American Collections blog

198 posts categorized "USA"

15 February 2018

Researching American political pamphlets

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Pamphlets have for centuries been an important medium for disseminating news and ideas and rallying public opinion, but their typically subversive nature made them a thorn in the side of rulers in Early Modern Europe. Pamphlets were notoriously vulgar and unreliable, and as such, the term ‘pamphlet’ and ‘pamphleteer’ were often used in a pejorative sense –– at one point even used as a synonym for a prostitute.1 But what of the pamphlet in 20th century America? How did new and improved technology and a radical, modern political landscape alter the nature of the pamphlet?

Having carried on much previous research on the radical politics of the interwar period, I was very excited at the prospect of exploring American political pamphlets from 1920-1945. This project is an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Partnership between the British Library and the University of Sussex, which makes use of the extensive collection of American political pamphlets held at the Library. The full scope of the pamphlets available is not yet known, and one of the major aims of the project is to produce a coherent and comprehensive digital database of the pamphlets for the Library, making them more accessible for both researchers and the public.

I feel extremely privileged to be given the opportunity to work with these pamphlets, many of which feature wonderful illustrations and photography. For example, this pamphlet issued by the Friends of the Soviet Union is filled with photos of working life in the Soviet Union, intended to display the ‘tremendous achievements’ of the first Five Year Plan.

Page from Soviet Pictorial: Forging Ahead, published by the Friends of the Soviet Union in 1931. Shelfmark YD.2007.a.2167


This pamphlet by Pioneer Publishers (publishing house of the Socialist Workers Party, formerly the Communist League of America) is just one example of the some of the striking, politically-charged artwork to be found within many of these publications. This example features work by Laura Gray, who often produced illustrations for the Socialist Workers Party. Other notable radical illustrators to be found in the collection include Hugo Gellert, Robert Minor and William Gropper.
American Workers Need a Labor Party, Pioneer Publishers (1944). Shelfmark

  The history of pamphlets is not a topic that has been researched extensively, and what has been written focuses more on their uses in early modern Europe. This project hopes to bring to light the significance of the political pamphlet in modern America, eventually contributing to a more comprehensive history of the pamphlet overall. Some of the questions I will be asking include:

  • Where were the centres of pamphlet production, and how did changes in press restrictions impact the production of pamphlets and the radical publishing house in general?
  • Likewise, where were the main distribution centres for political pamphlets?
  • How many of these American political pamphlets found themselves in the hands of groups across the Atlantic? If so, how, and what kind of influence did they have?

With regards to the content of the pamphlets, I am especially interested in exploring the interaction through pamphlets between the Left and conservative and fascist anti-communist groups and organisations. For example, how either side dealt with the other as a respective threat. The interwar period was marked by increasing ideological polarisation across the world, and America was no exception. On the one hand, this period saw the creation of the Communist Party of America along with many other left-wing organisations that had been inspired and strengthened by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and on the other hand new fascist-inspired groups were formed while older far-right groups such as the Ku Klux Klan saw its membership reach its peak of 4 million in the 1920s. The raison d’être for the majority of the far-right became fighting the supposed international threat of Jews and Communists. At the same time, political repression on federal, state and local levels was overwhelmingly justified on anti-communist grounds. I want to explain how pamphlets were used by the Left and civil liberties groups to counter these threats, and how successful they were in doing so.

To be a PhD student with the British Library is an invaluable experience – from the extensive access to important resources, the support and expertise of staff, and the many opportunities available. I have enjoyed every moment and I am excited to unlock all the potential of this project.


[1] Joad Raymond, Pamphlets and Pamphleteering in Early Modern Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 8, 9.


By Jodie Collins,

AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Library and University of Sussex


18 December 2017

Early American Science: Benjamin Rush

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As described in my previous blog Early American Science: Benjamin Franklin, scientific investigation was a central part of eighteenth century philosophical enquiry. A desire to understand the detailed workings of the natural world was not seen to be antithetical to the idea of God the creator, but rather a means of studying and thereby celebrating the infinite variety of his creation. Indeed, far from there being a psychological or theological block on scientific enquiry, it had been institutionally and culturally encouraged since the late 17th century, becoming not only acceptable but also fashionable.

