Iconic 1766 political cartoon celebrating the repeal of the Stamp Act

[After Benjamin Wilson], THE REPEAL OR THE FUNERAL OF MISS AME[RICAN]=STAMP [No place, no date, but London, 1766].
Etching, 9 ¼”h x 13 ½”w at neat line, surmounting 3 columns of letterpress on a 11 ½”h x 14”w sheet of laid paper. Mild soiling, small stain in left margin, faint annotations in ink and pencil, the latter apparently identifying figures on the print. Some mends and reinforcements on verso. Trimmed inside plate mark on three sides and quite close to left-hand column of letterpress. A good or better example of a rare print. Handsomely and appropriately framed.

Important and scarce political cartoon satirizing the repeal of the Stamp Act and broader commentary on the administration of George Grenville, Prime Minister from 1763 to 1765. “One of the most famous and popular political satires commenting on the Stamp Act”. (Dolmetsch)

Of the many events that precipitated the American Revolution, few are more significant than the passage of the Stamp Act on March 22, 1765. This was a direct tax imposed by the British Parliament specifically on the American colonies, designed to help defray the staggering costs of the French and Indian War and the ongoing maintenance of British forces in America. The financial situation was indeed dire: Great Britain’s national debt had nearly doubled during the war, and interest payments alone consumed half the national budget.

The Act required colonists to use specially embossed or stamped paper produced in England on practically all printed articles, everything from playing cards to newspapers to property deeds. The stamps were to be sold by designated agents in major cities, including among them Andrew Oliver in Boston and James McEvers in New York.

The whole plan seemed reasonable.  Even the politically acute Benjamin Franklin, then serving in London as agent for the Pennsylvania Assembly, saw no problem with it and recommended that John Hughes be appointed the stamp agent for that province.

In the Colonies, however, the Act provoked widespread opposition on the grounds of economic hardship, coming as it did at a time of post-war recession and in the midst of a shortage of hard currency. More radical voices objected to “taxation without representation”, a constitutional objection which was to gather force in the coming years.

In October 1765 the Stamp Act Congress in New York was attended by representatives from nine colonies and submitted a petition for repeal, citing the “taxation without representation” argument. And many colonists, among them merchants in the major cities, organized non-importation agreements, in the belief that these would encourage British merchants to back repeal. Demonstrations erupted, some of them turning violent, such as the August 1766 attacks in Boston on the office and home of Andrew Oliver and the home of Governor Thomas Hutchinson. Eventually the violence, or the threat of violence, forced most stamp agents to resign, and the Act became unenforceable.

As a matter of expediency, Parliament repealed the Act in February 1766, with the King’s assent coming on March 18. As the repeal legislation states, the original act “would be attended with many inconveniences, and may be productive of consequences greatly detrimental to the commercial interests of these kingdoms”.

The Repeal
The original version of this satire was drawn by Benjamin Wilson (1721-1788), a portrait painter, satirist, etcher, Fellow of the Royal Society, and successor to William Hogarth as Serjeant-Painter to the King. According to Dolmetsch, Wilson “boasted that it was available for sale within ten minutes of the official repeal. An instant success, it became one of the most copied satires of the period.” Stephens and George describe ours as the fourth of six versions, an anonymous treatment with descriptive letterpress text added in the lower margin.

The scene is set on an unnamed Thames dockyard, with three columns of explanatory letterpress below. In the foreground a funeral procession approaches a burial vault housing “unwise” Acts of Parliament (listed on the stone over the doorway). The vault is adorned with two skulls of Jacobite “Monsters”, an allusion to the Jacobite Rebellions of 1715 and 1745.

The funeral is led by clergyman and polemicist Dr. James Scott, followed by a procession of politicians and clergy. The identities of the men are concealed by pseudonyms, but they can be readily identified as Alexander Wedderburn (1st Earl of Rosslyn) and Fletcher Norton both lawyers; George Grenville (“Mr Stamper”), the designer of the Stamp Tax, carrying the coffin in which the Act is contained; the Earl of Bute, in tartan; the Duke of Bedford; Lords Temple, Halifax and Sandwich; with two bishops bringing up the rear. Behind them are two bales, including one of black mourning cloth, sent from America, speaking to the commercial harm done by the Stamp Act. The two banners carried in the procession bear Jacobite emblems and the numbers “71” and “122”, the numbers of votes cast respectively in the House of Lords and Commons against repeal (Other versions have them numbered”165” and “250”, representing the votes cast for repeal.)

In the background, across the Thames from this “unhappy Gang”, is a “joyous scene”: Three ships, each named for a prominent member of the opposition to the Stamp Act and now liberated by the lifting of the American boycott on trade with the mother country, load goods for the Colonies. Among these is a statute of Sir William Pitt, long-time defender of colonial liberty.

A scarce and striking graphic commentary on the Stamp Act and its repeal, and a wonderful example of the seemingly limitless inventiveness of 18th-century British satirists.

Stephens & George, Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum, vol. IV #4140 (4th of 6 versions described). British Museum, 1868,0808.4376 (this variant. For the original etching by Wilson, see British Museum J, 1.85.) See also Dolmetsch, Rebellion & Reconciliation, pp. 38-9 (illustrating the original Wilson version); and Cresswell, American Revolution in Drawings & Prints, #623-4 (#623 a different version, #624 not illustrated but described as “a cartoon similar to item 623”).

Christies sale 18947 (Jan. 21, 2021), lot 301. Ambassador J. William Middendorf II. Northeast Auctions sale 103115 (2015), lot 769.

Offered in partnership with James Arsenault & Company.