The Age of George III

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A Farmer's Letters

This is the twelvth 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,

Some states have lost their liberty by particular accidents: But this calamity is generally owing to the decay of virtue. A people is travelling fast to destruction, when individuals consider their interests as distinct from those of the public. Such notions are fatal to their country, and to themselves. Yet how many are there, so weak and sordid as to think they perform all the offices of life, if they earnestly endeavor to increase their own wealth, power, and credit, without the least regard for the society, under the protection of which they live; who, if they can make an immediate profit to themselves, by lending their assistance to those, whose projects plainly tend to the injury of their country, rejoice in their dexterity, and believe themselves entitled to the character of able politicians. Miserable men! Of whom it is hard to say, whether they ought to be most the objects of pity or contempt: But whose opinions are certainly as detestable, as their practices are destructive.

Though I always reflect, with a high pleasure, on the integrity and understanding of my countrymen, which, joined with a pure and humble devotion to the great and gracious author of every blessing they enjoy, will, I hope, ensure to them, and their posterity, all temporal and eternal happiness; yet when I consider, that in every age and country there have been bad men, my heart, at this threatening period, is so full of apprehension, as not to permit me to believe, but that there may be some on this continent, against whom you ought to be upon your guard—Men, [1] who either hold, or expect to hold certain advantages, by setting examples of servility to their countrymen. Men, who trained to the employment, or self taught by a natural versatility of genius, serve as decoys for drawing the innocent and unwary into snares. It is not to be doubted but that such men will diligently bestir themselves on this and every like occasion, to spread the infection of their meanness as far as they can. On the plans they have adopted, this is their course. This is the method to recommend themselves to their patrons.

From them we shall learn, how pleasant and profitable a thing it is, to be for our SUBMISSIVE behavior well spoken of at St. James’s, or St. Stephen’s; at Guildhall, or the Royal Exchange. Specious fallacies will be dressed up with all the arts of delusion, to persuade one colony to distinguish herself from another, by unbecoming condescensions, which will serve the ambitious purposes of great men at home, and therefore will be thought by them to entitle their assistants in obtaining them to considerable rewards.

Our fears will be excited. Our homes will be awakened. It will be insinuated to us, with a plausible affectation of wisdom and concern, how prudent it is to please the powerful—how dangerous to provoke them—and then comes in the perpetual incantation that freezes up every generous purpose of the soul in cold, inactive expectation—“that if there is any request to be made, compliance will obtain a favorable attention.”

Our vigilance and our union are success and safety. Our negligence and our division are distress and death. They are worse—They are shame and slavery. Let us equally shun the benumbing stillness of overweening sloth, and the feverish activity of that ill informed zeal, which busies itself in maintaining little, mean and narrow opinions. Let us, with a truly wise generosity and charity, banish and discourage all illiberal distinctions, which may arise from differences in situation, forms of government, or modes of religion. Let us consider ourselves as MEN—FREEMEN—CHRISTIAN FREEMEN—separated from the rest of the world, and firmly bound together by the same rights, interests and dangers. Let these keep our attention inflexibly fixed on the GREAT OBJECTS, which we must CONTINUALLY REGARD, in order to preserve those rights, to promote those interests, and to avert those dangers.

Let these truths be indelibly impressed on our minds—that we cannot be HAPPY, without being FREE—that we cannot be free, without being secure in our property—that we cannot be secure in our property, if, without our consent, others may, as by right, take it away—that taxes imposed on us by parliament, do thus take it away—that duties laid for the sole purpose of raising money, are taxes—that attempts to lay such duties should be instantly and firmly opposed—that this opposition can never be effectual, unless it is the united effort of these provinces—that therefore BENEVOLENCE of temper towards each other, and UNANIMITY of counsels, are essential to the welfare of the whole—and lastly, that for this reason, every man among us, who in any manner would encourage either dissension, dissidence, or indifference, between these colonies, is an enemy to himself, and to his country.

