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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Stamp Act Goes Into Effect, November 1, 1765

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Today in 1765, the Stamp Act went into effect in the 13 American colonies. While not the first stamp act to be passed by the British Parliament, it was the first directed specifically at the colonies. Even though the Act undoubtedly seemed like just another tax measure to its authors, it would prove to be much, much more.

The Duties in American Colonies Act 1765, as the Stamp Act was officially known, was passed unanimously on March 22nd of that year. Essentially, the Act placed a tax on all contracts, wills, permits, newspapers, pamphlets and dice used in the American colonies. These items were required to carry a tax stamp as proof that they had been purchased legally. The money raised from the tax was meant to help pay the cost associated with the colonies’ defense.

The Act met with immediate and fierce resistance. The perception in the colonies was that they were not represented fairly in Parliament; thus, any tax placed on them was, in practice if not entirely in fact, “taxation without representation”. Furthermore, previous taxes collected in the colonies by the British government were actually used in the colonies in some shape or form. The Stamp Act’s taxes would go directly to the governmental coffers in London.

There was also a question about the purpose of the tax. Ostensibly, the British Army protected the colonies from a land invasion while the Royal Navy kept the sea lanes clear for commerce. However, the westernmost forts in the colonies, Forts Detroit and Pitt, were further out than settlers were allowed to go after 1763. Thus, they essentially existed to protect only the fur trade, a business interest. European powers had indeed attacked the colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries, but the British Army was rarely there to save the day. Instead, militias made up of local men who soldiered with little or no pay had defended their homes and towns. What made the situation even more intolerable was the Crown’s impressment of colonial militias for armed excursions into Canada and areas west of the colonies’ borders. The colonies were rarely compensated for the cost of these ventures.

Anger among the colonists soon turned to threats. Tax collectors were threatened with tarring and feathering, an informal means of justice that had been used for hundreds of years. In Boston, the stamp agent was hanged and burned in effigy and his home and office were ransacked and robbed of the offending stamps. A mob attacked the home of Massachusetts Lt. Governor Thomas Hutchinson, forcing him and his family to take up residence at Fort William.

While the physical manifestations of the colonies’ anger raged on, something more important was beginning to happen in secret: protesters began to organize into groups. These groups met to discuss not just the Stamp Act, but the very nature of colonial rule. They soon began corresponding with similar groups up and down coast and were thus able to institute an effective boycott of British goods. In October, 1765, a month before the Stamp Act went into effect, a Stamp Act Congress was held in New York with representatives of nine colonies.

With collection of the tax becoming an impossibility and armed rebellion becoming a real likelihood, Parliament repealed the Act on March 18, 1766. To many, this meant that relations between England and her New World colonies would return to normal. On the surface, they did for a time. But a seed had been planted, a seed that would soon blossom into a tree and then a forest of resistance to the British Crown. Although the first shots of the American War for Independence were a decade away, a battle was already raging in the hearts and minds of many colonists.

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