Taxing Times: The Stamp Act of 1765

22 March 2019

Empire and Globalism | History | Politics

Detail from Paul Revere's engraving 'A View of the Year 1765', depicting the Liberty Tree. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


On Friday 22 March 1765, the British Parliament voted to pass one of the most incendiary and politically damaging pieces of legislation in its history - the Stamp Act. The purpose of this controversial act was to levy a direct tax in the British Colonies in America on certain printed papers, including legal documents, licences, newspapers and playing cards, all of which were required to bear an official stamp to indicate that the duty had been paid.

With the government eager to reduce Britain's substantial national debt and find ways to raise additional revenue, the legislation was voted through the House of Commons largely unopposed, with a clear majority of 209 to 49. However, parliament completely underestimated the level of resistance that the act would receive on the other side of the Atlantic and the far-reaching repercussions the tax would have.
Colonial America contains numerous documents that chart the reception of the Stamp Act and the important part it played on the road to revolution. One particularly striking document in this collection is a letter written by Sir Francis Bernard, Governor of Massachusetts, to the Earl of Halifax, the President of the Board of Trade, which vividly records the hostile reaction in Boston a few months after the notification of the tax. 

Rioting on the Streets

On the evening of 15 August, Francis Bernard, holed up in the fort of Castle William, noted down the tumultuous events that had taken place in Boston the previous day.
The beginning of Governor Bernard's letter to the Earl of Halifax, reporting on the demonstrations by the inhabitants of Boston against the Stamp Act (TNA, CO 5/755). Image © The National Archives, London, UK. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

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In his letter Bernard relates that the first signs of trouble came at dawn, when the effigy of a man was found hanging from a tree in one of the streets in town. Inscriptions accompanying the effigy made it clear that it was intended to represent Andrew Oliver, the merchant who had recently taken on the role of the Stamp Distributor in Boston. Initially some members of the Governor’s Council dismissed this gesture as no more than ‘a boyish sport’ but Bernard thought the matter to be far more serious. 

Bernard’s instincts were soon proven correct. When the sheriff’s officers attempted to take down the effigy, they reported that they were unable to do so ‘without imminent danger of their lives’ from the protestors who had gathered nearby. In the afternoon the Council hastily convened to discuss what should be done but the consensus was to do nothing for fear of inflaming the crowd further.

As it grew dark, the emboldened mob carried the effigy of Mr Oliver to the Town House, where the Council were still debating. Giving three huzzahs of defiance, the discontents then marched onwards to the newly constructed Stamp Office and pulled it down. Next, they congregated outside Mr Oliver’s house where they beheaded his effigy before burning it on a bonfire. Still not satisfied, the protestors then proceeded to break into Oliver’s house. On learning that Mr Oliver had already fled the property they scoured the town ‘declaring that they would kill him’. Failing to find the object of their anger, the mob eventually dispersed on its own accord at around midnight.

The Cradle of Liberty

Unsurprisingly, Mr Oliver resigned from his post the very next day. Nevertheless, the anger and spirit of resistance in Boston lingered. On 16 August Bernard recorded that:

"The common talk of the town is that the Stamp Act shall not be executed here; that the man who offers a stamped paper to sell will be immediately killed; that all the power of Great Britain shall not oblige them to submit to the Stamp Act; that they will die upon the place first."

Further protests in the colonies followed and the British government was finally compelled to repeal the Stamp Act in March 1766 but by this point the seeds of revolution had begun to take root.  On learning that the hated act had been revoked, Bostonians celebrated at the tree from which the effigy of Mr Oliver had been hanged the previous year - already it was being referred to as ‘The Liberty Tree’.
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About the Author

Robert Kinsey

Robert Kinsey

I am a Development Editor at Adam Matthew, having joined the editorial team in 2018. My academic background is in History and I am currently working on a range of exciting projects at Adam Matthew.