On March 22, 1765, the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act, the first internal tax levied directly on American colonies. The colonists effectively nullified the hated act by refusing to enforce it and actively resisting its implementation.

Patrick Henry took center stage in the fight with the resolutions he pushed through the Virginia House of Burgesses in May 1765. His resolutions were circulated throughout the colonies and sparked more concrete resistance to the act, including outright nullification by a colonial court in Maryland.

The Stamp Act required all official documents in the colonies to be printed on special stamped paper. This included all commercial and legal documents, newspapers, pamphlets, and even playing cards. As historian Dave Benner explained in his article on the Stamp Act,  the standard American position held that the act violated the bounds of the British constitutional system. Objecting to the notion that Parliament was supreme, and could pass impose whatever binding legislation it wished upon the colonies, the colonies instead adopted the rigid stance that colonists could only be taxed by their local assemblies. They claimed this principle stretched all the way back to 1215 and the Magna Carta.

News of the passage of the Stamp Act didn’t reach Maryland until early May 1765 when Jonas Green published the full text of the act in the Maryland Gazette. Green published numerous articles attacking the Stamp Act. He had a vested interest in seeing it repealed since stamp tax could conceivably put him out of business.

Marylanders quickly mobilized against the Stamp Act. When the Crown appointed Zachariah Hood as the colony’s stamp distributor, he was forced to flee to New York. A mob destroyed his Annapolis business. Fearing for his life, Hood ultimately resigned his position.

The stamped paper arrived in Maryland in October 1765, but unrest had reached the point that Gov. Horatio Sharpe was afraid the colonists would destroy the paper if it was offloaded. He requested that the stamped paper remain onboard the ship until the situation cooled off. As a result, when Nov. 1, the effective date of the Stamp Act rolled around, there was no stamped paper available in the Maryland colony.

This set the stage for the Frederick County Court to effectively nullify the stamp act by simply ignoring it.

Twelve magistrates of the Frederick County court presided over the legal affairs of the county. In mid-November, the court ordered a local man be released on bail and directed court clerk John Darnall to note the order in the court record. But under the Stamp Act, this required stamped paper. With none available, Darnall decided the clerk’s office would conduct no official business until it received official stamped paper. This effectively brought all legal and commercial business in Frederick County to a halt.

The court ordered Darnall to proceed with his duties without the stamped paper.

He refused.

On Nov. 18, 1765, the court found Darnall in contempt. It ordered him placed under arrest and “committed to the custody of this County” until he complied with the order. One night in the “care” of the sheriff was enough to convince Darnall to comply with the court’s ruling. He paid a fine and was released.

On Nov. 23, the court issued a formal unanimous ruling that the Stamp Act was to be ignored, effectively nullifying it in practice in the county. The court gave two reasons for its refusal to comply with the parliamentary act.

  • There had been no formal notice of the Stamp Act.
  • There was no stamped paper available and the county couldn’t very well cease doing official business.

It is the unanimous resolution and opinion of this Court that all business thereof shall and ought to be transacted in the usual and accustom manner without any inconvenience or delay to be occasioned from the want of stamped paper, parchment of vellum and that all proceedings shall be valid and effectual without the use of stamps, and they enjoin and order all sheriffs, clerks, counsellors, attorneys and all officers of the court to proceed in their several avocations as usual which resolution and opinion are grounded on the following reasons.

1st. It is conceived that there has not been a legal publication yet made of any act of Parliament whatever imposing a stamp duty on the colonies. Therefore this court are of the opinion that until the existence of such act is properly notified it would be culpable in them to permit or suffer a total stagnation of business which mush inevitably be productive of innumerable injuries to individuals and have a tendency to subvert all principles of civil government.

2nd. As no stamps have yet arrived in the province and the inhabitants have no means of procuring any this court are of the opinion that it would be an instance of the most wanton oppression to deprive any person of legal remedy for the recovery of his property for omitting that which is impossible to perform.

The decision to carry on official business as usual without the required stamped paper effectively nullified the Stamp Act in Frederick County. The law remained on the books, but it wasn’t observed, nor was it ever enforced in the county.

There is some speculation that Darnall’s arrest was all for show, as Ryan Bass and Pat Barron explain in their article “Repudiation of the Stamp Act.

“Darnall had served in that capacity as court clerk since the founding of the county in 1748. One of the sitting magistrates for the November 1765 Court Term was James Dickson, who was Darnall’s son-in-law. As Millard M. Rice points out in his book This Was the Life, a careful reading of the court proceedings prior to Nov. 18, 1765 shows no evidence of anyone at the Frederick County Court having a concern about conducting legal business without the Stamp Act paper. The justices selected one seemingly insignificant case on which to make their ruling. The justices refer to ‘this Province,’ implying an expansion beyond the boundaries of Frederick County, and an indication there may have been others, at a higher level of government, involved in formulating the decision. One can speculate the justices, besides seeking an opportunity to snub the Stamp Act, also were providing Darnall some political cover by ‘forcing’ him to accept the court’s ruling.”

Across the colonies, hostile colonists seized stamp paper, pressured officials to delay the law’s enforcement, and forced appointed stamp distributors out of commission. For instance, in Connecticut, Jared Ingersoll was assigned to enforce the Stamp Act. He offered his resignation after intense intimidation by patriot protestors. “This cause is not worth dying for,” he confessed. Upon the crowd’s insistence, he was forced to yell “liberty and property!” He then threw his hat into the air and traveled to Hartford to read his resignation to Connecticut’s colonial assembly. Patriot firebrand Christopher Gadsden, best known for designing the Gadsden Flag, was instrumental in the Stamp Act resistance movement in South Carolina. His efforts motivated South Carolinians to burn the stamp papers, and his supporters persuaded two stamp distributors within the colony to flee.

Beyond the campaign to interfere with and block enforcement of the Stamp Act, those who resisted the law also convinced their colonial assemblies to pass resolutions asserting the natural rights of the colonists and promoting the idea that the Stamp Act was unlawful and void.

Resistance was so intense, the Stamp Act was never effectively enforced and on March 18, 1766, the British gave up. Parliament repealed the Stamp Act.

The repeal of the Stamp Act reveals the power of noncooperation. Governments can pass laws, but enforcing them is a different matter. If enough people simply say, “No!” the law will become an empty vessel.

Mike Maharrey