The Age of George III

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A Farmer's Letters

This is the tenth 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,

The consequences, mentioned in the last letter, will not be the utmost limits of our misery and infamy, if the late act is acknowledged to be binding upon us. We feel too sensibly, that any ministerial measures [1] relating to these colonies, are soon carried successfully through the parliament. Certain prejudices operate there so strongly against us, that it may be justly questioned, whether all the provinces united, will ever be able effectually to call to an account before the parliament, any minister who shall abuse the power by the late act given to the crown in America. He may divide the spoils torn from us in what manner he pleases, and we shall have no way of making him responsible. If he should order, that every governor shall have a yearly salary of 5,000bp sterling; every chief justice of 3,000bp; every inferior officer in proportion; and should then reward the most profligate, ignorant, or needy dependents on himself or his friends, with places of the greatest trust, because they were of the greatest profit, this would be called an arrangement in consequence of the “adequate provision for defraying the charge of the administration of justice, and the support of the civil government”: And if the taxes should prove at any time insufficient to answer all the expenses of the numberless offices, which ministers may please to create, surely the members of the house of commons will be so “modest,” as not to “contradict a minister” who shall tell them, it is become necessary to lay a new tax upon the colonies, for the laudable purposes of defraying the charges of the “administration of justice, and support of civil government” among them. Thus, in fact, we shall be taxed by ministers. [2] In short, it will be in their power to settle upon us any CIVIL, ECCLESIASTICAL, or MILITARY establishment, which they choose.

We may perceive, by the example of Ireland, how eager ministers are to seize upon any settled revenue, and apply it in supporting their own power. Happy are the men, and happy the people who grow wise by the misfortunes of others. Earnestly, my dear countrymen, do I beseech the author of all good gifts, that you may grow wise in this manner; and if I may be allowed to take such a liberty, I beg leave to recommend to you in general, as the best method of attaining this wisdom, diligently to study the histories of other countries. You will there find all the arts, that can possibly be practiced by cunning rulers, or false patriots among yourselves, so fully delineated, that, changing names, the account would serve for your own times.

It is pretty well known on this continent, that Ireland has, with a regular consistency of injustice, been cruelly treated by ministers in the article of pensions; but there are some alarming circumstances relating to that subject, which I wish to have better known among us.

[3] The revenue of the crown there arises principally from the Excise granted “for pay of the army, and defraying other PUBLIC charges, in defense and preservation of the kingdom”—from the hearth money granted—as a “PUBLIC revenue, for PUBLIC charges and expenses.” There are some other branches of the revenue, concerning which there is not any express appropriation of them for PUBLIC service, but which were plainly so intended.

Of these branches of the revenue the crown is only trustee for the public. They are unalienable. They are inapplicable to any other purposes, but those for which they were established; and therefore are not legally chargeable with pensions.

There is another kind of revenue, which is a private revenue. This is not limited to any public uses; but the crown has the same property in it, that any person has in his estate. This does not amount, at the most to Fifteen Thousand Pounds a year, probably not to Seven, and is the only revenue, that can be legally charged with pensions.

If ministers were accustomed to regard the rights or happiness of the people, the pensions in Ireland would not exceed the sum just mentioned: But long since have they exceeded that limit; and in December 1765, a motion was made in the house of commons in that kingdom, to address his Majesty on the great increase of pensions on the Irish establishment, amounting to the sum of 158,685bp—in the last two years.

Attempts have been made to gloss over these gross encroachments, by this specious argument —“That expending a competent part of the PUBLIC REVENUE in pensions, from a principle of charity or generosity, adds to the dignity of the crown; and is therefore useful to the PUBLIC.” To give this argument any weight, it must appear, that the pensions proceed from “charity or generosity only”—and that it “adds to the dignity of the crown,” to act directly contrary to law.

From this conduct towards Ireland, in open violation of law, we may easily foresee what we may expect, when a minister will have the whole revenue of America in his own hands, to be disposed of at his own pleasure: For all the monies raised by the late act are to be “applied by virtue of warrants under the sign manual, counter-signed by the high treasurer, or any three of the commissioners of the treasury.” The “RESIDUE” indeed is to be “paid into the receipt of the exchequer, and to be disposed of by parliament.” So that a minister will have nothing to do, but to take care, that there shall be no “residue,” and he is superior to all control.

