At the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763 Britain emerged triumphant. Having successfully waged a global war against France and her allies, Britain had made huge territorial gains across the globe. In North America France had been roundly defeated after the capture of Quebec in 1759, adding an immense swathe of the continent to Britain's growing empire.
Much of Britain's wealth as a trading nation rested on a transatlantic network of trade that connected British ports with Africa, the Caribbean and the thirteen American Colonies. Britain's American Colonies stretched along the eastern seaboard of North America from Georgia in the south to Massachusetts in the North. It was to protect this vital link in the vast network that Britain had contributed both men and money during the war.
Success, however, came at a cost. The expense of waging war on a global scale led to a massive increase in public borrowing. Post-war governments faced the challenge of raising money to reduce the national debt and to pay for the troops to police and defend Britain's territories across the empire, chief among them the American Colonies.
It was Prime Minister George Grenville and his government that faced the unenviable task of finding the money to pay for the defence of North America. Those in power felt that the colonies should share the cost of their defence, though they failed to fully acknowledge the significant contributions that the Colonies themselves had made to the war effort.
The Stamp Act of 1765
Grenville's first step was an attempt to improve the collection of duties on molasses, a vital raw material in the lucrative American rum trade, imported into the colonies from the Caribbean. Duties were reduced to discourage smuggling and to improve collection. This was followed by the Stamp Act in 1765, an unprecedented step by Parliament to impose a direct tax on the Colonies.
The Stamp Act required the payment of a tax on all paper on which documents were printed — paper had to bear an official stamp to show that the tax had been paid. All newspapers, legal documents and even playing cards had to be printed on paper bearing an official stamp. A similar act was already in force in Britain, so it seemed reasonable to levy a tax in North America too.
The Colonies react
The passage of the Act was met with open hostility in North America. Rioting broke out in the summer of 1765. In Boston an effigy of one of the collectors of the tax was hung from a tree before being paraded by a mob through the streets, decapitated and burned. A number of the colonial assemblies passed resolutions against the Act, and in October 1765 convened the Stamp Act Congress in New York to raise their objections.
Out of the Congress came three petitions, one addressed to the House of Commons. The assemblies were keen to stress the negative effect that the Act might have on British and American trade, playing on the fears of British merchants trading with America. While trade was 'laying…under very burthensome restrictions', the Stamp Act would prove 'Injurious to the commercial interest of Great-Britain and her colonies' and would 'terminate in the[ir] eventual ruin.'
Even more dangerous was the unprecedented step that Parliament had taken to impose a direct tax on the American Colonies without their consent. This had 'above all…fill'd them with the deepest concern and surprize', and here they pointed to their rights as 'subjects of the best of Kings…having been Born under the most perfect Form of Government'. The aim of their petition was clear: 'that the Acts and clauses of acts, so grievously restraining…trade and Commerce…may be repeal'd'.
Repeal of the Stamp Act
Grenville's government had already fallen when the Stamp Act Congress convened in New York. After losing the support of the King, he was dismissed from office in July 1765. It was left to a new ministry, led by the Marquess of Rockingham, to try to resolve the crisis.
In Britain news from the Colonies was received with alarm by merchants trading with America. The merchants of the City of London submitted their own petition to Parliament in December 1765 pointing to the damage the Act and unrest was doing to British trade.
Rockingham's government repealed the Stamp Act in March 1766, though it was accompanied by the Declaratory Act which asserted Parliament's right to pass laws on behalf of the American Colonies 'in all cases whatsoever'. Repeal of the Act did not solve the issue of raising money. It also provoked a long and heated debate over Parliament's right to legislate for and impose taxes on the Colonies, leading up to the outbreak of war with the colonists in 1775 and the Declaration of Independence in July the following year.
Sean Harris, Committee Assistant, Petitions Committee.
Image: The Right Honourable George Grenville 1712-1770 Prime Minister 1763-65. Monochrome Mezzotint, engraved by Richard Houston, after an original by William Hoare.
© Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 407