FOUNDERS CORNER LIBRARY, MAJOR WORKS
Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, by John Dickinson, Letter 4
My dear Countrymen,
An objection, I hear, has been made against my second letter, which I would willingly clear up before I proceed. “There is,” say these objectors, “a material difference between the Stamp Act and the late act for laying a duty on paper, etc. that justifies the conduct of those who opposed the former, and yet are willing to submit to the latter. The duties imposed by the Stamp Act were internal taxes; but the present are external, and therefore the parliament may have a right to impose them.”
To this I answer, with a total denial of the power of parliament to lay upon these colonies any “tax” whatever.
This point, being so important to this, and to succeeding generations, I wish to be clearly understood.
To the word “tax,” I annex that meaning which the constitution and history of England require to be annexed to it; that is—that it is an imposition on the subject, for the sole purpose of levying money.
In the early ages of our monarchy, certain services were rendered to the crown for the general good. These were personal: But in process of time, such institutions being found inconvenient, gifts and grants of their own property were made by the people, under the several names of aids, tallages, talks, taxes and subsidies, etc. These were made, as may be collected even from the names, for public service upon “need and necessity.” All these sums were levied upon the people by virtue of their voluntary gift. Their intention was to support the national honor and interest. Some of those grants comprehended duties arising from trade; being imports on merchandizes. These Lord Chief Justice Coke classes under “subsidies,” and “parliamentary aids.” They are also called “customs.” But whatever the name was, they were always considered as gifts of the people to the crown, to be employed for public uses.
Commerce was at a low ebb, and surprising instances might be produced how little it was attended to for a succession of ages. The terms that have been mentioned, and, among the rest, that of “tax,” had obtained a national, parliamentary meaning, drawn from the principles of the constitution, long before any Englishman thought of imposition of duties, for the regulation of trade.
Whenever we speak of “taxes” among Englishmen, let us therefore speak of them with reference to the principles on which, and the intentions with which they have been established. This will give certainty to our expression, and safety to our conduct: But if, when we have in view the liberty of these colonies, we proceed in any other course, we pursue a juno indeed, but shall only catch a cloud.
In the national, parliamentary sense insisted on, the word “tax” was certainly understood by the congress at New York, whose resolves may be said to form the American “bill of rights.”
The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth resolves, are thus expressed.
III. “That it is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that NO TAX be imposed on them, except with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives.”
IV. “That the people of the colonies are not, and from their local circumstances, cannot be represented in the house of commons in Great Britain.”
V. “That the only representatives of the people of the colonies, are the persons chosen therein by themselves; and that NO TAXES ever have been, or can be constitutionally imposed on them, but by their respective legislatures.”
VI. “That all supplies to the crown, being free gifts of the people, it is unreasonable, and inconsistent with the principles and spirit of the British constitution, for the people of Great Britain to grant to his Majesty the property of the colonies.”
Here is no distinction made between internal and external taxes. It is evident from the short reasoning thrown into these resolves, that every imposition “to grant to his Majesty the property of the colonies,” was thought a “tax”; and that every such imposition, if laid any other way, than “with their consent, given personally, or by their representatives,” was not only “unreasonable, and inconsistent with the principles and spirit of the British constitution,” but destructive “to the freedom of a people.”
This language is clear and important. A “tax” means an imposition to raise money. Such persons therefore as speak of internal and external “taxes,” I pray may pardon me, if I object to that expression, as applied to the privileges and interests of these colonies. There may be internal and external impositions, founded on different principles, and having different tendencies; every “tax” being an imposition, though every imposition is not a “tax.” But all taxes are founded on the same principle; and have the same tendency.
External impositions, for the regulation of our trade, do not “grant to his Majesty the property of the colonies.” They only prevent the colonies acquiring property, in things not necessary, in a manner judged to be injurious to the welfare of the whole empire. But the last statute respecting us, “grants to his Majesty the property of the colonies,” by laying duties on the manufactures of Great Britain which they must take, and which she settled them, on purpose that they should take.
What tax can be more internal than this? Here is money drawn, without their consent, from a society, who have constantly enjoyed a constitutional mode of raising all money among themselves. The payment of this tax they have no possible method of avoiding; as they cannot do without the commodities on which it is laid, and they cannot manufacture these commodities themselves. Besides, if this unhappy country should be so lucky as to elude this act, by getting parchment enough, in the place of paper, or by reviving the ancient method of writing on wax and bark, and by inventing something to serve instead of glass, her ingenuity would stand her in little stead; for then the parliament would have nothing to do but to prohibit such manufactures, or to lay a tax on hats and woolen cloths, which they have already prohibited the colonies from supplying each other with; or on instruments and tools of steel and iron, which they have prohibited the provincials from manufacturing at all: And then, what little gold and silver they have, must be torn from their hands, or they will not be able, in a short time, to get an ax for cutting their firewood, nor a plough for raising their food. In what respect, therefore, I beg leave to ask, is the late act preferable to the Stamp Act, or more consistent with the liberties of the colonies? For my own part, I regard them both with equal apprehension; and think they ought to be in the same manner opposed.
Habemus quidem senatus consultum, tanquam gladium in vagina repositum.
We have a statute, laid up for future use, like a sword in the scabbard.
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Formatting for this online edition of “Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania,” by John Dickinson, Copyright © 2013 Steve Farrell. The original copyright is held in the Public Domain.