The Age of George III

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A Farmer's Letters

This is the eleventh of the Farmer's Letters, written by John Dickinson in 1767-8. In them, he attacks British policy towards the American colonies.

My dear Countrymen,

I have several times, in the course of these letters, mentioned the late act of parliament, as being the foundation of future measures injurious to these colonies; and the belief of this truth I wish to prevail, because I think it necessary to our safety.

A perpetual jealousy, respecting liberty, is absolutely requisite in all free states. The very texture of their constitution, in mixed governments, demands it. For the cautions with which power is distributed among the several orders, imply, that each has that share which is proper for the general welfare, and therefore that any further acquisition must be pernicious. Machiavel employs a whole chapter in his discourses,[1] to prove that a state, to be long lived, must be frequently corrected, and reduced to its first principles. But of all states that have existed, there never was any, in which this jealousy could be more proper than in these colonies. For the government here is not only mixed, but dependent, which circumstance occasions a peculiarity in its form, of a very delicate nature.

Two reasons induce me to desire, that this spirit of apprehension may be always kept up among us, in its utmost vigilance. The first is this—that as the happiness of these provinces indubitably consists in their connection with Great Britain, any separation between them is less likely to be occasioned by civil discords, if every disgusting measure is opposed singly, and while it is new: For in this manner of proceeding, every such measure is most likely to be rectified. On the other hand, oppressions and dissatisfactions being permitted to accumulate—if ever the governed throw off the load, they will do more. A people does not reform with moderation. The rights of the subject therefore cannot be too often considered, explained or asserted: And whoever attempts to do this, shows himself, whatever may be the rash and peevish reflections of pretended wisdom, and pretended duty, a friend to those who injudiciously exercise their power, as well as to them, over whom it is so exercised.

Had all the points of prerogative claimed by Charles the First, been separately contested and settled in preceding reigns, his fate would in all probability have been very different; and the people would have been content with that liberty which is compatible with regal authority. But he thought, it would be as dangerous for him to give up the powers which at any time had been by usurpation exercised by the crown, as those that were legally vested in it.[2] This produced an equal excess on the part of the people. For when their passions were excited by multiplied grievances, they thought it would be as dangerous for them to allow the powers that were legally vested in the crown, as those which at any time had been by usurpation exercised by it. Acts, that might by themselves have been upon many considerations excused or extenuated, derived a contagious malignancy and odium from other acts, with which they were connected. They were not regarded according to the simple force of each, but as parts of a system of oppression. Every one therefore, however small in itself, became alarming, as an additional evidence of tyrannical designs. It was in vain for prudent and moderate men to insist, that there was no necessity to abolish royalty. Nothing less than the utter destruction of monarchy, could satisfy those who had suffered, and thought they had reason to believe, they always should suffer under it.

The consequences of these mutual distrusts are well known: But there is no other people mentioned in history, that I recollect, who have been so constantly watchful of their liberty, and so successful in their struggles for it, as the English. This consideration leads me to the second reason, why I “desire that the spirit of apprehension may be always kept among us in its utmost vigilance.”

The first principles of government are to be looked for in human nature. Some of the best writers have asserted, and it seems with good reason, that “government is founded on opinion.[3]

Custom undoubtedly has a mighty force in producing opinion, and reigns in nothing more arbitrarily than in public affairs. It gradually reconciles us to objects even of dread and detestation; and I cannot but think these lines of Mr. Pope as applicable to vice in politics, as to vice in ethics

Vice is a monster of so horrid mien,
As to be hated, needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

When an act injurious to freedom has been once done, and the people bear it, the repetition of it is most likely to meet with submission. For as the mischief of the one was found to be tolerable, they will hope that of the second will prove so too; and they will not regard the infamy of the last, because they are stained with that of the first.

