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Posts Tagged ‘Stamp Act’

As Garrison Keillor would say, “Well, it’s been a quiet week…“.  I thought about writing every day last week, but I have this silly little birth defect in my lower back that flares up from time to time.  It’s usually not too much trouble – a little discomfort, a little inconvenience – but this time it was worse.  While walking and riding my bike weren’t too bad, it was pretty painful to sit.  So I spent a lot of time standing around the house, and standing isn’t really conducive to typing on the computer.

I’m a little better today, so much so that I was able to do a few things around the house while my wife was off at a baby shower.  The small of my back is still quite tender, but it seems the worst may have passed.  So while things are good, let’s have a quick write here.

We’ll head back to pre-Revolutionary days.  After all, if I’m not on a World War Two battlefield, I’m pretty much in the Colonies.

The Stamp Act was created by a vote of British Parliament in March of 1765.  It was levied on the Colonies in November of that year.  And to say it was unpopular would be a gross understatement.  But it’s not as though taxes were a new thing.  The Thirteen Colonies had seen their share in recent years, particularly since Britain had stopped fighting with France.  The government had put down its sword and taken up its fiscal pen, only to find itself mired in the all-consuming quicksand of debt.

The interest payment alone on the debt amounted to more than half of the overall yearly budget.  And regardless of the actual number, that’s a staggering percentage.  So the British decided to raise taxes.  Sometimes that’s a necessity.  Living in 21st-century America and up to our eyeballs in government debt, we understand the reality of taxes.  If any government (American, British, or Quatloo) wants to spend lots and lots of money, the people outside of the government are going to have to provide that money.  It was no different in the 18th-century British empire.  But the British also maintained a solid military presence in the Colonies, and Parliament believed it was reasonable that the Colonies pay for the benefits they received.

It wasn’t so much that taxes angered the Colonies.  As I just wrote, taxes weren’t new.  But as we all know, the Colonies were required to pay the taxes without any participation in the process.  They weren’t allowed to offer up alternative ideas, no “colonial” representatives were given any voting power in Parliament, and Colonists had no say in how the revenue would be spent.

So while the tax wasn’t really all that evil, the Colonists were pretty unhappy.

And when it went into effect, the British discovered that enforcing the tax was really difficult.  More troubling was the fact that many colonial merchants were now refusing to import British products until the Stamp Act was repealed.  As a result, British companies were feeling a pinch.  Most troubling of all was the discontent that the taxes had created in America.  People were taking to the streets.  There was shouting.  They were burning tax collectors in effigy (see the image above).  There were inflammatory articles in newspapers that fanned the emotions of the readers.

The British realized that no good thing was coming out of what amounted to a one-penny tax.  So on March 18, 1766, Parliament and King George III repealed the Stamp Act.  For the Colonists, it was a victory of principle and the end of a hated four-month tax.  For the British, it was “back to the drawing board” for new ideas on getting the Colonists to pony up and help pay down the debt.

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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

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