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The Stamps that started the American War of Independence!

I recently discovered something that I can’t recall ever being taught at school. We know that philately is full of fascinating surprises. What I had never realised, was that seventy five years before the appearance of the first Penny Black postage stamp in 1840, another type of printed embossed revenue stamp had been directly responsible for one of the most momentous events to impact the British Empire, the consequences of which quite literally shaped and developed the political and economic world in which we live to-day. Great Britain’s misconceived and pompous legislative attempt to use revenue stamps in its North American colonies during the latter half of the 18th Century provided the catalyst for a revolution that led directly to an independent United States of America.

In this sale we have an example of one of these quite unusual and iconic pieces of Colonial history. A rare British style 1765 embossed 2/6d revenue stamp impressed on grey paper with the word “America” added. Previously cut from an original complete sheet of printed paper it has wide margins and a well preserved Royal Coat of Arms with Latin inscription and denomination, produced in England and then shipped to America for distribution locally by British tax collectors. Colonial money was not acceptable, payment had to be made in British currency to ensure any document was legally binding. It was a means of raising hard currency for Britain. The intention was in part to pay the costs of maintaining British forces in North America, where there was an imagined need to protect against the threat posed by Native Indians. In truth, it was a cheap option to prevent having to pay the huge costs involved in the demobilisation of the very same soldiers who were surplus to requirements after the Seven Year’s War 1754-63.

Great Britain’s imposition of a Stamp Tax on their North American colonies resulted in a war that was to leave the British forces defeated and end colonial rule. Taxes are unpopular. Income tax, introduced much later in 1799, by the then Prime Minister, William Pitt, was described as a “temporary measure”. We are all only too well aware of how history has unfolded and how income tax still remains very much enshrined in the mind of any Chancellor of the Exchequer when preparing a Budget Speech!

The passing of the Stamp Act in March 1765 by the House of Commons was received initially with indignation and subsequently with outright rejection by the American colonies. The idea that the British Parliament could impose a direct tax without their consent or representation was at best misconceived and many people reacted with open hostility, believing that only their own legislatures could take such action. Civil unrest and riots followed in many of the colonies when efforts were made to collect the tax. “No tax without representation” became the battle cry of dissent. The Stamp Act Congress held in New York in October 1765 concluded that Great Britain had “no right to tax them”. This set the scene for what followed. The Act was short lived. It became effective on the 1st November 1765 and because of civil violence and open rebellion was repealed on March 18th 1766. By then it was too late and sufficient momentum had gathered that would eventually result in the American War of Independence between 1775 -83. Despite the warnings, the British government maintained its belief in colonial supremacy by insisting that it had power to legislate for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever”. This proved to be a fatal and irretrievable miscalculation.

Embossed revenue stamps were first seen during the first quarter of the 18th Century in the Netherlands and later in France. The objective was to provide the government with funds by applying a surcharge to legal documents, including promissory notes, bills of exchange, insurance policies, powers of attorney, conveyances and liquor licences. Later this was extended to such everyday items as newspapers, playing cards and pamphlets. Essentially, the document was invalid unless it bore proof of the payment of the tax. The receipt was provided by an embossed stamp on the printed paper that showed the value of the stamp that correlated to the contract value. It is perhaps ironic that it was the American colonies themselves who had realised the financial benefits and used this method well before the passing of the Stamp Act 1765 with examples authorised by the State legislatures of Massachusetts and New York dating from the mid-1750s.

This is an area that might not be mainstream philately but for the reasons given, is one of significant historical importance where collectors often search in vain for examples of both the rarer complete documents and the individual embossed revenue stamps such as this.


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