As the last week of 1765’s month of May passed into June, the citizens of the Thirteen Colonies were angry…really angry. And it probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to learn that their feelings were caused by taxes. For all of us today, taxes are part of life…and death.
We are taxed for using the telephone. We’re taxed for working. We’re taxed (heavily) for putting gas in our cars, and are taxed again if that car doesn’t get very good gas mileage. We get taxed for selling a stock at a profit, for stocking up on non-food grocery items, and for running a grocery store. Just yesterday, the U.S. Congress passed a health care package that has millions of Americans upset or at least concerned. Why? Because they believe it will raise their taxes.
Taxes are a way of 21st-century life in America and lots of people don’t like it. But at least we have a say in it. We can call our Representatives, Senators, and local officials and voice our opinions. Every couple of years we can cast ballots to keep those officials in, or remove them from, office. We can collect signatures and instigate ballot initiatives. We can start a pep rally, hold up a sign, and talk through a megaphone.
In other words, 21st-century Americans have options.
Citizens that lived in America in May of 1765? Well, they didn’t have much recourse, and that’s what got them wound up. But we really have to go back a couple of months, because news moved more slowly back then.
On March 22, 1765, Parliament…the British Parliament, passed the Stamp Act. In case you’re wondering, it had little to do with stamps…at least stamps as we commonly know them, though it was vaguely similar. The Stamp Act required that nearly everything written on paper in America (books and private correspondence excluded) had to be produced on stamped paper. Newspapers, pamphlets, advertisements, diplomas, all legal documents (contracts, bonds, bills), and even playing cards all required stamped paper.
While this wasn’t the first time the Colonists had been taxed, it was the first time the British had attempted to tax Americans in such a direct manner. And frankly, the Crown’s reasoning was probably justified.
The British had just finished winning the French and Indian War. Those in Parliament believed that the Colonists stood to gain most directly from the expenditures of money and blood, so they reasoned that the Colonists should help pay a portion of the costs. In addition, the British needed to maintain a military presence to prevent further conflict, and the taxes from the Stamp Act would help defray those costs as well. My dad has often said that “everything translates to bucks”, and that was true in 1765 as well. Somebody has to pay for things, be it health care or Redcoats keeping the peace.
What made the Colonists angry was that they had no say in the legislation. There were no Senators to contact. Representatives didn’t exist, and elections were nearly 30 years down the road. They were simply told to use the paper and pay the tax, and Parliament expected complete compliance.
Nearly everyone was affected, and when word arrived two months later, most of them were very upset. The summer of 1765 was strained emotion boil over to violence, particularly in Boston. Thomas Hutchinson, the Lieutenant Governor, was accused of having supported the tax, and had his house destroyed by a mob. One wonders if those who committed the act felt any remorse when they discovered they were wrong.
As it turns out, the Stamp Act, which took effect in November, was rather difficult to enforce, and was repealed in March of 1766. But in conjunction with that, Parliament passed legislation allowing them to govern on the Colonies’ behalf whenever they saw fit.
In the end, the Stamp Act of 1765 didn’t cost the Colonists a lot in tax revenue, and it was only around for a few months. But the seeds of doubt and distrust that were sown because of it would have “revolutionary” implications just a decade later.
Recommended Reading: John Adams