The basic ground rules of this spirit of enquiry are encapsulated in the title of Benjamin Franklin’s ground-breaking work Experiments and Observations on Electricity (London, 1751; shelfmark: 538.l.5.(6)) just as they are in Medical Inquiries and Observations (4 Vols., Philadelphia, 1805; shelfmark MFR/3019 1 Reel 36:1), the most important writings of Franklin’s friend and fellow Philadelphian, Benjamin Rush (1746-1813).


Benjamin Rush: an engraving by James Barton Longacre (1794-1869) from a painting by Thomas Sully (1783-1872). Courtesy Wikipedia.

Like Franklin, Benjamin Rush was a practical empiricist. He became the first professor of chemistry in America (at the age of twenty-two), was the United States’ most eminent contemporary physician, and is still regarded as the father of American psychiatry. And just as many contemporary politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are attempting to unify health and social care, so Rush – himself a politician and a signatory of the Declaration of Independence – saw no divide. He firmly believed that both physical and mental health were intrinsically affected by social conditions and mores, and was a keen advocate of government intervention on a considered basis, akin to the modern practice of nudge theory.

A glance at works written by Rush and listed in Early American Science: A Selective Guide to Materials at the British Library  illustrates both the breadth of his interests and the continuing importance of his areas of concern. These include: ‘An account of the state of the body and mind in old age’ in Sir J. Bart Sinclair, The Code of Health etc., Vol. 4 (Edinburgh, 1807; shelfmark 41.d.18); Medical Enquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind (2nd edition, London, 1789; shelfmark 1039.k.31); An Inquiry into the Influence of Physical Causes upon the Moral Faculty (Philadelphia, 1839; shelfmark 8404.e.33.(2)); A Dissertation on the Spasmodic Asthma of Children (London, 1770; shelfmark T.991.(2)); and An Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits upon the Human Body and Mind (Boston, 1812; shelfmark 1507/278).      

Rush was a man of strong opinions and could sometimes be fractious. He certainly did not lack either physical or moral courage. As surgeon general of the army he fought alongside General Washington at the Battle of Princeton, but was later sacked for ‘disloyalty’ after he sought to bypass Washington while attempting to reform the administration of the army’s hospitals.

Rush battle

In this painting by John Trumbull - The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777 - Benjamin Rush can be seen behind George Washington; both are on horseback. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Even more famously, Rush stayed in Philadelphia to treat the sick (including himself) throughout the 1793 yellow fever epidemic that killed one in ten of the city’s population. Indeed, Rush was uniquely influential in the development of medicine in the early years of the Republic. In 1792 he became the first Professor in the Institutes of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. In the following two decades he taught an estimated 3,500 students. His Sixteen Introductory Lectures (shelfmark: X.329/1803) influenced many more after his death and has been republished three times during the past half century. [1]

A humanitarian, Rush was an active campaigner for penal reform and a lifelong opponent of slavery. His 1773 Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements on the Slavery of Negroes in America (shelfmark MFR/3017 *1* Reel 140:14 140:13) led the next year to the creation of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, the first such institution in America. [2]

Benjamin Rush, like Benjamin Franklin, is buried in the Christ Church Burial Ground, Philadelphia.

George Goodwin

George is an Eccles Centre Makin Fellow at the British Library and author of Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America's Founding Father. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016. (Shelfmark: YD.2016.a.3841).


1.  Benjamin Rush, Sixteen Introductory Lectures. Oceanside, N.Y: Dabor Science Publications, 1977. Repr. of the 1811 edition published by Bradford and Innskeep, Philadelphia. (Shelfmark: X.329/18023)

2.  Benjamin Rush, Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements on the Slavery of Negroes in America by Benjamin Rush. Philadelphia: J. Dunlap, 1773. (Shelfmark: MFR/3017 *1* Reel 140:14 140:13)

Further Reading 

Claire G. Fox, Gordon L. Miller and Jacqueline C. Miller, comps. Benjamin Rush, M.D.: A Bibliographic Guide. Westport, Conn.; London: Greenwood Press, 1996. Shelfmark: 2725.e.3276.

