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The opposition to the Stamp Act caught the Georges—III and Grenville—off guard. Why? Because the law was so very logical. There was a problem and here was a solution.
That problem? England's debt was ballooning out of control after the Seven Years War. That solution? A new tax to pay that bill and raise some extra security.
Totally logical. What it forgot about was pathos. The colonists weren't used to paying taxes. Whether or not that's entirely fair is up for debate. On one hand, they were benefitting from programs funded by taxes, but on the other they had no say in what could be taxes. The point is, they weren't paying.
To make matters worse, England had already solved the problems they were asking to be paid for. First, there was the matter of the debt. That was over a war that was finished and Britain won. Asking to be paid for a service already rendered never goes over well.
Secondly, the British wanted to add more troops for security. Against who? The colonists wanted to know. They were already used to fighting the Native Americans without help from the crown. And as for the French? They were more or less gone with the end of the Seven Years War.
But while it looks patently obvious to us that this tax isn't going to go over well, the British didn't see it that way. The colonies were part of the empire, and the whole point of colonies is to enrich that empire. As soon as the colonies were costing more than they were bringing in, something had to be done to balance the ledger.
The solution? The Stamp Act.
Ahh, complaining about taxes. It's one of the standards in tired situational comedy, along with talking about how airplanes are uncomfy (really, now?) and the DMV is the eighth ring of hell (huh: that's a revolutionary observation).
And although people in the 18th Century didn't have to worry about airplane seat size (because they had to worry about taking several weeks to cross the Atlantic via ship) and didn't have to go to the DMV (because they had to deal with horses and their nasty huge teeth), they did protest against the Stamp Act. And you all know how that turned out.
The law itself is so boring it's like 18th Century scientists were trying to invent a new kind of boredom. But this law isn't supposed to be fun—it's more about being as precise as it can possibly be. When you think about the work that went into it, then realize it was repealed a year later, it's kind of funny…in a "You wasted so much time on this and we totally could have told you it would never work" kind of way.
The first section tells exactly how much everything costs. Since this is a tax law, and the tax is on specific goods, this is pretty important to have on there. It was never built to last, though, as inflation would end up changing all of this. (That's a silver lining for the law lasting such a short time, we guess.)
Then you need to have clarifications. Certain documents don't fit easily into any one category. So those gray areas have to be cleaned up. You also need penalties for violating the statute, as it is a law. Unlike modern taxes, it's not collected at the end of the year.
Think of it closer to how snail mail works. You're paying a price to ship your letter or parcel, but that cash goes to the government. It's a tax. And what's your receipt? A stamp. Same thing.
In any case, what's on the law is what's needed, but man: it's a beast to read.
This is the first part (the part without the Roman numerals). It tells you how much tax you have to pay on each stamped item, according to type. It's pretty straightforward.
Not everything is going to line up perfectly with the categories listed in the first part. You're going to need clarification in those cases. Also, since this is a law, you need to have the penalties should you break it. The Stamp Act wanted to make certain there were no gray areas left when it was done.
Because nothing says "page-turner" like 18th Century Tax Code, right?
But, believe it or not, every word has a purpose. We know it doesn't look like it—it looks like the entire goal of the Stamp Act was to confuse the public so hopelessly, they'd just kind of shrug and go, "We need stamps now, we guess?"
The goal is to eliminate loopholes, because loopholes are how taxes don't get collected. So the Stamp Act is trying to account for everything it possibly can. If they forget something, it's not like anyone is going to rush forward to correct them. No one volunteers to pay a tax.
So what you're left with is an exacting description of what costs what, and what happens to those who don't pay.
We're sorry we made you read it, but it's a pretty important document in the history of the world. It just happens to be a tax law.
The actual title of the Stamp Act is the far less descriptive and far drier: "Duties in American Colonies Act 1765."
Wow. That's a real catchy title.
"Duties" refers to a payment here, which is kind of an archaic usage but you still see it from time to time. Specifically "Duty-Free" shops in airports are places where you can get goods without paying taxes—or duties—on them. Think of it as another word for tax.
The title of the act refers to the new taxes the British crown will be collecting in the colonies. That's it.
It generally gets shortened to the Stamp Act because it's more distinctive and quicker to say. It was all about those stamps, after all. It could probably be called the Paper Act, but we've already collectively named it: the Stamp Act it is.
An act for granting and applying certain stamp duties, and other duties, in the British colonies and plantations in America, towards further defraying the expences of defending, protecting, and securing the same; and for amending such parts of the several acts of parliament relating to the trade and revenues of the said colonies and plantations, as direct the manner of determining and recovering the penalties and forfeitures therein mentioned. (1.1)
The opening line of the Stamp Act lets everyone know what they're there for. This act is going to pay for the costs of "defending, protecting, and securing" the colonies. It's kind of nice this bit of tax code includes its purpose right there. Modern ones don't get that specific.
And it is hereby further enacted, That if any person or persons shall be sued or prosecuted, either in Great Britain or America, for any thing done in pursuance of this act, such person and persons shall and may plead the general issue, and give this act and the special matter in evidence; and if it shall appear so to have been done, the jury shall find for the defendant or defendants: and if the plaintiff or plaintiffs shall become nonsuited, or discontinue his or their action after the defendant or defendants shall have appeared, or if judgement shall be given upon any verdict or demurrer against the plaintiff or plaintiffs, the defendant or defendants shall recover treble costs and have the like remedy for the same, as defendants have in other cases by law. (63.1)
The closing line is merely the final section of the act. This section explains some of the rights of those who are being prosecuted according to the act. It's not so much a closing remark as the final bit of business before we can all go home and stop thinking about it so much.
What do you get when you cross 18th Century legal writing with a level of specificity that would make an accountant blanch? You get the Stamp Act.
Taken individually, the points in the law can be a bit difficult to understand. Some of the words used aren't used the way we use them today…and some aren't used at all. Like vellum. Who has ever asked for vellum? What even is it? (It's parchment made from calfskin. And now you know.)
The first part of the law makes reference to the need to pay for a defense of the colony. This refers to the Seven Years War, as well as the creation of a standing force to defend the colony in the future. It was not popular.
In the second paragraph, the Stamp Act cites the Sugar Act as a precedent, though not by name. It's like "hey, we're doing this."
Patrick Henry, Virginia Stamp Act Resolutions
"No Taxation Without Representation"
Along with the Sugar Act, this is the primary cause of that slogan.
The American Revolution.
Just like, all of it.
"The Glorious Seventy Four," a folk song of the day
Stamp duties existed in Britain since 1689. They were used in largely the same way: to fund wars. (Source)
The French and Indian War was so named because those were the enemies of the English (and their Native American allies). It wasn't just to confuse you into thinking it was a war between the French and the Native Americans. (Source)
The Stamp Act resulted in the creation of the Sons of Liberty. That Patriot group included folks like Patrick Henry, John Adams, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock. (Source)
George Washington—yes, that George Washington—was there when the Seven Years War started in 1754. He watched as his Iroquois ally Tanaghrisson murdered French captive Joseph Coulon de Jumonville. That act started the entire war. (Source)
Connecticut governor Thomas Fitch more or less approved of the Stamp Act before it was enacted. He wasn't crazy about it, but thought the crown did have a right to tax the colonies. His face was probably pretty red during the fallout. (Source)