The Stamp of severance

How the 1765 Stamp Act protest matters to today’s Pakistan

Seemingly little events of apparently no wider consequences can sometimes just turn out to be the complete opposite of what they’re thought to be.

In 1765 British Parliament passed the Stamp Act, a law imposing a direct tax on paper documents in the British colonies in America. The underlying reason for enacting this law was to help Britain recuperate from the immense financial costs incurred as a result of the French and Indian War, a conflict between British colonies in North America and New France. Part of the money raised through the tax was also to be used for stationing British soldiers in the colonies.

The supporters of the Stamp Act argued that the American colonies needed to shoulder more responsibility for their own defense. Evidently, they saw no problem with raising revenues from the colonies through taxation.

However, the tax was not well-received within the colonies.

The colonists vigorously opposed the Stamp Act, questioning the authority of Britain’s Parliament to tax them against their will. For them, it was not only a matter of sovereignty but also a question of taxation without representation. They argued that only their own representative assemblies could tax them. The British Parliament did not represent their aspirations. Groups such as the Sons of Liberty obstructed tax officials from implementing the Stamp Act.

Due to the strong resistance, Britain repealed the Stamp Act in 1766 but also passed the Declaratory Act that reiterated its supremacy over the colonies and its right to pass laws for them as the lawful authority. However, this authority was soon to be challenged by the colonists in a wider struggle for political independence.

The Stamp Act, and several other laws that preceded as well as followed it, not only signify an important epoch in American history but also shed light on the fundamental issue of federalism: the balance of power between a central authority and its various constituents.

This balance in distribution of internal powers often evades most states. The failure to strike the balance stems from several factors. Yet, the fundamental problem that warrants close examination is the way policy processes are designed and implemented.

The formulation of public policy ought to be an inclusive process involving wider stakeholder consultation and encouraging a heathy debate on all contentious issues. Not only does it matter to listen to everyone being affected by a certain policy but it is also imperative to address their concerns and grievances.

Nonetheless, wiser states will always encourage greater participation and transparency in the policy process. Any decision arrived at through such consultation will be durable and untainted by misunderstandings that are an inevitable consequence of decisions taken behind closed doors.

Decisions that are taken without consulting all the stakeholders and accounting for all possible implications, though easiest to conceive, are hardest to implement. Inevitably, they result in exacerbating grievances on either side.

These grievances when left unaddressed become festering wounds threatening the very foundation of a state.

For parliamentarians in Britain, the Stamp Act may have been an inevitable necessity for defending the colonies against foreign rivals, and also a justified act requiring the colonies to contribute for their own defense.

But for the colonists the Stamp Act represented economic exploitation in its worst forms. It was not only deemed an encroachment upon the autonomy of the colonies but also a perverse means through which the elite in London wanted to augment its coffers at the expense of the colonists.

A series of misunderstandings on these fundamental issues, coupled with vested interests on both sides, triggered hostilities that culminated in a political divorce between Britain and its American colonies. The birth of the United States of America marked the death of British suzerainty over these colonies.

Fundamentally, federalism in the 21st century confronts the same challenges as it did in the 18th and arguably the results of such confrontation are not so different.

Underlying the governance crises in Iraq and Syria, the Kurdish quest for freedom and autonomy in the Middle East, as well as the tribal and ethnic conflicts in Afghanistan; underlying all of these is a question of legitimate authority arising out of a trust deficit between the federation and its constituents. Even in our own country central authority and provincial autonomy have always been pitted against each other with each side claiming more power.

Nonetheless, wiser states will always encourage greater participation and transparency in the policy process. Any decision arrived at through such consultation will be durable and untainted by misunderstandings that are an inevitable consequence of decisions taken behind closed doors.

This is not to say that stakeholder consultation is an easy process. In fact, the process itself can often be extremely grueling, and reconciling differences as well as competing interests can sometimes be a herculean task (and occasionally impossible).

However, the mere enormity of the task should not restrain us from taking the right approach to tackle problems that have no simple solutions after all.

Had the British Parliament followed a more inclusive process before making laws such as the Stamp Act, perhaps history would have charted a course different than the Treaty of Paris in 1783 which formally ended British control over the colonies and recognized the independence of USA.

Moneeb Ahmad Barlas
Moneeb Ahmad Barlas
The writer is a civil servant and can be reached at [email protected]


  1. The writer needs to understand that Stamp Act is a pure fiscal regulation. It is to collect revenue for establishing civil courts to adjudicate disputes by State/ Ruler. The civil disputes between parties require every State to establish courts for adjudication to avoid civil unrests and it incur cost. Parties to avoid disputes overtime started reducing terms in writing and with growth of business transactions, the need of more civil courts arise for State to interpret such writings and adjudicate for betterment of society. It is not possible for any State to record/ register all such business transactions and therefore the Registration Act was also enacted. Both these Acts need to be understood in conjuncture.

    The cost of establishing civil courts is high and therefore these legislations spread the fiscal collections on all written civil transactions. This is to minimize revenue burden on specific transaction reaching to courts for adjudication and to also to avoid civil unrests by rulers. This law in India & Pakistan flow from the Indian Stamp Act, 1899. The British India and its numerous suzerainties during undivided India were part of it. This legislation represents purely federal character. As after partition also, it gives powers to provincial federating units to amend the Schedule of Stamp Duty charges by the provinces.

    The old legislations can’t be discarded only because they are colonial or old. If that be so what are writer’s views about Noble Book? There is need to amend all old texts and social laws vibrantly from time to time, by the rulers with aid of civil servants. Nothing is static in governance of society.

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