Lyman Butterfield, ed. Letters of Benjamin Rush (2 vols). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1951. Shelfmark: 5577.100000 30(1).

Carl Binger, Revolutionary Doctor: Benjamin Rush, 1746-1813, New York: W.W. Norton, 1966. Shelfmark: 5577.100000 30(1).

24 November 2017

Martha Gellhorn: The Reporter as a Young Poet

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What makes juvenilia so fascinating? When reading the works written by an author in their youth one often looks for glimpses of the ideas and obsessions they would later develop in their works. But it sometimes also feels like a small betrayal, to read these raw texts written before authors have developed their voice, or met the red pen of an editor. There is something about teenage poetry that makes it particularly excruciating – perhaps because it awakens a dormant fear that one day someone may find our own ring-bound poetry notebook in the bottom of a drawer. It is hard however to resist the temptation to see what war reporter Martha Gellhorn was like when she was 17.

759px-Martha_Gellhorn_stamp (1)
Martha Gellhorn postage stamp. Part of the 2008 American Journalists stamp series (Source: US Postal Service via Wikimedia Commons)

As a star correspondent for the American magazine Collier’s Weekly during the late 1930s and 1940s, Martha Gellhorn became well known for her first-person chronicles of the Second World War. Gellhorn covered the principal fronts during the conflict, and wrote a memorable report on the liberation of the Dachau camp for Collier’s in 1945. Gellhorn had started her career as a war reporter in Spain during the civil war, and went on to cover most major twentieth century conflicts, including the Vietnam War. Her best journalistic writing is collected in The Face of War (1959) [9104.d.10.].

Gellhorn’s life, and especially her turbulent marriage to Ernest Hemingway, has been fictionalised in different genres, from our Eccles Writers in Residence Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway to the less successful HBO film Hemingway and Gellhorn.

Before she became well known for her reporting and ruthless commentary however, Gellhorn was writing poetry. From 1923 she attended the newly founded John Burroughs School in her native St Louis, Missouri. The school was a coeducational and progressive institution for the time. The British Library holds an issue of the John Burroughs Review [ZD.9.a.2618], the school magazine where Gellhorn published her first works. The magazine was published five times a year by the students of the school and Gellhorn was part of the board of editors.


The John Burroughs School Review is an impressive publication for a high school magazine, with a modernist cover designed by Clark Smith.  The November 1925 issue contained poems, short stories and book reviews, as well as adverts for local businesses.  Gellhorn was 17 when the magazine printed a sequence of six poems titled ‘Bits of Glass’, three of which are reproduced below:

The John Burroughs Review, November 1925 (extract from page 16)

Gellhorn was fiercely protective of her reputation. She banned the reprinting of her first novel, the semi-autobiographical work What Mad Pursuit, published in 1934 (the Library holds a copy at YD.2012.a.2572 - read more about it in Naomi Wood's blog post). But despite Gellhorn’s and many other writers’ anxiety about their early attempts at writing, these texts will always remain fascinating for readers who want to find out how and when they became the writers they admire.

Now remember to hide that notebook the next time you visit your parents’ house.


Mercedes Aguirre

Lead Curator, Americas

25 September 2017

Following Sarah Royce

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In 1849, Sarah Royce left her Iowa home and set off with her husband and daughter for California. Reading Royce’s stoic memoir, A Frontier Lady (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932; shelfmark: I wondered how she really felt as she crossed America in pursuit of her husband’s dreams. My curiosity evolved in my second novel, which follows two women from Chicago to California during the Gold Rush.

