May 17

The passage of the infamous Stamp Act was announced bitterly by the New-Hampshire Gazette in its issue of May 17, 1765. The editor placed heavy black rules around the announcement, in which he declared that the new law would “oblige the Printers on this Continent to Raise more Money every Year, than was ever raised at the year’s end, and perhaps be obliged to pay the Stamp Duty weekly.”

The uproar from the colonial printers resounded through the land, and with some reason, as the precarious financial position of most printing offices was already a cause for concern. The Stamp Act assessed a tax of a halfpenny on each copy of a newspaper printed on the size of paper called a half sheet, and a penny on the larger size. On top of that each advertisement was to be taxed two shillings, which was about half the usual charge of an insertion in most newspapers. The job printing was to be charged a halfpenny for every pamphlet printed, twopence on each almanac, and from three pence to £6 on legal and business forms. Foreign language printing was to be taxed at twice the regular rate, which meant that the Pennsylvania German printers would be taxed out of business.

The penalties for violations were severe, ranging from forty shillings to £10 with the stipulation that these fines were to be enforceable in admiralty court without a jury trial. The ordinance also dragooned the printers into a toll of 2½ to 5 per cent on apprenticeship indentures.

The British Parliament had passed an act which contained political dynamite. There appears to be no evidence that the law was meant to interfere with the freedom of the press, but the reaction of the colonial printer proved that he believed this to be the case. David Ramsey in The History of the American Revolution, published in 1789, stated: “Printers, when uninfluenced by government, have generally arranged themselves on the side of liberty, nor are they less remarkable for attention to the profits of their profession. A stamp duty, which openly invaded the first, and threatened a great dimunition of the last, provoked their united zealous opposition.”

A number of newspapers attempted to evade the Stamp Act by changing their names slightly, running the risk of double penalty for anonymous publication. Quite a few papers suspended publication, but irate subscribers soon complained. Andrew Steurt, editor of the North-Carolina Gazette, was forced by a mob to resume publication, “at the Hazard of Life, being maimed, or having his Printing Office destroy’d.” Another editor was informed that “should you at this critical Time, shut up the Press, and basely desert us, your House, Person, and Effects, will be in imminent danger.”

Newspaper publishers quickly learned that in most instances the public supported them when they wrote outraged editorials against the tax. In turn, the people of the colonies learned which papers rushed to the defense of the colonists. Even more important was the realization that the press constituted a solid front when faced with a situation which threatened its survival. This factor in the long run was to represent a stabilizing influence in the long battle of the American colonies to gain their independence.

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