Stamp Act: Violence As A Strategy For Change

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Since the beginning of time, humans have been all but submissive to authority. If we see something that we disagree with, we have a tendency to work to change it to our benefit. Humans tend to display forms of retaliation in one of three ways: economically, violently, or intellectually. According to Hobbesian ideals, humans should be psychologically inclined to commit acts of violence as opposed to the other options, but is violence truly the most effective method of insurrection?

Let’s take the relationship between the mother country, Britain, and the colonies into consideration. The Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War) was fought between two opposing countries: Britain and France (who had the added advantage of the Native Americansas an ally). The ultimate goal of this war was to gain political and economic benefits in the northern region of America. Britain ultimately won the war and gained an enormous amount of useful territory in North America. The victory was costly in terms of “blood and treasure”, and somewhat pyrrhic in nature, which led the British Parliament to tax the colonists in order to attempt to regain what money was lost. This controversial decision led to widespread colonial discontent. The Sugar Act and Quartering Act (passed in 1764 and 1765, respectively) taxed products such as sugar, wine, silk, and coffee, elucidated no due process of law and redress of grievances, and required colonists to provide housing and supplies for the British soldiers. These acts, while detrimental, were somewhat tolerable. It was the passing of the Stamp Act in 1765 that truly put colonists “over the edge.”

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In short, the Stamp Act taxed printed materials such as books, pamphlets, newspapers, and legal documents such as contracts; “Ship’s papers, legal documents, licenses, newspapers, other publications, and even playing cards were taxed” (Colonial Williamsburg, “A Summary of the 1765 Stamp Act”). What made this tax different from the rest? Well the tax itself was relatively diminutive in size, but what made this act more offensive than the rest, was how the colonists viewed it. “In the past, taxes and duties on colonial trade had always been viewed as measures to regulate commerce, not to raise money” (Colonial Williamsburg, “A Summary of the 1765 Stamp Act”). This tax, however, was viewed as a direct attempt by the British Parliament to infringe on the rights of the colonists by taxing them without their consent. Colonists found it necessary to stop this tax from being passed, as it could be seen as a gateway to harsher taxation in the future. And thus the phrase, “No taxation without representation!” grew in popularity. In fall 1765, elected delegates from the nine colonies gathered in New York City. This gathering became known as the Stamp Act Congress.

Colonists protested in three spheres: intellectually (primarily Virginia), economically (all colonies), and violently (primarily Massachusetts). Intellectual methods included arguing that government is a social contract with citizens and advocating natural rights including life, liberty, and property. Economically retaliating included colonists making their own clothing or the non importation agreements that called for a boycott of British goods (Kennedy & Cohen, “The American Pageant”). Colonists rebelled violently by tarring and feathering tax collectors, destroying the Massachusetts governor’s home, and assaulting royal officials. Another example of colonists using force was the formation of the Sons (and Daughters) of Liberty. This group was set on organizing riots to intimidate and attack tax agents as well as their fellow colonists that still used stamps (Kennedy & Cohen, “The American Pageant”). Famous colonial leaders emerged during this time as well. One of the most famous is Patrick Henry of Virginia, famous for coining the phrase, “Give me liberty or give me death!”

Perhaps the most notable examples of violent strategies with the goal of reform are the Boston Massacre (1770) and the Boston Tea Party (1773), both of which, ironically, take place in arguably the most confrontational colony. On February 22, 1770, a group of patriots attacked the store of a Loyalist. “Customs officer Ebenezer Richardson lived near the store and tried to break up the rock-pelting crowd by firing his gun through the window of his home. His gunfire struck and killed an 11-year-old boy named Christopher Seider and further enraged the patriots” (Burstein, “Boston Massacre”). This event was merely one of the many that led up to the penultimate revolutionary event. The next month, “On the frigid, snowy evening of March 5, 1770, Private Hugh White was the only soldier guarding the King’s money stored inside the Custom House on King Street. It wasn’t long before angry colonists joined him and insulted him and threatened violence” (Burstein, “Boston Massacre”). Reports of what events transpired after are foggy, but some would say they heard the word “fire” from the crowd. Once a soldier shot his gun, others opened fire killing five men. This event, although radical, helped unite the colonies under one common enemy, Britain. The Boston Massacre assisted in instigating the spark and the will of the colonists for independence from Britain while “the dead rioters became martyrs for liberty” (“America’s Story from America’s Library Boston Massacre”).

Undoubtedly, the most popular beverage in the colonies was tea. So when Britain repealed all of their intolerable taxes except their tea tax, colonists were more than upset. “In protest, the colonists boycotted tea sold by British East India Company and smuggled in Dutch tea, leaving British East India Company with millions of pounds of surplus tea and facing bankruptcy” (Bettmann, “Boston Tea Party”). Many members of the Sons of Liberty dressed up as Native Americans and dumped 342 chests of tea into the water.

Some may find methods of intellectual retribution far superior to violence. Peaceful revolts have also proved successful, for example, Mohandas Gandhi’s civil disobedience marches. Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement “called for Indians to boycott British goods and traditions and become self-reliant. His most famous protest came in 1930, when Gandhi led thousands of Indians on a 250-mile march to a coastal town to produce salt, on which the British had a monopoly” (Whipps, “How Gandhi Changed the World”). In the case made by the colonists, though, violence was the most viable option. Attempts at peace had been made, most notably, the Olive Branch Petition, which was a final attempt made by the colonists to avoid war with Britain. King George III rejects this concept of reconciliation and declared the colonies to be in open rebellion. The only option left was to utilize a more violent approach in order to ensure that their needs were being protected.

While violence certainty isn’t the most prudent form of retaliation, it proves the most effective. The events discussed prior all culminated to the ultimate test of colonial unity and power, the American Revolution. Had the colonists attempted to overthrow Britain using solely economic or intellectual powers, they most likely would have failed in their pursuits. It’s the intensity and sheer aggression behind actions like the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution as a whole that empowered the colonists to fight for the independence they longed for. Without violence, this seemingly out of reach necessity could not have been achieved. After all, it was Thomas Jefferson who said, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” 

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