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John Hancock and the 1765 British Stamp Act

We didn't want to pay taxes to a king and to a parliament where we didn't have a voice, and we didn't have any representation. We have a natural resentment towards government which is how we were born.

Aaron Sorkin, Screenwriter 'West Wing' & 'The Social Network'

In 1763, the Seven Years War ends. The Treaty of Paris sees the defeated France relinquish territories in North America to Britain. Many of its American subjects celebrate the victory for which they had fought. But victory comes at a crippling cost. The British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Grenville, calculates the deficit at now over £122 million.

As Americans only pay a quarter of the taxes of British subjects, his solution is the 1765 Stamp Act. Now, almost anything written or printed would have to be done on special taxed paper. Boston born Benjamin Franklin who has made his fortune in printing, sees its unfairness. There have been seven generations since John Rolfe's first tobacco harvest, and each has enjoyed low taxes. Most colonial assemblies condemn the Act.

In August 1765, Bostonians attack the house of one of their own, Andrew Oliver, for collecting the Stamp tax. Demonstrations spread through the colonies and in March 1766, Parliament repeals the Stamp Act. But in 1767, Parliament creates the Townshend Acts imposing custom duties on imports. British troops, known as redcoats, move from their frontier outposts to the resistant seaports. The British King, George III, sends 4,000 troops to Boston alone.


Boston is a crucial port in a global trade worth £20million to the British Empire. Boston dockyards are some of the busiest, producing 200 ships a year from the vast American timber reserves. A third of all British shipping is built in the colonies. Timber fuels the 18th century global economy much like oil does today. Across New England, marks identify the tallest trees destined for the masts of British ships. And it's Boston that is the gateway to a market that accounts for 40% off all British exports.

It's to protect these interests that the British turn Boston into a city under occupation. There is one redcoat for every four Bostonians. American fishing fleets ship out thousands of tonnes of salted cod and return with sugar and molasses to make rum. The British tax both.


In 1768, British customs officials spring a surprise raid on one of the richest men in Boston, John Hancock. Hancock's crew are carrying a hundred casks of imported wines and don't want to pay the duty to a king that's 5000kms away. To the British, Hancock is just a common smuggler. They seize his ship. It sparks citywide riots.

And resentment is now close to turning into revolution.

Did you know?

Within just a few generations, the colonists are on average two inches taller than their English counterparts. Their children are now twice as likely to reach adulthood and they are 20% wealthier. , Benjamin Franklin invented the lightning rod. This was a vital innovation, 'for American thunderstorms (were) ferocious and the largely wooden towns of colonial America suffered again and again from devastating fires.'

Hugh Brogan: The Penguin History of the USA.