It was on this day in 1765 that the British Parliament signed the Stamp Act, a move that lit the fuse for a revolution in the American colonies that burned for a decade.
The disgust with the tax peaked on August 14, 1765, when an angry mob in Boston reacted to the first incident of “taxation without representation” in the colonies, an event that foreshadowed open rebellion 10 years later.
The prolonged violence showed the British government that it had severely miscalculated a taxing effort to pay for nearly 10,000 British troops who remained stationed on American soil after the French and Indian War concluded.
Many of the troops had connections to the British parliament and it was politically impossible to keep such a large standing army back home. Instead, Parliament decided to use the wealth of the colonies to keep its military patronage system intact – a fact not lost on colonial governments that had their own militias and saw military threats from the Indians and the French greatly lessening.
A year earlier, Parliament had passed the Sugar Act, which cut import taxes in half on molasses (which was used to make rum) but also contained strict measures to collect taxes that most colonists had avoided paying. There was also a draft measure circulating about a second tax that could be coming from Parliament.
On March 22, 1765, British Parliament passed the Stamp Tax. The levy required colonists to pay taxes on every page of printed paper they used. The tax also included fees for playing cards and dice.
The reaction in the colonies was immediate and intense. The protests were based on legal principles, that only the colonial legislatures had the power to tax residents who had representatives in those legislatures. Some colonies had official agents to Parliament, like Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Franklin, but no colonies had sitting representatives in the British Parliament.
In May 1765, Virginia’s Patrick Henry wrote the Virginia Resolves, which made clear the “taxation without representation” argument.
“That the Taxation of the People by themselves, or by Persons chosen by themselves to represent them, who could only know what Taxes the People are able to bear, or the easiest method of raising them, and must themselves be affected by every Tax laid on the People, is the only Security against a burdensome Taxation, and the distinguishing characteristic of British Freedom, without which the ancient Constitution cannot exist,” Henry said.
That summer, Massachusetts called for a meeting of all the colonies – a Stamp Act Congress – to be held in New York in October 1765. Committees of Correspondence were also formed in the colonies to protest the Act.
But by August, the outrage boiled over in Boston. Protesters organized as the Sons of Liberty took to the streets in a very defiant act against British rule.
“The Sons of Liberty on the 14th of August 1765, a Day which ought to be forever remembered in America, animated with a zeal for their country then upon the brink of destruction, and resolved, at once to save her,” wrote Samuel Adams about that fateful day.
Adams and the Sons of Liberty met under what was known as the Liberty Tree near Boston Common. Hoisted on the tree was an effigy of Andrew Oliver, the city’s stamp tax agent. Soon, a mob of several thousand people attacked Oliver’s office and his home, and the effigy was stomped, decapitated and burned.
News of the protests, the actions of the Stamp Congress, and the publication of Henry’s Virginia Resolves fueled anger across the colonies, and many colonies saw their own versions of the Sons of Liberty created.
The Parliament repealed the Stamp Act the following year, facing additional pressure from British merchants who saw their sales to the Colonies plummet. But Parliament then passed the Declaratory Act, which stated its right in principle to tax the colonies as it saw fit.
In the years following the Stamp Act riots, the use of a Congress of the Colonies and the Committees of Correspondence were key components of the independence drive a decade later.
One symbol that didn’t survive was the Liberty Tree. British troops felled tree, which hosted the iconic scene of the Stamp Act protests and, later the planning of the Boston Tea Party, in August 1775.