J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Stamp and the Printer’s Devil

I’ve been pointing out how some of Isaiah Thomas’s stories of defying the Stamp Act while working as an underaged journeyman printer in Nova Scotia don’t stand up to scrutiny. On the other hand, we know that the sixteen-year-old did sometimes express his dislike of that law in a quite visible way.

Above is an image from the American Antiquarian Society (which Thomas founded) of the 13 Feb 1766 Halifax Gazette. It clearly shows the revenue stamp, meaning Thomas couldn’t have disposed of all those stamps by that date as he later claimed. But it also shows a small woodcut that Thomas himself probably created, with a devil poking its pitchfork into the stamp.

Around the stamp are these added words:
Behold me the Scorn and contempt of AMERICA pitching down to Destruction

Devils clear the Way for B——s and STAMPS.
In addition, the Canadian printing scholar Marie Tremaine found December 1765 copies of the Halifax Gazette that had, in place of or on top of the stamp, “a skull and crossbones” in black and “a death’s head” in red.

Some printers included such images of death within every copy of their newspapers during those turbulent months, as in this example from Maryland. In contrast, by stamping his images over the printing, Thomas gave himself more flexibility. He could have the devil poke at the stamp on some copies but leave that image off others, perhaps those sent to local officials.

That brings us to an evidentiary problem. Nearly every surviving copy of the Halifax Gazette from this period is housed at either the American Antiquarian Society (built from Thomas’s own collection) or the Massachusetts Historical Society. Are those copies typical, or were those ones that young Thomas put his special decoration on, knowing he would keep them to himself or send them off to a colony where the Stamp Act was already dead? We can’t tell.

We do know that royal officials in Nova Scotia disliked the Halifax Gazette’s treatment of the Stamp Act enough to take printing jobs away from its publisher, Anthony Henry. He gave up publishing the newspaper in mid-1766. The officials then encouraged a newcomer to the province to launch the Nova-Scotia Gazette.

Meanwhile, having caused as much trouble in Nova Scotia as he dared, young Thomas had caught a ship headed south.

TOMORROW: Isaiah Thomas’s travels.

1 comment:

Chris Hurley of Woburn said...

I'm sure political funny business with stamps happens frequently. For instance, when the USPS Nixon stamp came out, one could buy pre-printed envelopes from The Santa Cruz Comic News that would appear to put Nixon in jail.
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