Historian Helps with a Correction on the Stamp Act

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In last week's puzzle, host Liane Hansen confused the Stamp Act with the tax on tea. She talks with historian David Hackett Fischer, who explains the origins of the British-imposed taxes on the American colonials.


In last week's puzzle segment, I confused some details of American history. The challenge was to answer Will's clue using a two-word phrase with the initials S.A. Here's one exchange.

Mr. WILL SHORTZ (Puzzlemaster): The English Parliament passed it in 1765, helping precipitate the Revolutionary War.

Mr. BOB FINCH (Caller): The A must be act.

Mr. SHORTZ: They charged a duty on something.

Mr. FINCH: I keep thinking of tea.

HANSEN: That's where they put the stamp.

Mr. FINCH: Oh, the Stamp Act.

HANSEN: The Stamp Act.

Mr. SHORTZ: The Stamp Act, good.

HANSEN: Well, not so good. Many of you wrote in to correct my confusing the Stamp Act with the tax on tea. So to straighten us out, we've called a good friend of this program, historian David Hackett Fischer. He's author of Paul Revere's Ride and Washington's Crossing. Hi, Professor Fisher.

Professor DAVID HACKETT FISHER (Historian): Hi, Liane.

HANSEN: Okay, what's the difference between the Stamp Act and the tax on tea?

Prof. FISHER: Well, it's a long story, but let's make it as short as can be. Two laws, the first one passed in 1765, that was the Stamp Act, which was really unprecedented. There had been taxes before, but this was a direct tax and it fell on anything almost that was printed or written in 1765, and each of these pieces of paper had to bear a stamp that could be acquired from a stamp commissioner.

And it was deigned to produce a large income, and what they did was to impose a tax on legal documents and also on lawyers' diplomas and licenses to practice. On newspapers they put a tax on the sheets of printing paper and then a tax on each issue of each newspaper. It taxed the playing cards, it taxed dice. It was in some sense a sin tax, and when Americans heard about it, there was an explosion from one end to the - of the colonies to the other and the British Parliament backed away. And they repealed the Stamp Act in 1766.

HANSEN: So what was the tax on tea?

Prof. FISHER: After the repeal of the stamp tax, Parliament was having major problems with revenue and a new man came into office. His name was Charles Townsend. So he thought he would impose a tax for revenue on goods that are being imported into America and one of them was a tax on tea. And once again, there was an explosion. The British backed away and repealed all of the Townsend duties except on tea. They kept that as a symbolic act to remind Americans that Parliament was supreme.

HANSEN: But I guess tossing tea into the harbor had a little bit more resonance than tossing playing cards and diplomas.

Prof. FISHER: That's right. The Americans had a lot of tea parties in 1773 and 1774. The people in Annapolis ordered a tea merchant to burn his own ship to the water's edge, which he did in fear of his life. And Boston staged a piece of political theatre, which had a huge impact on opinion on both sides of the ocean and they did it in a very controlled way. They had to break the locks on the tea ships and when they broke one of the locks, they replaced it from the local hardware store to make clear that this was not a revolution against property, and they were once more focused in their goal.

HANSEN: David Hackett Fisher is the Warren Professor of History at Brandeis University and last year's Pulitzer Prize winner for his book, Washington's Crossing. Thanks so much for your time and the history lesson.

Prof. FISHER: You're welcome, Liane.

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