The Age of George III
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This is the seventh 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,
This letter is intended more particularly for such of you, whose employments in life may have prevented your attending to the consideration of some points that are of great and public importance: For many such persons there must be even in these colonies, where the inhabitants in general are more intelligent than any other people whatever, as has been remarked by strangers, and it seems with reason.
Some of you, perhaps, filled, as I know your breasts are, with loyalty to our most excellent Prince, and with love to our dear mother country, may feel yourselves inclined, by the affections of your hearts, to approve every action of those whom you so much venerate and esteem. A prejudice thus flowing from goodness of disposition, is amiable indeed. I wish it could be indulged without danger. Did I think this possible, the error should have been adopted, and not opposed by me. But in truth, all men are subject to the frailties of nature; and therefore whatever regard we entertain for the persons of those who govern us, we should always remember that their conduct, as rulers, may be influenced by human infirmities.
When any laws, injurious to these colonies, are passed, we cannot suppose, that any injury was intended us by his Majesty, or the Lords. For the assent of the crown and peers to laws, seems, as far as I am able to judge, to have been vested in them, more for their own security, than for any other purpose. On the other hand, it is the particular business of the people, to inquire and discover what regulations are useful for themselves, and to digest and present them in the form of bills, to the other orders, to have them enacted into laws. Where these laws are to bind themselves, it may be expected, that the house of commons will very carefully consider them: But when they are making laws that are not designed to bind themselves, we cannot imagine that their deliberations will be as cautious  and scrupulous, as in their own case.
I am told, that there is a wonderful address frequently used in carrying points in the house of commons, by persons experienced in these affairs—That opportunities are watched—and sometimes votes are passed, that if all the members had been present, would have been rejected by a great majority. Certain it is, that when a powerful and artful man has determined on any measure against these colonies, he has always succeeded in his attempt. Perhaps therefore it will be proper for us, whenever any oppressive act affecting us is passed, to attribute it to the inattention of the members of the house of commons, and to the malevolence or ambition of some factious great man, rather than to any other cause.
Now I do verily believe, that the late act of parliament, imposing duties on paper, etc. was formed by Mr. Greenville, and his party, because it is evidently a part of that plan, by which he endeavored to render himself POPULAR at home; and I do also believe, that not one half of the members of the house of commons, even of those who heard it read, did perceive how destructive it was to American freedom. For this reason, as it is usual in Great Britain, to consider the King’s speech as the speech of the ministry, it may be right here to consider this act as the act of a party—perhaps I should speak more properly, if I was to use another term.
There are two ways of laying taxes. One is, by imposing a certain sum on particular kinds of property, to be paid by the user or consumer, or by rating the person at a certain sum.The other is, by imposing a certain sum on particular kinds of property, to be paid by the seller.
When a man pays the first sort of tax, he knows with certainty, that he pays so much money for a tax. The consideration for which he pays it, is remote, and, it may be, does not occur to him. He is sensible too, that he is commanded and obliged to pay it as a tax; and therefore people are apt to be displeased with this sort of tax.
The other sort of tax is submitted to in a very different manner. The purchaser of any article, very seldom reflects that the seller raises his price, so as to indemnify himself for the tax he has paid. He knows that the prices of things are continually fluctuating, and if he thinks about the tax, he thinks at the same time, in all probability, that he might have paid as much, if the article he buys had not been taxed. He gets something visible and agreeable for his money; and tax and price are so confounded together, that he cannot separate, or does not choose to take the trouble of separating them.
This mode of taxation therefore is the mode suited to arbitrary and oppressive governments. The love of liberty is so natural to the human heart, that unfeeling tyrants think themselves obliged to accommodate their schemes as much as they can to the appearance of justice and reason, and to deceive those whom they resolve to destroy, or oppress, by presenting to them a miserable picture of freedom, when the inestimable original is lost.
This policy did not escape the cruel and rapacious NERO. That monster, apprehensive that his crimes might endanger his authority and life, thought proper to do some popular acts, to secure the obedience of his subjects. Among other things, says Tacitus, “he remitted the twenty-fifth part of the price on the sale of slaves, but rather in show than reality; for the twenty-fifth part of the price on the sale of slaves, but rather in show than reality; for the seller being ordered to pay it, it became part of the price to the buyer.”
This is the reflection of the judicious Historian; but the deluded people gave their infamous Emperor full credit for his false generosity. Other nations have been treated in the same manner the Romans were. The honest, industrious Germans, who are settled in different parts of this continent, can inform us, that it was this sort of tax that drove them from their native land to our woods, at that time the seats of perfect and undisturbed freedom.
Their Princes, inflamed by the lust of power, and the lust of avarice, two furies that the more they are gorged, the more hungry they grow, transgressed the bounds they ought, in regard to themselves, to have observed. To keep up the deception in the minds of subjects, “there must be,” says a very learned author,  “some proportion between the impost and the value of the commodity; wherefore there ought not to be an excessive duty upon merchandise of little value. There are countries in which the duty exceeds seventeen or eighteen times the value of the commodity. In this case the Prince removes the illusion. His subjects plainly see they are dealt with in an unreasonable manner, which renders them most exquisitely sensible of their slavish situation.” From hence it appears, that subjects may be ground down into misery by this sort of taxation, as well as by the former. They will be as much impoverished, if their money is taken from them in this way as in the other; and that it will be taken, may be more evident, by attending to a few more considerations.
