The Age of George III

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A Farmer's Letters

This is the sixth 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,

It may perhaps be objected against the arguments that have been offered to the public, concerning the legal power of the parliament, “that it has always exercised the power of improving duties, for the purposes of raising a revenue on the productions of these colonies carried to Great Britain, which maybe called a tax on them.” To this objection I answer, that this is no violation of the rights of the colonies, it being implied in the relationship between them and Great Britain, that they should not carry such commodities to other nations, as should enable them to interfere with the mother country. The imposition of duties on these commodities, when brought to her, is only a consequence of her parental right; and if the point is thoroughly examined, the duties will be found to be laid on the people of the mother country seat, they must proportionably raise the price of the goods, and consequently must be paid by the consumers. In this light they were considered by the parliament in the 25th Charles II. Chap. 7, Sect. 2, which says, that the productions of the plantations were carried from one to another free from all customs, “while the subjects of this your kingdom of England have paid great customs and impositions for what of them have been SPENT HERE,” etc.

Besides, if Great Britain exports these commodities again, the duties will injure her own trade, so that she cannot hurt us, without plainly and immediately hurting herself; and this is our check against her acting arbitrarily in this respect.

It maybe perhaps further objected,[1] “that it being granted that statutes made for regulating trade, are binding upon us, it will be difficult for any persons, but the makers of the laws, to determine, which of them are made for the regulating of trade, and which for raising a revenue; and that from hence may arise confusion.”

To this I answer, that the objection is of no force in the present case, or such as resemble it; because the act now in question, is formed expressly FOR THE SOLE PURPOSE OF RAISING A REVENUE.

However, supposing the design of parliament had not been expressed, the objection seems to me of no weight, with regard to the influence which those who may make it, might expect it ought to have on the conduct of these colonies.

It is true that impositions for raising a revenue, may be hereafter called regulation of trade: But names will not change the nature of things. Indeed we ought firmly to believe, what is an undoubted truth, confirmed by the unhappy experience of many states heretofore free, that UNLESS THE MOST WATCHFUL ATTENTION BE EXERTED, A NEW SERVITUDE MAY BE SLIPPED UPON US, UNDER THE SANCTION OF USUAL AND RESPECTABLE TERMS.

Thus the Caesars ruined the Roman liberty, under the titles of tribunicial and dictatorial authorities—old and venerable dignities, known in the most flourishing times of freedom. In imitation of the same policy, James II when he meant to establish popery, talked of liberty of conscience, the most sacred of all liberties; and had thereby almost deceived the Dissenters into destruction.

All artful rulers, who strive to extend their power beyond its just limits, endeavor to give to their attempts as much semblance of legality as possible. Those who succeed them may venture to go a little further;for each new encroachment will be strengthened by a former.

“That which is now supported by examples, growing old, will become an example itself,”[2] and thus support fresh usurpations.

A FREE people therefore can never be too quick in observing, nor too firm in opposing the beginnings of alteration either in form or reality, respecting institutions formed for their security. The first kind of alteration leads to the last: Yet, on the other hand, nothing is more certain, than that the forms of liberty maybe retained, when the substance is gone. In government, as well as in religion, “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” [3]

I will beg leave to enforce this remark by a few instances. The crown, by the constitution, has the prerogative of creating peers. The existence of that order, in due number and dignity, is essential to the constitution; and if the crown did not exercise that prerogative, the peerage must have long since decreased so much as to have lost its proper influence. Suppose a prince, for some unjust purposes, should, from time to time, advance so many needy, profligate wretches to that rank, that all the independence of the house of lords should be destroyed; there would then be a manifest violation of the constitution, under the appearance of using legal prerogative.

The house of commons claims the privilege of forming all money bills, and will not suffer either of the other branches of the legislature to add to, or alter them; contending that their power simply extends to an acceptance or rejection of them. This privilege appears to be just: But under pretense of this just privilege, the house of commons has claimed a licence of tacking to money bills, clauses relating to things of a totally different kind, and thus forcing them in a manner on the king and lords. This seems to be an abuse of that privilege, and it maybe vastly more abused. Suppose a future house influenced by some displaced, discontented demagogues—in a time of danger, should tack to a money bill, something so injurious to the king and peers, that they would not assent to it, and yet the commons should obstinately insist on it; the whole kingdom would be exposed to ruin by them, under the appearance of maintaining a valuable privilege.

