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The History of America


Chapter II - The Stamp Act and the Sons of Liberty


The Stamp Act and the Sons of Liberty     1765 -1766

     Encouraged by the colonists' feeble and disorganized response to the Sugar Act and determined to assert British sovereignty over the seemingly passive colonies' Grenville proceeded with his next revenue plan, the 1765 Stamp Act. This act required the colonists to purchase revenue stamps with sterling rather than colonial currency and to affix them to legal and commercial documents. The proceeds would pay royal officials and the British troops guarding the frontier. The colonists perceived this attempt to collect internal revenue as blatant taxation without representation and a direct threat to their traditional rights as Englishmen. Thus the Stamp Act, unlike the Sugar Act, provoked a massive wave of resistance. From Massachusetts to Georgia, New England merchants, Southern planters, small farmers and urban artisans fiercely protested this act.
     The first colonial legislature to take action was Virginia's House of Burgesses of which Patrick Henry was a member. Reeling from a severe decline in tobacco profits and heavy war-related taxes, Virginia planters refused to tolerate any additional taxation. In May of 1765 Patrick Henry introduced the Virginia Stamp Act Resolves which defiantly stated that only Virginia had the right to impose taxes and that residents of the colony did not have to obey tax laws passed by any other legislative bodies - namely Parliament. The Resolves termed any opponent of that opinion "an Enemy to this his Majesty's Colony."
     However, the ultimate effectiveness of the colonists' opposition did not lie in wordy, abstract arguments. Instead, intimidating mob action and non-importation movements during the late summer and fall of 1765 gave the resistance its primary force. In August, the "Loyal-Nine" - a Boston social club of distillers, printers and other artisans - demonstrated that people of all social and economic ranks opposed the Stamp Act. Early in the already sweltering morning of August 14, they hung an effigy of Andrew Oliver, the main stamp distributors from a tree in the Boston Common. Though the town sheriff was ordered to cut down the effigy, he nervously reported that an unruly crowd had gathered to prevent its removal. That night a mob stormed through Oliver's house smashing doors and windows while calling for the owner's head. Oliver quietly resigned his position the following day. Stamp distributors in other colonies wisely followed suit, for those who were reluctant to resign and those who supported the Stamp Act were brutally tarred and feathered. Not surprisingly, on November 1 when the act was scheduled to take effect, no one stepped forward to distribute the stamps.
     In every rebellious colony a group of conspirators calling themselves the Sons of Liberty carefully plotted the violence which forced the stamp distributors to resign. The Sons of Liberty would also actively oppose the Quartering Act, attacking British troops with swords and clubs in April of 1770 on Golden Hill in New York City. An association largely consisting of merchants, lawyers and tradesmen, the Sons of Liberty openly called for rebellion against Britain but also secretly desired to control the lower classes by directing the anger and economic grievances of poor people toward the British rather than the stealthy upper class. During the fall and winter of 1765 and 1766, the Sons of Liberty continued to hold meetings to protest the Stamp Act.
     Opposition also continued on two other fronts. Colonial legislatures petitioned Parliament to repeal the law and sent delegates to an intercolonial Stamp Act Congress. Representatives from nine colonies also met in New York and decided that, while Parliament had a right to legislate for the colonies, it had no right to tax them directly. Ultimately, the Stamp Act aroused ill will everywhere. As Benjamin Franklin's daughter Sally wrote to him, "Nothing else is talked of, the Dutch talk of the 'stompt' act, the Negroes of the 'tamp,' in short everybody has something to say."
     Finally, merchants organized non-importation associations as an effective means of protest. By the 1770s one-quarter of all British exports went to the colonies, and the merchants correctly reasoned that London merchants would suffer from a boycott and lob- by parliament for repeal. In March 1766, because of its unenforceability and the economic consequences, the Stamp Act was repealed.

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