Quick Study: The Stamp Act Congress

By Chuck Springston
The Stamp Act Congress made an early swipe at British Authority.
The Stamp Act Congress made an early swipe at British Authority.
The First Continental Congress, which began meeting in Philadelphia in 1774, wasn’t the first congress to challenge British actions in the American Colonies. That distinction goes to the Stamp Act Congress, which met 250 years ago this month in New York City.

    The delegates to the Stamp Act Congress approved what they called “declarations of our humble opinion” regarding Colonial rights and liberties—hardly as revolutionary as the Declaration of Independence 11 years later. Even so, the document was an early swipe at British authority, although not a particularly effective one.
    Here are some key facts about the Stamp Act Congress:

The backstory: The British Parliament, looking for ways to pay off debts incurred while fighting the French for control of North America from 1754 to 1763, passed the Stamp Act on March 22, 1765.
    The legislation levied a tax on many items printed on paper (or parchment), such as newspapers, pamphlets, college degrees, contracts, wills and court documents. The amount of the tax was shown with government stamps placed on blank sheets of paper that colonists were required to buy when they wrote their newspapers, court documents, etc.
    The colonists responded to the tax with an anger expressed in speeches, writings, boycotts of British goods and sometimes violent acts such as attacking the homes of stamp distributors appointed by the British government. 

How was the Stamp Act Congress created? The Massachusetts House of Representatives approved on June 8, 1765, a letter it then sent to other Colonial legislatures urging a united response to the Stamp Act. The letter proposed that each legislature appoint a committee of their members to meet in New York on the first Tuesday in October.   
     The purpose of the meeting was “to consult together on the present circumstances of the Colonies and the difficulties to which they are, and must be reduced, by the operation of the acts of Parliament for levying duties and taxes on the Colonies; and to consider of a general and united, dutiful, loyal and humble representation of their condition to his majesty and the Parliament, and to implore relief,” as stated in the Massachusetts letter (reproduced in the journal of the Stamp Act Congress). 

 When did the Congress meet? The representatives from the Colonies met for the first time on Monday, Oct. 7, 1765, a day earlier than the proposed first Tuesday in October. The Congress held its last meeting on Friday, Oct. 25. 

Where did the Congress meet? It met in New York’s City Hall, which later became Federal Hall, the first Capitol of the United States and the building where George Washington was inaugurated president in 1789. (That building was torn down in 1812. A customs house was built on the site in 1842.) 

How many Colonies were represented at the Congress? Nine: Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and South Carolina.
    New Hampshire’s House of Representatives passed a resolution stating that its members approved of the meeting but “the present situation of our government affairs” (which wasn’t explained in the resolution) would prevent them from sending anyone to New York, although they would “be ready to join in any address to his majesty and the Parliament,” as recorded in the Provincial Papers of New Hampshire.
    Edmund S. Morgan and Ellen M. Morgan, in The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution (University of North Carolina Press;1995) describe what happened in the other missing Colonies: “Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia were prevented from participating because their governors refused to convene the assemblies to elect delegates.” The authors added: “Delaware and New Jersey met the same obstruction but sent representatives anyhow, chosen when some of the assemblymen defiantly held an informal election of their own.” 

How many representatives attended? A total of 27. Most Colonies sent three delegates, although Rhode Island and Delaware sent two, and New York had five.
    The Stamp Act Congress didn’t have many of the famous names now associated with the Continental Congress and Revolution. There was no John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin or George Washington. But 10 of the delegates did become members of the Continental Congress, and four signed the Declaration of Independence.
    One of the most prominent delegates was James Otis Jr., a Massachusetts lawyer who had become well known for passionately arguing that taxes could not be levied on people without the consent of their elected representatives.
    John Adams, in a letter to friend William Tudor Sr. on March 29, 1817, remembered Otis as “a flame of fire!” in a 1761 court appearances in defense of Colonial rights. With “a rapid torrent of impetuous eloquence he hurried away all before him,” Adams wrote.
The chairman of the Stamp Act Congress was Timothy Ruggles of Massachusetts. 

