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.


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.

As the effective date of the Act (November 1, 1765) approached, printers did then what Google and others did last week, depicting their protests visually in their publications. Many published their newspapers with mourning borders, thick black bands along the edges of each column of print that were typically only used at the death of the monarch. Several decided to suspend publication as of November 1, and melodramatically eulogized their newspapers as they would the death of a family member. Jonas Green added an epitaph to the masthead of his Maryland Gazette in October 10, 1765: "EXPIRING: In uncertain Hopes of a Resurrection to Life again." William Bradford, publisher of the Pennsylvania Journal, added a skull-and-crossbones design to the bottom of the October 31, 1765 issue to note where the stamp would appear. In addition, Bradford inserted a coffin with a brief eulogy that declared the Journal had died "of a Stamp in her Vitals."As in the protests against SOPA and PIPA last week, those most affected by the potential legislation took the lead in attempting to prevent the effects of the law.

By mid-November 1765, protestors had quashed enforcement of the law in the thirteen colonies (though it took effect in Canada and the West Indies). After months of protest in the winter of 1765-1766, including not only the printers' protests and the street riots but also merchant boycotts, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act on March 18, 1766. The current Internet legislation may well face a similar fate. On Friday, Senator Harry Reid pulled SOPA from consideration and the sponsors of the PROTECT IP Act had withdrawn their support.

But the Stamp Act's demise was not the end of the story, and points to potential difficulties for proponents of openness on the Internet. At the same time as the repeal went through, Parliament rebuffed arguments that it lacked the power to tax the colonists. In the Declaratory Act, it reminded the colonists that it held the power to "make laws and statutes ... to bind the colonies and people of America ... in all cases whatsoever." Similarly, when SOPA and the PROTECT IP Act were pulled, former Senator Christopher Dodd, now head of the Motion Picture Association of America and a chief proponent of SOPA, promised to continue to lobby for the bill's passage, even threatening to withhold Hollywood campaign contributions from members of Congress if the bill doesn't eventually become law. Those in power relinquish it only reluctantly.