Of all of the so-called “revenue acts” passed by the British Parliament in the years leading up to American independence, the most famous — the one that you, dear reader, still remember from high school history — is the Stamp Act. And for one very good reason. This act, which Parliament passed this week (March 22) in 1765, was the match that lit the long fuse to the American Revolution.
The question is why? Why was the Stamp Act such an anathema to the American colonists when similar acts designed to raise revenue from them (the Molasses Act, the Sugar Act) were considered less provocative?
The short answer is the “T” word. Unlike previous revenue acts, the Stamp Act was the first actual tax. The others were duties — that is, monies levied on imports and exports — and as such they were considered within Parliament’s jurisdiction. Up until the revolution itself, American colonists conceded to Parliament the power to regulate what they called “external” matters, meaning trade.
But taxes were “internal.” Taxes were levied on a person’s property, and to the colonists nothing was more sacrosanct than their “property rights.” Property could not be taxed unless “consent” was given, and in Colonial America the only ones empowered to give consent were the people themselves, through local representatives that they elected to local assemblies. The colonists argued that since they had no representatives in Parliament, Parliament could not levy taxes on them without breaking one of the first principles of British law and custom — “No taxation without representation.”
But while the colonists clung to that principle, Parliament clung to one of its own: “The Parliament of Great Britain is vested with the Supreme Authority of the Nation.” In other words, if the colonists were allowed to defy Parliament on taxation, what would prevent them from defying Parliament on anything else?
Which brings us to the fundamental answer as to why the Stamp Act was such a crucial turning point on the road to the American Revolution. The Stamp Act clarified what was the key principle for each side. For the colonists it was, “No Taxation Without Our Consent.” For Parliament it was, “No Compromise of Our Supreme Authority.” Because neither side could bend on these core principles, a war to decide who would prevail was inevitable.
There is an old saying, “It’s not the money, it’s the principle,” which is usually a reversal of the truth. But regarding the Stamp Act it was true. The act helped cost Britain its American empire, which badly damaged its profitable colonial trade. By contrast, the amount of tax revenue collected as a result of the Stamp Act didn’t even equal the expense of administering it.