What did the Stamp Act Congress do? The Congress laid out a list of concerns about British rule in a 14-point Declaration of Rights and Grievances approved on Oct. 19.
    These are a few of the key points:

  • No taxes should be imposed on people without their consent, either personally or by their representatives.
  • The people of the Colonies are not represented in Parliament, and because of “their local circumstances” (distance from Britain) it was not practicable for them to be represented there.
  • Only the legislatures of the Colonies, not Parliament, can impose taxes on the people of those Colonies.
  • The Stamp Act has a “tendency to subvert the rights and liberties” of the colonists.
  • British subjects have the right to petition the king and Parliament. The Congress wrote petitions to King George III, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The petitions were approved on Oct. 21.  Copies were provided to the individual Colonies so their agents in Britain could present them to the government. 

What did the petitions say? After reiterating and expounding upon the rights and grievances expressed in the declaration, each petition made specific requests.
    The almost fawning petition to the king asked him “to take into your royal consideration the distresses of your faithful subjects on this continent” and “afford them such relief as, in your royal wisdom, their unhappy circumstances shall be judged to require.”
    Another petition asked the House of Lords to pursue “measures for restoring the just rights and liberties of the Colonies” and “for redressing their present and preventing future grievances.”
    The petitioners wanted the House of Commons to “take our distressed and deplorable case into their serious consideration” so that the law “imposing duties and taxes” on the colonists “may be repealed.”

How did the British government react? It wasn’t amused. Indeed, Parliament considered the Stamp Act Congress itself an illegal gathering. “Without express permission from Parliament or the Crown, the colonies were not supposed to act in concert,” wrote Theodore Draper, in A Struggle for Power: The American Revolution (Times Books; 1996).
    Morgan quotes from correspondence of South Carolina’s agent in London, Charles Garth, who also was a member of Parliament and wrote that Parliament refused to receive communication from the Congress partly because it “partook too much of a federal union assembled without any requisition on the part of the supreme power.”
    Eventually, on March 18, 1766, Britain did repeal the Stamp Tax, but the reason had little to do with Colonial rights. British manufacturers and merchants were being hurt by the boycott and their petitions for relief were the ones that had an impact on lawmakers in London. 

What is the legacy of the Stamp Act Congress?  Draper sums up the important contribution of that unauthorized meeting of representatives from many Colonies: “That the British side did nothing to stop or punish them was a confession that it did not have the power or will to do so. One lesson of the Stamp Act Congress was that enough colonies acting together with enough popular support could not be made to back down without force.”
Note: In some historic documents and correspondence, spelling, capitalization and punctuation have been modernized. No words have been changed.  


Members of the Stamp Act Congress

  • William Samuel Johnson—served in the Continental Congress
  • Eliphalet Dyer—Continental Congress
  • David Rowland


  • Caesar Rodney—Continental Congress, signer of the Declaration of Independence
  • Thomas McKean—Continental Congress, signer of the Declaration of Independence


  • Edward Tilghman (brother of Matthew Tilghman, Continental Congress)
  • Thomas Ringgold
  • William Murdock


  • Timothy Ruggles
  • James Otis Jr. (brother of Samuel Allyne Otis, Continental Congress)
  • Oliver Partridge

     New Jersey

  • Hendrick Fisher
  • Robert Ogden
  • Joseph Borden

     New York

  • Philip LivingstonContinental Congress, signer of the Declaration of Independence
  • William Bayard
  • John Cruger Jr.
  • Robert R. Livingston Sr. (father of Robert R. Livingston, Continental Congress, who helped draft the Declaration of Independence but was not a member when it was signed)
  • Leonard Lispenard


  • John Morton—Continental Congress, signer of the Declaration of Independence
  • George Bryan
  • John Dickinson—Continental Congress

     Rhode Island

  • Henry Ward (brother of Samuel Ward, Continental Congress)
  • Metcalf Bowler

     South Carolina

  • John Rutledge—Continental Congress (brother of Edward Rutledge, Continental Congress, signer of the Declaration of Independence)
  • Thomas Lynch—Continental Congress (father of Thomas Lynch Jr., Continental Congress, signer of the Declaration of Independence)
  • Christopher Gadsden—Continental Congress



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