As 1764 closed, the colonies were still fighting over the Sugar Act and Currency Act. But while there was considerable grumbling and some evasion, neither of the acts had led to rioting in the streets. As 1765 began, Prime Minister Grenville moved forward with more plans to increase revenue from the colonies.
The Stamp Act
He started with the Stamp Act. A Stamp Tax was not a new idea. England had imposed a stamp tax on its own subjects since 1694, when Parliament borrowed the idea from the Dutch. Essentially the law required all legal documents, such as contracts, court filings, etc. to have a stamp on them indicating that a tax had been paid.
|One Penny Stamp|
In 1712, Parliament increased the scope of the tax to cover newspapers and other periodicals. The tax not only raised a fair amount of revenue, it helped the government keep control of publications since all publishers would be required to print not only the proof of payment of the stamp tax, but the name and address of the publisher making payments. Authorities could much more easily arrest publishers who printed seditious, obscene, or other criminal publications.
The tax in Britain had detractors, who considered it a tax on a free press and on the dissemination of ideas. But the law had been in place for decades, worked well, and raised a fair amount of revenue.
Part of the incentive for extending the stamp tax to the colonies may have been an attempt to control problem publications. However, the main appeal for Grenville seemed to be its ease of enforcement. Many of the most expensive stamp taxes were on legal documents. If a document did not have the stamp, it was not legally enforceable in court. Untaxed newspapers could also be tracked back relatively easily to the publisher to exact a fine.
Stamp Act Plans
Grenville developed a thorough and well thought out plan for drafting, implementing, and enforcing a stamp tax on the colonies. He relied heavily on two men with considerable colonial experience: London merchant Henry McCulloh, who had lived for many years in North Carolina, and John Tabor Kempe, New York’s Attorney General (although Kempe’s role was a secret until many years later).
Consideration of a Stamp Act was no surprise either. Grenville had submitted a circular letter to colonial governors about it the year before, directing them to send a list of the different types of papers used in colonial legal proceedings to help him develop the taxes that would apply to them. Grenville also discussed the idea in detail with colonial agents. The agents, of course reported these discussions to their colonial legislatures and to others through private correspondence.
The agents made clear to Grenville that the colonies would not accept an internal tax. Everyone seemed to appreciate the need for revenue to cover British expenses in America, but could not agree on a way to do it. Grenville asked the agents if there was a way Parliament could come up with an amount each colony had to contribute and leave it to the local legislature to raise the money. He also floated the idea of having the legislatures approve the Stamp Act ahead of time, thus creating a precedent that tax plans must receive prior approval from the local legislatures.
I think that Grenville knew that both ideas were not going to work. First, England had never come up with a way to divide the costs among the colonies. Population might not be fair since population did not always correlate with colonial wealth. Besides, that raised the question about counting slaves or Indians in the population. Just coming up with an amount due for each colony would be an endless battle, with legislatures inevitably balking at the bills.
The notion of pre-approval also would never fly. The power of approval, necessarily contains the power not to approve. If the local legislatures could reject the bills, they most certainly would in most cases. Then what? Was Parliament going to beg and plead with the colonies to pay their bills? That was not going to happen.
Grenville became more convinced that a single unified system of taxation, applied evenly to all colonies, was the best way to proceed. Only a single body, Parliament, could create such a law. Colonial governments would have to be subordinate to Parliament and accept its laws. There was no other way to make this work.
The final version of the Act placed a tax on 54 different types of documents, including newspapers, playing cards, legal documents, calendars, almanacs, certificates, diplomas, contracts, wills, Bills of Sale and Licenses. Some taxes were as low as a half-penny per document. The most expensive, a license to practice law required a £10 tax payment. The levels of taxation were not out of line with the taxes charged in England. Many were actually considerably lower.
Before we get into the Parliamentary debate, I thought it worth giving a little background on colonial era newspapers.
