The Age of George III

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A Farmer's Letters

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


I am a farmer, settled after a variety of fortunes near the banks of the river Delaware, in the province of Pennsylvania. I received a liberal education and have been engaged in the busy scenes of life, but am now convinced, that a man may be as happy without bustle as with it. My farm is small, my servants are few and good, I have a little money at interest, I wish for no more, my employment in my own affairs is easy, and with a contented, grateful mind, undisturbed by worldly hopes or fears relating to myself, I am completing the number of days allotted to me by divine goodness.

Being generally master of my time, I spend a good deal of it in a library, which I think the most valuable part of my small estate; and being acquainted with two or three gentlemen of abilities and learning who honour me with their friendship, I have acquired, I believe, a greater knowledge in history and the laws and constitution of my country, than is generally attained by men of my class, many of them not being so fortunate as I have been in the opportunities of getting information.

From my infancy I was taught to love humanity and liberty. Enquiry and experience have since confirmed my reverence for the lessons then given me, by convincing me more fully of, their truth and excellence. Benevolence towards mankind excites wishes for their welfare, and such wishes endear the means of fulfilling them. These can be found in liberty only, and therefore her sacred cause ought to be espoused by every man on every occasion, to the utmost of his power. As a charitable but poor person does not withhold his mite because he cannot relieve all the distresses of the miserable, so should not any honest man suppress his sentiments concerning freedom, however small their influence is likely to be. Perhaps he may touch some wheel' that will have an effect greater than he could reasonably expect.

These being my sentiments, I am encouraged to offer to you, my countrymen, my thoughts on some late transactions that appear to me to be of the utmost importance to you. Conscious of my own defects, I have waited some time, in expectation of seeing the subject treated by persons much better qualified for the task; but being therein disappointed, and apprehensive that longer delays will be injurious, I venture at length to request the attention of the public, praying that these lines may be read with the same zeal for the happiness of British America, with which they were wrote.

With a good deal of surprize I have observed that little notice has been taken of an Act of Parliament, as injurious in its principle to the liberties of these colonies, as the Stamp Act was: I mean the act for suspending the legislation of New York.

[N.B. This refers to the Quartering Act of 1765 (5 Geo. III, C. 33) which required colonial local authorities to provide the king's troops with barracks or billets, and to furnish them gratis with candles, firing, bedding, cooking utensils, salt and vinegar, and five pints of small beer or cider, or a gill of rum per man, per diem. The New York Assembly, on 3 July 1766, voted to fulfil all these requirements, save the salt, vinegar, and liquor, for about eleven hundred men. This was deemed insufficient by the Lords of Trade, and, as the Assembly refused to incur an additional "ruinous and insupportable" expense, Parliament, by 7 Geo.III, c. 59, declared all Acts, &c., of the New York Assembly to be null and void until it should comply in full with the Quartering Act. The Assembly of 1769 gave in.]

The Assembly of that Government complied with a former Act of Parliament, requiring certain provisions to be made for the troops in America, in every particular, I think, except the articles of salt, pepper, and vinegar. In my opinion they acted imprudently, considering all circumstances, in not complying so far as would have given satisfaction, as several colonies did. But my dislike of their conduct in that instance has not blinded me so much that I cannot Plainly perceive that they have been punished in a manner pernicious to American freedom. and justly alarming to all the colonies.

If the British Parliament has a legal authority to issue an order that we shall furnish a single article for the troops here, and to compel obedience to that order, they have the same right to issue an order for us to supply those troops with arms, cloths, and every necessary; and to compel obedience to that order also; in short, to lay any burthens they please upon us. What is this but taxing us at a certain sum, and leaving to us only the manner of raising it? How is this mode more tolerable than the Stamp Act? Would that Act have appeared more pleasing to Americans, if being ordered thereby to raise the sum total of the taxes, the mighty privilege had been left to them, of saying how much should be paid for an instrument of writing on paper, and how much for another on parchment?

An Act of Parliament commanding us to do a certain thing, if it has any validity, is a tax upon us for the expence that accrues in complying with it; and for this reason, I believe, every colony on the continent, that chose to give a mark of their respect for Great Britain in complying with the Act relating to the troops, cautiously avoided the mention of that Act, lest their conduct should be attributed to its supposed obligation.

The matter being thus stated, the Assembly of New York either had, or had not a right to refuse submission to that Act. If they had, and I imagine no American will say they had not, then the Parliament had no right to compel them to execute it. If they had not that right they had no right to punish them for not executing it; and therefore no right to attempts as a mutual inattention to the interests of each other. To divide and thus to destroy is the first political maxim in attacking those who are powerful by their union. He certainly is not a wise man who folds his arms and reposes himself at home, viewing with unconcern the flames that have invaded his neighbour's house, without using any endeavours to extinguish them. When Mr. Hampden's ship money cause for three shillings and fourpence was tried, all the people of England, with anxious expectations, interested themselves in the important decision; and when the slightest point touching the freedom of one colony is agitated, I earnestly wish that a the rest may with equal ardour support their sister. Very much may be said on this subject; but I hope more at present is unnecessary.

With concern I have observed that two Assemblies of this Province have sat and adjourned, without taking any notice of this Act. It may perhaps be asked, what would have been proper for them to do? I am by no means fond of inflammatory measures; I detest them. I should be sorry that any thing should be done which might justly displease our sovereign or our mother country. But a firm, modest exertion of a free spirit should never be wanting on public occasions. It appears to me that it would have been sufficient for the Assembly to have ordered our agents to represent to the King's ministers, their sense of the Suspending Act, and to pray for its repeal. Thus we should have borne our testimony against it; and might therefore reasonably expect that, on a like occasion, we might receive the same assistance from the other colonies

Concordia res parva crescunt.
Small things grow great by concord.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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