The belief of these truths, I verily think, my countrymen, is indispensably necessary to your happiness. I beseech you, therefore, “teach them diligently unto your children, and talk of them when you sit in your houses, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up.”[2]

What have these colonies to ask, while they continue free? Or what have they to dread, but insidious attempts to subvert their freedom? Their prosperity does not depend on ministerial favors doled out to particular provinces. They form one political body, of which each colony is a member. Their happiness is founded on their constitution; and is to be promoted, by preserving that constitution in unabated vigor, throughout every part. A spot, a speck of decay, however small the limb on which it appears, and however remote it may seem from the vitals, should be alarming. We have all the rights requisite for our prosperity. The legal authority of Great Britain may indeed lay hard restrictions upon us; but, like the spear of Telephus, it will cure as well as wound. Her unkindness will instruct and compel us, after some time, to discover, in our industry and frugality, surprising remedies—if our rights continue unviolated: For as long as the products of our labor, and the rewards of our care, can properly be called our own, so long it will be worth our while to be industrious and frugal. But if when we plow—sow—reap—gather—and thresh—we find, that we plow—sow—reap—gather—and thresh for others, whose PLEASURE is to be the SOLE LIMITATION how much they shall take, and how much they shall leave, WHY should we repeat the unprofitable toil? Horses and oxen are content with that portion of the fruits of their work, which their owners assign them, in order to keep them strong enough to raise successive crops; but even these beasts will not submit to draw for their masters, until they are subdued by whips and goads.

Let us take care of our rights, and we therein take care of our prosperity. “SLAVERY IS EVER PRECEDED BY SLEEP.”[3] Individuals may be dependent on ministers, if they please. STATES SHOULD SCORN IT—and if you are not wanting to yourselves, you will have a proper regard paid you by those, to whom if you are not respectable, you will be contemptible. But—if we have already forgot the reasons that urged us with unexampled unanimity, to exert ourselves two years ago—if our zeal for the public good is worn out before the homespun cloths, which it caused us to have made—if our resolutions are so faint, as by our present conduct to condemn our own late successful example—if we are not affected by any reverence for the memory of our ancestors, who transmitted to us that freedom in which they had been blessed—if we are not animated by any regard for posterity, to whom, by the most sacred obligations, we are bound to deliver down the invaluable inheritance—THEN, indeed, any minister—or any tool of a minister—or any creature of a tool of a minister—or any lower instrument[4] of administration,[5] if lower there be, is a personage whom it may be dangerous to offend.

I shall be extremely sorry, if any man mistakes my meaning in any thing I have said. Officers employed by the crown, are, while according to the laws they conduct themselves, entitled to legal obedience, and sincere respect. These it is a duty to render them; and these no good or prudent person will withhold. But when these officers, through rashness or design, desire to enlarge their authority beyond its due limits, and expect improper concessions to be made to them, from regard for the employments they bear, their attempts should be considered as equal injuries to the crown and people, and should be courageously and constantly opposed. To suffer our ideas to be confounded by names on such occasions, would certainly be an inexcusable weakness, and probably an irremediable error.

We have reason to believe, that several of his Majesty’s present ministers are good men, and friends to our country; and it seems not unlikely, that by a particular concurrence of events, we have been treated a little more severely than they wished we should be. They might not think it prudent to stem a torrent. But what is the difference to us, whether arbitrary acts take their rise from ministers, or are permitted by them? Ought any point to be allowed to a good minister, that should be denied to a bad one?[6] The mortality of ministers, is a very frail mortality. A —— may succeed a Shelburne—A —— may succeed a Conway.

We find a new kind of minister lately spoken of at home—“THE MINISTER OF THE HOUSE OF COMMONS.” The term seems to have peculiar propriety when referred to these colonies, with a different meaning annexed to it, from that in which it is taken there. By the word “minister” we may understand not only a servant of the crown, but a man of influence among the commons, who regard themselves as having a share in the sovereignty over us. The “minister of the house” may, in a point respecting the colonies, be so strong, that the minister of the crown in the house, if he is a distinct person, may not choose, even where his sentiments are favorable to us, to come to a pitched battle upon our account. For tho’ I have the highest opinion of the deference of the house for the King’s minister, yet he may be so good natured, as not to put it to the test, except it be for the mere and immediate profit of his master or himself.

