“Taxation without representation is tyranny," said Boston politician James Otis in answer to the 1765 Stamp Act; his renowned demand was the mildest response of Colonial citizens to King George III's levy. The act, which charged a few pennies for British-made stamps on printing paper, was intended to raise money for royal troops. The colonists proved taxing to the king as they not only instituted riots but also created a political protesting institution.
Civilian Riots Throughout the Colonies
Citizens rioted over the Stamp Act, most notably in Boston, where Andrew Oliver, who distributed stamps for the Crown, was hanged in effigy and his offices destroyed. In Rhode Island, lawyer Martin Howard published the only contemporary defense of the Stamp Act and had his house looted for his support of the Royalists. In New York sailors blocked ships carrying the stamps, and mobs threatened destruction to the homes and lives of distributors. Supporting the king, at least in some colonies, became a hanging offense.
The Sons of Liberty
In 1765, the Sons of Liberty was born as an anti-Royalist organization, much like the underground resistance movements during World War II. The organization spread quickly throughout the colonies. Ostensibly showing support to the repeal of the act, the group conducted public demonstrations. The riots that ensued demonstrated that they were more interested in fomenting rebellion. Some seven years later they put on a Halloween show in December by disguising themselves as Native Americans and dumping taxable British tea into Boston Harbor. Thus the Stamp Act formed the rationale not only for contemporary but also for future acts of protest.
The Stamp Act Congress
The year the tax was proposed, the colonists created a somewhat more peaceful protest by organizing the Stamp Act Congress. This political body, made up of representatives from the original nine colonies, was the only congress created up to that time in protest of a tax. Its members came from all economic and social stations, demonstrating to the king that their concerns were popular. The congress drafted "The Declaration of Rights," which was sent to King George as a formal petition to repeal his tax.
The Revolutionary Aftermath
In February 1766, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act. The significance of the colonial citizens' protest cannot be overstated as it planted the seeds of the future Revolutionary War. The Sons of Liberty became Minutemen. The rioters took to the woods when war was declared to hunt down redcoat soldiers. Even the Stamp Act Congress foreshadowed future protests. Four of its members signed the Declaration of Independence.
- 1775: James Otis, Jr. on Taxation without Representation
- Colonial Williamsburg: A Summary of the 1765 Stamp Act
- PBS.org: Liberty!: Chronicle of the Revolution: The Stamp Act Riots & Tar and Feathering
- Newport Historical Society: Wanton-Lyman-Howard House
- Fordham University: South Street Seaport: Origins 1640-1815: Jack Tar and the Stamp Act Riots
- U.S.History.org: The Sons of Liberty
- Boston Tea Party: Sons of Liberty: The Masterminds of the Boston Tea Party
- U.S. History: 10a. The Stamp Act Congress
- Constitution.org: The Declaration of Rights of the Stamp Act Congress
- History.com: This Day in History: Parliament Repeals the Stamp Act
Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.