The Stamp Act
Why is it Important?
The Stamp Act is the first story I tell on the Revolutionary War Era Tour. I start with it because it begins the united opposition to England in the colonies. Plus, if you grew up when I did, your teachers went over it again and again. And although we remember the slogan “no taxation without representation” we still forgot all about it. Since we just passed the anniversary of the enactment of the Stamp Act I decided it’s a good time to remind everyone why it’s important to remember what it was all about.
Who, When, Where and Why?
The Stamp Act was passed by the Parliament March 22, 1765. It was a direct tax on all of the colonies and required all printed materials to use paper manufactured in England bearing a stamp, or imprint, that showed the tax was paid. It increased the price of letters, legal documents, ship manifests, licenses, wills, deeds, diplomas, newspapers, almanacs, pamphlets, playing cards, and other items.
What was it for? To pay for the French and Indian War or, as our friends across the Atlantic call it, the Seven Years’ War. It would also raise revenue to pay for our future defense, which was getting too expensive for English taxation to bear.
What Was the Problem?
It didn’t take long for people in the colonies to realize the tax wasn’t just to pay for military activities but was a general revenue tax to raise money for the Parliament to spend any way it wished. And that was a problem.
In New York City Philip Livingston (future signer of the Declaration of Independence) spoke out against the revenue tax. As British subjects, he declared, we can only be taxed for revenue by our representatives. And we have no representation in the Parliament. The Parliament does not govern us. The tax is, therefore, illegal.
A debate broke out in the colonies and in London. Did the Parliament have the right to tax the colonies this way or didn’t they? The colonies were governed by individual charters granted by The Crown. They were largely self-governing. But Parliament had the right to regulate trade within the Empire and to raise revenue for defense. The colonial agent to the Parliament for Pennsylvania, Benjamin Franklin, warned members not to approve the tax. He told them the colonies would surely unite against them. They laughed! The colonies will never unite, they said, they despise each other! As much as he tried, Franklin wasn’t able to get them to see the coming crisis. The Stamp Act was approved.
Committees of Correspondence
Meanwhile, the colonies were busy uniting for the first time. Having found something they hated more than each other, The Stamp Act, they formed “Committees of Correspondence” to unite them in their efforts to oppose the act. The slogan “No Taxation Without Representation” was born. Protests broke out everywhere. The Stamp Agents, men appointed by the Governors to oversee the delivery and distribution of the paper, were dragged through the streets and beaten.
James McEvers, the NY Stamp Agent, headed to Fort George and resigned his commission to Governor Colden. He left Colden with some advice. “When the stamps arrive in this port do not bring them into the town. It is too dangerous.” McEvers went back to his home at Wall and Smith Streets and found NINETY men there, waiting for him. He announced that he resigned and was celebrated with three Hip Hip Huzzahs! His resignation was printed in the newspaper for everyone to see, witnessed by the two leaders of the Committee of Correspondence.
Eventually, every Stamp Agent resigned, leaving no one to receive the stamped paper.
The Stamp Act Congress
Parliament was shocked when the colonies held a Stamp Act Congress in New York from October 7th through 25th. Did the colonies even have the legal right to meet this way? Members of Parliament argued over whether this type of Congress was legal. Colonial governors panicked, and some of them dissolved their governing houses to prevent representatives to the Congress from being elected. (Virginia House of Burgesses, for example.)
The Congress was a big event here in NYC but ultimately didn’t achieve much. A “Declaration of Rights of the Stamp Act Congress” was written but NY refused to sign. Delegates from Massachusettes and Delaware got into an argument and challenged each other to a duel! But then they slipped out of town to avoid each other.
The Stamp Act Congress might not have achieved what they hoped, but it was a foreshadow of things to come.
The Stamp Act went into effect on November 1, 1765. There was no stamped paper anywhere in the colonies. It sat either in military forts or on ships in harbors. No Governor was brave enough to try to distribute it.
The evening of October 31 New York’s merchants met at the City Arms Tavern. After heated debate, they entered into a unanimous agreement that they would not conduct any trade with England until the Stamp Act was repealed. They called it a “Non-Importation Non-Exportation Agreement” or, boycott. This was amazing! New Yorkers were generally unable to agree on anything but found something worth setting aside their differences. Plus, it would cause great economic distress to them when they had no English goods to sell in their shops. But they agreed the hardship was worth it.
The boycott spread throughout America and from Maine to Georgia the ports closed to British Ships. It was shocking and unprecedented!
At sundown on October 31st, a crowd gathered on the NYC Commons. They marched through the city by candlelight (500 – 600 candles) and carried signs, an effigy of the governor, a scaffold and other symbolic objects. When they got to Wall Street they stopped in front of the Stamp Agent, James McEvers’ home and gave him three cheers for resigning!
Governor Colden and Major James, the commander, waited at Fort George. The wooden fence and gates had been reinforced with 130 soldiers and 1 cannon.
“As the mob came down it made a beautiful appearance and as soon as Major James saw them I heard him say from off the walls ‘Here they Come, by God!’ As soon as the mob see the fort they gave three cheers.” And a short time later at the fort’s gate they “…took clubs and beat against it and there gave three Huzzahs in defiance. They then concluded to burn these effigies and the Governor’s Coach.”– New York City During the American Revolution, pages 41-47 – The Mercantile Library Association
That isn’t the end! The crowd headed back up to Major James house where they broke in and threw all of the furniture, mirrors, doors, curtains and library books into the street.
They mayhem continued for a few more hours until the governor and his council publicly declared they would have nothing to do with the stamps. The crowd broke up and everyone went home.
The Defeat of the Stamp Act
With the economic boycott in place supported by firm resolve up and down the East Coast not to give in, the Stamp Act was defeated. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Rockingham the act was repealed by Parliament March 18, 1766, less than one week short of its anniversary.
The American Colonies had the first look at their economic power over England and what they were able to achieve if they united. Eight years later, 1774, the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia. The rest is History!
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