In these cases it might be difficult for a while to determine, whether the king intended to exercise his prerogative in a constitutional manner or not; or whether the commons insisted on their demand factiously, or for the public good: But surely the conduct of the crown, or of the house, would in time sufficiently explain itself.

Ought not the people therefore to watch? to observe facts? to search into causes? to investigate designs? And have they not a right of JUDGING from the evidence before them, on no slighter points than their liberty and happiness? It would be less than trifling, whenever a British government is established, to make use of any arguments to prove such a right. It is sufficient to remind the reader of the day, on the anniversary of which the first of these letters is dated.

I will now apply what has been said to the present question.

The nature of any impositions laid by parliament on these colonies, must determine the design in laying them. It may not be easy in every instance to discover that design. Whenever it is doubtful, I think submission cannot be dangerous; nay, it must be right, for, in my opinion, there is no privilege these colonies claim, which they ought in duty and prudence more earnestly to maintain and defend, than the authority of the British parliament to regulate the trade of all her dominions. Without this authority, the benefits she enjoys from our commerce, must be lost to her: The blessings we enjoy from our dependence upon her, must be lost to us. Her strength must decay; her glory vanish; and she cannot suffer without our partaking in her misfortune. Let us therefore cherish her interests as our own, and give her everything, that it becomes FREEMEN to give or to receive.

The nature of any impositions she may lay upon us may, in general, be known, by considering how far they relate to the preserving, in due order, at the connection between the several parts of the British empire. One thing we maybe assured of, which is this—Whenever she impose duties on commodities, to be paid only upon their exportation from Great Britain to these colonies, it is not a regulation of trade, but a design to raise a revenue upon us. Other instances may happen, which it may not be necessary at present to dwell on. I hope these colonies will never, to their latest existence, want understanding sufficient to discover the intentions of those who rule over them, nor the resolution necessary for asserting their interests. They will always have the same rights, that all free states have, of judging when their privileges are invaded, and of using all prudent measures for preserving them.

Quo circa vivite fortes
Fortiaque adversis opponite pectora rebus.

Wherefore keep up your spirits, and gallantly
oppose this adverse course of affairs.

A Farmer


[1] If anyone should observe that no opposition has been made to the legality of the 4th Geo. III. Chap. 15, which is the FIRST act of parliament whatever imposed duties on the importations in America, for the expressed purpose of raising a revenue there; I answer—First, That tho' the act expressly mentions the raising of a revenue in America, yet it seems that it had as much in view the “improving and securing the trade between the same and Great Britain,” which words are part of its title; And the preamble says, “Whereas it is expedient that new provisions and regulations should be established for improving the revenue of this kingdom, and for extending and securing the navigation and commerce between Great Britain and your Majesty's’s dominions in America, which by the peace have been so happily extended and enlarged,” etc. Secondly, All the duties mentioned in that act are imposed solely on the productions and manufactures of foreign countries, and not a single duty laid on any production or manufacture of our mother country. Thirdly, The authority of the provincial assemblies is not therein so plainly attached as by the last act, which makes provision for defraying the charges of the“administration of justice,”and the intention of the 4th Geo. III. Chap. 15, was not as much to regulate trade, as to raise a revenue, the minds of the people here were wholly engrossed by the terror of the Stamp Act, then impending over them, about the intention of which there could be no doubt.

These reasons so far distinguish the 4th Geo. III. Chap. 15, from the last act, that it is not to be wondered at, that the first should have been submitted to, tho’ the last should excite the more universal and spirited opposition. For this will be found, on the strictest examination, to be, in the principle on which it is founded, and in the consequences that must attend it, if possible, more destructive than the Stamp Act. It is, to speak plainly, a prodigy in our laws; not having one British feature.[back]

[2] Tacitus. [back]

[3] II Corinthians 3:6. [back]

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