‘Very grievous and unconstitutional’? The repeal of the (American) Stamp Act (1766)

250 years ago this month Parliament was debating the fate of the Stamp Act – the law which proved dangerously unpopular in Britain’s American colonies. In the first of two blogs on the issue, Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow in the House of Lords 1660-1832 section, discusses the Act’s history and the debates over its repeal…

January 1766 ought in many ways to have been a moment of particular optimism for George III and his government. On New Year’s day, the Old Pretender (James Francis Edward Stuart) died and as no Catholic leader of any weight chose to recognize his heir, Charles Edward (Bonnie Prince Charlie) as ‘Charles III’ of England, the demise of the Pretender effectively brought to a close a chapter in the struggle between the Hanoverians and Stuarts for legitimacy. However, if matters had been settled neatly in the old world, pressures were mounting in the new.

In the early months of 1766, following pressure from both the American colonies and British merchants, the administration of the marquess of Rockingham presided over the repeal of the Stamp Act, which had been introduced only a year before under the previous administration headed by George Grenville. The duty, raised as part of an effort to recoup the huge expenditure of the Seven Years War (1756-63), which according to some estimates amounted to as much as £70 million, extended the principle of paying duty on certain products already familiar in Britain to the colonies. Thus the law required a stamp to be paid for certain items including licences for retailing wine (£4), for retailing wine and spirits (£3), letters of probate (10 shillings) and for each pack of playing cards (1 shilling). In addition, the stamp had to be paid for in British rather than colonial currency. It proved extremely unpopular in America, provoking riots in a number of places. It was also resented by some British merchants who feared loss of income as a result of American traders boycotting British goods.

Grenville’s decision to turn to the colonies had been prompted largely by the unpopularity of the 1763 Cider Tax but it can be argued that there was also a philosophical angle to the move. As Grenville was later to insist ‘Protection and obedience are reciprocal. Great Britain protects America; America is bound to yield obedience.’ [cited in B. Simms, Three Victories and a Defeat, 536]. By insisting that the American colonists pay their share towards the upkeep of British troops, Grenville hoped to help defray the costs of the war without imposing further on the over-taxed and war-weary British population; but he also wished to emphasize the changing nature of the relationship between Britain and its developing empire.

As just one of a number of measures levied around the same time, the Stamp Act passed with little comment at Westminster, but unfortunately for Grenville, the Americans proved far less easy to convince and were quick to object to the new imposition. Why should they be taxed to maintain an army that they did not believe played any role in protecting them, and (perhaps more importantly) without having been properly consulted about the measure? The levy gave rise to the well-known slogan of ‘no taxation without representation’, harking back to one of the most famous tenets of Magna Carta, that no taxation might be raised without the consent of the monarch’s tenants in chief. For the Americans, that meant that property-holders in the states ought to have had a say in agreeing to such a new tax. The Virginia Assembly meeting in May 1765 was the first to condemn it and a meeting of freeholders in Boston in September 1765 (following on from rioting of the previous month) reflected similar views by dubbing the measure ‘very grievous, and we apprehend unconstitutional’. In October the ‘Stamp Act Congress’ convened in New York, at which representatives of many of the ’13 Colonies’ gathered to express their dissatisfaction with the Stamp Act and other levies.

Not all of the colonies chose to oppose the measure. Newspapers reported that Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua and the Grenadines, as well as Halifax in Canada had acceded to the tax. However, by the beginning of 1766 the Rockingham ministry, which had replaced Grenville’s in July 1765, had resolved on repealing the Stamp Act. The ministry’s stance was attacked by ‘the King’s Friends’ headed by the former prime minister, the earl of Bute, but attracted high profile support from William Pitt the Elder, who proved a particularly vocal advocate of repeal in the House of Commons (overcoming indisposition with gout to attend the session). Pitt also assisted the ministry in finding a way of saving face. The Stamp Act was to be repealed but at the same time a Declaratory Act would be put on the statute books, confirming the right of the ministry to tax the colonists where appropriate (for more on this watch this space in March).

Unsurprisingly, not everyone agreed with the ministry’s handling of the crisis. Grenville voiced his opposition to the scheme and his views were echoed in a letter to the London Chronicle of 4-6 February 1766 by Rev. James Scott (a noted supporter of the Stamp Act who wrote under the pen-name ‘Anti-Sejanus’), attacking the ministry but in particular the role of Pitt in arriving at what he saw as the present unhappy compromise:

The plan which the M—y now intend to pursue, is, if possible, ten times more absurd and ridiculous, than that on which they originally set out. It carries with it a flat contradiction in terms, and implies an absolute impossibility. Attend and marvel O indignant reader! They propose to repeal the Act, and yet to enforce the power of parliament over the colonies. Now light and darkness, fire and water, are not more diametrically opposite and repugnant, than these two propositions.

‘Absurd’ or ‘repugnant’ they may have been, but following careful management and a noteworthy debut in Parliament by the newly-elected Edmund Burke, in February the ministry carried it for repeal and the following month both repeal of the Stamp Act and the passage of the Declaratory Act received the royal assent.


We’ll return to this subject later this year with more on the Declaratory Act – watch this space!

Further Reading:

  • Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Great Melody: a thematic biography of Edmund Burke (1992)
  • Paul Langford, A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783 (1989)

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