Mobilizing the Public Against Censorship, 1765 and 2012

There are uncanny parallels between colonial protests against the Stamp Act and last week's website blackouts protesting the Stop Online Piracy Act.

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Last week's protests against two bills aiming to curb copyright infringement and piracy on the Internet were jarringly familiar to scholars of the American Revolution. After all, we've seen this narrative before. In seeking to solve a problem, legislators propose a bill that directly affects the flow of information. Those whose businesses would bear the brunt of the laws see it as a direct assault and mobilize in opposition. The public responds to the rhetoric, rallying behind the call to prevent censorship and protect the free exchange of information. The government backs down in the face of the outcry, but promises to revisit the underlying issues. That description of the Internet protests of 2012 echoes in unnerving detail the Stamp Act crisis of 1765, the moment when dissent against imperial control morphed into a Revolutionary movement.

The Stamp Act crisis started with a problem that had little to do with communications. At the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763, Britain faced a fiscal crisis and an unstable political environment. It had amassed enormous debt to defeat France, and the fallout sank one ministry after another in the early 1760s. Exacerbating the political situation, King George II had died in 1760 and left the throne to his young grandson, George III. Seeking an answer to the vexing financial problems, George Grenville, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, devised a plan in 1764 to tax the colonies, which had benefitted greatly from British success in ejecting France from North America.

The result was the Stamp Act of 1765, which taxed all printed documents, including not only almanacs, newspapers, and books, but also blank forms used in commercial and legal proceedings, playing cards, and even dice. Grenville reasoned that colonists would accept the tax: they paid the lowest taxes in the British Empire, they had gained greatly from the British victory, and they should be asked to contribute to paying both for the cost of the war and for the force that remained. Furthermore, the British printing trade had operated under a stamp act since 1712, and several colonies--most notably New York and Massachusetts--had funded their own soldiers in the 1750s through temporary stamp taxes.

What British officials did not anticipate was that American printers, like Internet entrepreneurs today, viewed the Act as a direct assault on their businesses, and many other colonists saw it as censorship and an attempt to shut down political debate. After initially trying to make money off the Act's arrival in the colonies (many sold copies as a pamphlet for a shilling), printers took to the vanguard of protest. Nearly all, even those inclined to be supportive of imperial policies, opposed the law, fearful of how the added cost of the tax would harm their sales. Many turned their publications into vehicles of dissent, publishing essays and letters detailing the alleged constitutional and moral flaws of the Act and chronicling and dramatizing the street protests that ravaged cities from Boston to Savannah. A few, most notably Benjamin Edes in Boston and William Bradford in Philadelphia, became leaders of the Sons of Liberty, the intercolonial protest group that emerged during the fall of 1765.

Presented by

Joseph M. Adelman is a historian of the politics and media of the American Revolution. He is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow at the American Antiquarian Society.

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