act frame their arguments? "We are the mother country," warned Isaac Barré, "let us be cautious not to get the name of stepmother." (6 pp.)
Colonists respond to the Stamp Act, 1765-1766. This compilation, one of a series in this Theme CRISIS, reflects an often underemphasized aspect of the revolutionary period, pointed out by literary historian Robert Ferguson: "Conventional documentaries of the period assume a gradual exasperation with British policy, one that builds from slow objection and reluctant protest to outrage and, only then, to retaliation and rupture. For all of that, violent anger, mob behavior, broad civil disobedience, and clashes between the colonials and British troops are part of the Revolution from at least 1766. . . . the conception of a slowly evolving opposition misses the spontaneity and original power of early protest writings." Keep this in mind as you study these documents for and against the authority of Parliament to enact the tax. They include town resolutions and nonimportation agreements, newspaper accounts of public protests by Sons (and Daughters) of Liberty, a Loyalist's condemnation of the "frenzy of anarchy" against the Act, the Declaration of Rights and Grievances by the Stamp Act Congress, the perspectives of three Founding Fathers (Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, George Washington), and the retrospective views of the Patriot historian David Ramsay. As there is ample material for group study and presentation, the selections are designed to be divided among students and not assigned in their entirety. See Discussion Questions below and Suggestions for Classroom Use of the compilations. (16 pp.)
"A Poetical Dream concerning Stamped Papers," poem (anonymous), 1765. An anonymous poem published in Connecticut in late 1765, suggests how deeply the Stamp Act intruded into the lives of the colonists. It gives life to the official documents that will require stamps. In the narrator's dream, four types of documents proclaim their usefulness and make a case against the Act. While not great literature, the poem does illustrate how in the eighteenth century poetry was deployed in the service of political persuasion. What satiric and stylistic techniques are used to achieve this end? Characterize the positions and "voices" of the four types of documents. (4 pp.)
Colonists respond to the Stamp Act's repeal, 1766. This second compilation displays the Americans' jubilant celebration of the Stamp Act's repeal in March 1766 through a selection of news reports, handbills, sermons, a poem, Paul Revere's engraving A View of the Obelisk under Liberty-Tree in Boston, and the retrospective views of the Patriot historian David Ramsay. To what factors did Americans ascribe their victory? Did they think the crisis with Britain was over? Did they take notice of the Declaratory Act, passed the same day that the Stamp Act was repealed? As there is ample material for group study and presentation, the selections are designed to be divided among students and not assigned in their entirety. See Discussion Questions below and Suggestions for Classroom Use of the compilations. (12 pp.)
- From these documents, what impressions do you form of Americans' response to the Stamp Act?
- What impression do you have of the Loyalist and British response to American resistance?
- How did the readings change or nuance your previous impressions of the Stamp Act crisis?
- In the Parliamentary debate, what were the primary arguments for and against enacting the Stamp Act?
- In what ways did the members take into consideration the views of the Americans?
- What arguments did Colonel Barré make on behalf of caution and restraint? What did he mean by his statement: "We are the mother country, let us be cautious not to get the name of stepmother"?
- Summarize the main arguments in America for and against the Stamp Act and, more generally, the authority of Parliament to tax the colonies. Note how the arguments evolve through the decade leading to war.
- What meaning did "taxation without representation" have for the colonists? Why did many British argue that the colonies were, indeed, represented in Parliament?
- When Americans insisted that submitting to parliamentary taxation would be submitting to slavery, what did they mean? How, then, did they relate to the enslavement of Africans in the colonies? (See also Theme II: REBELLION, #6: The Enslaved.)
- Judging from evidence in "A Poetical Dream," what class of American society would the Stamp Act most effect? What argument does "A Poetical Dream" make against the Stamp Act?
- Characterize the main forms of public protest and debate about the Stamp Act. How and why did they differ from the response to the Sugar and Currency Acts a year earlier?
- Compare the Declaration of Rights and Grievances by the Stamp Act Congress with similar documents through the prerevolutionary period. What do the declarations emphasize? How do they imply that all Englishmen would agree with their core assumptions?
- What forms of protest and dialogue initiated in 1764 and 1765 would continue through the decade leading to war? Why?
- What victory did Americans feel they had achieved with the repeal of the Stamp Act? How did they celebrate the news and congratulate themselves?
- Was the crisis over? Did the colonists take note of the Declaratory Act, passed the same day as the Stamp Act's repeal?
- Create a dialogue among two to four persons represented in these readings. Guide your dialogue to a conclusion among the speakers, or an acknowledgment that no conclusion can be reached.
- Begin or continue a chart, collection of statements, collage of broadsides, or similar compilation to document the progression to revolution from 1763 to 1775. Include positions for and against resistance to British actions.
- Follow the positions, concerns, and public actions of Benjamin Franklin and John Adams from 1765 to 1775. For each man, compare his public and private notes and correspondence. What insights do you gain about the prerevolutionary period? What it was like to live through the period without knowing its outcome?
- Follow the commentary of Patriot David Ramsay in his 1789 History of the American Revolution. How do his views compare with those of Franklin and Adams? What perspective do these men provide us of the prerevolutionary period?
- How do these readings illustrate the analysis of historian Alan Taylor: "Th[e] shift in imperial policy shocked the colonial leaders of the Atlantic seaboard into recognizing and defending their distinctive way of life. Push came to shove as both colonists and imperialists belatedly recognized the contradiction, long overlooked, between the growth in imperial ambition and the persistence of colonial autonomy."2
- Between 1763 and 1775, what changed many Americans from loyal British subjects to rebellious Patriots?
- Why did many Americans remain loyal to Great Britain and oppose rebellion?
- How did Patriots and Loyalists convey their views through the media outlets of the time?
- Was the American Revolution inevitable? If so, was there a "point of no return"?
Parliamentary debate on the Stamp Act
COMPILATION: Colonists respond to the Stamp Act
"A Poetical Dream concerning Stamped Papers"
COMPILATION: Colonists respond to the Stamp Act's repeal
A Summary of the 1765 Stamp Act
"The Colonies Reduced
," 1767 British engraving (History Matters)
The American Revolution: A Documentary History
: see 1765-66 (Avalon Project, Yale Law Library)
The Coming of the American Revolution, 1764-1776
(Massachusetts Historical Society)
The American Revolution
, overviews and primary sources (American Memory, Library of Congress)
, Pt: V of Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763 (primary source collection, National Humanities Center)
The American Revolution
, in John Bull and Uncle Sam: Four Centuries of British-American Relations (Library of Congress)
The Road to Revolution
(American Revolution, Digital History, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History et al.)
The Revolutionary War
, primary documents (Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History)
"Was the American Revolution Inevitable?
," not-to-miss teachable essay by Prof. Francis D. Cogliano, University of Edinburgh (BBC)
Teaching the Revolution
, valuable overview essay by Prof. Carol Berkin, Baruch College (CUNY)
General Online Resources
1Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (Viking/Penguin, 2001), p. 442.
2 Robert A. Ferguson, The American Enlightenment: 1750-1820 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994; paperback ed., 1997), p. 7.
– William Bradford, ed., Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser. 31 October 1765, p. 1 (details). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-21637.
– Paul Revere, A VIEW of the OBELISK erected under LIBERTY-TREE in BOSTON on the Rejoicings for the Repeal of the Stamp-Act [May] 1766 (detail). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, LC-USZC4-4599.
Banner image: Americans Throwing the Cargoes of the Tea Ships into the River, at Boston, engraving (detail), in W. D. Rev. Mr. Cooper, The History of North America (London: E. Newbery, 1789). Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-538 (also Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Digital ID us0012_01). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
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