Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, Letter 2 – John Dickinson

John Dickinson


Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, by John Dickinson, Letter 2

My dear Countrymen,

There is another late act of parliament, which appears to me to be unconstitutional, and as destructive to the liberty of these colonies, as that mentioned in my last letter; that is, the act for granting the duties on paper, glass, etc.

The parliament unquestionably possesses a legal authority to regulate the trade of Great Britain, and all her colonies. Such an authority is essential to the relation between a mother country and her colonies; and necessary for the common good of all. He who considers these provinces as states distinct from the British Empire, has very slender notions of justice, or of their interests. We are but parts of a whole; and therefore there must exist a power somewhere, to preside, and preserve the connection in due order. This power is lodged in the parliament; and we are as much dependent on Great Britain, as a perfectly free people can be on another.

I have looked over every statute relating to these colonies, from their first settlement to this time; and I find every one of them founded on this principle, till the Stamp Act administration. (1) All before, are calculated to regulate trade, and preserve or promote a mutually beneficial intercourse between the several constituent parts of the empire; and though many of them imposed duties on trade, yet those duties were always imposed with design to restrain the commerce of one part, that was injurious to another, and thus to promote the general welfare. The raising of a revenue thereby was never intended. Thus the King, by his judges in his courts of justice, imposes fines, which all together amount to a very considerable sum, and contribute to the support of government: But this is merely a consequence arising from restrictions that only meant to keep peace and prevent confusion; and surely a man would argue very loosely, who should conclude from hence, that the King has a right to levy money in general upon his subjects. Never did the British parliament, till the period above mentioned, think of imposing duties in America for the purpose of raising a revenue. Mr. Greenville first introduced this language, in the preamble to the 4th of geo. III Chap. 15, which has these words—“And whereas it is just and necessary that a revenue be raised in your Majesty’s said dominions in America, for defraying the expenses of defending, protecting, and securing the same: We your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the commons of Great Britain, in parliament assembled, being desirous to make some provision in this present session of parliament, toward raising the said revenue in America, have resolved to give and grant unto your Majesty the several rates and duties herein after mentioned.” etc.

A few months after came the Stamp Act, which reciting this, proceeds in the same strange mode of expression, thus—“And whereas it is just and necessary, that provision be made for raising a further revenue within your Majesty’s dominions in America, towards defraying the said expenses, we your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the commons of Great Britain, etc. give and grant,” etc. as before.

The last act, granting duties upon paper, etc. carefully pursues these modern precedents. The preamble is, “Whereas it is expedient that a revenue should be raised in your Majesty’s dominions in America, for making a more certain and adequate provision for defraying the charge of the administration of justice, and the support of civil government in such provinces, where it shall be found necessary; and towards further defraying the expenses of defending, protecting and securing the said dominions, we your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the commons of Great Britain, etc. give and grant,” etc. as before.

Here we may observe an authority expressly claimed and exerted to impose duties on these colonies; not for the regulation of trade; not for the preservation or promotion of a mutually beneficial intercourse between the several constituent parts of the empire, heretofore the sole objects of parliamentary institutions; but for the single purpose of levying money upon us.

This I call an innovation; and a most dangerous innovation.(2) It may perhaps be objected, that Great Britain has a right to lay what duties she pleases upon her exports, (3) and it makes no difference to us, whether they are paid here or there.

To this I answer. These colonies require many things for their use, which the laws of Great Britain prohibit them from getting any where but from her. Such are paper and glass.

That we may legally be bound to pay any general duties on these commodities, relative to the regulation of trade, is granted; but we being obliged by her laws to take them from Great Britain, any special duties imposed on their exportation to us only, with intention to raise a revenue from us only, are as much taxes upon us, as those imposed by the Stamp Act.

What is the difference in substance and right, whether the same sum is raised upon us by the rates mentioned in the Stamp Act, on the use of paper, or by these duties, on the importation of it. It is only the edition of a former book, shifting a sentence from the end to the beginning.

Suppose the duties were made payable in Great Britain?

