Benjamin Franklin And The Stamp Act Crisis

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Benjamin Franklin And The Stamp Act Crisis

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Primary sources provide us a fly-on-the-wall glimpse of history in the making by those who witnessed that history. And given that most of the past is destroyed, they are precious.

This assignment grows out of the article I assigned in an earlier module — “Windows on the Past: Primary Sources and Why They’re Important.”That reading contains two videos showing you how historians establish the basic facts about their sources and the types of questions they ask about them. I’ll assume you’ve seen and understood these two videos.

What also will help you is reading the assigned reading for this week BEFORE you tackle this assignment. That reading that will give you the context or backstory to this source. That backstory will provide important clues to your understanding of this source. When I come to grade your work, I will look to see if you used 1.) the source itself and 2.) the assigned reading in your primary source analysis.


Please read the primary source below, entitled “Benjamin Franklin and the Stamp Act Crisis.” Read it carefully, and read it twice. If you can, read it three times. If you are reading carefully, each reading will reveal to you more than you saw before.

Then in light of your reading the primary source and drawing on it almost entirely, answer the questions in the Primary Source Question Set. Submit your answers. Then critically (questioningly) respond to the posts of your fellow students.


Here are the questions that all historians ask of their primary sources as they seek to do what I ask you to do in examining primary sources in our course: to understand the past. Here are those questions which, by the end of the semester, should be second nature to you:

  1. Identify and date your source, giving us the link that links to it. This link will help others find your source easily. Then, — Who (or what) wrote or produced this source? How do you know? Find a separate, independent source to confirm the date. Give us the link to it.
  2. What type of source is this — a primary or secondary source? What makes it one or the other — or both? Explain. Next, identify what type of source it is — a letter, speech, journal entry, article….and tell us why identifying the type of document might be important to historians.
  3. When was the source made? It’s important to know, as precisely as possible, what was going on at the time. List three important events covered in our assigned work that occurred at about the same time that this source was created. Choose events that may have been influenced by, or influenced, the maker of the source. This question is about context.
  4. In 250 words or more, summarize the key parts of the source — what is most vital to know if you were relating the content of the source to someone who hadn’t read it. Put your answer entirely in your own words. Quote nothing. In your summary, stick to the source, not its context, your view of the source, or what it makes you feel. Infer nothing in your summary, nor editorialize or philosophize or guess at the motives of the person who wrote the source. That is, see the source itself, all of it, and summarize only what you find there.
  5. Using only this source and our assigned reading, who was the probable audience for this source? That is, to whom was this source aimed at? Using the source and its context, justify your answer. (Why might knowing the target audience for source be important?)
  6. You’ve sourced the source, dated it, contextualized it (a little). You’ve summarized it — we hope fairly, accurately. What questions might this source help us — as historians — answer about the past?
  7. Finally, what is most memorable about this source for you – you personally? What stands out? How does Franklin come across in this exchange? (Remember: at the time he gave his testimony, he was a proud British subject.)


Benjamin Franklin Answers Questions RE: the Stamp Tax Crisis

Author: Benjamin Franklin

[Annotation: His is one of the most remarkable success stories in American history. The eighteenth child of a Boston candlemaker and soapmaker, Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) was apprenticed to his brother, a printer, but ran away. As a publisher in Philadelphia, he was so successful that he was able to retire at the age of 42 and devote the rest of his life to science and politics.

While serving in England as a representative of the colonies of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Georgia, Franklin promoted the idea of American liberties and testified against the Stamp Act. He had been out of touch with sentiment in the colonies, and in his testimony before Parliament, Franklin suggested that the colonists objected only to direct taxes, not to duties placed on imported goods. His testimony helped to secure the repeal of the Stamp Act and greatly enhanced his reputation both in England and America.

[Start of Source]

Q. What is your name, and place of abode?

A. Franklin, of Philadelphia.

Q. Do the Americans pay any considerable taxes among themselves?

A. Certainly many, and very heavy taxes.

Q. What are the present taxes in Pennsylvania, laid by the laws of the colonies?

A. There are taxes on all estates, real and personal; a poll tax; a tax on all offices, professions, trades, and businesses, according to their profits; an excise on all wine, rum, and other spirit; and a duty of ten pounds per head on all Negroes imported, with some other duties.