Besides the burden of pensions in Ireland, which have enormously increased within these few years, almost all the offices in that poor kingdom, have been, since the commencement of the present century, and now are bestowed upon strangers. For tho’ the merit of persons born there, justly raises them to places of high trust when they go abroad, as all Europe can witness, yet he is an uncommonly lucky Irishman, who can get a good post in his NATIVE country.

When I consider the manner [4] in which that island has been uniformly depressed for so many years past, with this pernicious particularity of their parliament continuing as long as the crown pleases, [5] I am astonished to observe such a love of liberty still animating that LOYAL and GENEROUS nation; and nothing can raise higher my idea of the INTEGRITY and PUBLIC SPIRIT [6] OF a people, who have preserved the sacred fire of freedom from being extinguished, tho’ the altar on which it burnt, has been overturned.

In the same manner shall we unquestionably be treated, as soon as the late taxes laid upon us, shall make posts in the “government,” and the “administration of justice” here, worth the attention of persons of influence in Great Britain. We know enough already to satisfy us of this truth. But this will not be the worst part of our case.

The principals, in all great offices, will reside in England, making some paltry allowance to deputies for doing the business here. Let any consider what an exhausting drain this must be upon us, when ministers are possessed of the power of creating what posts they please, and of affixing to such posts what salaries they please, and he must be convinced how destructive the late act will be. The injured kingdom lately mentioned, can tell us the mischiefs of ABSENTEES; and we may perceive already the same disposition taking place with us. The government of New York has been exercised by a deputy. That of Virginia is now held so; and we know of a number of secretaryships, collectorships, and other offices, held in the same manner.

True it is, that if the people of Great Britain were not too much blinded by the passions, that have been artfully excited in their breasts, against their dutiful children the colonists, these considerations would be nearly as alarming to them as to us. The influence of the crown was thought by wise men, many years ago, too great, by reason of the multitude of pensions and places bestowed by it. These have been vastly increased since, [7] and perhaps it would be no difficult matter to prove that the people have decreased.

Surely therefore, those who wish the welfare of their country, ought seriously to reflect, what may be the consequence of such a new creation of offices, in the disposal of the crown. The army, the administration of justice, and the civil government here, with such salaries as the crown shall please to annex, will extend ministerial influence as much beyond its former bounds, as the late war did the British dominions.

But whatever the people of Great Britain may think on this occasion, I hope the people of these colonies will unanimously join in this sentiment, that the late act of parliament is injurious to their liberty, and that this sentiment will unite them in a firm opposition to it, in the same manner as the dread of the Stamp Act did.

Some persons may imagine the sums to be raised by it, are but small, and therefore may be inclined to acquiesce under it. A conduct more dangerous to freedom, as before has been observed, can never be adopted. Nothing is wanted at home but a PRECEDENT, [8] the force of which shall be established, by the tacit submission of the colonies. With what zeal was the statute erecting the post office, and another relating to the recovery of debts in America, urged and tortured, as precedents in support of the Stamp Act, tho’ wholly inapplicable. If the parliament succeeds in this attempt, other statutes will impose other duties. Instead of taxing ourselves, as we have been accustomed to do, from the first settlement of these provinces, all our usual taxes will be converted into parliamentary taxes on our importations; and thus the parliament will levy upon us such sums of money as they choose to take, without any other LIMITATION, than their PLEASURE.

We know how much labor and care have been bestowed by these colonies, in laying taxes in such a manner, that they should be most easy to the people, by being laid on the proper articles; most equal, by being proportioned to every man’s circumstances; and cheapest, by the method directed for collecting them.

But parliamentary taxes will be laid on us, without any consideration, whether there is any easier mode. The only point regarded will be, the certainty of levying the taxes, and not the convenience of the people on whom they are to be levied; and therefore all statutes on this head will be such as will be most likely, according to the favorite phrase, “to execute themselves.”

