Investigating US History

The Stamp Act Protests

Background Reading

In what context did the Stamp Act emerge?

Tensions between Great Britain and its American colonies emerged at a moment when the colonies were still celebrating the British victory against France. The colonies contributed much to the victory by sending militia, providing supplies and housing British troops during the French and Indian War —the American phase of a larger, transatlantic conflict. The war ended in 1763, leaving Britain with a staggering debt and with an increased empire that demanded more and closer administration.

Where could British officials look for revenue ? Taxes were already high in Britain. But they had not been collected to any great extent in the colonies. Taxes based on trade between the British American colonies and British and foreign markets and suppliers presented one solution. Regulations on trade between the colonies and British and non-British merchants were already in place prior to 1763. These regulations aimed at protecting and increasing business opportunities for British merchants and at curtailing illegal trade or smuggling on the part of colonial merchants. They did not aim at collecting revenue.

But the British ministry failed for an extended period to fully enforce even these regulations. This failure can be viewed as part of a larger policy that historians refer to as benign (or salutary) neglect —a somewhat lax enforcement of imperial rule. Customs officials were responsible for enforcing the trade regulations.   But they were often underpaid, overworked and had to fulfill their duties without legal or physical support. Some accepted bribes to look the other way when importers and ship masters violated import restrictions or failed to declare goods in order to avoid the payment of taxes.

The practice of benign neglect had also established an understanding of home rule in the colonies that gave the majority of authority for domestic governance (government and administration within the colonies) to the colonial legislatures. Thus, the colonies accepted the authority of the British Parliament in imperial matters, although many colonial merchants and shipmasters worked to avoid the trade regulations imposed by Parliament. The British and British American perspectives were in conflict and they had already created tensions prior to the Stamp Act.

In 1760-1761, the colonies challenged attempts on the part of British official to use of writs of assistance, which had been recently authorized by the Parliament, to locate and seize smuggled goods. The writs were similar to modern-day search warrants, but they did not require evidence of wrongdoing or judicial approval. The colonists argued that the writs violated English constitutional protections against search and seizure of private and business property.

A second conflict emerged in 1764 over the Sugar Act. The act taxed all sugar and molasses imported from the French West Indies. The act also restricted exports of certain raw materials from the colonies by requiring that they go through British merchants. The Sugar Act aimed, in part, at improving import opportunities for British merchants by discouraging purchases from and sales to non-British suppliers. The Sugar Act would also raise revenue for use in supporting British troops in North America. Thus, the Sugar Act would hurt colonial merchants, shipmasters, anyone involved in the maritime trades and many consumers.

The colonists reacted with anger to the Sugar Act, not only because of the money involved and the complicated procedures it imposed, but also because the act violated certain fundamental principals of freedom, as they were understood in the British American colonies. First, the Sugar Act challenged the right to a local trial by a jury of one's peers by allowing customs officials to try smugglers in vice-admiralty courts. Defendants face a single justice, who would be a British appointed and paid official, without the benefit of a jury. Second, the Sugar Act violated a long-standing precedent in which Britain had not taxed the colonies to raise revenue. Now the colonies faced an indirect tax, a tax added to the cost of the goods, rather than a direct tax that would require payment from the consumers. This would set a new precedent. How far would the British Parliament go in taxing the colonists, if they allowed the Sugar Act to stand? The Stamp Act answered the question in negative terms for many of the colonists.

What options were left to the colonies, if they wanted to resist taxes and their enforcement? The colonists issued petitions to the governor and to British officials and published pamphlets for the public that outlined the reasons for protesting the taxes. Merchants continued to smuggle taxable goods and, in some cases, increased the amount of illegal imports. Political leaders called on consumers to boycott taxed items by refusing to buy or consume them.   Political leaders could also call on crowds to enforce boycotts by preventing the landing of goods or by harassing officials.

Were these crowds legal? In some ways, the crowds violated British riot laws. But crowds were also a long-standing English tradition and had been tolerated as long as they kept their actions within limits and aimed at specific goals. Political leaders from the highest ranks of society often acted as sponsors for the crowds. Middle-level citizens—artisans or craftsmen and merchants—provided the organization and leadership. But crowds could and often did get out of hand once they were underway. The property damage and physical violence that accompanied some crowd actions worried influential colonists on both sides of the political debate. Yet, the crowds were vital to the success of the resistance against British authority. They served as an important tool for recruiting ordinary citizens. Many of the men who participated in the crowd actions would also serve in the militia and the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Equally important was the impetus crowd actions added to the dissemination and popularization of political ideas.

Arguments against the taxes, particularly the early arguments made by James Otis, Jr., established the concept that taxes could not be constitutionally imposed by any political body that was not elected by the people (“no taxation without representation”). The constitutional critique of British tax policy expanded over the next few years to include a defense of the colonial charter and of English constitutional rights. These ideological debates combined with boycotts and crowd actions to provoke an aggressive response from British officials, particularly from the colonial governors, whose authority was most directly challenged.

Colonial governors assumed aggressive positions in defense of royal authority, locking horns with patriot leaders in the legislature. The British ministry dispatched troops to the colonies to support the governors and the collection of taxes and enforcement of trade regulations. The presence of British troops added to the growing anger of the colonists and a series of increasingly violent events. And the colonies found common ground in the protests against the taxes and in their response to British policy.