The Stamp Act Riots, 250 Years On

William F. Shughart II Research Director, Independent Institute
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August 2015 marks the 250th anniversary of the outbreak of violent resistance in the American colonies to England’s Stamp Act, approved by parliament with little opposition and endorsed by King George III on March 22, 1765.

Although the Stamp Act was not scheduled to go into effect until November 1, news of its passage reached Boston in April. Reactions there – and those that followed over the next few months as opposition spread to other colonies – lit the fires of the American Revolution, ultimately securing independence in 1783.

While Britain’s tax on tea (and the Tea Party in Boston harbor) is better known, the Stamp Act is the key to understanding the colonists’ shouts of “No Taxation without Representation!”

The Stamp Act’s title is somewhat misleading to modern ears. The law did not require colonists to purchase stamps, but instead obliged them to buy and use specially stamped or embossed paper for virtually every legal and commercial document.

The list of documents subject to the Stamp Act was long, and included those used in court proceedings, insurance policies, law and marriage licenses, deeds, leases, mortgages, bonds, contracts, bills of lading, and customs clearance forms. Playing cards, pamphlets, almanacs, and newspapers also were taxed. (The tax on newspapers, which had been imposed on English publishers in 1756, is thought to have been an indirect means of suppressing criticism of King George.)

Selective excise taxes on tea and other consumer goods could be – and were – evaded by smuggling. The Stamp Act, however, could not be avoided as easily. Documents would not be recognized or enforced in courts of law unless printed on embossed paper, which could be obtained only from the Treasury Office’s colonial distributors, who of course sold it at a markup over untaxed and un-embossed paper.

Distributors who supplied stamped paper (and the warehouses that stored it) became the targets of the Stamp Act’s colonial protestors. Andrew Oliver, Boston’s stamp distributor, was hung in effigy on the morning of August 14, 1765. A mob gathered, moved on to Oliver’s house on Fort Hill and threw rocks through the windows. Oliver resigned his commission the next day.

Having achieved a goal, the protestors felt emboldened. Twelve days later—on August 26—mobs sacked the homes of William Story, an official of the vice-admiralty court, which heard cases against smugglers, and Comptroller of Customs Benjamin Howell. Another mob destroyed the home of Massachusetts’s Lieutenant Governor and Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson, Andrew Oliver’s brother in law.

News of Boston’s riots spread quickly: as in England, colonial newspaper publishers championed tax resistance. Facing hostile crowds or the prospect of them, Stamp Act distributors in Connecticut, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, North and South Carolina, Rhode Island and Virginia all followed Andrew Oliver’s example by resigning their offices. The distributor for Delaware and Pennsylvania, John Hughes, swore that he would not enforce the Stamp Act unless distributors in other colonies did so. By November 1, Georgia’s distributor was the only holdout; he quit his post two weeks later.

Private and public property was destroyed, but historians believe the mobs of protestors did not shed the blood of any commissioned Stamp Act distributor. Resignation from office was the only goal – and it was achieved. The Stamp Act was unenforceable in the American colonies, doubly so because merchants in Boston, New York and Philadelphia hit England where it hurt most, by signing agreements not to import goods from the Mother Country until the Stamp Act was quashed. Repeal came in March 1766, just one year after passage.

Overburdened taxpayers today can take heart from the colonists’ successful trouncing of the intrusive Stamp Act. August 2015 is an occasion for reflecting on what tax protestors achieved 250 years ago.

William F. Shughart II, Research Director of the Independent Institute, is J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University’s Huntsman School and the editor of Taxing Choice: The Predatory Politics of Fiscal Discrimination (1987)