Q. For what purposes are those taxes laid?

A. For the support of the civil and military establishment of the country, and to discharge the heavy debt contracted in the last war [the Seven Years War]….

Q. Are not all the people very able to pay those taxes?

A. No. The frontier counties, all along the continent, having been frequently ravaged by the enemy and greatly impoverished, are able to pay very little tax….

Q. Are not the colonies, from their circumstances, very able to pay the stamp duty?

A. In my opinion there is not gold and silver enough in the colonies to pay the stamp duty for one year.

Q. Don’t you know that the money arising from the stamps was all to be laid out in America?

A. I know it is appropriated by the act to the American service; but it will be spent in the conquered colonies, where the soldiers are, not in the colonies that pay it….

Q. Do you think it right that America should be protected by this country and pay no part of the expense?

A. That is not the case. The colonies raised, clothed, and paid, during the last war, near 25,000 men, and spent many millions.

Q. Were you not reimbursed by Parliament?

A. We were only reimbursed what, in your opinion, we had advanced beyond our proportion, or beyond what might reasonably be expected from us; and it was a very small part of what we spent. Pennsylvania, in particular, disbursed about 500,000 pounds, and the reimbursements, in the whole, did not exceed 60,000 pounds….

Q. Do not you think the people of America would submit to pay the stamp duty, if it was moderated?

A. No, never, unless compelled by force of arms….

Q. What was the temper of America towards Great Britain before the year 1763?

A. The best in the world. They submitted willingly to the government of the Crown, and paid, in all their courts, obedience to acts of Parliament….

Q. What is your opinion of a future tax, imposed on the same principle with that of the Stamp Act? How would Americans receive it?

A. Just as they do this. They would not pay it.

Q. Have not you heard of the resolutions of this House, and of the House of Lords, asserting the right of Parliament relating to America, including a power to tax the people there?

A. Yes, I have heard of such resolutions.

Q. What will be the opinion of the Americans on those resolutions?

A. They will think them unconstitutional and unjust.

Q. Was it an opinion in America before 1763 that the Parliament had no right to lay taxes and duties there?

A. I have never heard any objection to the right of laying duties to regulate commerce; but a right to lay internal taxes was never supposed to be in Parliament, as we are not represented there….

Q. Did the Americans ever dispute the controlling power of Parliament to regulate the commerce?

A. No.

Q. Can anything less than a military force carry the Stamp Act into execution?

A. I do not see how a military force can be applied for that purpose.

Q. Why may it not?

A. Suppose a military force sent into America; they will find nobody in arms; what are they then to do? They cannot force a man to take stamps who chooses to do without them. They will not find a rebellion; they may indeed make one.

Q. If the act is not repealed, what do you think will be the consequences?

A. A total loss of the respect and affection the people of America bear to this country, and of all the commerce that depends on that respect and affection.

Q. How can the commerce be affected?

A. You will find that, if the act is not repealed, they will take very little of your manufactures in a short time.

Q. Is it in their power to do without them?

A. I think they may very well do without them.

Q. Is it their interest not to take them?

A. The goods they take from Britain are either necessaries, mere conveniences, or superfluities. The first, as cloth, etc., with a little industry they can make at home; the second they can do without till they are able to provide them among themselves; and the last, which are much the greatest part, they can strike off immediately. They are mere articles of fashion, purchased and consumed because the fashion in a respected country; but will now be detested and rejected. The people have already struck off, by general agreement, the use of all goods fashionable in mournings, and many thusand pounds worth are sent back as unsaleable….

Q. If the Stamp Act should be repealed, would it induce the assemblies of America to acknowledge the right of Parliament to tax them, and would they erase their resolutions [against the Stamp Act]?

A. No, never.

Q. Is there no means of obliging them to erase those resolutions?

A. None that I know of; they will never do it, unless compelled by force of arms.

Q. Is there a power on earth that can force them to erase them?

A. No power, how great soever, can force men to change their opinions….

Q. What used to be the pride of the Americans?

A. To indulge in the fashions and manufactures of Great Britain.

Q. What is now their pride?

A. To wear their old clothes over again, till they can make new ones.

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: “The Examination of Doctor Benjamin Franklin before an August Assembly Relating to the Repeal of the Stamp Act”