Behind The Scenes

Can Tiny Stamps Trigger a Revolution?

Credit: Don Pollard / New-York Historical Society

by Timothy Wroten

On March 22, 1765, The British Parliament passed the Stamp Act, a direct tax imposed specifically on printed materials sold in the American colonies. News of the Stamp Act’s passage in 1765 ignited a firestorm from New Hampshire to Georgia (though apparently not in Britain’s Caribbean or Canadian domains).

No one in any time or place has warmly welcomed more taxes, but taxation is generally acknowledged as a necessary means for living within a governed society. Even founding father Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” So, why were colonists so upset about this particular tax?

The historians of our Revolution! exhibition note that by requiring official stamps on newspapers, legal documents, dice, and playing cards, The Stamp Act brought £100,000 into the British treasury every year. Half that amount, collected in the colonies, would help pay the cost of a 10,000-man British army stationed in the newly acquired territories of Quebec and Upper Canada.

In October 1765, New York City would host the Stamp Act Congress, where elected colonial representatives devised a unified petition against new British taxation. The tax burden was not the issue for American protestors. Such a direct tax and the provisions for its enforcement, they claimed, endangered the right of colonial assemblies to raise their own taxes; denied the right to trial by jury; weakened colonial presses by increasing newspaper prices; and drained already low supplies of precious coins.

While a Parliamentary repeal would eventually end the Stamp Act, colonists’ outrage over long-standing grievances did not, and the fundamental legitimacy of Parliamentary rule no longer appeared self-evident. See the original Stamp Act and find out more about the revolutionary transformations in the American colonies and beyond in Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn.

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