But whatever kind of minister he is, that attempts to innovate a single iota in the privileges of these colonies, him I hope you will undauntedly oppose; and that you will never suffer yourselves to be either cheated or frightened into any unworthy obsequiousness. On such emergencies you may surely, without presumption, believe, that ALMIGHTY GOD himself will look down upon your righteous contest with gracious approbation. You will be a “band of brothers,” cemented by the dearest ties—and strengthened with inconceivable supplies of force and constancy, by that sympathetic ardor, which animates good men, confederated in a good cause. Your honor and welfare will be, as they now are, most intimately concerned; and besides—you are assigned by divine providence, in the appointed order of things, the protectors of unborn ages, whose fate depends upon your virtue. Whether they shall arise the generous and indisputable heirs of the noblest patrimonies, or the dastardly and hereditary drudges of imperious task-masters, YOU MUST DETERMINE.

To discharge this double duty to yourselves, and to your posterity, you have nothing to do, but to call forth into use the good sense and spirit of which you are possessed. You have nothing to do, but to conduct your affairs peaceably—prudently —firmly—jointly. By these means you will support the character of freemen, without losing that of faithful subjects—a good character in any government—one of the best under a British government. You will prove, that Americans have that true magnanimity of soul, that can resent injuries, without falling into rage; and that tho’ your devotion to Great Britain is the most affectionate, yet you can make PROPER DISTINCTIONS, and know what you owe to yourselves, as well as to her—You will, at the same time that you advance your interests, advance your reputation—You will convince the world of the justice of your demands, and the purity of your intentions. While all mankind must, with unceasing applauses, confess, that YOU indeed DESERVE liberty, who so well understand it, so passionately love it, so temperately enjoy it, and so wisely, bravely, and virtuously assert, maintain, and defend it.

“Certe ego libertatem, quae mihi a parente meo tradita est, experiar: Verum id frustra an ob rem faciam, in vestra manu situm est, quirites.”
For my part, I am resolved to contend for the liberty delivered down to me by my ancestors, but whether I shall do it effectually or not, depends on you, my countrymen. “How littlesoever one is able to write, yet when the liberties of one’s country are threatened, it is still more difficult to be silent.”

A Farmer

Is there not the strongest probability, that if the universal sense of these colonies is immediately expressed by RESOLVES of the assemblies, in support of their rights, by INSTRUCTIONS to their agents on the subject, and by PETITIONS to the crown and parliament for redress, these measures will have the same success now, that they had in the time of the STAMP ACT.


[1]It is not intended, by these words, to throw any reflection upon gentlemen, because they are possessed of offices: For many of them are certainly men of virtue, and lovers of their country. But supposed obligations of gratitude, and honor, may induce them to be silent. Whether these obligations ought to be regarded or not, is not so much to be considered by others, in the judgment they form of these gentlemen, as whether they think they ought to be regarded. Perhaps, therefore, we shall act in the properest manner towards them, if we neither reproach nor imitate them. The persons meant in this letter, are the base spirited wretches, who may endeavor to distinguish themselves, by their sordid zeal in defending and promoting measures, which they know, beyond all question, to be destructive to the just rights and true interests of their country. It is scarcely possible to speak of these men with any degree of patience—It is scarcely possible to speak of them with any degree of propriety—For no words can truly describe their guilt and meanness—But every honest bosom, on their being mentioned, will feel what cannot be expressed.

If their wickedness did not blind them, they might perceive along the coast of these colonies, many men, remarkable instances of wrecked ambition, who, after distinguishing themselves in the support of the Stamp Act, by a courageous contempt of their country, and of justice, have been left to linger out their miserable existence, without a government, collectorship, secretaryship, or any other commission, to console them as well as it could, for loss of virtue and reputation—while numberless offices have been bestowed in these colonies on people from Great Britain, and new ones are continually invented, to be thus bestowed. As a few great prizes are put into a lottery to TEMPT multitudes to lose, so here and there an American has been raised to a good post.

