THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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2 posts from June 2017

30 June 2017

Stamp for Independence: A brief philatelic tour of the Declaration of Independence

With the 4 July holiday fast approaching, it is timely to review some of the British Library’s Philatelic Collections relating to the Declaration of Independence and its commemoration.

Revenue stamps played a fundamental role in the conditions enabling such an extraordinary historical document to be created and signed. Defending the American Colonies during the Seven Years War (1757-1760) as well as the costs incurred by maintaining a subsequent military presence throughout the region was an expensive undertaking for Britain. Consequently Parliament felt the colonies should contribute towards the cost. In 1765 the Grenville Ministry passed a Stamp Act taxing a wide range of legal documents, playing cards, newspapers and other printed material. Proof of payment of these taxes was demonstrated by the presence of an embossed stamp applied upon the paper prior to use. Opponents to the tax in both Britain and the American Colonies argued that it violated the colonist’s rights as Englishmen to be taxed without their consent. Using the slogan “No taxation without representation” significant political pressure was placed upon Parliament, resulting in the Act being repealed on 18 March 1766. Despite this U-turn in government policy, the relationship between Britain and her American Colonies was permanently damaged and the episode was one of the major grievances outlined in the Indictment of George III within the Declaration of Independence.

All of the embossed revenue stamp dies for the 1765 Stamp Act can be found within the Board of Inland Revenue Stamping Department Archives of the British Library’s Philatelic Collections. They were all engraved in the summer of that year by Thomas Major (1720-1799) employed at the Stamp Office between 1757 and 1799. The IIII PENCE stamp, die letter A (Image 1) attempted to raise revenue from colonial trade by being applied to bills of lading for any goods for exportation, or any cockett or clearance granted within the Colonies and Plantations of America.

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 The III PENCE stamp, die letter C (Image 2) aimed to raise revenues from a wide range of legal transactions within the Colonies by being applied to legal documents including declarations, pleas, petitions, bills, claims, grants and deeds.

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Finally the TEN POUNDS stamp (Image 3) was to be embossed upon licenses, appointments or admissions of counsellors, solicitors or attorneys.

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While postage stamps were not invented for another sixty four years,  the Declaration of Independence has been widely commemorated upon postage stamps world-wide. The Tapling Collection within the British Library’s Philatelic Collections possesses the world’s first stamp commemorating the Declaration of Independence. The vignette engraved by James Smillie (1807-1843) on the United States of America 1869 Issue, 24 cent stamp is based upon the famous painting by John Trumball (1756-1843). The painting depicts the signing of the declaration of independence and is displayed within the Senate’s Rotunda in Washington DC.

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The Crown Agent’s Philatelic and Security Printing Archive housed within the British Library’s Philatelic Collections also contain a range of material commemorating the Declaration of Independence.  The original artwork for the St Kitts-Nevis 26 July 1976 Issue designed by John Waddington Security Printers, yet printed by Questa Colour Security Printers, commemorates the bicentenary of the American Revolution. The design for what became the 20 cent stamp (Image 5) displays a portrait of the African American Crispus Attucks (c. 1723-1770) next to a detail depicting the Boston Massacre.

 

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This was another major event contributing towards the eventual creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence. In 1768 British Soldiers were dispatched to Boston following a spate of attacks upon colonial officials. Instead of quelling discontent, the military’s presence at Boston exacerbated the situation. On the evening of 5 March 1770 a crowd of colonists confronted a sentry who had chastised a boy for complaining that an officer had failed to pay his barber’s bill. Snowballs and debris were hurled by the crowd at the troops. Meanwhile Attucks with some men armed with clubs approached the Old State House, where someone accompanying Attucks struck a soldier with a piece of wood resulting in the troops firing their muskets. The future second President of the United States, John Adams (1735-1826) successfully defended the British Soldiers during their trial, an event memorably acted out by Paul Giamatti for the first episode of the award winning 2008 HBO mini-series John Adams. Nevertheless, as the first of five colonists killed on that night, Crispus Attucks was immortalised as the first martyr for American Independence  being commemorated in songs and popular culture ever since.

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The original artwork for what became the 45 cent stamp (Image 6) includes a portrait of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) the author of the Declaration of Independence. To his left is another rendering of John Trumbull’s painting whilst the background also displays some of the original signatures from the Declaration manuscript.

The Barbados 17 August 1976 Issue designed by George Vasarhelyi and printed by Walsall Security Printers also commemorates the bicentenary of the American Revolution. However it focuses upon the links between Barbados and the United States of America.  The original artwork for the 15 cent stamp displays a map and colonial flag for the British Colony of South Carolina with the statement that it was founded by Barbadians.

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The 25 cent stamp (Image 8) commemorates George Washington’s (1732-1799) visit to Bridgetown, Barbados as a young man in 1751, depicting a portrait of Washington pointing towards a map of St Michael’s Parish.

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The 50 cent stamp (Image 9) contains an artistic rendering of the Declaration of Independence manuscript, thereby recognising its centrality in the American Revolution and struggle for independence.

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Finally the Seychelles Islands were granted independence on 29 June 1976, the same year as the bicentenary of the American Revolution.  The two events were commemorated together upon the Seychelles 12 July 1976 issue designed and printed by John Waddington Security Print Ltd.

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The 1 rupee stamp (Image 10) depicts the flags of the Seychelles and United States of America besides one another.