HannahRoycebook 4jpg

 Sarah Royce. A Frontier Lady: Recollections of the Gold Rush and Early California. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932. (Shelfmark: 

I’ve been studying first-hand accounts of other women who made that very journey—from the good-natured letters of Mary-Jane Megquier to the pessimistic journal of Mary Bailey. But though these accounts are often vivid, I’ve struggled to imagine the landscapes they describe—the blankness of the plains, the bitter waste of the desert, the steep green relief of the Sierras. So, with the support of the Eccles Centre, I decided to make the journey myself.

The California Zephyr train travels the 2,438 miles from Chicago to San Francisco. It broadly follows Royce’s route; but where Royce’s journey took six months, the train takes fifty-two hours. It was a thrill to watch scenery I’d previously encountered only in books—the lonely prairies, the great bloody sunsets, the strange sunken rivers of the high desert.


The prairies of Iowa. Image, author's own.

Seeing the landscape first-hand made a journey that was previously only an idea, a reality. And while I often encountered the unexpected—I hadn’t grasped that the trail was continuously flanked by mountains from the onset of the Rockies, nor had I anticipated that the Utah desert would look so like the moon—much of the landscape was as I had pictured it in the library.


A sunken river in Utah. Image, author's own.

The trip was revelatory; but it also gave me confidence to write what I’d already imagined. For me, confidence is one of the most important outputs of researching fiction. As Zadie Smith said, “It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel. The main person you have to trick into confidence is yourself.”

Hannah Kohler

Hannah is a joint winner of this year's Eccles British Library Writer's Award. More information about this Award, and all of the Eccles Centre's activities, can be found at 

Sources: Apron Full of Gold: The Letters of Mary Jane Megquier from San Francisco, 1849-1856, edited with an introduction by Polly Welts Kaufman. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994 (shelfmark: YA.1995.a.22660); Ho for California!: Women's Overland Diaries from the Huntington Library, edited and annotated by Sandra L Myres. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1980 (shelfmark: Document Supply 80/24701).


20 September 2017

‘Stealing Signs’: Baseball, Past and Present

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Cheating in baseball is as old as the game itself. Whether a pitcher doctors the ball with saliva making it difficult to hit, a runner deliberately spikes an opposing fielder as he slides into base, or a batter uses a ‘corked’ bat to get extra propulsion on the ball, underhand practices are part and parcel of America’s national pastime. But recent allegations that the Boston Red Sox unlawfully used high-tech Apple watches to gain an advantage over their biggest rivals, the New York Yankees (New York Times, 5 September 2017), has reignited the debate about the blurred line between gamesmanship (bending the rules) and outright cheating.

The case against the Red Sox centres on allegations of ‘stealing signs’ from their opponents – spotting the coded gestures made by the fielding team which indicate what type of pitch is likely to be thrown - and relaying them to the batter via an Apple watch worn by one of the Red Sox coaches. In baseball’s complex code of honour ‘stealing signs’ is acceptable, but using electronic aids to help you do so is officially foul play.

While the baseball authorities ponder what punishment, if any, to impose on the Red Sox, they may find themselves considering a remarkably similar case of technology and cheating, which made headlines more than a century ago. The story involves a Philadelphia Phillies coach called Pearce ‘Petie’ Chiles and an electronic buzzer buried beneath his feet.


Pearce Chiles. Wikimedia Commons.

It is recalled in detail by Joe Dittmar in the 1991 edition of The Baseball Research Journal, one of multiple volumes of the annual Historical and Statistical Review of the Society for American Baseball Research held in the British Library’s Mike Ross Collection of baseball books and memorabilia.

The scheme to ‘steal signs’ deployed by Chiles back in 1900 was ingenious and surprisingly sophisticated: a co-conspirator sat in the stands equipped with a spyglass to spot the signs made by the opposing catcher. He then sent a signal to an electronic buzzer in a wooden box buried beneath the spot where Chiles stood to coach on the third base line. Each sequence of buzzes represented a certain type of pitch and Chiles would tell the Phillies batter what pitch to expect next. The subterfuge was only uncovered when an opposing fielder’s suspicions were aroused by the strange jerking movements made by Chiles each time the buzzer went off. The fielder dug up the ground with his spikes and struck the outside of the buried box, revealing a mass of wiring. The Phillies had been caught red-handed, but there was no admission of guilt and no official reprimand. Today’s Red Sox will be hoping for similar leniency.

