A History of America in Thirty-six Postage Stamps

A History of America in Thirty-six Postage Stamps

by Chris West


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250043689
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 10/28/2014
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 699,813
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

CHRIS WEST has written widely in a variety of genres. His titles include a bestselling business guide, and a quartet of crime novels. He inherited a love of history from his father and an Edwardian “Lincoln” stamp album from his great-uncle as a child. His love for stamps was revived when he found that same dust-covered album in his attic as an adult. He lives in Cambridgeshire, England.

Read an Excerpt



George III of Great Britain Revenue Stamp, 1765

THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA began with a stamp. This one.

There had been, of course, other American beginnings. Nobody knows exactly when the country’s first human inhabitants crossed the frozen Bering Strait from Siberia, or how many waves of such immigration took place: Three is the currently accepted figure, and 15,000 B.C. an estimated date for the first arrival—into a land of giant bears, mammoths, and saber-toothed tigers, most of which soon became extinct. We do know that around the year 1000, the Vikings crossed the Atlantic in 50-foot ships to trade for wood and furs. Their main ports of call were in Canada, but a Norse coin has been found in Maine.

Christopher Columbus landed on October 12, 1492—on an island he named San Salvador. He never actually set foot on mainland North America, but despite this, he became lauded as the “discoverer” of the continent, as a magnificent 1893 stamp issue, the nation’s first commemorative set, attests. Amerigo Vespucci, after whom the continent was named in 1507, never visited mainland North America, either (and never even got to appear on a U.S. stamp).

In 1620, the Mayflower battled its way across the Atlantic to Cape Cod, its captain, passengers, and crew determined to build a free, godly “City on a Hill.”

By 1692, there were more than 10 million Native Americans, comprising around five hundred tribes. To European eyes, North/Central America was part of three empires. The empire of Spain consisted of Mexico, the Southwest, and Florida. France ruled Louisiana and along the Mississippi. Britain controlled modern Canada and the thirteen colonies along the Eastern Seaboard. There was virtually no communication among these empires, and not a great deal among the thirteen British colonies, which were essentially ports on the edge of a vast, unexplored landmass. The year 1692, by the way, is significant because it marked the setting up of British America’s first formal postal system—which soon collapsed, due to the difficulties of organizing regular transportation and exchanging payments between the colonies, which had their own monetary systems. (The fact that the man in charge of the new system, Thomas Neale, lived in England and had never crossed the Atlantic didn’t help.) In 1711, another, more serious attempt at creating a “national” postal service was made. This one took root. Long-distance communication was beginning to improve, though it would still take a letter a month to get from the post office in Williamsburg, Virginia, to the one in Boston. There were also by this time more colonists to send letters. The population had surpassed 250,000 in 1700 and was growing fast. By 1750 it would be over 1 million, and by 1765, the date of the stamp that opens this chapter, nearly double that. The Spanish and French empires did not share this dramatic growth, nor did the Native Americans, who were beginning to suffer from deadly diseases—smallpox, measles, influenza—brought across the Atlantic by the colonists.

Between 1756 and 1763, Britain and France fought a vast war, arguably the first truly global conflict. Like most wars, it had left the combatants hugely in debt. In 1765, Britain wanted its colonies—which it considered itself to have “saved” from French domination—to pay some of that debt. On March 22, King George III’s Parliament passed the Stamp Act, which required that his American subjects pay a new tax. All printing was to be carried out on paper embossed with a stamp like the one above, for which the printer had to pay a charge. The rate varied. A license to sell alcohol was to cost £4, while an employment contract or the grant of probate on a will would be charged 10 shillings. Also taxed would be almanacs, playing cards, and newspapers (taxed double if they featured writing in a foreign language). The penny stamp at the opening of this chapter would have been required on every example of a one-page pamphlet.

Previous taxation in the thirteen colonies had taken the indirect form of import tariffs, but the Stamp Act cut straight to the heart of daily colonial life: It was a tax on information and communication. The response was immediate. The governing body of Virginia, the House of Burgesses, met on May 29 in Williamsburg to discuss a set of “Resolves,” the third of which argued that only “the taxation of the people by themselves, or by persons chosen by themselves to represent them” was legal. At the forefront of the debate was a young lawyer named Patrick Henry. During his speech, he declared: “Caesar had his Brutus; Charles the First his Cromwell; and George the Third”—at which point, he was interrupted by cries of “Treason!” Henry paused, reminding himself, perhaps, that he was speaking to get a motion passed, not to incite regicide, before continuing, “May he profit by their example!” The Resolve was passed.

Protests took place in the colonies’ streets, too. Stamp commissioners had been appointed to oversee the new tax, which was to take effect on November 1, and these individuals became the targets of rioters. On the morning of August 14, Boston awoke to find an effigy of Andrew Oliver, the local commissioner, hanging from an elm tree by a main road. Attached was a couplet:

A goodlier sight who e’er did see?