Taxes in every free state have been, and ought to be, as exactly proportioned as is possible to the abilities of those who are to pay them. They cannot otherwise be just. Even a Hottentot would comprehend the unreasonableness of making a poor man pay as much for “defending” the property of a rich man, as the rich man pays himself.

Let any person look into the late act of parliament, and he will immediately perceive, that the immense estates of Lord Fairfax, Lord Baltimore, and our Proprietaries, [9] which are among his Majesty’s other “DOMINIONS” to be “defended, protected and secured” by the act, will not pay a single farthing for the duties thereby imposed, except Lord Fairfax wants some of his windows glazed; Lord Baltimore and our Proprietaries are quite secure, as they live in England.

I mention these particular cases, as striking instances how far the late act is a deviation from that principle of justice, which has so constantly distinguished our own laws on this continent, and ought to be regarded in all laws.

The third consideration with our continental assemblies in laying taxes, has been the method of collecting them. This has been done by a few officers, with moderate allowances, under the inspection of the respective assemblies. No more was raised from the subject, than was used for the intended purposes. But by the late act, a minister may appoint as many officers as he pleases for collecting the taxes; may assign them what salaries he thinks “adequate”; and they are subject to no inspection but his own.

In short, if the late act of parliament takes effect, these colonies must dwindle down into “COMMON CORPORATIONS,” as their enemies, in the debates concerning the repeal of the Stamp Act, strenuously insisted they were; and it seems not improbable that some future historian may thus record our fall.

“The eighth year of this reign [1768] was distinguished by a very memorable event, the American colonies then submitting, for the FIRST time, to be taxed by the British parliament. An attempt of this kind had been made about two years before, but was defeated by the vigorous exertions of the several provinces, in defense of their liberties. Their behavior on that occasion rendered their name very celebrated for a short time all over Europe; all states being extremely attentive to the dispute between Great Britain, and so considerable a part of her dominions. For as she was thought to be grown too powerful, but the successful conclusion of the late war she had been engaged in, it was hoped by many, that as it had happened before to other kingdoms, civil discords would afford opportunities of revenging all the injuries supposed to be received from her. However, the cause of dissension was removed, by a repeal of the statute that had given offense. This affair rendered the SUBMISSIVE CONDUCT of the colonies so soon after, the more extraordinary; there being no difference between the mode of taxation which they opposed, and that to which they submitted, but this, that by the first, they were to be continually reminded that they were taxed, by certain marks stamped on every piece of paper or parchment they used. The authors of that statute triumphed greatly on this conduct of the colonies, and insisted, that if the people of Great Britain had persisted in enforcing it, the Americans would have been, in a few months, so fatigued with the efforts of patriotism, that they would have yielded obedience.

“Certain it is, that though they had before their eyes so many illustrious examples in their mother country, of the constant success attending firmness and perseverance, in opposition to dangerous encroachments on liberty, yet they quietly gave up a point of the LAST IMPORTANCE. From thence the decline of their freedom began, and its decay was extremely rapid; for as money was always raised upon them by the parliament, their assemblies grew immediately useless, and in a short time contemptible: And in less than one hundred years, the people sunk down into that tameness and supineness of spirit, by which they still continue to be distinguished.”

Et majores vestros & posteros cogitate.
Remember your ancestors and your posterity.

A Farmer


[1] “The gentleman must not wonder he was not contradicted, when, as minister, he asserted the right of parliament to tax America. I know not how it is, but there is a MODESTY in this house, which does not choose to contradict a minister. I wish gentlemen would get the better of this modesty. IF THEY DO NOT, PERHAPS THE COLLECTIVE BODY MAY BEGIN TO ABATE OF ITS RESPECT FOR THE REPRESENTATIVE.” (Mr. Pitt’s Speech) [back]

[2] “Within this act (statute de tallagio non concedendo) are all new offices erected with new fees, or old offices with new fees, for that is a tallage put upon the subject, which cannot be done without common assent by act of parliament. And this does notably appear by a petition in parliament in anno 13 H. IV. where the commons complain, that an office was erected for measureage of cloths and canvas, with a new fee for the same, by color of the king’s letters patents, and pray that these letters patents may be revoked, for that the king could erect no offices with new fees to be taken of the people, who may not so be charged but by parliament.” [back]

