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Revenue stamps played a fundamental role in the conditions enabling such an extraordinary historical document to be created and signed.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taxation without representation” significant political pressure was placed upon Parliament, resulting in the Act being repealed on 18 March 1766.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.
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
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.