It signifies nothing to us, whether they are to be paid here or there. Had the Stamp Act directed, that all the paper should be landed at Florida, and the duties paid there, before it was brought to the British colonies, would the act have raised less money upon us, or have been less destructive of our rights? By no means: For as we were under a necessity of using the paper, we should have been under the necessity of paying the duties. Thus, in the present case, a like necessity will subject us, if this act continues in force, to the payment of the duties now imposed.

Why was the Stamp Act then so pernicious to freedom? It did not enact, that every man in the colonies should buy a certain quantity of paper — No: It only directed, that no instrument of writing should be valid in law, if not made on stamped paper, etc.

The makers of that act knew full well, that the confusions that would arise from the disuse of writings, would compel the colonies to use the stamped paper, and therefore to pay the taxes imposed. For this reason the Stamp Act was said to be a law that would execute itself. For the very same reason, the last act of parliament, if it is granted to have any force here, will execute itself, and will be attended with the very same consequences to American liberty.

Some persons perhaps may say that this act lays us under no necessity to pay the duties imposed because we may ourselves manufacture the articles on which they are laid; whereas by the Stamp Act no instrument of writing could be good unless made on British paper, and that too stamped.

Such an objection amounts to no more than this, that the injury resulting to these colonies, from the total disuse of British paper and glass, will not be so afflicting as that which would have resulted from the total disuse of writing among them; for by that means even the Stamp Act might have been eluded. Why then was it universally detested by them as slavery itself? Because it presented to these devoted provinces nothing but a choice of calamities, (4) embittered by indignities, each of which it was unworthy of free men to bear. But is no injury a violation of right but the greatest injury? If the eluding the payment of the taxes imposed by the Stamp Act, would have subjected us to a more dreadful inconvenience than the eluding of the payment of those imposed by the late act; does it therefore follow, that the last is no violation of our rights, tho’ it is calculated for the same purpose the other was, that is, to raise money upon us,without our consent?

This would be making right to consist, not in an exemption from injury, but from a certain degree of injury.

But the objectors may further say, that we shall suffer no injury at all by the disuse of British paper and glass. We might not, if we could make as much as we want. But can any man, acquainted with America, believe this possible? I am told there are but two or three Glass-Houses on this continent, and but very few Paper-Mills; and suppose more should be erected, a long course of years must elapse, before they can be brought to perfection. This continent is a country of planters, farmers, and fishermen; not of manufactures. The difficulty of establishing particular manufactures in such a country, is almost insufferable. For one manufacture is connected with others in such a manner, that it may be said to be impossible to establish one or two without establishing several others. The experience of many nations may convince us of this truth.

Inexpressible therefore must be our distresses in evading the late acts, by the disuse of British paper and glass. Nor will this be the extent of our misfortune, if we admit the legality of that act.

Great Britain has prohibited the manufacturing iron and steel in these colonies, without any objection being made to her right of doing it. The like right she must have to prohibit any other manufacture among us. Thus she is possessed of an undisputed precedent on that point. This authority, she will say, is founded on the original intention of settling these colonies; that is, that she should manufacture for them, and that they should supply her with materials. The equity of this policy, she will also say, has been universally acknowledged by the colonies, who never have made the least objection to statutes for that purpose; and will further appear by the mutual benefits flowing from this usage, ever since the settlement of these colonies.

Our great advocate, Mr. Pitt, in his speeches on the debate concerning the repeal of the Stamp Act, acknowledged, that Great Britain could restrain our manufactures. His words are these —“This kingdom, as the supreme governing and legislative power, has always bound the colonies by her regulations and restrictions in trade, in navigation, in manufactures — in everything, except that of taking their money out of their pockets without their consent.” Again he says, “We may bind their trade, confine their manufactures, and exercise every power whatever, except that of taking their money out of their pockets without their consent.”