The Act assessed a duty of ½ penny on a half sheet of paper (or smaller), and 1 penny for a full sheet. That is a little misleading though since a single sheet was very large and normally be folded into several pages of a newspaper. Larger documents paid more, with a duty of 1s (12 pence) per sheet. Almanacs, also regularly printed by newspaper publishers, paid 4p for a two sided sheet.
|Pennsylvania Gazette |
Newspapers in the colonial era were already more expensive than the 19th Century “penny press” that resulted from automated printing presses and cheap acid paper. Colonial papers required printing by hand, meaning that at most, a publisher might print only a few hundred copies. They were often printed on both sides of a single sheet of paper, folded in half, making a total of four pages. I have not found a good source for the cost of a paper in the colonies. The London Gazette from this era cost 2 1/2 pence per issue. There were no newsstands. Virtually all newspapers were sold by subscription. Costs generally limited sales to wealthier merchants or other upper income professions. Public taverns sometimes subscribed, so patrons could read the paper there, or listen to it read aloud. I have seen some notices encouraging customers to buy Almanacs early that year because the Stamp Act would double the cost.
Newspapers were also rare. The Colonies probably had a total of two dozen newspaper publishers at the time, with some colonies not having one at all. Newspapers tended to be printed only in the larger cities. Reporting often consisted of reprinting articles from other newspapers sent from London, with a few articles on major local events.
Much like today, newspapers were often critical of government officials and their policies. So many leaders did not much like them. In 1671, Governor William Berkeley of Virginia wrote
I thank God, there are no free schools nor printing and I hope we shall not have, these hundred years, for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both.This was probably a view shared by many in London who felt it best to keep laborers ignorant and uninformed. Taxes and regulations on newspapers helped to keep them limited in number and under government control.
That said, colonists seemed to have a powerful appreciation for a free press. The trial of Peter Zenger a few decades earlier is celebrated because a jury refused to convict a newspaper editor of publishing true information about the government, even though doing so met the legal definition of libel at the time. A newspaper tax would be seen not only as an illegal tax, but as an assault on a free press as well. Let’s not forget the fact that two professions you really don’t want to rile up are lawyers and newspaper editors. Most political leaders tend to be lawyers and newspaper editors, who tend to set the opinions for the population. A tax that goes after these groups particularly hard is going to lead to trouble.
The only other leading profession was that of Minister. The stamp Act did not go after ministers directly, but it did allude to ecclesiastical courts. There were no ecclesiastical courts in the colonies at the time. In England, they judged moral issues and were run by the Bishops. This was another hint that London planned to foist Anglican Bishops on the colonies. Ministers from the other religions had strong incentive to fight that as well.
The Stamp Act included taxes not limited to paper. There was a tax on dice as well as a tax on hiring apprentices, essentially a crude form of income tax. The law also increased costs in other ways. Tax stamps were pre-printed on paper in London. This meant if you ran a paper mill in the colonies, your product was of limited use. The cost of shipping paper from London would be another increased cost on colonists.
Shipping costs also began to run higher. Remember all that paperwork that the Sugar Act added for merchant vessels last year? Well now all that paperwork has to be done on paper with a stamp tax paid on it.
Parliament Debates the Stamp Act
Unlike the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act actually got some pushback in Parliament. During the February 1765 debate on the bill, radical Whigs like William Pitt and Isaac Barré (who we last met in Episode 13 when he was shot in the face at the Battle of Quebec) objected to the attempt to impose internal taxes on the colonies. Unlike the Sugar Act, which was sold as an external tax, the Stamp Act was clearly internal.
If you already understand this internal/external dispute, I feel compelled to suggest that you probably spend way too much time in a dark room reading really old documents. I would advise you to try to get out more and go on a date. And if you get such a date, do NOT try to engage your companion in a lively conversation about 250 year old tax policies. Trust me - it will not go well.
For the rest of you, here is the issue: Taxation authority was at the heart of the dispute between Parliament and the colonies. Even colonists and radical Whigs believed that Parliament had the right to make general laws that applied throughout the Empire.
