The Trouble with the Stamp Act

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The Stamp Act was one of the most unpopular taxes ever passed by the British Government. It made a good deal of money from a series of seemingly insignificant "stamps," but it also was the first real step in the colonists' drive toward independence.

After the French and Indian War, the British Government had many debts. The war had been expensive, and the British had suddenly inherited a vast new territory—Canada.

In order to pay these debts, the British Government decided institute a series of taxes. One of the first of these was the Sugar Act. It was known as that because it placed a new tax on molasses, which was something that the American colonists imported in great quantities.

The colonists weren't too happy about this, but they decided to use less molasses. As a result, revenues were not as high as the British Government expected. So, led by Prime Minister George Grenville, the Government passed another tax. This one hit the American colonists much harder.

It went into effect on November 1, 1765. It was called the Stamp Act because it required a stamp to be put on all kinds of paper used by the colonists. They did use a lot of paper in those days, just as we do now. Documents of court proceedings and land and business sales were printed on paper, as were newspapers, pamphlets, and even playing cards. Think of how much you use paper today, and imagine if you had to pay a tax on every piece of paper. In colonial times, people used paper even more. They certainly were not happy about paying a paper tax.

The reaction was loud and sometimes violent. Tax collectors were not at all popular in America. Some of them were even "tarred and feathered." Members of the Sons of Liberty were instrumental in leading the protests. A more civilized response was the Stamp Act Congress, which met in New York to discuss how best to respond to the tax. A total of 27 delegates from 9 colonies got together and decided to speak out against the tax in an official way. The result was a document called the Declaration of Rights and Grievances. Among the claims made in this document was that the American colonists had the same rights as people living in Britain. In other words, the Americans had the right to speak out against what they thought were unfair taxes; further, they had a right to representation in the Government so they could make themselves heard. Some of the most important ideas of the American Revolution came out of the Stamp Act experience, including the right of the people to speak out against their government and the right to protest "taxation without representation."

Parliament eventually repealed the Stamp Act, on March 17, 1766. The British Government wasn't at all happy about it and kept looking for ways to tax the colonists. That desire eventually turned into finding a way to punish the colonists. And the feelings that had been stirred up in the hearts and minds of the American colonists would only get stronger.

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