Opposition to the Stamp Act: Colonial Legislatures and Violent Protest


By Allen Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

For more than 100 years, the American colonies had their own legislatures that levied comparatively small colonial taxes. But how did they react to the Stamp Act imposed by the British Imperial government?

Image of the dark red proofs of the one-penny stamp that was to be used after the Stamp Act came into force.
Part of the proof sheet of the one-penny stamp designed to be used in the American colonies from November 1765. (Image: Board of Stamps/Public domain)

The Colonial Response to the Stamp Act

None of the colonial legislatures was legally recognized by the British Parliament or the king. The British Parliament understood itself, and not the Virginia burgesses or any other colonial assembly, to be the legislature of the British Empire. According to this logic, the colonies were not real, legitimate political entities, with legislative powers; they were only plantations, not miniature political regimes of their own.

So, in the colonies, Grenville’s legislation, with its direct taxes, was greeted first with appalled silence and then a tempest of outrage. For years, the colonies had allowed the imperial government to tax and regulate its commerce on the oceans and around the world, but that was imperial commerce, so the empire had just cause to tax it.

This is a transcript from the video series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, Wondrium.

What had never happened before was an attempt by Parliament to bypass the colonial legislatures as though they didn’t really exist. The colonies saw this as an attempt to meddle in the internal economy and the internal politics of the colonies by levying a direct tax. especially a tax that the colonies had no say in because the colonies had no representatives in British Parliament.

There were, in general, two kinds of responses to the potential act.

Learn more about how the English settlers gradually transformed themselves from colonists to American citizens.

Declaration of Rights and Grievances

One response was a political and legal one. James Otis of Massachusetts issued a call for a colonial conference. Nine of the colonies sent delegates to New York in October 1765, in what became known as the ‘Stamp Act Congress’.

This Congress issued—as its statement of opposition—a Declaration of Rights and Grievances. The declaration presented the view of the colonies, that they were not merely plantations to be ruled from England at will. They were, in fact, constituent parts of the empire whose people could only be taxed, like people in England, by the action of their own assembled representatives. These representatives were in the colonial legislatures, not in the British Parliament.

Protest and the Repeal of the Stamp Act

There were also less patient reactions. On 14 August 1765, a mob, led by a cadre of artisans and shopkeepers known as the ‘Loyal Nine’, wrecked the house of the newly designated Massachusetts stamp officer, Andrew Oliver. Oliver promptly resigned. Two weeks later, the mob broke into the house of the Tory Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, Thomas Hutchinson, and nearly destroyed it. These groups began to call themselves the ‘Sons of Liberty’.

detail of 1765 broadside announcing the reading out of Andrew Oliver's resignation.
The resignation of Andrew Oliver was a much discussed point. Here, a broadside announces a meeting where the resignation would be read out. (Image: Sons of Liberty – Massachusetts Historical Society/Public domain)

In Connecticut, another group of the ‘Sons of Liberty’ forced the Connecticut stamp agent to resign. In New Jersey, the stamp agent resigned on September 2 before any mob even showed up. By the time the Stamp Act was supposed to come into effect on November 1, not a single stamp agent in America was willing to enforce it.

This is a transcript from the video series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, Wondrium.

The opposition to the Stamp Act triggered the collapse of Grenville’s administration. The Marquis of Rockingham became the head of a new government that supervised the repeal of the Stamp Act in the spring of 1766.

Learn More about the Great War for Empire.

The Influence of the Whigs on the American Colonies

However, the doubt in American minds did not go away. And, in a strange way, the Americans were influenced by Whig political theory. After all, most governments of the individual colonies had come into being in a fashion surprisingly like the pattern described by English Whig political literature.

When they had come to America, to secure their liberty and property, the colonists created local governments. These governments spoke only at the behest of the people as their representatives, and it was on that basis that the colonial legislatures passed laws and levied taxes.

This was so much like what the Whigs had described that it was easy for the colonists to assume that the rest of the Whig political ideology was just as correct.

The Americans thus began to consider that power corrupts liberty unless virtue intervenes. They became certain that virtue resides outside the centers of imperial power, and that the elites at the king’s court were rogues. This thought shaped their response to the British Government’s further actions.

Charles Townshend and New Imperial Taxes

The repeal of the Stamp Act did not mean an acceptance by the British Parliament of the colonial argument that they were not plantations and could not be taxed except by their own representatives.

This is a transcript from the video series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, Wondrium.

A painted oval, half-length portrait of Charles Townshend set against a plain brown background, turned towards the left and looking out at the spectator. He wears a short brown wig and a generously cut red velvet robe or cloak, a white lace cravat at the neck.
Charles Townshend, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Townshend was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and was responsible for introducing what were called the Townshend Taxes. (Image: Sir Joshua Reynolds/Public domain)

In 1776, William Pitt came back to power. But Pitt was desperately ill, and real power rested with Charles Townshend, the chief of the treasury. Townshend was competent and well-intentioned, but he was only looking at the problem of raising revenue from London’s point of view.

In 1767, Townshend started by proposing a new set of taxes for the colonies. He suspected that one factor that made the Stamp Act so bad was that taxing official paper meant that London was antagonizing America’s most articulate classes—its lawyers and its printers.

That was bad strategy. So, Townhsend decided to target more mundane objects for taxes: paper, glass, and tea.

This was too little too late. Townshend failed to realize that the American objected to the Stamp Act because it symbolized to them exactly what the Whig theory of government had predicted was going to happen.

For the Americans, the real threat in direct taxation was not that it was going to cost them money, but that it was based on the notion that the colonies were only plantations and had no power of self-government below Parliament. This was a position the Colonies were not ready to accept.

Common Questions About Opposition to the Stamp Act

Q. Why was the Stamp Act disliked by the American colonists?

The Americans saw the Stamp Act as an attempt to bypass Colonial legislatures by levying a direct tax.

Q. Why was the Stamp Act repealed?

By the time the Stamp Act was meant to be in force, there was no stamp agent in America who was willing to enforce it.

Q. What did the American colonists come to believe about the British court?

The Americans began to believe in the Whig political theory that power corrupts liberty unless virtue is available to support it. They became certain that the elites at the king’s court were rogues.

Q. Why did Charles Townsend decide to tax ordinary items?

Charles Townsend believed that the Stamp Act had antagonized lawyers and printers, who were the most influential people. So, he decide to tax mundane items instead.

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