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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Stamp Act Repealed, March 18, 1766

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Today in 1766, King George III of Britain agreed to the repeal of the Stamp Act. This ended the highly contentious provisions of the bill, which was instituted in the American colonies in order to help pay back the costs of the Seven Years War that had ended 2 years earlier. The Americans' reaction to the bill was just a precursor to what the next decade would bring.

The Stamp Act was ratified without much deliberation on March 22, 1765 by the British Parliament. It levied taxes on the American colonies in the form of duties paid on every piece of paper that the colonists purchased. This included legal documents, newspapers, printed publications, and ships’ papers. The general purpose of the Stamp Act was to pay back the massive debt Britain incurred through its participation in the Seven Years, and to raise around £ 60,000 annually in order to support the cost of quartering English troops in the colonies.

Parliament had successfully used stamp acts throughout Britain in previous years. It produced over £100,000 in revenue, with low enforcement costs. The provisions were easy to implement because only documents with an official stamp were valid. Moreover, Prime Minister George Grenville was extremely supportive of imposing a new tax, even after passing The Sugar Act only a year before. Official colonial protests to the Stamp Act were ignored in Parliamentary debates, and it passed 259-49 in the House of Commons, and unanimously in the House of Lords.

The colonies’ response to the Stamp Act was one of anger and disbelief. Although the overall cost of paying for the Bill was rather low in monetary terms, it only added to the burden the Crown was imposing on the colonists as it sought to expand its sphere of influence. Britain had already put into effect the Molasses Act, The Navigation Acts, and Sugar Act, which were severely hampering colonial economic affairs by regulating commerce and economic transactions. Furthermore, colonists were hostile to the Stamp Act because it had been passed without any form of colonial representation in Parliament. Taxation without representation would become the main issue surrounding the Stamp Act, and colonists were up in arms about the infringement on their rights as British citizens. They felt that Parliament, which was thousands of miles away in England, was out of touch with the colonies and arbitrarily issuing taxes with no limitations to its power.

Protests in the streets occurred throughout the colonies, but most notably in Boston, Massachusetts. On August 14 1765, a large crowd opposed Lieutenant Governor Thomas Hutchinson’s order to take an effigy down that mocked the distributor of stamps in Massachusetts and Prime Minister Grenville for role in approving the Stamp Act. They ransacked the stamp distributor’s home and called for his resignation, which he ultimately agreed to the following day. On August 26th, a crowd looted Hutchinson’s home of valuables in their fury over the Stamp Act and its negative aspects on society.

A soon-to-be famous group, the Sons of Liberty, was also established around this time. Although they had been around since early 1765, this brotherhood of American patriots did not form into an organized group until November of the same year. They spread their influence to each of the 13 colonies by forming correspondence links with major cities and recruiting at large public demonstrations. The Sons of Liberty were instrumental in the eventual repeal of the Stamp Act by shaping Colonial resistance and coordinating boycotts of British goods.

Parliament became well aware of the protests and boycotts by early 1766. British manufacturers were being hit hard by them and losing a great deal of money from lack of business. In the end, Parliament had no choice but to begin debate on the merits of the Stamp Act. On January 14, 1766, they convened and Prime Minister Lord Rockingham, successor to Grenville, proposed a repeal of the Stamp Act. He felt that any changes to it would be fruitless and much too late to do any good. William Pitt, British hero of the Seven Years, made an impassioned speech to Parliament defending the rights of the Colonists. He said in part: “It is my opinion that this Kingdom has no right to lay a tax upon the colonies. They are subjects of this kingdom equally entitled with yourselves to all the natural rights of mankind and the peculiar privileges of Englishmen; equally bound by its laws, and equally participating in the constitution of this free country.  The Americans are the sons, not the bastards of England.” When Grenville, still a member of Parliament, responded with a denouncement of the Colonies and their failure to contribute their share of burdening the debt, Pitt proclaimed, “I rejoice that America has resisted. Three millions of people, so dead to all the feelings of liberty as voluntarily to submit to be slaves, would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest.”

Following Parliamentary debate on February 21st, a resolution was drafted for the repeal of the Stamp Act. It passed in the House of Commons by a vote of 276-168. One month later, on March 18, 1766, the Stamp Act was officially and completely repealed by King George III.

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