The merchant or importer, who pays the duty at first, will not consent to be so much money out of pocket. He therefore proportionally raises the price of his goods. It may then be said to be a contest between him and the person offering to buy, who shall lose the duty. This must be decided by the nature of the commodities, and the purchaser’s demand for them. If they are mere luxuries, he is at liberty to do as he pleases, and if he buys, he does it voluntarily: But if they are absolute necessaries, or conveniences, which use and custom have made requisite for the comfort of life, and which he is not permitted, by the power imposing the duty, to get elsewhere, there the seller has a plain advantage, and the buyer must pay the duty. In fact, the seller is nothing less than a collector of the tax for the power that imposed it. If these duties then are extended to the necessaries and conveniences of life in general, and enormously increased, the people must at length become indeed “most exquisitely sensible of their slavish situation.” Their happiness therefore entirely depends on the moderation of those who have authority to impose the duties.
I shall now apply these observations to the late act of parliament. Certain duties are thereby imposed on paper and glass, imported into these colonies. By the laws of Great Britain we are prohibited to get these articles from any other part of the world. We cannot at present, nor for many years to come, tho’ we should apply ourselves to these manufacturers with the utmost industry, make enough ourselves for our own use. That paper and glass are not only convenient, but absolutely necessary for us, I imagine very few will contend. Some perhaps, who think mankind grew wicked and luxurious, as soon as they found out another way of communicating their sentiments than by speech, and another way of dwelling than in caves, communicating their sentiments than by speech, and another way of dwelling than in caves, may advance so whimsical an opinion. But I presume no body will take the unnecessary trouble of refuting them.
From these remarks I think it evident, that we must use paper and glass; that what we use, must be British; and that we must pay the duties imposed, unless those who sell these articles, are so generous as to make us presents of the duties they pay.
Some persons may think this act of no consequence, because the duties are so small. A fatal error. That is the very circumstance most alarming to me. For I am convinced, that the authors of this law would never have obtained an act to raise so trifling a sum as it must do, had they not intended by it to establish a precedent for future use. To console ourselves with the smallness of the duties, is to walk deliberately into the snare that is set for us, praising the neatness of the workmanship. Suppose the duties imposed by the late act could be paid by these distressed colonies with the utmost ease, and that the purposes to which they are to be applied, were the most reasonable and equitable that can be conceived, the contrary of which I hope to demonstrate before these letters are concluded; yet even in such a supposed case, these colonies ought to regard the act with abhorrence. For WHO ARE A FREE PEOPLE? Not those, over whom government is reasonable and equitably exercised, but those, who live under a government so constitutionally checked and controlled, that proper provision is made against its being otherwise exercised.
The late act is founded on the destruction of this constitutional security. If the parliament have a right to lay a duty of Four Shillings and Eight-pence on a hundred weight of glass, or a ream of paper, they have a right to lay a duty of any other sum on either. They may raise the duty, as the author before quoted says has been done in some countries, till it “exceeds seventeen or eighteen times the value of the commodity.” In short, if they have a right to levy a tax of one penny upon us, they have a right to levy a million upon us: For where does their right stop? At any given number of Pence, Shillings or Pounds? To attempt to limit their right, after granting it to exist at all, is as contrary to reason—as granting it to exist at all, is contrary to justice. If they have any right to tax us—then, whether our own money shall continue in our own pockets or not, depends no longer on us, but on them. “There is nothing which” we “can call our own; or, to use the words of Mr. Locke—WHAT PROPERTY HAVE” WE “IN THAT, WHICH ANOTHER MAY, BY RIGHT, TAKE, WHEN HE PLEASES, TO HIMSELF?” [
These duties, which will inevitably be levied upon us—which are now levying upon us—are expressly laid FOR THE SOLE PURPOSE OF TAKING MONEY. This is the true definition of “taxes.” They are therefore taxes. This money is to be taken from us. We are therefore taxed. Those who are taxed without their own consent, expressed by themselves or their representatives, are slaves. We are taxed without our own consent, expressed by ourselves or our representatives. We are therefore—SLAVES. 
A miserable tribe.