Here then, my dear countrymen, rouse yourselves, and behold the ruin hanging over your heads. If you ONCE admit, that Great Britain may lay duties upon her exportations to us, for the purpose of levying money on us only, she then will have nothing to do, but to lay those duties on the articles which she prohibits us to manufacture—and the tragedy of American liberty is finished. We have been prohibited from procuring manufactures, in all cases, any where but from Great Britain (excepting linens, which we are permitted to import directly from Ireland). We have been prohibited, in some cases, from manufacturing for ourselves; and may be prohibited in others. We are therefore exactly in the situation of a city besieged, which is surrounded by the works of the besiegers in every part but one. If that is closed up, no step can be taken, but to surrender at discretion. If Great Britain can order us to come to her for necessaries we want, and can order us to pay what taxes she pleases before we take them away, or when we land them here, we are as abject slaves as France and Poland can show in wooden shoes and with uncombed hair. (5)

Perhaps the nature of the necessities of dependent states, caused by the policy of a governing one for her own benefit, may be elucidated by a fact mentioned in history. When the Carthaginians were possessed of the island of Sardinia, they made a decree, that the Sardinians should not raise corn, nor get it any other way than from the Carthaginians. Then, by imposing any duties they would upon it, they drained from the miserable Sardinians any sums they pleased; and whenever that oppressed people made the least movement to assert their liberty, their tyrant starved them to death or submission. This may be called the most perfect kind of political necessity.

From what has been said, I think this incontrovertible conclusion may be deduced, that when a ruling state obliges a dependent state to take certain commodities from her alone, it is implied in the nature of that obligation; is essentially requisite to give it the least degree of justice; and is inseparably united with it, in order to preserve any share of freedom to the dependent state; that those commodities should never be loaded with duties,for the sole purpose of levying money on the dependent state.

Upon the whole, the single question is, whether the parliament can legally impose duties to be paid by the people of these colonies only,for the sole purpose of raising a revenue, on commodities which she obliges us to take from her alone, or, in other words, whether the parliament can legally take money out of our pockets, without our consent. If they can, our boasted liberty is but

Vox et praeterea nihil.
A sound and nothing else.

A Farmer


1. For the satisfaction of the reader, recitals from the former acts of parliament relating to these colonies are added. By comparing these with the modern acts, he will perceive their great difference in expression and intention.

The 12th Cha. Chap. 18, which forms the foundation of the laws relating to our trade, by enacting that certain productions of the colonies should be carried to England only, and that no goods shall be imported from the plantations but in ships belonging to England, Ireland, Wales, Berwick, or the Plantations, etc. begins thus: “For the increase of shipping, and encouragement of the navigation of this nation, wherein, under the good providence and protection of GOD, the wealth, safety, and strength of this Kingdom is so much concerned,” etc.

The 15th Cha. II. Chap. 7, enforcing the same regulation, assigns these reasons for it. “In regard his Majesty’s plantations, beyond the seas, are inhabited and peopled by his subjects of this his Kingdom of England; for the maintaining a greater correspondence and kindness between them, and keeping them in a firmer dependence upon it, and rendering them yet more beneficial and advantageous unto it, in the further employment and increase of English shipping and seamen, vent of English woolen, and other manufacturers and commodities, rendering the navigation to and from the same more safe and cheap, and making this Kingdom a staple, not only of the commodities of those plantations, but also of the commodities of other countries and places for the supplying of them; and it being the usage of other nations to keep their plantations’ trade to themselves,” etc.

The 25th Cha. II, Chap. 7, made expressly “for the better securing the plantation trade,” which imposes duties on certain commodities exported from one colony to another, mentions this cause for imposing them: “Whereas by one act, passed in the 12th year of your Majesty’s reign, entitled, An act for encouragement of shipping and navigation, and by several other laws, passed since that time, it is permitted to ship, etc. sugars, tobacco, etc. of the growth, etc. of any of your Majesty’s plantations in America, etc. from the places of their growth, etc. to any other of your Majesty’s plantations in those parts, etc. and that without paying custom for the same, either at the lading or unlading the said commodities, by means whereof the trade and navigation in those commodities, from one plantation to another, is greatly increased, and the inhabitants of divers of those colonies, not contenting themselves with being supplied with those commodities for their own use, free from all customs (while the subjects of this your kingdom of England have paid great customs and impositions for what of them hath been spent here) but, contrary to the express letter of the aforesaid laws, have brought into divers parts of Europe great quantities thereof, and do also vend great quantities thereof to the shipping of other nations, who bring them into divers parts of Europe, to the great hurt and diminution of your Majesty’s customs, and of the trade and navigation of this your kingdom; For the prevention thereof, etc.