Stories of deceit, dishonesty and playing fast-and-loose with the rules are woven into baseball folklore and recounted in numerous items held at the Library: from John McCallum’s account of the legendary Ty Cobb sharpening the spikes on his boots just to inflict injury on opponents in The Tiger Wore Spikes: An Informal Biography of Ty Cobb (New York,  1956; shelfmark General Reference Collection, Mike Ross 144) to Eliot Asinof’s classic narrative of the ‘fixed’ 1919 World Series, Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series (New York, 1963; shelf mark DSC W55/1273).


Chicago White Sox, 1919. Image in Wikimedia Commons. PD-US

While the Commissioner of Baseball and president of Yale, Bart Giamatti, loftily pronounced baseball ‘a living memory of what American culture at its best wishes to be,’ perhaps Dan Gutman’s compilation of stories about baseball’s shadier side captures the essence of the sport’s moral ambiguity rather better: It Ain’t Cheatin’ if You Don’t Get Caught (New York, 1990; shelfmark General Reference Collection, Mike Ross 304).

Baseball ain't cheatin

 Dan Gutman. It Ain't Cheatin' If You Don't Get Caught. New York: Penguin Books, 1990. Shelfmark: General Reference Collection, Mike Ross 304.

Chris Birkett is undertaking postgraduate research on the Clinton Presidency at King's College London, where he is a Professor Sir Richard Trainor Scholar, supported by the Eccles Centre at the British Library.


14 August 2017

Black Power: Reading, Roots, and Rhythm in the British Library

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Rowan Hartland is a 2017 Eccles Centre Visiting Postgraduate Fellow and a doctoral candidate at Northumbria University. He will participate in the Eccles Centre Summer Scholars seminar series on 14 August, with a paper titled 'Black Power Culture in the American South 1967-1975'.

I have just finished a successful research trip to the British Library supported by an Eccles Centre Fellowship. The project, Black Power Culture in the American South 1966-1975, examines Black Power organising and activism in the under-researched and often marginalised regions in the American South. Black Power culture, rather than politics in the South, is largely excluded from historiography despite its national and international legacies. I have been able to solidify my argument and conduct research from a range of databases, catalogues, microfilm collections, and magazines at the British Library. Here is a snippet from my week.

Monday 14 August (2)

Free Southern Theater publicity image, c. 1970.


My first point of reference were two bibliographical booklets; the invaluable resource created by Jean Petrovic from the Eccles centre, United States and Canadian holdings in the British Library Newspaper Library [2719.k.1795]; and the online resource also created by Petrovic, African American History and Life: 1877-1954 [m02/16735]. The latter resource did expand chronologically to include early 1960s works, which were useful for a framework for my Black Power study, and also provided a geographical index of published works- useful for my work on the South. The United States and Canadian Holdings resource led me to the Mississippi Free Press and Inside New Orleans newspapers (located in the ‘African American Newspaper Series 1827-1998’ section on the e-resources) which I delved into whilst on the computers in the Reading Rooms. For anyone working on African American history pre-1966 or post-1978, these collections will provide fruitful material; and I hope to utilize these in the future.

Second, the vast Tuskegee Institute News Clippings File [MFM.MA410] spanning the turn of the twentieth century to 1966 (reference book in the Newsroom). This microfilm collection provided a range of themes and locations for research- prolific in 1930s and 40s material, as well as Civil Rights material and introductory Black Power news reports. The themes, ranging from Race Relations and Organisations, to Juvenile Delinquency and Riots, cover the whole of the US and are rich in Southern material. I spent close to two days glancing through these slides and found dozens of articles portraying the roots and articulations of Black Power culture (N.B. ask the folks in the Newsroom- they are super helpful).

