Declaration of the Congress held at New York, October 7, 1765
In the aftermath of the French and Indian War, Britain was burdened with enormous debt. England had acquired a vast amount of land stretching from Canada to Florida. This territory now had to be defended from the Spanish, the French, and Native Americans. Parliament calculated that it would cost £220,000 annually to maintain and supply an army that could defend this territory from the Spanish, the French, and Native Americans. Parliament also believed it was reasonable for the colonies to help pay for their defense. The Stamp Act, passed in 1765, was an attempt to introduce a small tax that would provide approximately £60,000 in revenue each year, covering less than a third of the defense budget. It was the first internal revenue tax to be placed upon colonists that did not originate from the colonial legislature.
Americans had put up with importation taxes before because each law had only affected a small group of merchants. The Currency Act of 1764 had forbidden colonists from using their own paper currency to pay British debt. An updated Molasses Act in 1764 increased the tax on imported molasses, which was used to make rum, cure meat, and pickle fish. The American Revenue Act of 1764, also known as the Sugar Act, placed taxes on imported coffee, wine, and sugar. The Stamp Act was different: it reached every corner of society and impeded daily business.
In 1765, stamps were merely impressions on sheets of paper that represented the tax to be paid on that paper. The Stamp Act required that every kind of paper be stamped, from playing cards to legal documents. Anything written on unstamped paper was invalid, and counterfeiting stamped paper was a felony. It was a huge cost and inconvenience to acquire a stamped document for every transaction. Furthermore, because of the American Revenue Act, stamp taxes had to be paid in British currency, which was increasingly rare in the colonies due to a trade imbalance with England. All of these factors convinced the Massachusetts Assembly to circulate a letter among the colonial legislature, asking delegates to gather to discuss the matter.
Ultimately, 27 delegates from nine colonies met in New York on October 7, 1765. The gathering came to be called the Stamp Act Congress. By October 19 the delegates had written and agreed to send a "Declaration of Rights and Grievances" to Parliament in which they protested the injustice of the Stamp Act. The document presented here is a copy of a draft of that declaration. After riots shut down the distribution of stamped paper in many American cities, Parliament lifted the tax but passed additional laws increasing its power over the colonial legislature, including the Declaratory Act of 1766. These statutes would further remove American colonists from the rights they believed they deserved as British subjects.
The Declaration of the Congress Held at New York represents the beginning of intellectual independence from Britain. Although the Stamp Act Congress wrote the declaration with the intention of gaining rights as British citizens and proclaiming their loyalty to the King, the Congress was the first organized American political body to directly challenge British authority, making its declaration a vital document in the history of American freedom.
Stamp Act: The Origins, Implementation, and Consequences, University of Massachusetts History Club, accessed September 2012, www.stamp-act-history.com.
C. A. Weslager, The Stamp Act Congress, With an Exact Copy of the Complete Journal (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1976).