The Declaratory Act of 1766: Definition & Summary

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy

Mark has a Ph.D in Social Science Education

In this lesson, learn about the Declaratory Act of 1766, which claimed Parliament had the absolute right to tax the colonies. We will discuss what led to the act and how it ultimately pushed both countries towards war. Take a short quiz after the lesson.

The Declaratory Act of 1766: Sore Losers

It's hard to lose. Anyone who's lost at anything has had to struggle with how to react, whether with grace or with sullenness. The same issue comes up with nations when they don't get what they want, as it did with Great Britain in 1766. That year, the British Empire--the mightiest in the world--was forced to accept a political defeat that didn't exactly sit right with its government. Its reaction, the Declaratory Act, is a great historical example of how sour grapes can sometimes cause even more problems in the future.


In 1763, Great Britain was victorious, having just defeated its traditional enemy, France, in the Seven Years' War (known as the French and Indian War in North America). Unfortunately, the headaches that came with that victory were pretty massive as well. Britain effectively drove the French out of North America, leaving behind all its colonial possessions on that continent, but of course, that meant the British now had to take over all that land, which meant garrisons, and forts, and expense. That posed a huge problem, as the war had left Great Britain with a bloated new empire to control and an enormous debt to fill.

The answer to this problem was taxes--not on the already highly-taxed English population but instead on the colonies. The argument went that, now that Britain had to deal with all this new land (and the possibility of raiding Native Americans that came along with it), maybe Americans should pitch in towards the cost. The counter-argument was that the colonies had always made money for the empire but not in the traditional form of taxation. Instead, the colonies and the empire had a relationship rooted in commerce, known as mercantilism, in which America sent raw materials (like wood, cotton, and tobacco) to England, which was converted into finished products (like furniture and cloth) and then sold back to the colonies. Taxes on top of that seemed excessive at a minimum and, since Americans had no official representation in Parliament, even unjust.

That didn't stop Britain from trying, though. The first attempt to tax the colonies, the Sugar Act of 1764, was a tax on molasses and a few other items; it met with some grumbling in the colonies but wasn't resoundingly rejected. Encouraged, Parliament went even further in 1765, with the much more far-reaching Stamp Act.

In the long history of bad ideas, the Stamp Act has to be in the top five. The law required a small tax on a wide range of items--legal documents, playing cards, newspapers (in fact, practically anything printed)--and managed to offend just about every class of American society. It also went into effect during a postwar economic depression in the colonies, when everyone was having a hard time. The reaction, then, was pretty predictable and very violent. Americans responded to the Stamp Act with a boycott (a refusal to buy British goods), nonimportation agreements (a refusal to import British goods), and angry, often violent retribution towards British officials, especially the hated stamp collectors themselves.

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