After engaging with sources on race riots, southern police brutality, armed defence, and Black Power ideology a lot earlier than 1966, I moved into some research of magazines and ephemera. Whilst trundling through the main catalogue can be both daunting and arduous, it can provide some gems (advice- do all the sifting before you come to the BL!). Using the online databases to build a framework of search terms, then using the multi-functional filters on the sidebars makes life a lot easier. One magazine, which has left me with more questions about Black Power in the South than answers, is Rhythm. Whilst the BL only retains one volume (I am sourcing more), it is a rich piece of history with spasms of visual delight. It tells the story of the commitment of ‘revolutionary Pan-Africanism’ in the South whilst looking eagerly towards a new Africa of the twenty-first century. It is truly the personification of the heights of Black Power Culture in the South- ‘Rhythm sees African people as having no moral or legal responsibility to the west except to oversee its destruction.’ There are many newspaper and magazine titles available for those interested in mainstream and Northern Civil rights and Black Power, to name a few- Negro Digest, The Crusader, and The Menard Times (an interesting collection of prison newspapers).

The ‘Archive of Americana’, ‘History and Life’ online databases, and ‘African American Newspaper Series’ have provided an abundance of material for my project, from Black Power’s violence and rioting, to singing, poetry, performance and art. I intend to further delve into magazines and newspapers including Life, Billboard, The Chicago Defender, and Amsterdam News on my next trip for more mainstream perceptions, in addition to well-planned catalogue trawling and possible examinations of the databases ‘Underground and Independent Comics Collection’ (online) and ‘HAPI’ (online). The first-hand accounts provided in the magazines, newspapers, and records are invaluable evidence of Black Power in the South. This initial research has provided foundations for my research in the US and further research at the BL, and has provided sources for my Summer Series talk at the BL in August. Finally, a special thank you to Mercedes Aguirre and those at the Eccles Centre. I would not be able to research so efficiently and proficiently without their support and wonderful insights.

Rowan Hartland

04 July 2017

Franklin and Jefferson – An Understanding that Crossed the Generations

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I was fortunate that April was the chosen month for my recent Fellowship at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, because 13 April is the day when Mr Jefferson’s birthday is warmly celebrated at his home at Monticello. There are speeches, awards, a marching band and even a vast birthday cake.  Monticello is open every day of the year bar Christmas Day and runs a host of public events.  Two days though are particularly special: 13 April, known as Founder’s Day as it also marks Jefferson’s foundation of the University of Virginia; and, twelve weeks’ later, the Independence Day celebration of 4 July.  


Marching band at Monticello celebrating Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, 13 April 2017

Jefferson has long been recognised as the chief and near total author of the Declaration of Independence. It was not always thus. The committee given responsibility for drafting the Declaration was one of five people: John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, Robert Livingston of New York, and Roger Sherman of Connecticut.  The resulting Declaration was deemed, at the time, to be a collaborative effort of the five men and Jefferson’s true role was not recognised until the 1790s. It was then revealed that the other four  had delegated the drafting to Jefferson and that Adams and Franklin had only seen his work at its final stage. As to their comments, Adams later wrote that ‘I do not now remember that I made or suggested a single alteration’[1] and  Franklin proposed the substitution of  just a few alternative words and phrases, although one of these was to prove extremely consequential.     




The 1823 William Stone Facsimile version of the Declaration of Independence and the full-size statue of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello (photographed on Jefferson’s birthday)

The multi-talented Benjamin Franklin liked to describe himself as, first and foremost, a printer.  That description preceded all others in his last will and testament.[2]   Part of Franklin’s success as a printer was that he was his own, brilliant, writer and editor.  That brilliance was common  knowledge and thus, when Common Sense was first published, it was assumed – as Thomas Jefferson  later attested – that ‘Thomas Paine’ was a pseudonym for Benjamin Franklin. Some might therefore wonder why the authorial role for the Declaration was not given to the prestigious Dr Franklin, bearing in mind that he was then the most famous American in the world and a man of extraordinary intellectual ability.  It certainly was not because he was debarred from writing the Declaration because others feared he might include a joke!  That asinine schoolboy ‘myth’ was not ‘created’ until 1896 and was the result of a humorous article in Harper’s magazine. Franklin himself chose not to take the lead,  partly because Jefferson was a Virginian and Franklin believed that a representative from that colony should take charge, but also, more mundanely, because Franklin was not in the best of health. Most importantly, though, it was because Franklin had already seen the quality of Jefferson’s writing in publications such as A Summary View of the Rights of British America.