Indeed nations, in general, are not apt to think until they feel; and therefore nations in general have lost their liberty: For as violations of the rights of the governed, are commonly not only specious,[4] but small at the beginning, they spread over the multitude in such a manner, as to touch individuals but slightly.[5] Thus they are disregarded. The power or profit that arises from these violations, centering in few persons, is to them considerable. For this reason the governors having in view their particular purposes, successfully preserve a uniformity of conduct for attaining them. They regularly increase the first injuries, till at length the inattentive people are compelled to perceive the heaviness of their burdens—They begin to complain and inquire—but too late. They find their oppressors so strengthened by success, and themselves so entangled in examples of express authority on the part of their rulers, and of tacit recognition on their own part, that they are quite confounded: For millions entertain no other idea of the legality of power, than that it is founded on the exercise of power. They voluntarily fasten their chains, by adopting a pusillanimous opinion, “that there will be too much danger in attempting a remedy”—or another opinion no less fatal—“that the government has a right to treat them as it does.” They then seek a wretched relief for their minds, by persuading themselves, that to yield their obedience, is to discharge their duty. The deplorable poverty of spirit, that prostrates all the dignity bestowed by divine providence on our nature—of course succeeds.

From these reflections I conclude, that every free state should incessantly watch, and instantly take alarm on any addition being made to the power exercised over them. Innumerable instances might be produced to show, from what slight beginnings the most extensive consequences have flowed: But I shall select two only from the history of England.

Henry the Seventh was the first monarch of that kingdom, who established a STANDING BODY OF ARMED MEN. This was a band of fifty archers, called yeomen of the guard: And this institution, notwithstanding the smallness of the number, was, to prevent discontent, “disguised under pretence of majesty and grandeur.”[6] In 1684 the standing forces were so much augmented, that Rapin says—“The king, in order to make his people fully sensible of their new slavery, affected to muster his troops, which amounted to 4000 well armed and disciplined men.” I think our army, at this time, consists of more than seventy regiments.

The method of taxing by EXCISE was first introduced amid the convulsions of the civil wars. Extreme necessity was pretended for it, and its short continuance promised. After the restoration, an excise upon beer, ale and other liquors, was granted to the king,[7] one half in fee, the other for life, as an equivalent for the court of wards. Upon James the Second’s accession, the parliament gave him the first excise, with an additional duty on wine, tobacco, and some other things.[8] Since the revolution it has been extended to salt, candles, leather, hides, hops, soap, paper, pasteboards, mill-boards, scale-boards, vellum, parchment, starch, silks, calicos, linens, stuffs, printed, stained, etc. wire, wrought plate, coffee, tea, chocolate, etc.

Thus a standing army and excise have, from their first slender origins, tho’ always hated, always feared, always opposed, at length swelled up to their vast present bulk.

These facts are sufficient to support what I have said. It is true, that all the mischiefs apprehended by our ancestors from a standing army and excise, have not yet happened: But it does not follow from this, that they will not happen. The inside of a house may catch fire, and the most valuable apartments be ruined, before the flames burst out. The question in these cases is not, what evil has actually attended particular measures—but, what evil, in the nature of things, is likely to attend them. Certain circumstances may for some time delay effects, that were reasonably expected, and that must ensue. There was a long period, after the Romans had prorogued his command to Q. Publilius Philo, before that example destroyed their liberty.[9] All our kings, from the revolution to the present reign, have been foreigners. Their ministers generally continued but a short time in authority and they themselves were mild and virtuous princes. [10]

A bold, ambitious prince, possessed of great abilities, firmly fixed in his throne by descent, served by ministers like himself, and rendered either venerable or terrible by the glory of his successes, may execute what his predecessors did not dare to attempt. Henry the Fourth tottered in his seat during his whole reign. Henry the Fifth drew the strength of that kingdom into France, to carry on his wars there, and left the commons at home, protesting, “that the people were not bound to serve out of the realm.”

It is true, that a strong spirit of liberty subsists at present in Great Britain, but what reliance is to be placed in the temper of a people, when the prince is possessed of an unconstitutional power, our own history can sufficiently inform us. When Charles the Second had strengthened himself by the return of the garrison of Tangier,England (says Rapin) saw on a sudden an amazing revolution; saw herself stripped of all her rights and privileges, excepting such as the king should vouchsafe to grant her: And what is more astonishing, the English themselves delivered up these very rights and privileges to Charles the Second, which they had so passionately, and, if I may say it, furiously defended against the designs of Charles the First.” This happened only thirty-six years after this last prince had been beheaded.

