The Stamp Act Defiance Placard
The Stamp Act Defiance Placard
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The Stamp Act Defiance Placard

NEW YORK, 23 OCTOBER 1765

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The Stamp Act Defiance Placard
New York, 23 October 1765
AMERICAN REVOLUTION – STAMP ACT CRISIS – [THE SONS OF LIBERTY – possibly John Lamb (1735-1800)]. Manuscript document signed (“Vox Populi”), [NEW YORK, 23-24 OCTOBER 1765].

One page, 156 x 192mm, on laid paper (short vertical fold-split repaired on verso, small loss at lower margin reinforced, some minor glue residue on verso). Docketed on recto by two former owners including JOSHUA BROOKES (1773-1859) and Brookes’ grandson, FRANK WALLER (1842-1923) noting provenance.

“Pro Patria. The first Man that either distributes or makes use of Stampt Paper, let him take care of His House, Person & Effects. Vox Populi, We Dare”­

The Stamp Act Defiance Placard—the earliest known documentary evidence of popular revolt against Great Britain in the American colonies. The only example in private ownership of a foundational document of the American Revolution. Placards such as this one were posted throughout New York City during the night of 23 October 1765, following the arrival in the harbor earlier that day of a ship laden with stamped paper, by members of what would soon become known as the Sons of Liberty. These anonymous placards had a chilling effect on the local gentry and governing hierarchy, yet proved invigorating to the resistance, setting off a chain of events that would drastically alter the relationship between Britain and her North American colonies and ultimately lead to the war for independence.

The first public act of the nascent Sons of Liberty. Although the authorship of the placard was deliberately anonymous, historical and graphological analysis strongly suggests that it was composed by a member of the Sons of Liberty, most likely John Lamb. Led by middling merchants, the Sons of Liberty would form the vanguard of radical, violent resistance against British imperial authority, eventually persuading more powerful Americans that only with separation from Britain could their liberty be secured. In the words of Pauline Maier, their greatest expositor to date, “Historians sometimes incorrectly refer to them as ‘secondary figures of the Revolution.’ They were, more exactly, primary figures…and have become relatively obscure for reasons that have little to do with objective historical importance.” [1]

The instrument by means of which the Sons of Liberty entered the political arena. The fear that these placards instilled effectively suspended the law, creating a power vacuum that enabled them to commandeer the Merchants Committee of Correspondence, rapidly transforming it into a revolutionary body. In essence, the Sons of Liberty seized control of a politically rudderless city during its greatest crisis to forge a cohesive intercolonial resistance devoted to mutual support in the event that Britain should attempt to implement the Stamp Act by military force, implicitly threatening civil war unless it was repealed. The very existence of the Stamp Act Defiance Placard demonstrates that the Sons of Liberty, motivated by constitutional principle and the love of liberty, were fully prepared to fight against the British Empire at the first abridgement of American rights.

One of the most dramatic and evocative survivals from the beginning of the American Revolution, which not only highlights the important role played by ordinary people but the central place of New York City in that drama. The earliest historian of the United States, William Gordon, wrote that, while resistance to the Stamp Act was widespread throughout the colonies, the most direct and violent reaction came in New York.[2]

Extremely Rare—one of two examples extant. Acting Governor Cadwallader Colden was one of many New Yorkers who discovered the placards on the morning of 24 October. He secured one and sent it to Henry Seymour Conway, Leader of the House of Commons and Colonial Office Secretary for the Southern Department, with a letter that read, in part: “The night after the ship arrived, papers were pasted upon the doors of Every public Office, and at the corners of the streets, one [of] which I enclose – all of them in the same words. His Majesty’s Ministers are the best judges of the means to curb this licentious factious spirit.”[3] The placard Colden sent to London is the only other surviving example known and is now part of the British National Archives. The present example was found by the antiquarian, Joshua Brookes, who added a note on the recto: "I have reason to believe that this is an original paper stuck up in New York as mentioned in Gordon's History of War, page 131 Vol. 1. in 1765"[4]

Provenance: Joshua Brookes (inscription) – Frank Waller (inscription) – Charlotte Parker Milne, Auburn New Hampshire (her sale, Robert W. Skinner, Boston, 6 November 1980, lot 80 – purchased by a local collector – a Massachusetts bookseller – the current owner (purchase 2012). ­

Additional information and analysis is available upon request.

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[1] At present, the principal candidate for authorship is John Lamb (1735-1800), with the possible collaboration of the significant colonial printer, William Goddard; Pauline Maier. The Old Revolutionaries. Political Lives in the Age of Samuel Adams. New York. Norton, 1990, p. xxii.

[2] William Gordon, The History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment of the Independence of the United States of America. (London: 1788), 187: "The commotions beyond New York did not terminate in similar excesses….”

[3] Colden, Letter to Conway dated 26 October 1765, cited in E. B. O’Callaghan, ed. Documents Relating to the Colonial History of the State of New York procured by John Romeyn Brodhead, Esq. Albany: Weed, Parsons, and Co, 1856, vol. 7, p. 768-769.

[4] Brooks is referring to the 3rd American edition of Gordon's, The History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment of the Independence of the United States of America. (New York: Printed for Samuel Campbell, 1801).

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Peter Klarnet
Peter Klarnet Senior Specialist, Americana

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