By Lynne Ann Hartnett, Villanova University
In early 1765, the Parliament in England passed the Stamp Act, which imposed a duty on a wide range of paper products and documents. The tax was less than what Englishmen paid in Britain. But the colonists, having grown used to a large degree of self-administration, objected that the assessment hadn’t been approved by colonial legislatures.
Challenging the Stamp Act
Patrick Henry, a young member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, was the first to indict the principle behind the Stamp Act. At his behest, Virginia legislators challenged the tax’s validity, being as it had been levied in London, without the colonists’ consent.
Some of the most dramatic moments, though, came in Samuel Adams’s hometown of Boston. Adams himself regularly denounced the tax in newspapers, contending that the Stamp Act ‘violated the rights and privileges of natural free born subjects of Great Britain’. Ordinary people took to the streets. But there was also a group of merchants and artisans known as the Local Nine who strategized against the act.
Resignation of Stamp Masters
On the morning of August 14, 1765, an effigy of the local stamp master, Andrew Oliver, hung prominently from a large tree, known as the Liberty Tree, in Hanover Square. This mock execution delighted many Bostonians. When authorities tried to cut it down, a crowd blocked their way.
At day’s end, a large group of workers lowered Oliver’s likeness and paraded it through the streets of Boston before being beheading and burning it. Soon after, crowds rushed to Oliver’s home. They broke windows and ransacked the wine cellar. Under duress, Oliver resigned. Scenes like these were repeated throughout the colonies, continuing into the fall. Many other stamp masters resigned as well.
Legislative Action in New York
In the midst of this, Samuel Adams assumed a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives where he and other representatives formally protested the Stamp Act. Colonial assemblies in Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and South Carolina did so, as well.
The Massachusetts Assembly suggested that representatives from each of the colonial bodies meet to send a joint resolution of protest. In October, delegates from nine colonies gathered in New York City in what became known as the Stamp Act Congress. It argued that American colonists had the same rights as any British-born subject, including the right not to be taxed without consent. Only the colonial assemblies could grant this right, the delegates claimed.
With protests in the streets and pamphleteers deriding what they claimed to be the Stamp Act’s unconstitutional nature, British lawmakers repealed it in spring 1765. The concession didn’t totally signal defeat, though. On the contrary, Parliament claimed that it retained the ‘full power and authority to make laws and statues of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America’. This notwithstanding, the colonists focused on the victory of their appeal.
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The Implications of Denying British Right to Govern
The historian Francis Cogliano says the protests against the Stamp Act ‘marked a turning point in imperial-colonial relations… In denying Parliament the right to tax them, the Americans were implicitly denying Parliament’s right to govern them’. Americans had asserted a sense of sovereignty through these protests. And, in repealing the Stamp Act in response, the British inadvertently relinquished some of its authority.
Protests over the Stamp Act introduced the rhetoric of liberty into the colonies. And it was Samuel Adams who played a key role in this introduction. Samuel Adams publicly described the Anti-Stamp Act agitators as the Sons of Liberty. These protestors didn’t sit in colonial assemblies or write pamphlets invoking Lockean ideals. They were workers and artisans expressing outrage on public streets.
Adams provided a rhetorical frame for their rebelliousness and prodded them on. He truly was a rabble-rouser. And he urged fellow colonists to remember recent events. Britain, he claimed, posed ‘the accursed designs of a most detestable set of men, to destroy the Liberties of America’.
The Efficacy of Collective Action
The British tried again to increase treasury revenues in 1767 through passage of the Townshend Acts, which imposed import duties on a range of goods, including glass, china, paper, lead, and tea. To enforce the duties, the British established the American Board of Customs Collectors in Boston. But this choice of locations seemed to invite trouble because Boston was the most rebellious of all of the eastern port cities.
Adams, in his capacity as a clerk for the Massachusetts Assembly, drafted a letter calling on the colonies to resist the Townshend Acts by refusing to purchase taxed goods. By the end of 1769, almost every colony supported the boycott of British goods subject to a duty.
For this approach to work, though, the people as a whole needed to endorse it. Pamphlets circulated calling on individual colonists to defend their rights, and merchants, working people, free blacks, and women embraced the cause.
This diverse and sustained support helped to develop important ties between colonists and within colonies. It promoted the sense that every colonist had a part to play in the defense of liberty. It proved the efficacy of collective action.
Common Questions about Why Samuel Adams and American Colonies Objected to the Stamp Act
The Stamp Act was opposed first of all by Patrick Henry who was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. Samuel Adams also protested the tax regularly in newspapers. A group of artisans and merchants called the Local Nine took action against the act, and ordinary people also joined such protests.
They argued that since the colonists had the same rights as any British-born subject, they should not be taxed without consent. The delegates from the nine colonies who made up the Stamp Act Congress claimed that only colonial assemblies could grant such rights.
When the Stamp Act was repealed, the British did not see it as a defeat. In 1767, the British passed the Townshend Acts, imposing import duties on goods such as glass, china, paper, lead, and tea. They even established the American Board of Custom Collectors in Boston to enforce this act.