Apparent rari nantes in gurgite vasto.

Mr. Greenville, indeed, in order to recommend the Stamp Act, had the unequalled generosity, to pour down a golden shower of offices upon Americans; and yet these ungrateful colonies did not thank Mr. Greenville for showing his kindness to their countrymen, nor them for accepting it. How must that great statesman have been surprised, to find, that the unpolished colonies could not be reconciled to infamy, to treachery? Such a bountiful disposition towards us never appeared in any minister before him, and probably never will appear again: For it is evident, that such a system of policy is to be established on this continent, as, in a short time, is to render it utterly unnecessary to use the least art in order to conciliate our approbation of any measures. Some of our countrymen may be employed to fix chains upon us, but they will never be permitted to hold them afterwards. So that the utmost, that any of them can expect, is only a temporary provision, that may expire in their own time; but which, they may be assured, will preclude their children from having any consideration paid to them. NATIVES of America must sink into total NEGLECT and CONTEMPT, the moment that THEIR COUNTRY loses the constitutional powers she now possesses. [back]

[2] Deuteronomy 6:7. [back]

[3]Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws, Book 14, Chap. 13. [back]

[4]Instrumenta regni.” Tacitus’s Ann. Book 12. st 66.[back]

[5]If any person shall imagine that he discovers, in these letters, the least dislike of the dependence of these colonies on Great Britain, I beg that such person will not form any judgment on particular expressions, but will consider the tenor of all the letters taken together. In that case, I flatter myself, that every unprejudiced reader will be convinced, that the true interests of Great Britain are as dear to me, as they ought to be to every good subject.

If I am an Enthusiast in any thing, it is in my zeal for the perpetual dependence of these colonies on their mother country—A dependence founded on mutual benefits, the continuance of which can be secured only by mutual affections. Therefore it is, that with extreme apprehension I view the smallest seeds of discontent, which are unwarily scattered abroad. Fifty or Sixty years will make astonishing alterations in these colonies; and this consideration should render it the business of Great Britain more and more to cultivate our good dispositions towards her: But the misfortune is, that those great men, who wrestling for power at home, think themselves very slightly interested in the prosperity of their country Fifty or Sixty years hence, but are deeply concerned in blowing up a popular clamor for supposed immediate advantages.

For my part, I regret Great Britain as a Bulwark, happily fixed between these colonies and the powerful nations of Europe. That kingdom remaining safe, we, under its protection, enjoying peace, may diffuse the blessings of religion, science, and liberty, through remote wilderness. It is therefore incontestably our duty, and our interest, to support the strength of Great Britain. When confiding in that strength, she begins to forget from whence it arose, it will be an easy thing to show the source. She may readily be reminded of the loud alarm spread among her merchants and tradesmen, by the universal association of these colonies, at the time of the Stamp Act, not to import any of her MANUFACTURES.

In the year 1718, the Russians and Swedes entered into an agreement, not to suffer Great Britain to export ANY NAVAL STORES from their dominions but in Russian or Swedish ships, and at their own prices. Great Britain was distressed. Pitch and tar rose to Three Pounds a barrel. At length she thought of getting these articles from the colonies; and the attempt succeeding, they fell down to Fifteen Shillings. In the year 1756, Great Britain was threatened with an invasion. An easterly wind blowing for six weeks, she could not MAN her fleet, and the whole nation was thrown into the utmost consternation. The wind changed. The American ships arrived. The fleet sailed in ten or fifteen days. There are some other reflections on this subject, worthy of the most deliberate attention of the British parliament; but they are of such a nature, that I do not choose to mention them publicly. I thought it my duty, in the year 1765, while the Stamp Act was in suspense, to write my sentiments to a gentleman of great influence at home, who afterwards distinguished himself, by espousing our cause, in the debates concerning the repeal of that act. [back]

[6]Ubi imperium ad ignaros aut minus bonos pervenit; novum illud exemplum, ab dignis & idoneis, ad indignos & non idoneos transfeltur. (Sall. Bell. Cat st 50) [back]

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