Stamped paper

Paper stamped with a certain mark by Government, and which in many countries must be used for all judicial acts, public deeds, and private contracts, in order to give them validity, is one of those numerous modes of taxation invented after the other means of raising money for the service of states, or rather of their rulers, became exhausted. It is not of great antiquity; for before the invention of our paper it would not have been a very productive source of finance. When parchment and other substances employed for writing on were dear, when greater simplicity of manners produced more honesty and more confidence among mankind, and when tallies supplied the place of notes, bonds, and receipts, writings of that kind were very little in use.

De Basville, however, in his Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire de Languedoc, affirms that stamped paper was introduced so early as the year 537, by the emperor Justinian. This book, written by the author, intendant of that province in 1697, for the use of the duke of Burgundy, was printed, in octavo, at Marseilles in 1734, and not at Amsterdam, as announced in the title; but it was carefully suppressed by the Government, and on that account is very scarce even in France 678. I have never seen it; but I know the author's ideas respecting stamped paper, from an extract in Variétés Historiques, Physiques, et Littéraires, printed at Paris in the year 1752 679. The author of this work supports the opinion of his countryman: but it is undoubtedly false; for the law quoted as a proof requires only that documents should be written on such paper as had marked at the top (which was called the protocoll) the name of the intendant of the finances, and the time when the paper was made; and this regulation was established merely with a view to prevent the forging and altering of acts or deeds 680. A kind of stamped paper therefore was brought into use, though different from what we have at present, the principal intention of which is not to render writings more secure, but by imposing a certain duty on the stamps, proportioned to the importance of the purpose it is employed for, to make a considerable addition to the public revenue 681. The stamps serve as a receipt to show that the tax has been paid; and, though many law papers must be stamped, that burthen has tended as little to prevent law-suits as the stamping of cards has to lessen gaming: though some think differently. In both too much is risked and too much expected for taxes to deter mankind from engaging in either.

If in this historical research we look only to the antiquity of stamping, we shall find that both the Greeks and the Romans had soldiers marked in that manner; and, if we may be allowed to bring together things so different, we might include under the like head those runaway slaves who were marked by being branded; but I allude here only to the stamped paper now in use, which was certainly invented in Holland, a country where every necessary of life is subjected to taxation. The States of the United Provinces having promised a reward to any one who should invent a new impost, that might at the same time bear light on the people and be productive to the government, some person proposed that of bezegelde brieven, or stamped paper, which was approved; and which Boxhorn, to whom we are indebted for this information, considers as a very proper tax. He is of opinion also that it might with great advantage be adopted in other countries 682 ; and this was really the case soon after his death, which happened in 1653.

Stamped paper was introduced in Holland on the 13th of August, 1624, by an ordinance which represented the necessity and great benefit of this new tax. Among other things advanced in its favour, it was said that it would tend to lessen law-suits, and, on that account, would soon recommend itself to neighbouring nations. What we are told therefore by the author of an extract in Variétés Historiques, before-quoted, that stamped paper began to be used in Holland and Spain so early as the year 1555, is certainly false. The Spaniards may, indeed, have been the first people who followed the example of the Dutch; for the author above mentioned asserts, that he saw an act, executed by a notary at Brussels, in 1668, which was written on stamped paper.

This tax was introduced in the electorate of Saxony by an ordinance of the 22nd of March 1682; and into that of Brandenburg on the 15th of July, in the same year. Bartholdus however says, but without producing any proof 683 , that stamped paper was used before that period in Denmark, Florence, and Silesia. In Hanover it was first introduced, as I think, on the 20th of February, 1709.

[The stamp-tax was first introduced into this country in the reign of William and Mary, in 1693 (5 W. & M. c. 21). This act imposes stamps upon grants from the crown, diplomas, contracts, probates of wills and letters of administration, and upon all writs, proceedings, and records in courts of law and equity; it does not however seem to impose stamps upon deeds, unless these are enrolled at Westminster or other courts of record. Two years afterwards, conveyances, deeds and leases, were subjected to the stamp duty, and by a series of acts in the succeeding reigns, every instrument recording a transaction between two individuals was subjected to a stamp duty before it could be used in a court of justice. These laws have been variously altered in later times, but it is beyond our province to trace them further.]


678  An account of this book may be found in Anecdotes secr. sur divers sujets de littérat. 1734, p. 573, and in the preface to Etat de la France, de M. de Boulainvilliers, fol. p. 12.

679  Inserted in the Encyclopédie, vol. xi. p. 862.

680  Novell. coll. iv. tit. 23. cap. 2. nov. 44.

681  Such is the idea of Stryk in Continuat. altera usus moderni pandectarum, lib. xxii. tit. 4. p. 856.

682  “The States of Holland having laid sufficiently heavy duties on merchandise of every kind, and these not being equal to the expenditure, which was daily increasing, began to think of imposing new ones. For that purpose they issued an edict, inviting the ingenious to turn their thoughts towards that subject, and offering a very ample reward to whoever should invent a new tax, that might be as little burdensome as possible, and yet productive to the republic. Some shrewd, deep-thinking person, at length devised one on stamped paper (called de impost van bezegelde brieven ), to be paid for all paper impressed with the seal of the States. The inventor proposed, that it should be enacted by public authority, that no petitions from the states, or from the magistrates of any city or district, or any public bodies, should be received; that no documents should be admitted in courts of justice; that no receipts should be legal, and that no acts signed by notaries, secretaries, or other persons in office, and, in short, no contracts should be valid, except such as were written upon paper to which the seal of the States had been affixed, in the manner above-mentioned. It was proposed, also, that this paper should be sold by the clerks of the different towns and courts at the following rate; paper impressed with the great seal of the States for sixpence, and that with the less seal for twopence per sheet: for according to the importance of the business it was necessary that the great or less seal should be used. The States approved this plan, and it was immediately put in execution.”—Boxhornii Disquisitiones Politic. casus 59. In this collection there is also Boxhornii Reip. Bataviæ Brevis et Accurata Descriptio, in the eighth chapter of which the author gives the following account of the origin of stamped paper:—“A very ingenious method has lately been invented of raising large sums of money for the use of the republic. As there are many rich people who have entrusted a considerable share of their property to the public treasury, the interest of which they receive annually on giving receipts; as many law-suits are carried on which are generally entered into by the wealthy, and which cannot be brought to a conclusion until a variety of instruments, as they are called, have been executed on each side; and as, on account of the flourishing state of trade, many contracts are made, which, for the sake of security, must be mutually signed, the States thought proper to enact by a public edict, that no receipts, law-papers, contracts, or instruments of the like kind, should be legal or valid, unless written on paper impressed with the great or small seal of the States. A price was also fixed on the paper, to be paid by those who had occasion for it; so that a sheet which before could be purchased for a half-penny, was raised to several pence; and it is incredible how great a revenue these sheets bring to the public, by so many of them being used. The poor, however, and those of small fortune, feel little of this burden, as the rich principally are concerned in the transactions above-mentioned.”

683  Fr. Jac. Bartholdi Diss. de Charta Signata; resp. P. Kolhart, Franc. 1690, cap. 2, § 16, p. 36.