Like Franklin, Jefferson was not an orator but a master of the written word.  Franklin, recognising this, merely suggested a few deft editorial tweaks to the Declaration.  One of these small changes was, however, to prove exceptionally significant.  Franklin proposed  that ‘We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable’ should be replaced by ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident’, and with a remarkable sleight of hand he instantly created the Declaration’s most important and best-known element. This substitution neatly took God out of the equation and created the basis for a secular state based on rationalism rather than religious justification.[3]   It was a fundamental change with immediate consequence for America and with future ramifications for the entire world.

Jefferson did not hesitate to take up Franklin’s suggestion.   There was a great deal of respect between the two men who had much in common.  The age gap of thirty-seven years was easily bridged. Their written reflections of each other show that their mutual admiration was bolstered by affection.[4]   Each was an autodidact who had been fascinated from an early age by philosophy and science.  As well as being men who had a brilliant command of the written word, they were both inventors, with Franklin, in particular, renowned for the electrical experiments and invention of the lightning conductor that had led Immanuel Kant to describe him as ‘The Prometheus of Modern Times’.  Amongst the greatest influences on the young Franklin were Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and John Locke and he took inspiration from them into his adult life.  Indeed, such was Franklin’s respect for Newton that the bust in David Martin’s 1766/7 portrait of Franklin (below) is of Newton.


Benjamin Franklin by David Martin, 1766/7 (White House Art Collection)

Bacon, Newton and Locke  were also extremely important  influences on Jefferson.  The evidence for this can be seen in one glance in the parlour at Monticello.  There, in pride of place on one side of the door are portraits of these three great men.  They are balanced on the other side by another person who inspired Thomas Jefferson  and who deserved to be among  such exalted company -- that someone being, of course,  none other than Benjamin Franklin.



© Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello.  Photograph by Bill Moretz


By George Goodwin, 2017 Eccles Centre Makin Fellow at the British Library

George Goodwin MA FRHistS FRSA, 2017 Eccles Centre Makin Fellow at the British Library, is a 2017 Peter Nicolaisen International Fellow at the Robert H. Smith Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello.  He is the author of  Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father  and  Author in Residence at Benjamin Franklin House in London   

Further Reading at the British Library

David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History  (Cambridge, Mass. & London : Harvard University Press, c2007) [YC.2007.a.7862]

Lester J. Cappon, editor, The Adams-Jefferson Letters / the complete correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams (Chapel Hill & London,  University of North Carolina Press, c1988) [YH.1989.b.258]

Jefferson Looney, editor , [et al],  The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Retirement series / J. Jefferson Looney, editor  (Princeton & Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2014--) [YC.2005.a.1851 vol. 1 etc.]. See also 

Peter S. Onuf,  The Mind of Thomas Jefferson  (Charlottesville & London , University of Virginia Press, 2007) [YC.2007.a.10052]

Andrew O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America: British Command during the Revolutionary War and the preservation of the empire (London, One World, 2013) [YC.2013.a.14413]  

See also ‘Founders Online’ 


[1].  “From John Adams to Timothy Pickering, 6 August 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, 

[2] The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, ed. Albert Henry Smyth, X: 493 (New York, Haskell House, 1970) [BL Document Supply A71/4290 vol. 10]

[3] See the 1823 William Stone Facsimile version here

[4]  e.g.  Jefferson’s amusement at the story of Abbé Raynal, Benjamin Franklin and Miss Polly Baker’.  See:  “The Speech of Miss Polly Baker, 15 April 1747,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified March 30, 2017, [Original source: The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 3, January 1, 1745, through June 30, 1750, ed. Leonard W. Labaree. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961, pp. 120–125]   

30 June 2017

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

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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.


 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.


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


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.