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Sons of Liberty: Resistance to the Stamp Act and British Rule

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  • 0:06 Increasing British Control
  • 1:09 Grenville's Policy Changes
  • 2:17 Sugar, Current,…
  • 3:26 Mounting Opposition
  • 5:30 Repealing the Stamp Act
  • 7:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

In 1763, British Prime Minister George Grenville passed new legislation aimed at solving some of the empire's problems stemming from the French and Indian War. The colonists cried, 'Taxation without representation is tyranny!' They organized boycotts, the Sons of Liberty and the Stamp Act Congress until some of the new taxes were lifted.

Increasing British Control

Back in 1688, the English prime minister had stated that if no unnecessary restrictions were put on the American colonies, they would continue to grow in wealth and in numbers. So, Britain put few restrictions on America and offered very little military help. This policy has come to be known as salutary neglect. For 80 years, the colonists became accustomed to this arrangement, but it came to an abrupt end in 1763 with a new prime minister, George Grenville. In the aftermath of the French and Indian War, the colonies and the empire struggled to figure out their new relationship. It's unlikely that either side expected the result of this tension to be war and finally, independence of the colonies.

The French and Indian War was expensive for the British government
French Indian War

The French and Indian War was the American theater of Europe's Seven Years' War. Britain got what it wanted, becoming the world's dominant colonial empire. But the war effort had been very expensive, and when it was all over, Great Britain needed to pay its debtors, organize a government in the newly acquired lands and guard the colonists from Indian attacks.

Grenville's Policy Changes

Grenville had created a series of policies to help achieve these goals. First among them was the Proclamation of 1763. This set a border line for the western edge of the colonies to keep the settlers and Native Americans apart - in order to avoid another expensive conflict. But it only made things worse for everyone.

The colonists were frustrated that they couldn't move west into the land they had fought for and won. But even worse, leaving the Ohio Territory unpopulated opened the door for Pontiac's Conspiracy. With encouragement from French inhabitants, Native Americans united under an Ottawa leader, named Pontiac, in an attempt to win the territory and give it back to France, whose presence they preferred over the British. They attacked the weakly guarded forts, terrorized settlers who had defied the proclamation line and raided towns along the western frontier. Despite these successes, France refused to get involved. Pontiac's Conspiracy fell apart, but it still frightened the British government, who responded by sending 10,000 troops to guard the proclamation line. It was a military expense they couldn't afford.

Sugar, Currency, Quartering and Stamp Acts

The Sugar Act, in 1764, increased existing taxes on sugar products and some other imported goods, such as wine, coffee, textiles and indigo. But even more important to the colonists was the punishment for dodging the tax. Violators would be tried at a new court in Canada, depriving colonists of their right to a trial by a jury of their peers. Grenville also passed the Currency Act in 1764, forbidding the colonies from issuing any paper currency. This destabilized the economy of several colonies. Early the next year (1765), Grenville approved the Quartering Act, requiring colonists to provide food and shelter to the soldiers they hated without being reimbursed for their expenses.

Worst of all was the Stamp Act, which Grenville forced through Parliament in March of 1765. This required a stamp on all printed materials, including legal documents, newspapers and leisure materials, such as playing cards or almanacs. It was the first time that Americans had been required to pay a tax directly to England instead of going through their colonial legislatures first.

Mounting Opposition

To make sure all of these laws were enforced, Grenville insisted that customs officers take advantage of British writs of assistance. These were blank search warrants, allowing officers to inspect colonial ships and warehouses. England thought this would close the loopholes that had allowed the colonists to evade the Navigation Acts 100 years earlier. But what they hadn't thought about was that the new laws affected some of the most influential members of colonial society: publishers, merchants and lawyers. A Boston lawyer, named James Otis, represented several merchants in court against the writs of assistance. He lost the case but made a name for himself and aroused the public against yet another policy.

Patrick Henry called for unified opposition to the Stamp Act
Patrick Henry

When the Stamp Act passed in 1765, word had barely reached the colonies before a fiery young member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, named Patrick Henry, wrote a statement calling for unified opposition to the Stamp Act. He claimed it violated the English Bill of Rights. Only the Virginia assembly could tax Virginians since they were not represented in Parliament. His boldness frightened some of his colleagues, but Henry was unyielding. 'If this be treason,' he defiantly announced, 'make the most of it.' The House of Burgesses passed the Virginia Resolutions in May, newspapers printed them widely and people in other colonies took notice.

New York merchants started calling for a boycott, asking colonists to voluntarily stop buying the taxed items once the law went into effect. James Otis published a pamphlet convincing colonists that 'Taxation without representation is tyranny.' In July, another Massachusetts colonist, named Samuel Adams, organized a secret society called the Sons of Liberty. At first, they just stirred the pot with protests and publications and spread the word about the upcoming boycott. Soon, though, individual chapters of the Sons of Liberty emerged in towns throughout the colonies. Many of them began harassing people who had contracted to become stamp agents, forcing them to resign. Later, the Sons of Liberty terrorized anyone who cooperated with the British laws.

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