Study Guide

Stamp Act

By British Parliament, King George III

Stamp Act Introduction

Q: What's worse than paying taxes?

A: Paying taxes to a government that doesn't represent you, threatens its subjects with death if they don't pay the taxes, and has never really made you pay taxes before. Oh yeah: and paying taxes for something that has already happened.

Huh. Suddenly April 14th doesn't look so bleak anymore.

Because when we pay taxes, we know that sweet, sweet moolah is going to pay for things like federal employee salaries—you know, the people that represent us in changing and shaping our country—and fun stuff like vamping up our infrastructure. We Americans like to pay taxes on things that will happen in the future, and we like paying people we've elected.

And we always have.

Here's what went down with the Stamp Act: the British Crown was in a bit of a financial pinch after duking it out with their arch enemies, France, in the Seven Years War. Since a lot of the fighting was done in the Americas (where it was known as the French and Indian War) the British thought maybe the Americans should shoulder some of that tax burden.

The solution was the Stamp Act of 1765. This imposed some very specific taxes on paper goods. Like, all the paper goods. It was...not popular.

Colonists didn't believe the crown had a right to impose any tax on them. That job should be left to their own representative assemblies. That's what "no taxation without representation" means. The colonists weren't represented in British Parliament: therefore, no tax. Also, this tax was paying for something that had already gone down. The British government had gotten itself entangled in a skirmish over who owned North American lands…and then handed the check to the colonists. Also-also: this Act literally threatened to execute people who didn't abide by the new law. (Harsh.)

  

The resulting outrage got the Stamp Act repealed the very next year, but the damage was done. Among other acts, the Stamp Act turned into a popular reason to hate the British crown and get all revolutionary.

So, though the Stamp Act was unpopular at the time, it played an instrumental role in making the United States happen in the first place.

The moral of this story? Don't make unreasonable tax-related laws…unless you want your citizens kicking your butt at Yorktown.

What is Stamp Act About and Why Should I Care?

100% truth time here: the Stamp Act isn't sexy.

Guys, it's called the Stamp Act. It's about taxes on paper products. It contains a few gajillion Roman numerals and outlines the number of pennies that need to be coughed up every time you want to buy a birthday card. It goes into a frightening amount of detail about whether almanacs are pamphlets. We're getting depressed just thinking about how excruciatingly boring this thing must have been to write.

And yet, we're asking you to read it.

But that's not because we're feeling sadistic—it's because we're feeling patriotic. Because the Stamp Act is one of the crucial documents of American Revolutionary history: its one of the main the colonists decided that they were done and done with being tea-loving British citizens and wanted to be their own, brand-new thing. In short, what looked like a simple tax turned into a PR nightmare that helped cost King George his American colonies.

Because although the Stamp Act reads like the best bedtime story ever (in that it will make you go to sleep if you read it under the covers with a flashlight) it was scarier than a Stephen King novel for the colonists. Except instead of being stuck in the Overlook Hotel with a deranged Jack Torrance, the colonists were stuck paying taxes without representation, being assured that more redcoats would be kicking it on the Atlantic Coast, and being threatened with execution if they didn't pay such-and-such amount of pennies for a sheet of paper.

Huh. That is actually kind of totally terrifying.

And when colonists got scared, they got angry. And when they got angry, they became patriots. And when they became patriots…well, that began a whole new country (U.S.A! U.S.A!) and a whole new chapter in American history.

Stamp Act Resources

Websites

Colonial Williamsburg on the Stamp Act
Unsurprisingly, the nation's premier colonial-themed tourist attraction has a lot to say on the subject.

The History Channel
There's some multi-media in this one.

The Gilder Lehrman Institute
So what did King George III have to say? Here's a rundown from the primary source.

Movie or TV Productions

John Adams
Not specifically about the Stamp Act, but it hits every bit point of Revolutionary and early American history.

Articles and Interviews

On This Day in History...
A quick write up on the Stamp Act. Pretty cool, especially if your birthday happens to be March 22nd.

Video

The Stamp Act of 1765
A quick two minutes on the Stamp Act.

A Briefing
Another quick rundown on the Stamp Act.

PBS Goes More In-Depth
Twelve minutes and change answering any question you might have.

Images

King George III
There he is, looking awesome in his royal garb.

George Grenville
He made the law. Blame him.

Patrick Henry
That's him on the right making a point to the folks on the balcony.

Stamp Act Repeal Notice
This let people know the Stamp Act was no more.

The Stamp Act
Here's what the physical thing looked like.

Penny Stamp
This was a penny stamp in 1765. Cool, right?