A Stamp-Man hanging on a tree!

People gathered and mocked the effigy; in the afternoon, it was taken into the center of town in a procession, the crowd shouting a new slogan: “Liberty, Property, and No Stamps!” Their first port of call was the newly built Stamp Office, a small wooden building that proved easy to demolish. The procession then headed to Oliver’s house, outside of which the effigy was beheaded. Oliver resigned the next day.

Similar “liberty trees” sprang up around the colonies. If no suitable tree could be found, a “liberty pole” sufficed, often topped with a red flag or a red conical Phrygian cap, a traditional symbol of revolt. These, naturally, served as meeting points for disaffected citizens. Often such meetings turned to violence: A few weeks after the Oliver incident, a crowd in Newport, Rhode Island, attacked the house of a man who had unwisely written a pamphlet called A Colonist’s Defense of Taxation. These meetings were initially spontaneous, but they were soon being orchestrated by the Sons of Liberty—a group that became ever more “national” in its organization, at least partially thanks to the Stamp Act. Other, more constitutionally minded opponents of the tax met in October to petition London to repeal the act. The proceedings came to be known as the Stamp Act Congress, the first meeting of colonial representatives not officially sanctioned by the crown. It drafted a Declaration of Rights and Grievances, a precursor to the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

By the time the Stamp Act was due to come into effect, there were hardly any commissioners left to enforce it. (The last one struggled on until November 16 before resigning.) The act limped along, ignored whenever possible, until a vote to repeal it was passed in the British Parliament on February 21, 1766. The Revenue Stamp that introduces this chapter was no more. But the mood that it had created—of rebellion, but also of unity between the previously disparate colonies—lived on.

In June 1767, Britain tried taxing its unruly American colonies again. It went back to the old idea of import tariffs, raising duties on glass, paper, and tea. However, America would no longer accept even these. Boycotts of British goods were organized. A vicious cycle of public protest and official overreaction developed, centered on Boston. In February 1770, a crowd surrounded the house of Ebenezer Richardson, a customs officer, and started throwing stones at it. Richardson responded by shooting at the crowd, and a ten-year-old boy, Christopher Seider, was killed. A fortnight later, an argument outside the Customs House between a Bostonian and a British officer about an unpaid bill turned into a full-scale confrontation between Redcoats and colonists, ending up with the former firing on the latter and killing five people.

The British decided to back down again, in part at least. Most of the new duties were rescinded, but tea remained taxed, and an effective monopoly on its importation was given to the British East India Company, an attempt to bail out a corrupt conglomerate that had gotten into financial difficulty. Cue the famous Tea Party of 1773, when Sons of Liberty disguised as Mohawks boarded ships in Boston Harbor and threw 342 crates of tea into the water. In response the harbor was blockaded and Boston placed under martial law, with British soldiers billeted with local families. These measures, which became known as the Intolerable Acts, incensed Americans further: Even the previously moderate George Washington commented that “the Crisis has arrived.”

The Continental Congress that convened in September of 1774 was divided between sending further petitions to the king and pushing for independence. In the end, a petition was sent—but a response from London would take months (two Atlantic voyages, seven weeks out and even longer coming back, on top of however long it took the British to make up their minds), and many people weren’t prepared to wait that long. Radicals urged the formation and training of armed local militias. Patrick Henry, unsurprisingly, was among these, calling out in another debate, “Give me liberty, or give me death!”

On April 19, 1775, a group of British soldiers set out from Boston to Concord to search for hidden arms. Such sorties had become quite common: The army had been transforming into an occupying force since the reaction to the Stamp Act a decade earlier. Halfway there, on the green of the village of Lexington, they encountered the local militia, who had gathered, alerted by Paul Revere on his famous ride. Debate still rages about who fired the first shot—there are all sorts of theories, ranging from an outside provocateur to Redcoats trying to stop a prisoner escaping. An exchange of gunfire followed.

Lexington was more a skirmish than a battle. Eight militiamen were killed, and their compatriots quickly fled their numerically superior opposition and hastened to Concord, where a better defense could be mounted. Even there, the Americans were initially outnumbered. The British searched the town, finding armaments (though most had been spirited away) and damaging property. While they were doing this, the American force grew in size: The colonials’ strategy was to use small, mobile forces that could be quickly augmented by “minutemen,” local part-time volunteers. Battle was finally joined at Concord’s North Bridge. The British were forced to retreat. After a final attempt at a face-saving arms search, they headed back to Boston, harried with ever-increasing violence, where they were then encircled. The city was under siege.

And all because of a stamp …

Copyright © 2014 by Chris West

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