Revenue bills, however, had to be the authority of legislatures in which the taxpayers were represented. The power of taxation is an extreme one. People are essentially authorizing government to take as much of their property as it wants. The one restraining feature on such power (short of rebellion) is that the people being taxed are represented in the body doing the taxing. This was the argument that Parliament had made for centuries to prevent the king from trying to raise revenue without Parliament. It was also the reason that all revenue bills had to come from the House of Commons, not the House of Lords. Since the colonies had no representation in Parliament, it could not impose taxes on them for the same reason. Any funds needed would have to be authorized by colonial legislatures.
Tariffs, like those in the Sugar Act, were different. They could be permitted as trade regulations. which was clearly within Parliament’s authority when trade was commencing between different colonies. Only a few extremists like James Otis objected to trade tariffs enacted by Parliament. Tariff funds were not primarily purposed for raising revenue. They were implemented to control trade, with the revenue being a bonus. Direct taxes had no such excuse. William Pitt summed it up as follows:
If the gentleman does not understand the difference between external and internal taxes, I cannot help it; but there is a plain distinction between taxes levied for the purpose of raising a revenue, and duties imposed for the regulation of trade, for the accommodation of the subject; although, in the consequences, some revenue might incidentally arise from the latter.Grenville and the majority of Parliament thought this was nonsense. First, Parliament raised money from the colonists either way. Did most people really care is the tax got paid at the customs house or the stamp office?
Second, the representation argument made no sense. Representation in Parliament was hardly proportional even within England. Even if it were, only about 200,000 people qualified to vote out of population of over 11 million in Britain. Those millions of unqualified voters were not exempt from taxation. Members had the interests of everyone in the Empire under consideration when they passed any law. Therefore, colonists benefited from what they called “virtual representation” in Parliament. All members of Parliament were always looking out for the interests of everyone. Think they’ll buy that?
Revenues from the Stamp tax were explicitly set aside for use in the defense of the colonies. It seemed perfectly reasonable that colonists should contribute to the costs of their own defense. It was also clear that the local legislatures were incapable of raising revenues for this purpose. Even if they had the incentive to raise the revenue, colonies often had more disputes between one another than they did with Indians or outside forces. Locally controlled military might eventually lead to inter-colonial fighting. Maintaining a single unified, centrally financed military made far more sense for stability and keeping the peace.
Many members of Parliament thought the colonies had unfairly taken on too little burden of the cost of government for too long. During debate, Charles Townsend asked “And now, will these American Children, planted by our care, nourished up by our indulgence, until they are grown to a degree of strength and opulence and protected by our arms, will they grudge to contribute their mite to relieve us from the heavy burdens we lie under.”
Despite the debate, the Stamp Act passed overwhelmingly with the support of over 80% of the House of Commons and by a unanimous voice vote in the House of Lords. Colonial agents in London, including Benjamin Franklin, had opposed the bill throughout, warning of the opposition in the colonies to such a bill. However, once the bill passed many of them rushed to get lucrative positions as tax agents for themselves, or for friends and family. Agents would be paid 7.5% of all gross sales, making it a quite valuable position. The King approved the Stamp Act in March 1765, allowing it to go into effect on November 1.
The Quartering Act
Within days of Parliament’s Stamp Act passage, it also approved the Quartering Act. In part, this was based on the experience of the recent war, when colonies were unwilling to provide quarters for the soldiers defending them. Enforcement of the Stamp Act was likely going to require an increased military presence to enforce the unpopular law. Therefore, we need to get settled the issue of where the soldiers were going to live.
Gen. Gage, still military commander in North America, continued to battle with colonial legislatures who were supposed to provide housing for his soldiers. If legislatures were loathe to help with housing during time of war, they certainly did not want to pay for unwanted standing armies mostly there to enforce unpopular laws.