Some persons are of opinion, that liberty is not violated, but by such open acts of force; but they seem to be greatly mistaken. I could mention a period within these forty years, when almost as great a change of disposition was produced by the SECRET measures of a long administration, as by Charles’s violence. Liberty, perhaps, is never exposed to so much danger, as when the people believe there is the least; for it may be subverted, and yet they not think so.

Public disgusting acts are seldom practised by the ambitious, at the beginning of their designs. Such conduct silences and discourages the weak, and the wicked, who would otherwise have been their advocates or accomplices. It is of great consequence, to allow those who, upon any account, are inclined to favor them, something specious to say in their defense. Their power may be fully established, tho’ it would not be safe for them to do whatever they please. For there are things, which, at some times, even slaves will not bear. Julius Caesar, and Oliver Cromwell, did not dare to assume the title of king. The Grand Seignor dares not lay a new tax. The king of France dares not be a protestant. Certain popular points may be left untouched, and yet freedom be extinguished. The commonalty of Venice imagine themselves free, because they are permitted to do what they ought not. But I quit a subject, that would lead me too far from my purpose.

By the late act of parliament, taxes are to be levied upon us, for “defraying the charge of the administration of justice—the support of civil government—and the expenses of defending his Majesty’s dominions in America.

If any man doubts what ought to be the conduct of these colonies on this occasion, I would ask him these questions.

Has not the parliament expressly AVOWED their INTENTION of raising money from US FOR CERTAIN PURPOSES? Is not this scheme popular in Great Britain? Will the taxes, imposed by the late act, answer those purposes? If it will, must it not take an immense sum from us? If it will not, is it to be expected, that the parliament will not fully execute their INTENTION when it is pleasing at home, and not opposed here? Must not this be done by imposing NEW taxes? Will not every addition, thus made to our taxes, be an addition to the power of the British legislature, by increasing the number of officers employed in the collection? Will not every additional tax therefore render it more difficult to abrogate any of them? When a branch of revenue is once established, does it not appear to many people invidious and undutiful, to attempt to abolish it? If taxes, sufficient to accomplish the INTENTION of the parliament, are imposed by the parliament, what taxes will remain to be imposed by our assemblies? If no material taxes remain to be imposed by them, what must become of them, and the people they represent?

“If any person considers these things, and yet thinks our liberties are in no danger, I wonder at that person’s security.” [11]

One other argument is to be added, which, by itself, I hope, will be sufficient to convince the most incredulous man on this continent, that the late act of parliament is only designed to be a PRECEDENT, whereon the future vassalage of these colonies may be established.

Every duty thereby laid on articles of British manufacture, is laid on some commodity, upon the exportation of which from Great Britain, a drawback is payable. Those drawbacks, in most of the articles, are exactly double to the duties given by the late act. The parliament therefore might, in half a dozen lines, have raised MUCH MORE MONEY, only by stopping the drawbacks in the hands of the officers at home, on exportation to these colonies, than by this solemn imposition of taxes upon us, to be collected here. Probably, the artful contrivers of this act formed it in this manner, in order to reserve to themselves, in case of any objections being made to it, this specious pretence—“that the drawbacks are gifts to the colonies, and that the late act only lessens those gifts.” But the truth is, that the drawbacks are intended for the encouragement and promotion of British manufactures and commerce, and are allowed on exportation to any foreign parts, as well as on exportation to these provinces. Besides, care has been taken to slide into the act, some articles on which there are no drawbacks. However, the whole duties laid by the late act on all the articles therein specified are so small, that they will not amount to as much as the drawbacks which are allowed on part of them only. If therefore, the sum to be obtained by the late act, had been the sole object in forming it, there would not have been any occasion for “the COMMONS of Great Britain, to GIVE and GRANT to his Majesty RATES and DUTIES for raising a revenue IN his Majesty’s dominions in America, for making a more certain and adequate provision for defraying the charges of the administration of justice, the support of civil government, and the expense of defending the said dominions”; nor would there have been any occasion for an expensive board of commissioners, [12] and all the other new charges to which we are made liable.

Upon the whole, for my part, I regard the late act as an experiment made of our disposition. It is a bird sent out over the waters, to discover, whether the waves, that lately agitated this part of the world with such violence, have yet subsided. If this adventurer gets footing here, we shall quickly find it to be of the kind described by the poet.[13]

“Infelix vates.”
A direful foreteller of future calamities.

