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Stamp Act 1765
The Stamp Act 1765 was the fourth Stamp Act to be passed by the British Parliament and required all legal documents, permits, commercial contracts, newspapers, pamphlets, and playing cards in the American colonies to carry a tax stamp. The Act was enacted in order to defray the cost of maintaining the military presence protecting the colonies. The Act passed unanimously on March 22, 1765 and went into effect on November 1 of that year. It met with great resistance in the colonies and was never effectively enforced. Colonists threatened tax collectors with tarring and feathering, and few collectors were willing to risk their well-being to uphold the tax. The Act was finally repealed on March 18, 1766. This incident increased the colonists' concerns about the intent of the British Parliament and added fuel to the growing separatist movement that later resulted in the American Revolution.
The Seven Years' War, ended by the Treaty of Paris, left Britain with control of Canada and the entire east coast of America. It had been the fourth war in seventy years between the European powers, and while it ended in British victory, the British government was left with a total debt of £136,000. The unsettled frontier, so necessary to the fur trade acquired from the French, also required the British to maintain a standing army for its protection. This opinion was reinforced by the rebellion of Chief Pontiac. Ten regiments, or about 6,000 troops, would be permanently stationed in North America and represented an ongoing expense. The average annual tax burden on a British citizen at the time was 26 shillings whilst citizens of Massachusetts paid only around 1 shilling a year back to London. It was therefore reasoned that the colonists should pay more towards the maintenance of the standing army and navy.
Stamp taxes had been in use in Britain for a number of years, and were viewed as an equitable source of income. Taxes applied to all forms of legal documents. The rate of these taxes ranged from a half penny on a pamphlet or one-page newspaper to fifty pounds on a major commercial contract.
Protests and repeal
The American colonists didn't view the act as equitable at all. To be admitted to the bar or enrolled as a notary one would pay a tax of £10 in America, but only £2 in Britain. The tax on newspapers raised considerable opposition, especially from the newspapers themselves.
Colonists also didn't see the advantage of a standing army. Posts such as Fort Detroit and Fort Pitt needed garrisons. But their main purpose was to protect the fur trade, not settlers. Indeed, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 had limited western settlement. For seventy years the European Wars had carried over to North America. Coastal properties and towns had been attacked by the French, Spanish, and Dutch at various times, and they had been protected by colonial militia, not the regular army. The militia had even been assigned to support actions in Canada and the west, with limited compensation from the Crown.
Stamps were generally ignored, and were often unavailable. Protest and discussion over these acts gave way to open violence in a number of instances. In Boston, an effigy of the stamp agent, Andrew Oliver was hanged and then burned. His home was broken into, and his office, along with the stamps, was burned. The mob even went on to vandalise Lieutenant Governor Hutchinson's home, destroying records and forcing him and his family to seek refuge at Fort William. (The elm tree Oliver's effigy was hanged from later became known as the "Liberty Tree ".) Organizations of protest sprang up throughout the colonies, later becoming known as the Sons of Liberty. Oliver resigned as stamp agent, and no one could be found to take the job.
Similar events occurred on other colonies, particularly in New York City and Charleston, South Carolina. Stamps were seized and destroyed, and stamp agents were harassed. Committees of correspondence sprang up to unite in opposition. A general boycott of British merchandise spread through all the colonies. When Massachusetts asked for a general meeting, nine colonies sent representatives to a Stamp Act Congress to be held at Federal Hall in New York in October of 1765.
Stamp Act Congress
See main article: Stamp Act Congress
The Stamp Act Congress can be seen in hindsight as an opening move in the American Revolution. Nine colonies were represented by twenty-seven delegates determined to draw up a petition of rights and grievances, which would then be presented to Parliament. The actual petition, called the Declaration of Rights and Grievances, was drawn up by John Dickinson of Pennsylvania. Its wording has ominous significance. The basic argument was that the colonists owed the same allegiance to King and Parliament as all Britons, and, in the words of the Petition, they were also "entitled to all the inherent rights and liberties of [the King's] natural born subjects." The Petition also declared that "no taxes ever have been, or can be constitutionally imposed upon them, but by their respective legislatures" and that it was "unreasonable and inconsistent, for the people of Great Britain to grant to His Majesty the property of the colonists." The petition asserted that the extension of the courts of Admiralty to prosecute the Act undermined "the rights and liberties" of the colonists.
The Declaration of Rights and Grievances was duly sent to the king, and petitions were also sent to both Houses of Parliament. Faced with an inability to enforce the act, Parliament repealed it in the spring. The pressure from British manufacturers and merchants over the boycott had more influence than the petitions. Parliament, in enacting the repeal said: "...whereas the continuance of the said act would be attended with many inconveniences, and may be productive of consequences greatly detrimental to the commercial interests of these kingdoms..."
Some aspects of the resistance to the act provided a sort of rehearsal for the resistance to the Townshend Acts of 1767. In the American Revolution a decade later, the Committees of Correspondence reappeared on a more formal basis. The boycott also became more formalised, as the colonies entered into a Non Importation Agreement in 1774. While the Sons of Liberty faded after the repeal, they were never again entirely absent. The ability of the colonies to act in concert would also reappear in the Continental Congress.
The colonies also came to believe that they could nullify an Act of Parliament by generally peaceful means. The issue of no taxation without representation was raised, but not resolved. The constitutional stakes would soon be raised higher. Still, the determination of Parliament to raise revenue in America remained.
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