The Age of George III

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A Farmer's Letters

This is the eighth 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,

In my opinion, a dangerous example is set in the last act relating to these colonies. The power of parliament to levy money upon us for raising a revenue, is therein avowed and exerted. Regarding the act on this single principle, I must again repeat, and I think it my duty to repeat, that to me it appears to be unconstitutional.

No man, who considers the conduct of the parliament since the repeal of the Stamp Act, and the disposition of many people at home, can doubt, that the chief object of attention there, is, to use Mr. Greenville’s expression, “providing that the DEPENDENCE and OBEDIENCE of the colonies be asserted and maintained.”

Under the influence of this notion, instantly on repealing the Stamp Act, an act passed, declaring the power of parliament to bind these colonies in all cases whatever. This however was only planting a barren tree, that cast a shade indeed over the colonies, but yielded no fruit. It being determined to enforce the authority on which the Stamp Act was founded, the parliament having never renounced the right, as Mr. Pitt advised them to do; and it being thought proper to disguise that authority in such a manner, as not again to alarm the colonies; some little time was required to find a method, by which both these points should be united. At last the ingenuity of Mr. Greenville and his party accomplished the matter, as it was thought, in “an act for granting certain duties in the British colonies and plantations in America, for allowing drawbacks,” etc. which is the title of the act laying duties on paper, etc.

The parliament having several times before imposed duties to be paid in America, IT WAS EXPECTED, NO DOUBT, THAT THE REPETITION OF SUCH A MEASURE WOULD BE PASSED OVER, AS A USUAL THING. But to have done this, without expressly “asserting and maintaining” the power of parliament to take our money without our consent, and to apply it as they please, would not have been, in Mr. Greenville’s opinion, sufficiently declarative of its supremacy, nor sufficiently depressive of American freedom.

THEREFORE it is, that in this memorable act we find it expressly “provided,” that money shall be levied upon us without our consent, for PURPOSES, that render it, if possible, more dreadful than the Stamp Act.

That act, alarming as it was, declared, the money thereby to be raised, should be applied “towards defraying the expenses of defending, protecting and securing the British colonies and plantations in America”: And it is evident from the whole act, that by the word “British,” were intended colonies and plantations settled by British people, and not generally, those subject to the British crown. That act therefore seemed to have something gentle and kind in its intention, and to aim only at our own welfare: But the act now objected to, imposes duties upon the British colonies, “to defray the expenses of defending, protecting and securing his Majesty’s DOMINIONS in America.”

What a change of words! What an incomputable addition to the expenses intended by the STAMP ACT! “His Majesty’s DOMINIONS” comprehend not only the British colonies, but also the conquered provinces of Canada and Florida, and the British garrisons of Nova-Scotia; for these do not deserve the name of colonies.

What justice is there in making us pay for “defending, protecting and securing” THESE PLACES? What benefit can WE, or have WE ever derived from them? None of them was conquered for US; nor will “be defended, protected or secured” for US.

In fact, however advantageous the subduing or keeping any of these countries may be to Great Britain, the acquisition is greatly injurious to these colonies. Our chief property consists in lands. These would have been of much greater value, if such prodigious additions had not been made to the British territories on this continent. The natural increase of our own people, if confined within the colonies, would have raised the value still higher and higher every fifteen or twenty years: Besides, we should have lived more compactly together, and have been therefore more able to resist any enemy. But now the inhabitants will be thinly scattered over an immense region, as those who want settlements, will choose to make new ones, rather than pay great prices for old ones.

These are the consequences to the colonies, of the hearty assistance they gave to Great Britain in the late war—a war undertaken solely for her own benefit. The objects of it were, the securing to herself of the rich tracts of land on the back of these colonies, with the Indian trade; and Nova-Scotia, with the fishery. These, and much more, has that kingdom gained; but the inferior animals, that hunted with the lion, have been amply rewarded for all the sweat and blood their loyalty cost them, by the honor of having sweated and bled in such company.