The 7th and 8th Will. III. Chap. 22, entitled, “An act for preventing frauds, and regulating abuses in the plantation trade,” recites that, “notwithstanding divers acts, etc. great abuses are daily committed, to the prejudice of the English navigation, and the loss of a great part of the plantation trade to this kingdom, by the artifice and cunning of ill disposed persons; For remedy whereof, etc. And whereas in some of his Majesty’s American plantations, a doubt or misconstruction has arisen upon the before mentioned act, made in the 25th year of the reign of King Charles II, whereby certain duties are laid upon the commodities therein enumerated (which by law may be transported from one plantation to another, for the supply of each other’s wants) as if the same were, by the payment of those duties in one plantation, discharged from giving the securities intended by the aforesaid acts, made in the 12th, 22nd and 23rd years of the reign of King Charles II, and consequently be at liberty to go to any foreign market in Europe,” etc.

The 6th Anne, Chap. 37, reciting the advancement of trade, and encouragement of ships of war, etc. grants to the captors the property of all prizes carried into America, subject to such customs and duties, as if the same had been first imported into any part of Great Britain, and from thence exported, etc.

This was a gift to persons acting under commissions from the crown, and therefore it was reasonable that the terms prescribed in that gift, should be complied with more – especially as the payment of such duties was intended to give a preference to the productions of British colonies, over those of other colonies. However, being found inconvenient to the colonies, about four years afterwards, this act was, for that reason, so far repealed, that by another act “all prize goods, imported into any part of Great Britain, from any of the plantations, were made liable to such duties only in Great Britain, as in case they had been of the growth and product of the plantations.”

The 6th Geo. II Chap. 13, which imposes duties on foreign rum, sugar and molasses, imported into the colonies, shews the reasons thus — “Whereas the welfare and prosperity of your Majesty’s sugar colonies in America, are of the greatest consequence and importance to the trade, navigation, and strength of this kingdom; and whereas the planters of the said sugar colonies, have of late years fallen into such great discouragements, that they are unable to improve or carry on the sugar trade upon an equal footing with the foreign sugar colonies, without some advantage and relief be given to them from Great Britain: For remedy whereof, and for the good and welfare of your Majesty’s subjects,” etc.

The 29th Geo. II Chap. 26, and the 1st Geo. III Chap. 9, which continue the 6th Geo. II Chap. 13, declare, that the said act has, by experience, been found useful and beneficial, etc. These are all the most considerable statutes relating to the commerce of the colonies; and it is thought to be utterly unnecessary to add any observations to these extracts, to prove that they were all intended solely as regulations of trade.

2. “It is worthy observation how quietly subsidies, granted in forms usual and accustomable (though heavy) are borne; such a power hath use and custom. On the other side, what discontentments and disturbances subsidies framed in a new mold do raise (such an inbred hatred novelty doth hatch) is evident by examples of former times.” Lord Coke’s 2nd Institute, p. 33.

3. Some people think that Great Britain has the same right to impose duties on the exports to these colonies, as on the exports to Spain and Portugal, etc. Such persons attend so much to the idea of exportation, that they entirely drop that of the connection between the mother country and her colonies. If Great Britain had always claimed, and exercised an authority to compel Spain and Portugal to import manufactures from her only, the cases would be parallel: But as she never pretended to such a right, they are at liberty to get them where they please; and if they chuse to take them from her, rather than from other nations, they voluntarily consent to pay the duties imposed on them.

4. Either the disuse of writing, or the payment of taxes imposed by others without our consent.

5. The peasants of France wear wooden shoes; and the vassals of Poland are remarkable for matted hair which never can be combed.

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