Study Guide

Stamp Act Historical Context

By British Parliament, King George III

Historical Context

Seven Years Bad Luck

The story of America started with the Seven Years War.

Scratch that: it really started with the "discovery" of the Americas by Europeans, which led the Native Americans to say, "Guys, we already know about the Americas. We live here."

But the Stamp Act—which led in a very real way to the Revolutionary War—started with the Seven Years War.

The Seven Years War lasted—wait for it—seven years, from 1756-1763. In the Americas, it was confusingly known as the French and Indian War, as the colonists were fighting the French and their Native American allies. (But, confusingly, although the colonists had their own Native American allies, the French never called it the English and Indian War.)

Britain won the war, but was saddled with what usually waits for people who win wars: tons and tons o' debt. And the way that nations have been dealing with debt ever since nations and debt became things is with taxes. The British felt that, since the war largely kicked France off the continent, the colonists needed to pay their fair share of the bill.

And no one likes being told that they have to pay more taxes.

Before and during the war, the British had methods of taxing the colonists with imports and exports, but generally enforced them about as stringently as a New Years resolution. For instance, the Sugar Act of 1764 was an attempt to wring some more cash out of imports and exports…but, as you might expect from something with a cute name like "the Sugar Act," no one's feathers got all that ruffled.

Stamp Act Stampede

The Stamp Act of the following year was another step. Instead of taxing imports and exports, this was the first direct tax on the colonists. Nearly everything made out of paper had to bear a stamp that cost money. Some of the money raised would be used to pay for the war, some of it would be used to keep some soldiers in the colonies to defend against threats, and all of it was a huge thorn in the side of the colonists.

Turns out no one likes paying for stuff if they can possibly help it. To make matters worse, the Stamp Act had been put into law during an economic downturn, so it was even harder to pay for. The Stamp Act even explicitly denied offenders the right of trial by jury. All told, the Stamp Act went over like a lead balloon filled with anvils.

Colonists wasted no time in protesting it. Patrick Henry was one of the most famous, and vocal protesters of the Stamp Act, taking it to House of Burgesses (kind of a local Congress). Henry didn't just question the specific value of the Stamp Act, but whether or not the crown had any right to tax the colonies at all.

His point was that without any actual colonies in Parliament, how could they lawfully tax the colonists? That's where that "no taxation without representation" quip you've heard so much about comes from. Resistance was so fierce that stamp distributors resigned their commissions and refused to enforce the Stamp Act.

Parliament repealed the act in 1766, but the damage was done. As a face-saving measure, they passed the Declaratory Act, which stated that "Nuh uh, the crown does have the right to tax you."

But how important was a right that is impossible to enforce? "Not very" would be the answer.

The colonists had won an important victory and learned that the crown could be defied. The same issues came to a head ten years later with an obscure little moment called the American Revolution. It's likely the Revolution would have happened regardless, but the Stamp Act helped mobilize and unite the eventual patriots and gave them a solid decade to plan before independence.

And that, folks, is what happens with you try to overcharge on paper products.