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The 10 rupee stamp (Image 11) juxtaposes images of the Seychelles State House alongside the State House, Philadelphia where the Declaration of Independence was originally signed on 4 July 1776.

 

By Richard Scott Morel

Curator, Philatelic Collections

Related material

The British Library, Philatelic Collections:  Board of Inland Revenue Stamping Department Archive.

The British Library, Philatelic Collections: The Tapling Collection, United States of America.

The British Library, Philatelic Collections: The Crown Agents Philatelic and Security Printing Archive.

14 June 2017

George Washington’s Legacy of Liberty 

I recently had the great pleasure of spending time at the George Washington Library at Mount Vernon, where I both researched for my new book on Benjamin Franklin –  the subject of my Eccles Centre Makin Fellowship – and contributed some new material to the  George Washington Digital Encyclopaedia.  Another joy of Mount Vernon is the house tour.  This is not just because of the interest of the house itself and the glory of its position overlooking the Potomac, but also due to the warmth of the regard of the American visitors for Mount Vernon’s most distinguished owner. The Americans are proprietorial in the nicest possible way: not nationalistic, but personal.  Stories about Washington abound, as they talk of him as a greatly-admired ancestor.  That of course, as the “Father of his Country”, is what he is.

Washington is seen as part historic figure and part icon.  Emanuel Leutze’s painting ‘Washington Crossing the Delaware’ depicts a general truth above individual details. Certainly, the actual boats used in Washington’s famous river crossing were more steeply sided and higher in the water.  The ice in the river did not resemble arctic icebergs and even the men’s clothing was rather different.  However, the portrait was painted as a propaganda piece, three quarters of a century after the event, by a German American who hoped that the campaigners for reform in  the country of his birth would take inspiration from America’s own liberation.  Yet it is the iconic image of Washington that grabs the attention – and rightly so.

The image is iconic because the Washington characteristic that the Leutze portrait conveys so strongly is his leadership. Washington’s solid stance and foot thrust forward dramatically reflect his  ability to inspire. He is the still calm centre of the painting, anchoring the frenzied activity of all those moving urgently around him, while serving his and his new nation’s purpose in mounting a hazardous raid following a succession of defeats.  

The success of the crossing, and victory in the Battle of Trenton that followed, rekindled belief among the American patriot forces and provided a turning point in the War of Independence. The key to Washington’s success was that he was able to withstand  that run of defeats and to appear steadfast until the tide of the war turned, when Benjamin Franklin secured the support of the French and when the Battle of Yorktown was won.  The authority Washington  gained never left him.  It served him well as President of the Constitutional Convention:  he was crucial in reconciling the substantial differences between the States.  It perhaps latterly served him too well, as he was persuaded to serve a second term as President and reluctantly but dutifully did so. 

It is partly that sense of Washington’s authority that accounts for some of the appreciation of him by those visitors to Mount Vernon, but there is more to it than that. Like the Roman general Cincinnatus, he gave up retirement on his farm to take up arms and return to public service once more.  Unlike Cincinnatus he was unable to return to private life after a season, but had to wait for more than quarter of a century before he could finally, and gratefully, do so.  He thus astounded the   European monarchs who expected him to be like them and to die in kingly state.    The Cincinnatus story was well-known at the time, hence the foundation of the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization for officers who served in the Revolutionary War, with Washington as its first President.  But that was in 1783, well before Washington became President of his nation.     

It is perhaps the fact that Washington was determined to limit his power as President that is responsible for his reputation today. This was made clear by his actions, but the key to his approach is outlined in the most precious book in the George Washington Library -- one acquired by the Library at vast cost and added to their already extensive collection of George Washington’s books.   It is Washington’s own copy of The Acts of Congress including the United States constitution, marked up with his own notes on what he was empowered and not empowered to do.  It is evidence of a very happy conjunction of man and measures and why, both in America and around the world, there are so many statues to Washington and constitutions based on the American model.    It is also, of course, an important ongoing guide to executive action for his successors as President.   

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George Washington’s  personal copy of The Acts of Congress containing the US Constitution and his own annotations on the extent and limits of presidential power

 

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The Rare Books Vault at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon with The Acts of Congress in pride of place. The Library, opened in 2013, is centred around the books and legacy of George Washington, every bit as much as the British Library has the Library of George III, Washington’s great opponent, at its centre. 

 

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George Goodwin sharing George Washington’s view from the porch at Mount Vernon 

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George Washington’s annotated version of The Acts of Congress  is available online

George Goodwin is the author of Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father (see British Library catalogue) and 2017 Eccles Centre Makin Fellow at the British Library

Further Reading at the British Library:

Douglas Bradburn, The Citizenship Revolution: Politics and the creation of the American Union, 1774-1804  (Charlottesville & London, University of Virginia Press, 2009) [m09/.28708]

Ron Chernow, Washington:  A Life (New York, Penguin, 2011;  London, Allen Lane, 2010) [YC.2011.a.12554]

Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency, George Washington (New York, Vintage; London, Faber 2005) [YC.2008.a.3908]

Flora Fraser: George & Martha Washington:  a Revolutionary Marriage  (New York, Knopf; London, Bloomsbury, 2015) [DRT ELD.DS.72252]

John Rhodehamel, George Washington:  The Wonder of the Age (New Haven & London, Yale: 2017)  (Soon available from Explore.bl.uk )