Stamped paper

The Morbid Way Colonists Protested King George’s Stamp Act

If the phrase “taxation without representation” evokes images of Washington, D.C. license plates, you might want to look a bit further back—250 years, in fact—to a law that enraged American colonists. The Stamp Act, which forced British colonies to pay taxes on paper products like playing cards and newspapers, sparked fierce debate and a series of fascinating protests.

By the time the British Parliament landed on the idea of taxing the colonies to pay for troops stationed there after the French and Indian War, the colonies were already irritated with King George’s Parliament. The war had taken nine years and drained Britain’s coffers, and the government back home was irked by the ongoing expense of maintaining their increasingly headstrong colonies. So they devised the tax John Adams would call “the enormous engine fabricated by the British Parliament for battering down the rights and liberties of America”—a law that struck at that metallic heart of the colonies, the printing press.

The act King George signed into law 250 years ago was deceptively simple. It imposed duties on pretty much everything that could be printed or written on a piece of paper, from wills to summons to playing cards and newspapers. In order to comply with the act, colonists were required to purchase special stamped paper produced in England with English money, not colonial dollars. Suddenly, the colonies’ thriving printing business was under fire—and colonists, in turn, were fired up. It was the first time the overseas government had ever tried to use its colonies to fill its coffers, and colonists—many of whom had fled to the Americas seeking religious tolerance and free expression—were irate. And…