Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library.
If the phrase “taxation without representation” evokes images of Washington, D.C. license plates, you might want to look a bit further back—250 years, in fact—to a law that enraged American colonists. The Stamp Act, which forced British colonies to pay taxes on paper products like playing cards and newspapers, sparked fierce debate and a series of fascinating protests.
By the time the British Parliament landed on the idea of taxing the colonies to pay for troops stationed there after the French and Indian War, the colonies were already irritated with King George’s Parliament. The war had taken nine years and drained Britain’s coffers, and the government back home was irked by the ongoing expense of maintaining their increasingly headstrong colonies. So they devised the tax John Adams would call “the enormous engine fabricated by the British Parliament for battering down the rights and liberties of America”—a law that struck at that metallic heart of the colonies, the printing press.
The act King George signed into law 250 years ago was deceptively simple. It imposed duties on pretty much everything that could be printed or written on a piece of paper, from wills to summons to playing cards and newspapers. In order to comply with the act, colonists were required to purchase special stamped paper produced in England with English money, not colonial dollars. Suddenly, the colonies’ thriving printing business was under fire—and colonists, in turn, were fired up. It was the first time the overseas government had ever tried to use its colonies to fill its coffers, and colonists—many of whom had fled to the Americas seeking religious tolerance and free expression—were irate. And so they did what any sensible eighteenth-century colonists would do: expressed their discontent in a delightfully morbid fashion.
All over the colonies, disgruntled subjects staged elaborate “funerals for liberty,” complete with eulogies, well-dressed mourners, real coffins, and staged resurrections. Boston protestors took the funeral metaphor one step further when they hung an effigy of the local stamp master on a tree in the Boston Common. “It’s a glorious sight to See a Stamp-man hanging on a tree,” wrote one witness. They staged a mock funeral for the effigy after a raucous parade during which they paused often to kick and “stamp” the dummy before tearing down the stamp office with their bare hands.
But that was just the start of the colonists’ ghoulish rebellion. Though some newspapers preferred to simply print on unstamped paper (sans masthead) in protest, others went under with great fanfare. The Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser changed its masthead to include a funereal new design that announced the paper was “expiring: in hopes of a resurrection to life again.”
“The TIMES are Dreadful Dismal Doleful Dolorous, and DOLLAR-LESS,” it declared. And instead of the required stamp, it merely showed a skull and crossbones inscribed with the words “An emblem of the effects of the STAMP - O! the fatal Stamp.” It was just one of countless newspapers that used the language of mourning to sound the death knell of freedom of speech in the colonies.
The colonists’ mock mourning and lavish grief worked: The Stamp Act was not long for this world and was repealed after less than a year as law. With the stroke of a pen, King George had unwittingly created a monster—an America that was as well-organized and effective at protest as it was angry. As colonial printers celebrated the Stamp Act’s repeal in 1766, they celebrated one last funeral with a famous political cartoon mourning “The Repeal or the Funeral of Miss Americ-Stamp” … complete with a dog doing its business on the pompous priest’s leg.
Sources: John Adams; Full Text of The Stamp Act; Letter from Cyrus Baldwin to Loammi Baldwin, August 15, 1765; The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History; “No Stamped Paper to Be Had,” November 7, 1765; The Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser, October 31, 1765; “The Colonial Newspapers and the Stamp Act,” The New England Quarterly Vol. 8, No. 1.