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Celebrating the Stamp Act's Repeal, May 19, 1766

Most Americans understand the coming of the American Revolution just the way Thomas Jefferson hoped they would. Colonists-turned-Americans made the logical and legitimate choice to revolt against Britain after suffering what Jefferson described in the Declaration of Independence as “a long train of abuses and usurpations” during the 1760s and 1770s. All sanctioned by the King, these policies meant “to reduce them [the colonists] under absolute Despotism.” Each parliamentary act and each moment of conflict seemed to precipitate the next, building momentum to a critical breaking point. The Stamp Act of 1765 is often seen as the earliest, major point on this road from resistance to revolution.

The Stamp Act is undoubtedly part of the Revolution’s history, but its repeal in 1766 reminds us also how long and meandering the path toward independence was. The King and Parliament agreed to repeal the Stamp Act on March 18, 1766, and news of their decision reached North America around two months later, and 250 years ago today, on May 19, 1766. Writing that day to a friend, the Philadelphian James Gordon described how the Act’s repeal “fill’d us all with great joy, the Bells are ringing ever since the vessel arrived in the Morning” with the news. The following “Evening the City is to be illuminated and next Day a great Dinner at the State House, where will be all the gentlemen in the Place.”

JG
Letter from James Gordon in Philadelphia, describing the celebrations accompanying news of the Stamp Act's repeal, May 19, 1766

The news of rapprochement was so well-received because colonists were eager to continue their pleasant and fruitful relationship with the Britain. As Gordon noted, “we are in hopes we shall carry on a greater Trade than ever, e’en in the best of times … which would be greatly to the advantage of us on the Continent and indeed to all the British subjects.” Far from leading inevitably to Revolution, the history of the Stamp Act actually reflects just how attached to the Empire many colonists were.

That is not say the Stamp Act did not shape future resistance to imperial policies. It did. The Act required colonists to use special taxed paper when producing printed materials—including legal documents, newspapers, magazines, and diplomas. It was called the Stamp Act, because a small embossed stamp on paper signified that it was of the proper, taxed variety. Colonists did not take this tax lying down. Especially in urban areas where demand was greatest for the items that the Stamp Act taxed, colonists resisted the implementation of the Act. They intimidated the appointed tax collectors, and making it difficult to implement the policy in many places. Colonists would resurrect these methods of resistance to oppose future policies.

Stamp
Top: an embossed stamp for ten shillings.

Alongside protests in the streets, some colonists wrote pamphlets laying out constitutional arguments denying Parliament’s right to pass direct taxes on the colonies. Most strikingly, representatives from a number of colonies met in New York for a Stamp Act Congress, where they coordinated opposition to the tax, and wrote a pamphlet explaining their objections. The fourth resolution declared that, as they “are not represented, and from their local and other circumstances cannot be properly represented in the British Parliament,” their local legislatures retained sovereignty “in all cases of taxation and internal polity.” In short, only institutions that represented them could tax; of course the inverse of this was that they could not be taxed without representation. The arguments that colonists made in this moment shaped the terms of debate of the dynamic constitutional argument that ran through the American Revolution.

Yet despite Gordon’s optimism, tensions remained. Accompanying the law repealing the Stamp Act was another piece of legislation passed by Parliament, known as the Declaratory Act. It made clear that whatever the Stamp Act repeal might seem to signify, Parliament was not backing down in claiming the power to levy taxes on the colonies. The Declaratory Act proclaimed that “Parliament assembled” retained the “full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever.” The colonists’ constitutional arguments had not won the day as far as English officials were concerned. That Gordon did not mention the Declaratory Act is telling. Gordon stands in for the many colonists who yearned to maintain their place as subjects of the British Empire.

There is a reason it took eleven years for colonists to decide to write and support the Declaration of Independence. Colonists had not immediately become Americans in 1765, and the Revolution was far from the inevitable outcome of the Stamp Act. Rather, the excitement surrounding the Stamp Act’s repeal anticipated just how long and fraught of a process it would be to move from tension to revolution.

The sources pictured in this post both come from the Thomas Addis Emmet collection.

About the Early American Manuscripts Project

With support from the The Polonsky Foundation, The New York Public Library is currently digitizing upwards of 50,000 pages of historic early American manuscript material. The Early American Manuscripts Project will allow students, researchers, and the general public to revisit major political events of the era from new perspectives and to explore currents of everyday social, cultural, and economic life in the colonial, revolutionary, and early national periods. The project will present on-line for the first time high quality facsimiles of key documents from America’s Founding, including the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Drawing on the full breadth of the Library’s manuscript collections, it will also make widely available less well-known manuscript sources, including business papers of Atlantic merchants, diaries of people ranging from elite New York women to Christian Indian preachers, and organizational records of voluntary associations and philanthropic organizations. Over the next two years, this trove of manuscript sources, previously available only at the Library, will be made freely available through nypl.org.

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