I will not go so far as to say, that Canada and Nova-Scotia are curbs on New England; the chain of forts through the back-woods, of the Middle Provinces; and Florida, on the rest: But I will venture to say, that if the products of Canada, Nova-Scotia, and Florida, deserve any consideration, the two first of them are only rivals of our Northern Colonies, and the other of our Southern.

It has been said, that without the conquest of these countries, the colonies could not have been “protected, defended and secured.” If that is true, it may with as much propriety be said, that Great Britain could not have been “defended, protected and secured,” without that conquest: For the colonies are parts of her empire, which it as much concerns her as them to keep out of the hands of any other power.

But these colonies, when they were much weaker, defended themselves, before this Conquest was made; and could again do it, against any that might properly be called their Enemies. If France and Spain indeed should attack them, as members of the British empire, perhaps they might be distressed; but it would be in a British quarrel. The largest account I have seen of the number of people in Canada, does not make them exceed 90,000. Florida can hardly be said to have any inhabitants. It is computed that there are in our colonies 3,000,000. Our force therefore must increase with a disproportion to the growth of their strength, that would render us very safe.

This being the state of the case, I cannot think it just that these colonies, laboring under so many misfortunes, should be loaded with taxes, to maintain countries, not only not useful, but hurtful to them. The support of Canada and Florida cost yearly, it is said, half a million sterling. From hence, we may make some guess of the load that is to be laid upon US; for WE are not only to “defend, protect and secure” them, but also to make “an 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.”

Not one of the provinces of Canada, Nova-Scotia, or Florida, has ever defrayed these expenses within itself: And if the duties imposed by the last statute are collected, all of them together, according to the best information I can get, will not pay one quarter as much as Pennsylvania alone. So that the British colonies are to be drained of the rewards of their labor, to cherish the scorching sands of Florida, and the icy rocks of Canada and Nova-Scotia, which never will return to us one farthing that we send to them.

GREAT BRITAIN—I mean, the ministry in Great Britain, has cantoned Canada and Florida out into five or six governments, and may form as many more. There now are fourteen or fifteen regiments on this continent; and there soon may be as many more. To make “an adequate provision” FOR ALL THESE EXPENSES, is, no doubt, to be the inheritance of the colonies.

Can any man believe that the duties upon paper, etc. are the last that will be laid for these purposes? It is in vain to hope, that because it is imprudent to lay duties on the exportation of manufactures from a mother country to colonies, as it may promote manufactures among them, that this consideration will prevent such a measure.

Ambitious, artful men have made it popular, and whatever injustice or destruction will attend it in the opinion of the colonists, at home it will be thought just and salutary. [1]

The people of Great Britain will be told, and have been told, that they are sinking under an immense debt—that a great part of this debt has been contracted in defending the colonies— that these are so ungrateful and undutiful, that they will not contribute one mite to its payment —nor even to the support of the army now kept up for their “defense and security”—that they are rolling in wealth, and are of so bold and republican a spirit, that they are aiming at independence—that the only way to retain them in “obedience,” is to keep a strict watch over them, and to draw off part of their riches in taxes—and that every burden laid upon them, is taking off so much from Great Britain—These assertions will be generally believed, and the people will be persuaded that they cannot be too angry with their colonies, as that anger will be profitable to themselves.

In truth, Great Britain alone receives any benefit from Canada, Nova-Scotia and Florida; and therefore she alone ought to maintain them. The old maxim of the law is drawn from reason therefore she alone ought to maintain them. The old maxim of the law is drawn from reason and justice, and never could be more properly applied, than in this case.

Qui sentit commodum, sentire debet et onus.
They who feel the benefit, ought to feel the burden.

A Farmer


[1] “So credulous, as well as obstinate, are the people in believing everything, which flatters their prevailing passion.” (Hume’s Hist. of England) [back]

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