The Quartering Act of 1765 was actually part of a larger law known as the Mutiny Act. Parliament passed this Act annually to reauthorize the existence of the British Army, and typically used the opportunity to make changes to pay, disciplinary rules, or other military matters. The 1765 Act addressed the issue of quartering in America. Gage had requested the law authorize the Army to house soldiers in private homes. The Army had no such right in England since a 1628 law forbade housing soldiers in private homes. Grenville saw Gage’s request as a political landmine.
After consulting with Benjamin Franklin and other colonial agents, as well as former Massachusetts Gov. Thomas Pownall, now back in England, he crafted a bill that required colonies to pay for adequate quarters. If such quarters were insufficient, then "persons may be appointed and authorized, in pursuance of this act, to take up and hire, if it shall be necessary, uninhabited houses, outhouses, barns, or other buildings, for the reception of such soldiers as the barracks and publick houses shall not be sufficient to contain or receive.” The Act did NOT authorize the military to quarter soldiers in otherwise occupied private residences, much to Gage’s disappointment.
The Act obligated colonies to provide the necessary quarters, without charge, regardless of whether or not colonial legislatures approved. Colonies would be stuck with the costs, the same as if they were being taxed. Colonial legislatures had approved authorizations like this before, which is why colonial agents thought this bill would be acceptable. Perhaps it would have been acceptable in isolation. But combined with the Stamp Act, colonists saw the Quartering Act as an attempt to dump costs on them without their consent.
Next Week, we will look at how the colonies react to these two new laws. Spoiler alert: they do not like them.
Next Episode 23: The Stamp Act Congress
Previous Episode 21: Colonies React to Taxes
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Full text of the Stamp Act of 1765: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/stamp_act_1765.asp
Good easy to read summary of Stamp Act details: https://www.landofthebrave.info/stamp-act.htm
The Stamp Act, A Brief History, by Mary Nesnay (2014) (JAR):
Parliament Debates the Stamp Act, February 1765:
Isaac Barré: Advocate for Americans in the House of Commons, Bob Ruppert (2015) (JAR):
William Pitt’s speech against the Stamp Act:
Short biography of Henry McCulloh, one of the main authors of the Stamp Tax of 1765:
Short biography of John Tabor Kempe, another Stamp Act author:
History of American Newspapers: http://www.wikiwand.com/en/History_of_American_newspapers
Quartering Act of 1765 (aka Mutiny Act) Full text:
Member of Parliament Soame Jenyns The Objections to the taxation consider'd (1765) justifying “virtual representation” of the colonies in Parliament: http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/documents/1751-1775/soame-jenyns-the-objections-to-the-taxation-considerd-1765.php
(from archive.org unless noted)
The History of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, from 1749 to 1774, by Thomas Hutchinson, John Hutchinson (ed) (1828) (This book was edited and published in London using Gov. Thomas Hutchinson’s personal papers. The editor was his grandson).
The Diary and Letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson, by Thomas Hutchinson, Peter Hutchinson (ed) (1884) (Editor was Thomas Hutchinson’s great-grandson).
Great Debates in American History, Vol. 1, Marion Mills Miller (ed) (1913).
The Grenville Papers, Vol. 2 & Vol 3, by William Smith (ed) (1852).
William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, by Albert von Ruville (1907).
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Anderson, Fred Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766, Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
Andrlik, Todd Reporting the American Revolution, Source Books, 2012.
Dickerson, Oliver M. The Navigation Acts and the American Revolution, New York A.S. Barnes & Company, 1951.
Jennings, Francis Empire Of Fortune: Crowns, Colonies & Tribes in the Seven Years War in America, W.W. Norton & Co. 1988.
Knollenberg, Bernard Growth of the American Revolution 1766-1775, Liberty Fund, 1975.
Miller, John Origins of the American Revolution, Little Brown & Co. 1943.
Smith, Page A New Age Now Begins, Vol. I, McGraw-Hill, 1976.
Weslager, C.A. The Stamp Act Congress, Associated Univ. Press, 1976 (Includes a complete copy of Stamp Act Congress Journal).
Ubbelohde, Carle The Vice - Admiralty Courts and the American Revolution, Omohundro Institute, 1960.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.