[3]An enquiry into the legality of pensions on the Irish establishment, by Alexander M’Aulay, Esq.; one of the King’s council, etc. Mr. M’Aulay concludes his piece in the following beautiful manner. “If any pensions have been obtained on that establishment, to SERVE THE CORRUPT PURPOSES OF AMBITIOUS MEN—If his Majesty’s revenues of Ireland have been employed in pensions, TO DEBAUCH HIS MAJESTY’S SUBJECTS of both kingdoms—If the treasure of Ireland has been expended in pensions, FOR CORRUPTING MEN OF THAT KINGDOM TO BETRAY THEIR COUNTRY; and men of the neighboring kingdom, to betray both—If Irish pensions have been procured, TO SUPPORT GAMESTERS AND GAMING-HOUSES; promoting a vice which threatens national ruin—If pensions have been purloined out of the national treasure of Ireland, under the MASK OF SALARIES ANNEXED TO PUBLIC OFFICES, USELESS TO THE NATION; newly invented, FOR THE PURPOSES OF CORRUPTION—If Ireland, just beginning to recover from the devastations of massacre and rebellion, be obstructed in the progress of her cure, BY SWARMS OF PENSIONARY VULTURES PREYING ON HER VITALS—If, by squandering the national substance of Ireland, in a LICENTIOUS, UNBOUNDED PROFUSION OF PENSIONS, instead of employing it in nourishing and improving her infant agriculture, trade and manufactures, or in enlightening and reforming her poor, ignorant, deluded, miserable natives (by nature most amiable, most valuable, most worthy of public attention)—If, by such abuse of the national substance, sloth and nastiness, cold and hunger, nakedness and wretchedness, popery, depopulation and barbarism, still maintain their ground; still deform a country, abounding with all the riches of nature, yet hitherto destined to beggary—IF SUCH PENSIONS be found on the Irish establishment; let such be cut off: And let the perfidious advisers be branded with indelible characters of public infamy; adequate, if possible, to the dishonor of their crime.”[back]

[4] In Charles the second’s time, the house of commons, influenced by some factious demagogues, were resolved to prohibit the importation of Irish cattle into England. Among other arguments in favor of Ireland it was insisted—“That by cutting off almost entirely the trade between the kingdoms, ALL THE NATURAL BANDS OF UNION WERE DISSOLVED, and nothing remained to keep the Irish in their duty, but force and violence.”

“The king (says Mr. Hume, in his history of England) was so convinced of the justness of these reasons, that he used all his interest to oppose the bill, and he openly declared, that he could not give his assent to it with a safe conscience. But the commons were resolute in their purpose”—“And the spirit of TYRANNY, of which NATIONS are as susceptible as INDIVIDUALS, had animated the English extremely TO EXERT THEIR SUPERIORITY over their dependent state. No affair could be conducted with greater violence than this by the commons. They even went so far in the preamble of the bill, as to declare the importation of Irish cattle to be a NUISANCE. By this expression they gave scope to their passion, and at the same time barred the king’s prerogative, by which he might think himself entitled to dispense with a law, so FULL OF INJUSTICE AND BAD POLICY. The lords expunged the word, but as the king was sensible that no supply would be given by the commons, unless they were gratified in all their PREJUDICES, he was obliged both to empty his interest with the peers, to make the bill pass, and to give the royal assent to it. He could not, however, forbear expressing his displeasure at the jealousy entertained against him, and at the intention which the commons discovered, of retrenching his prerogative.

THIS LAW BROUGHT GREAT DISTRESS FOR SOME TIME UPON Ireland, BUT IT HAS OCCASIONED THEIR APPLYING WITH GREATER INDUSTRY TO MANUFACTURES, AND HAS PROVED IN THE ISSUE BENEFICIAL TO THAT KINGDOM.” Perhaps the same reason occasioned the “barring the king’s prerogative” in the late act suspending the legislation of New York. This we may be assured of, that WE ARE as dear to his Majesty, as the people of Great Britain are. We are his subjects as they, and as faithful subjects; and his Majesty has given too many, too constant proofs of his piety and virtue, for any man to think it possible, that such a prince can make any unjust distinction between such subjects. It makes no difference to his Majesty, whether supplies are raised in Great Britain, or America; but it makes some difference to the commons of that kingdom. To speak plainly, as becomes an honest man on such important occasions, all our misfortunes are owing to a LUST OF POWER in men of abilities and influence. This prompts them to seek POPULARITY by expedients profitable to themselves, though ever so destructive to their country.