A Farmer


[1] Machiavel’s DiscoursesBook 3. Chap. I. [back]

[2]The author is sensible that this is putting the gentlest construction on Charles’s conduct; and that is one reason why he chooses it. Allowances ought to be made for the errors of those men, who are acknowledged to have been possessed of many virtues. The education of this unhappy prince, and his confidence in men not so good or wise as himself, had probably filled him with mistaken notions of his own authority, and of the consequences that would attend concessions of any kind to a people, who were represented to him, as aiming at too much power. [back]

[3]“Opinion is of two kinds, viz., opinion of INTEREST, and opinion of RIGHT. By opinion of interest, I chiefly understand, the sense of the public advantage which is reaped from government; together with the persuasion, that the particular government which is established, is equally advantageous with any other, that could be easily settled.

Right is of two kinds, right to power, and right to property. What prevalence opinion of the first kind has over mankind, may easily be understood, by observing the attachment which all nations have to their ancient government, and even to those names which have had the sanction of antiquity. Antiquity always begets the opinion of right”—“It is sufficiently understood, that the opinion of right to property, is of the greatest moment in all matters of government.” (Hume’s Essays) [back]

[4]Omnia mala exempla ex bonis initiis orta sunt. (SALLUST. Bell. Cat. S. 50) [back]

[5] “The republic is always attacked with greater vigor, than it is defended: For the audacious and profligate, prompted by their natural enmity to it, are easily impelled to act by the least nod of their leaders: Whereas the HONEST, I know not why, are generally slow and unwilling to stir; and neglecting always the BEGINNINGS of things, are never roused to exert themselves, but by the last necessity: So that through IRRESOLUTION and DELAY, when they would be glad to compound at last for the QUIET, at the expense even of their HONOR, they commonly lose them BOTH.” (CICERO’S Orat. for SEXTIUS)

Such were the sentiments of this great and excellent man, whose vast abilities, and the calamities of his country during this time enabled him, by mournful experience, to form a just judgment on the conduct of the friends and enemies of liberty. [back]

[6]Rapin’s History of England. [back]

[7]Char. II. Chap. 23 and 24. [back]

[8] I James II. Chap. 1 and 4. [back]

[9] In the year of the city 428, “Duo singularia haec ei viro primum contigere; prorogatio imperii non ante in ullo facta, et acto honore triumphus.” (Liv. B.S. Chap. 23. 26)

“Had the rest of the Roman citizens imitated the example of L. Quintius, who refused to have his consulship continued to him, they have never admitted that custom of proroguing of magistrates, and then the prolongation of their commands in the army had never been introduced, which very thing was at length the ruin of that commonwealth.” (Machiavel’s Discourses, B. 3. Chap. 24) [back]

[10]I don’t know but it may be said, with a good deal of reason, that a quick rotation of ministers is very desirable in Great Britain. A minister there has a vast store of materials to work with. Long administrations are rather favorable to the reputation of a people abroad, than to their liberty. [back]

[11]Demosthenes’s 2d Philippic. [back]

[12]The expense of this board, I am informed, is between Four and Five thousand Pounds Sterling a year. The establishment of officers, for collecting the revenue in America, amounted before to Seven Thousand Six Hundred Pounds per annum; and yet, says the author of “The regulation of the colonies,” “the whole remittance from all the taxes in the colonies, at an average of thirty years, has not amounted to One Thousand Nine Hundred Pounds a year, and in that sum Seven or Eight Hundred Pounds per annum only, have been remitted from North America.

The smallness of the revenue arising from the duties in America, demonstrates that they were intended only as REGULATIONS OF TRADE: And can any person be so blind to truth, so dull of apprehension in a matter of unspeakable importance to his country, as to imagine, that the board of commissioners lately established at such a charge, is instituted to assist in collecting One Thousand Nine Hundred Pounds a year, or the trifling duties imposed by the late act? Surely every man on this continent must perceive, that they are established for the care of a NEW SYSTEM OF REVENUE, which is but now begun. [back]

[13]“Dira caelaeno,” etc. Virgil, Aeneid 3. [back]

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