The sequence of events that led from the Stamp Act to the revolution isn’t much fun to read. In this case history is something like what Bismark said about sausage and legislation: If you like it, don’t look too closely into how it is made. So we’re going to trot quickly through a sequence of events that warrant closer examination than they’re going to get.
Seven years of war, which we will trace shortly, had expelled France from North America. Canada was now British, and Louisiana was now Spanish. The colonists had been glad for England’s protection against the French, but the Spanish, and the Indian tribes, they could handle by themselves. Happy ending.
But then Parliament decided that since the North American colonies were the chief beneficiaries of a very expensive war, it was only right that they should help pay for it. Enter the Stamp Act of 1765. The British people had paid it for three quarters of a century, so why should the colonies be exempt? Only fair, right? The MPs, as is so often the habit of legislators, apparently legislated without understanding what they were doing, how it would be perceived, or why it would be opposed. They never did seem to understand why the colonies objected, and apparently it never occurred to them that they might be unable to have their way. The Stamp Act passed by overwhelming margins — 205–49 in the House of Commons, unanimously in the House of Lords.
It was to go into effect November 1, 1765. After that date, every newspaper and legal document would have to use stamped paper. (In this instance, stamped means embossed. We’re not talking about the equivalent of postage stamps.) Can you think of a better way to assure a people’s hostility to a given tax than to be sure that it bears particularly on lawyers and editors? Attorney licenses, court papers, land grants, playing cards, dice, newspapers and pamphlets….
Add to that the fact that, by law, the tax could be paid for only in English specie, rather than colonial paper, which was impossible even if the tax were not objectionable for other reasons. Add to that the fact that the tax was imposed in order to help pay for British troops to be stationed in North America, when the peace had made their presence entirely unnecessary.
But what was worst was that according to their royal charters, all the colonies were subject to the king, not the parliament. They had their own long-recognized legislatures, and other than in matters of imperial trade and defense, they governed themselves and taxed themselves without interference from a legislature they were not represented in (and did not want to be represented in, since they would be so hopelessly outnumbered).
Samuel Adams cogently argued: “For if our Trade may be taxed why not our Lands? Why not the Produce of our Lands & every thing we possess or make use of? This we apprehend annihilates our Charter Right to govern & tax ourselves…. If Taxes are laid 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.”
Taxation without representation became the burning issue among the colonials, while the MPs appear to have considered the issue little more than a smokescreen used to avoid taxes.
Well, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, stamp tax collectors were named in various cities, stamped paper was sent across the ocean – and they collected hardly anything! Resistance was immediate, organized and seemingly unanimous. The first joint colonial response to any British measure, the Stamp Act Congress, met in New York City in October, 1765, to petition for repeal. The Congress met in secret for 12 days, and produced a Declaration of Rights and Grievances. Besides protesting the Stamp Act, it asserted that Parliament could not represent the colonists. The Declaration was sent to the king, and petitions were also sent to both Houses of Parliament, but the most important result of the congress was that it met at all. From the Stamp Act Congress to the First Continental Congress was only a step, although that step took nine years.
Protest was not confined to the Stamp Act Congress. Colonial legislatures sent petitions and protests, the first committees of correspondence arose, to create communications links among the colonies, and — the darkest manifestations of resistance, and perhaps the most effective — incidents of mob violence became common, orchestrated by groups such as the Sons of Liberty. The revolutionary nature of the struggle is here apparent for the first time, as the lower classes begin to express their resentment of the rich and powerful, and find their own strength as they do so. Leaders such as James Otis and Samuel Adams were riding the back of the tiger, needing to retain mob support but attempting at the same time to restrain them from the worst excesses.
Boston was in the forefront of the violence. Its stamp distributor was hanged in effigy, had his stable house and coach and chaise burned, and his house looted, and resigned the next day. Thomas Hutchinson, the Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts colony, suffered mob violence which evicted his family from his mansion, destroyed the furniture, tore down the interior walls, emptied the wine cellar, and scattered his collection of Massachusetts historical papers. The governor offered a reward for information on who led the mob, but mobs freed everyone arrested. Naturally, in short order, every stamp tax distributor had resigned his commission, and a lot of stamped paper had been seized and either burned or dumped in harbors. For lack of the official paper, the courts couldn’t function. Wills couldn’t be probated, nor lawsuits entered or settled. It was an impossible situation.
Non-important agreements among merchants added to pressure on Parliament, for the American colonies were an important percentage of British trade. London merchants began coordinating a a national effort to pressure Parliament for repeal. The Act was repealed in March, 1766, having served to coordinate colonial resistance to Parliamentary interference with American domestic affairs. Naturally, Parliament made things worse, affirming its power to legislate for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.”
Then came the Townshend Acts. In order to provide posts for 150 politically connected army officers who otherwise would have had to make an honest living, the British proposed to maintain a standing army in America when all external threats had been eliminated. That army cost money. In 1767, Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, proposed to raise that money by taxing America. The Revenue Act of 1767 levied duties on paper, paint, lead, glass, and tea. These were five items that could not be manufactured in the colonies, and could not be bought legally from any source but Britain. (Townshend apparently thought that the colonists objected to direct rather than indirect taxes, and therefore would not object to tariffs. He never could understand about taxation without representation. He told MPs that he was establishing a precedent, which could be expanded.) So then the MPs needed the Commissioners of Customs Act of 1767, to create the American Board of Customs Commissioners to enforce trade regulations, and the Vice Admiralty Court Act of 1768, to create four district court to help customs officials prosecute smugglers.
Not only did Townshend want to tax America, he proposed to use some of that revenue to pay the salaries of governors and judges, to render them independent of the colonial legislatures upon whom they heretofore had been dependent. And, he wanted to tighten up compliance with trade regulations (that is, crack down on smuggling). And as if that weren’t enough, he proposed to punish the colony of New York for refusing to quarter troops as required by the 1765 Quartering Act.
You can imagine (but apparently Parliament could not) how well any of this went over. It is as if the MPs were deliberately working to teach the Americans to cooperate against them. In short order, matters were out of hand, mobs were intimidating Boston, and four British Army regiments were being sent to preserve or restore order. This worked about as well as anything else the MPs did, and on March 5, 1770, harassed troops threatened by a mob killed five American civilians (the “Boston Massacre”), and the Sons of Liberty had the incident they needed.
In April, the Repeal Act left in place the American Board of Customs, but removed the tax on everything but tea — to assert “the right of taxing the Americans.”