Such is the accursed nature of lawless ambition, and yet—What heart but melts at the thought! —Such false, detestable PATRIOTS, in every state, have led their blind, confiding country, shouting their applauses, into the jaws of shame and ruin. May the wisdom and goodness of the people of Great Britain, save them from the usual fate of nations.


[5] The last Irish parliament continued 33 years, during all the late King’s reign. The present parliament there has continued from the beginning of this reign, and probably will continue till this reign ends. [back]

[6] I am informed, that within these few years, a petition was presented to the house of commons, setting forth, “that herrings were imported into Ireland from some foreign parts of the north so cheap, as to discourage the British herring fishery, and therefore praying that some remedy might be applied in that behalf by parliament.”

That upon this petition, the house came to a resolution, to impose a duty of Two Shillings sterling on every barrel of foreign herrings imported into Ireland; but afterwards dropt the affair, FOR FEAR OF ENGAGING IN A DISPUTE WITH Ireland ABOUT THE RIGHT OF TAXING HER.

So much higher was the opinion, which the house entertained of the spirit of Ireland, than of that of these colonies. I find, in the last English papers, that the resolution and firmness with which the people of Ireland have lately asserted their freedom, have been so alarming in Great Britain, that the Lord Lieutenant, in his speech on the 20th of last October, “recommended to that parliament, that such provision may be made for securing the judges in the enjoyment of their offices and appointments, DURING THEIR GOOD BEHAVIOR, as shall be thought most expedient.”

What an important concession is thus obtained, by making demands becoming freemen, with a courage and perseverance becoming Freemen! back

[7] One of the reasons urged by that great and honest statesman, Sir William Temple, to Charles the Second, in his famous remonstrance, to dissuade him from aiming at arbitrary power, was that the King “had few offices to bestow.” (Hume’s Hist. of England)

“Tho’ the wings of prerogative have been clipped, the influence of the crown is greater than ever it was in any period of our history. For when we consider in how many boroughs the government has the votes at command; when we consider the vast body of persons employed in the collection of the revenue, in every part of the kingdom, the inconceivable number of placemen, and candidates for places in the customs, in the excise, in the post-office, in the dock-yards, in the ordnance, in the salt-office, in the stamps, in the navy and victualling offices, and in a variety of other departments; when we consider again the extensive influence of the money corporations, subscription jobbers and contractors, the endless dependencies created by the obligations conferred on the bulk of the gentlemen’s families throughout the kingdom, who have relations preferred in our navy and numerous standing army; when I say, we consider how wide, how binding a dependence on the crown is created by the above enumerated particulars, and the great, the enormous weight and influence which the crown derives from this extensive dependence upon its favor and power, any lord in waiting, any lord of the bed-chamber, any man may be appointed minister.” A doctrine to this effect is said to have been the advice of L——H——. (Late News Paper) [back]

[8] Here may be observed, that when any ancient law or custom of parliament is broken, and the crown possessed of a precedent, how difficult a thing it is to restore the subject again to his FORMER FREEDOM and SAFETY.” (2d Coke’s Inst. p. 529) “It is not almost credible to foresee, when any maxim or fundamental law of this realm is altered (as elsewhere hath been observed) what dangerous inconveniences do follow.” (4th Coke’s Inst. p. 41) [back]

[9] Maryland and Pennsylvania have been engaged in the warmest disputes, in order to obtain an equal and just taxation of their Proprietors’ estates: But this late act of parliament does more for those Proprietors, than they themselves would venture to demand. It totally exempts them from taxation—tho’ their vast estates are to be “secured” by the taxes of other people. [back]

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