Stamp That Tax

If you’re like me, you vaguely remember something about the Stamp Act from high school. The British were trying to tax the colonies’ tea—or was that some other unwanted fee?

In brief, Britain’s King George III (loved him in Hamilton) ordered his pesky colonists to pay a tax on paper products including legal documents, playing cards, newspapers, magazines, and other bits. No word if toilet paper required a stamp. Specially embossed paper and individual stamps were sold to authorize printing.

Proof sheet of one-penny stamps. Wikipedia

The fee, paid in British currency, not questionable colonial paper money, supported the British military troops stationed throughout the colonies. Awesome! The soon-to-be-Americans found The Stamp Act revolting. So, they revolted. Protests from New Hampshire to South Carolina sprang up under the motto: No Taxation Without Representation! 

Photo by Calliopejen1 at the Peabody Essex Museum.

It only took a single year of disrupted trade between Britain and the colonies for London businessmen to demand the Act be repealed. The victorious colonists celebrated by erecting a Pillar of Liberty in Dedham, Massachusetts and by sipping a cup of tea brewed in commemorative pots whose pattern cleverly mimics the offending stamps. 

Well, that was a diverting peek into 10th grade American History, but what’s it doing in a blog ostensibly about nineteenth-century Marin?

Salmon P. Chase
(Library of Congress)
Abraham Lincoln (Library of Congress)

In 1862, the United States government found itself in need of cash to finance the Civil War. President Lincoln and Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, ignoring or inspired by the British Stamp Act, found a way to refill the government’s quickly emptying coffers.

Just shy the hundredth anniversary of the Stamp Act’s repeal, the federal government issued revenue stamps taxing legal documents, playing cards, wills, and physical good such as cotton, tobacco, and alcohol. Printed in denominations from a penny to $500, George Washington’s portrait graced the stamps until 1871 when he was joined by Alexander Hamilton and later by Lady Liberty in 1875.

Restoration and Imaging by Gwillhickers  Wikimedia

In June 1866, over thirteen years since Don Timoteo Murphy had died, his two surviving executors received final reimbursements for their services. Not that the estate was fully settled at that time, not on your life. James Miller, tired and aging, and James Black, usually inebriated and only a year away from his own death, passed the estate’s resolution over to Murphy’s nephew. John Lucas, the last man standing with sufficient gumption and motivation, pushed his uncle’s final affairs to their complicated end.

While reviewing over a thousand pages of probate receipts and inventories, I found, in the upper left-hand corner of the 1866 final executors’ settlement, a “US Inter. Rev.” stamp. Its two cents destined to travel nearly 3,000 miles from San Rafael, California to Washington D.C. to offset the government’s Civil War expenses.  

Timothy Murphy Probate Papers.

Confirming, once again, death and taxes are unavoidable. 

Published by Jo Haraf

Jo’s poetry and fiction have been published in the California Writers Club Literary Review, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Ragnarok. She edited and co-authored "Journal Across the Plains - 1852" (Fonthill 2020). "Marriage, Murder, and Betrayal in Nineteen Century California" was published in the fall of 2021. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University. A popular speaker on the craft of writing, Jo is a proud member of the Historical Novel Society, Biographers International, and the California Writers Club. She lives on Florida's Suncoast with her husband and a scruffy terrier whose adoration sustains her through revisions and rejections.

3 thoughts on “Stamp That Tax

  1. Excellent, as always. And timely. I have a friend visiting from So Cal and she examined our restaurant tab last evening. I always toss down my credit card. There are a number of extra “mandatory taxes” in Marin and California.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Jo,

    Terrific to hear from you. I hope this post means that “Ian” didn’t affect you to badly. Great article! In my grammar school days I was an avid stamp collector but I was always puzzled by the “Revenue” stamps. Thanks for the history lesson!

    Jim’s IPad



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