 Many remarkable instances might be produced of the extraordinary inattention with which bills of great importance, concerning these colonies, have passed in parliament; which is owing, as it is supposed, to the bills being brought in by the persons who have points to carry, so artfully framed, that it is not easy for the members in general, in the haste of business, to discover their tendency. The following instances show the truth of this remark. When Mr. Greenville, in the violence of reformation, formed the 4th Geo. III. Chap. 15th, for regulating the American trade, the word “Ireland” was dropped in the clause relating to our iron and lumber, so that we could send these articles to no part of Europe, but to Great Britain. This was so unreasonable a restriction, and so contrary to the sentiments of the legislature for many years before, that it is surprising it should not have been taken notice of in the house. However the bill passed into a law. But when the matter was explained, this restriction was taken off by a subsequent act. I cannot positively say how long after the taking off of this restriction, as I have not the act, but I think, in less than 18 months, another act of parliament passed, in which the word “Ireland” was left out, just as it had been before. The matter being a second time explained, was a second time regulated. Now if it be considered, that the omission mentioned struck off with ONE word so VERY GREAT A PART OF OUR TRADE, it must appear remarkable; and equally so is the method, by which Rice became an enumerated commodity. “The enumeration was obtained (says Mr. Gee) by one Cole, a Captain of a ship, employed by a company then trading to Carolina; for several ships going from England thither, and purchasing rice for Portugal, prevented the aforesaid Captain of a loading. Upon his coming home, he possessed one Mr. Lowndes, a member of parliament (who was very frequently employed to prepare bills) with an opinion, that carrying rice directly to Portugal, was a prejudice to the trade of England, and PRIVATELY got a clause into an act, to make it an enumerated commodity; by which means he secured a freight to himself. BUT THE CONSEQUENCE PROVED A VAST LOSS TO THE NATION.” I find that this clause, “PRIVATELY got into an act,” FOR THE BENEFIT OF CAPTAIN COLE, to the “VAST LOSS OF THE NATION,” is foisted into the 3d and 4th Anne, Chap. 5th, intitled, “An act for granting to her Majesty a further subsidy on wines and merchandises imported,” with which it has no more connection, than with 34th Edward I. the 34th and 35th of Henry VIII, and the 25th of Charles II. WHICH PROVIDE, THAT NO PERSON SHALL BE TAXED BUT BY HIMSELF OR HIS REPRESENTATIVE.[back]
 Tacitus’s Ann. Book 13, § 13.[back]
 Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws, Book 13, Chap. 8.[back]
[Lord Cambden’s speech.[back]
“It is my opinion, that this kingdom has no right to lay A TAX upon the colonies”—“The Americans are the SONS, not the BASTARDS of England”—“The distinction between LEGISLATION and TAXATION is essentially necessary to liberty”—“The COMMONS of America, represented in their several assemblies, have ever been in possession of this their constitutional right, of GIVING AND GRANTING THEIR OWN MONEY. They would have been SLAVES, if they had not enjoyed it.” “The idea of a virtual representation of America in this house, is the most contemptible idea that ever entered into the head of man—It does not deserve a serious refutation.” (Mr. Pitt’s Speech on the Stamp-Act) That great and excellent man Lord Cambden, maintains the same opinion. His speech in the house of peers, on the declaratory bill of the sovereignty of Great Britain over the colonies, has lately appeared in our papers. The following extracts so perfectly agree with, and confirm the sentiments avowed in these letters, that it is hoped the inserting them in this note will be excused. “As the affair is of the utmost importance, and in its consequences may involve the fate of kingdoms, I took the strictest review of my arguments; I re-examined all my authorities; fully determined, if I found myself mistaken, publicly to own my mistake, and give up my opinion: But my searches have more and more convinced me, that the British parliament have NO RIGHT TO TAX the Americans”—“Nor is the doctrine new; it is as old as the constitution; it grew up with it; indeed it is its support”—“TAXATION and REPRESENTATION are inseparably united. GOD hath joined them: No British parliament can separate them: To endeavor to do it, is to stab our vitals.” “My position is this—I repeat it—I will maintain it to my last hour—TAXATION and REPRESENTATION are inseparable—this position is founded on the laws of nature; it is more, it is itself AN ETERNAL LAW OF NATURE; for whatever is a man’s own, is absolutely his own; NO MAN HATH A RIGHT TO TAKE IT FROM HIM WITHOUT HIS CONSENT, either expressed by himself or representative; whoever attempts to do it, attempts an injury; WHOEVER DOES IT, COMMITS A ROBBERY; HE THROWS DOWN THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN LIBERTY AND SLAVERY.” “There is not a blade of grass, which, when taxed, was not taxed by the consent of the proprietor.” “The forefathers of the Americans did not leave their native country, and subject themselves to every danger and distress, TO BE REDUCED TO A STATE OF SLAVERY. They did not give up their rights: They looked for protection, and not for CHAINS, from their mother country. By her they expected to be defended in the possession of their property, and not to be deprived of it: For should the present power continue, THERE IS NOTHING WHICH THEY CAN CALL THEIR OWN; or, to use the words of Mr. Locke, “WHAT PROPERTY HAVE THEY IN THAT, WHICH ANOTHER MAY, BY RIGHT, TAKE, WHEN HE PLEASES, TO HIMSELF?” It is impossible to read this speech, and Mr. Pitt’s, and not be charmed with the generous zeal for the rights of mankind that glows in every sentence. These great and good men, animated by the subject they speak upon, seem to rise above all the former glorious exertions of their abilities. A foreigner might be tempted to think they are Americans, asserting, with all the ardor of patriotism, and all the anxiety of apprehension, the cause of their native land—and not Britons, striving to stop their mistaken countrymen from oppressing others. Their reasoning is not only just—it is, as Mr. Hume says of the eloquence of Demosthenes, “vehement.” It is disdain, anger, boldness, freedom, involved in a continual stream of argument. [back]
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