A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.

Rowe's Revolution

"This morning ... the Stamp Officer hung in Effigy with a Libel on the Breast."

Diary of John Rowe,
14 August 1765

Read more of John Rowe's diary

The Stamp Act

Introduction

George Grenville knows that the Sugar Act won't generate enough revenue in the colonies, and so he instructs his secretary in the Treasury, Thomas Whately, to draft legislation for a new tax. This duty will require that a wide range of legal and trade documents, as well as newspapers and even dice, carry official stamps. Whately makes inquiries about conditions in America, assuring his correspondents that he wants to devise a A Tax Not Too Burdensome.


Whately's informants tell him that the proposed tax will be fiercely opposed. At the same time, and into February 1765, colonial agents meet with Grenville. The colonists, they insist, are loyal subjects; they are willing to raise a revenue in proper constitutional form, through their own legislatures. But Grenville turns a deaf ear, Parliament refuses to entertain colonial petitions, and the Stamp Act easily passes in March. The stamps are on their way across the Atlantic.

Toward the end of May, news of the act reaches the colonies. The Virginia House of Burgesses, ready to adjourn, rushes through a set of resolutions protesting the tax. As newspapers throughout the colonies "reprint" Virginia's Resolves, the resolutions grow ever more numerous and radical. Other colonies issue their own responses. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts legislature circulates a call for a unified response to the economic and constitutional issues facing the colonies. In mid-October 1765, twenty-seven delegates from nine colonies meet in New York City at what comes to be known as the Stamp Act Congress. On 19 October, the congress adopts fourteen resolutions, which it promptly forwards to King and Parliament.

While elite legislators debate rights and craft petitions, working-class men find their own way to register their displeasure with the unwanted tax. In Boston, rival gangs conspire and turn their fury toward the appointed stamp master, Andrew Oliver. One night in mid-August 1765, Oliver watches from afar as his effigy swings and his house crumbles under the hands of an angry mob. He resigns his commission to distribute the stamps, and throughout the colonies other stamp masters—attacked, or afraid of being attacked—likewise surrender their lucrative positions.

Boston's special art of persuasion translates readily to New York. There a mob also hangs effigies and destroys a home, actions that achieve their desired end: no stamps will be distributed; no tax will be paid. Whether refusing to render aid or fleeing in the aftermath of violence, two royal officers shirk the obligations of their posts to adopt a policy of safety first. Merchant James Murray also pursues his own interests. Believing that prosperity is the end and protectionism the means, he supports the status quo in British trade policy. Patriot lawyer John Adams, on the other hand, delights in the colonists' principled resistance. There is, nonetheless, a cost to resistance, and Adams feels its impact.

After 1 November 1765, the date the Stamp Act is due to go into effect, and throughout the early months of 1766, public life is in disarray. The stamps required to conduct business legally are locked away, and officials debate whether ports and courts should close or remain open. Colonists groan under the burden of the Stamp Act's restrictions and the fear of disobeying it. In England, sympathetic merchants, eager to reestablish a free flow of trade and to regain their former profits, lobby Parliament to rescind the tax on the colonies. After lengthy consideration, Parliament votes to revoke the tax, and when the glorious news reaches the colonies, church bells ring.

The victory, sweet as it is, will be short lived.