What was the Stamp Act of 1765? - Definition, Summary & Significance

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  • 0:00 War And The Taxation Debate
  • 1:40 The Stamp Act
  • 2:55 The Stamp Act Resolves
  • 3:45 Reaction To The Stamp Act
  • 4:50 The Stamp Act Congress…
  • 6:10 The Consequences For Britain
  • 6:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Mark Pearcy

Mark has a Ph.D in Social Science Education

Learn about the Stamp Act of 1765, which was an ill-considered tax by the British government on the American colonies and one of the factors leading up to the American Revolution. After the lesson, you can test your knowledge with a quiz!

War and the Taxation Debate

In the mid-1700s, the British found themselves in the French and Indian War, a bloody and expensive conflict which ultimately secured the American colonies for Britain. It ensured that Britain would retain possession of New England as well as other land along the Atlantic coastline.

Following the war, there was a difficult debate in British society and within parliament, the governing body of Britain. Who should pay for both the empire's defense and maintenance of newly-won territories? Citizens in England were already heavily taxed, so the answer seemed obvious--as long as British troops would have to guard the new frontier, and as long as North America was untaxed, it was apparent that colonists would now have to pay their 'fair' share. What constituted 'fair' depended on who you asked.

The larger question, beyond the actual amount of taxes paid, was whether or not Parliament even had the right to pass taxes on the colonies. The issue was one of representation. Today, we all have members of the U.S. Congress who represent us. But in 1765, Americans had no representatives in their governing body who they would trust to protect their interests. Before 1765, no one had thought to make this an the issue. But now, with possible taxes looming on the horizon, it became a much bigger concern.

Parliament and its supporters asserted that representation was not actually that big of a deal. They claimed that the colonies were beneficiaries of virtual representation, the idea that Parliament represented all British subjects, regardless of where they lived. Colonists were alarmed by this in theory, and most would've said that they wanted someone in Parliament, elected by them, and representing them, in deliberation and in voting.

The Stamp Act

Despite the fight over representation, the revenue question was still looming large. The British solution was the Stamp Act, enacted in 1765. The Stamp Act required the addition of a stamp to printed material in the colonies. The subject-material included newspapers, legal documents, and playing cards, among many others. These stamps could only be purchased from the British government, effectively making the Act a tax on any of these documents. The stamps carried a Latin phrase--'honi soit qui mal y pense,' or 'Evil unto him who thinks evil of it.'

the Stamp Act
Stamp Act

The Stamp Act quickly drew the anger of entire segments of American society. The elite, most of whom were literate, relied more heavily on printed documents than other classes. Lawyers, of course, used legal documents regularly, all of which were now subject to stamping. Lawyers were also the most ready and able to challenge the Act in the courts.

Lower classes, especially sailors and workingmen who used playing cards and dice were more likely to engage in physical protest than other classes. To make matters worse, the Act passed during a postwar depression in the colonies. Altogether, it was a recipe for disaster.

The Stamp Act Resolves

Members of the Virginia's legislative body, the House of Burgesses, gathered together to protest the Act and to figure out what to do next. Led by Patrick Henry, the legislative body produced a response, called the Stamp Act Resolves. The document claimed the rights of British citizens for colonists, including the right to consent to taxation, which was being denied to them by the Stamp Act. The phrase 'No Taxation Without Representation' became a rallying cry across the colonies. Keep in mind, that at this point no one in the American colonies was claiming independence or even saying it might be a good idea. The Stamp Act Resolves only asserted rights to the same protections as British citizens.

But Parliament had set their course, and had committed to the idea that the colonies could and should be taxed. Once that bridge was crossed, it was clear that coming back would be difficult.

Reaction to the Stamp Act

Across the colonies, Americans reacted to the Stamp Act with street protests, anger and violence. In Massachusetts, particularly in Boston, there were burnings of effigies in which crowds would hang mock versions of Crown authorities and set fire to them. A frequent target was Andrew Oliver, colony's stamp distributor. They would lead marches, loot, and stone officials' homes.

An Anti-Stamp Act Cartoon
Stamp Act reaction

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