Stamp Acts

The Stamp Act of 1712 was a policing measure designed to stifle the rapid growth of newspapers following the lapsing of the Licensing Act in 1695. Press historians generally agree that the purpose of the Act was not primarily to raise tax revenue, but rather to hamper the growth of the press. Politicians viewed this growth with concern, and with the support of the more established printers who had enjoyed vested rights prior to 1695, they tried to reinsert the licensing system. Failing to do so, they pursued an alternative strategy through the levying of a stamp tax. In 1712, Lord Bolingbroke introduced the Stamp Act, which stated that ‘every copy of a news-carrying publication printed on a full sheet of paper [should be] liable to a duty of 1d.’.[1] As a result, some papers were forced to go out of business, and sales declined.

However, the Act had a conspicuous weakness: it was only valid for news publications consisting of only one sheet of paper. Newspaper proprietors took advantage of this loophole: by extending their publications and registering them as pamphlets rather than newspapers, they were able to pay a much lower duty.  This weakness in the law was immediately recognized by the authorities, but was not amended until 1725, when the old Act was extended to publications spanning more than one page. Still, proprietors continued to take advantage of weaknesses in the official regulations by increasing the size of individual sheets. As the sheets increased in size, so did the number of columns on the page. Around mid-century the form of the newspaper was established, consisting of four pages and four columns per page. According to Michael Harris, the Stamp tax ‘proved in the long run the determining element in the physical development of the English newspaper’.[2]

The stamp duty was raised by a halfpenny in 1757 (to 1 ½d.), and again in 1776 (to 2d.) Whereas the first stamp acts were designed to restrict the newspaper press, the rising costs of the stamp duty later in the century were encouraged primarily by financial motivations. This was also the case with the well-known American Stamp Act of 1765. In order to pay for the costs of the Seven Years’ War, the American colonists were obliged to pay a stamp tax. This tax was extremely unpopular among the colonists, who felt that they should not have to pay taxes when they were not represented in the British Parliament. The Stamp Act thus played a crucial role in the events that led to the American War of Independence. (J.K.)

[1] Michael Harris, ‘The structure, ownership and control of the press 1620-1780’, in Newspaper history: from the 17th century to the present day, ed. By George Boyce, James Curran and Pauline Wingate (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1978), pp. 82-97 (p. 84).

[2] Ibid, p. 86.