The Age of George III
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This is the ninth 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,
I have made some observations on the PURPOSES for which money is to be levied upon us by the late act of parliament. I shall now offer to your consideration some further reflections on that subject: And, unless I am greatly mistaken, if these purposes are accomplished according to the expressed intention of the act, they will be found effectually to supersede that authority in our respective assemblies, which is essential to liberty. The question is not, whether some branches shall be lopped off—The axe is laid to the root of the tree; and the whole body must infallibly perish, if we remain idle spectators of the work.
No free people ever existed, or can ever exist, without keeping, to use a common, but strong expression, “the purse strings,” in their own hands. Where this is the case, they have a constitutional check upon the administration, which may thereby be brought into order without violence: But where such a power is not lodged in the people, oppression proceeds uncontrolled in its career, till the governed, transported into rage, seek redress in the midst of blood and confusion.
The elegant and ingenious Mr. Hume, speaking of the Anglo-Norman government, says —“Princes and Ministers were too ignorant, to be themselves sensible of the advantage attending an equitable administration, and there was no established council or assembly, WHICH COULD PROTECT THE PEOPLE, and BY WITHDRAWING SUPPLIES, regularly and PEACEABLY admonish the king of his duty, and ENSURE THE EXECUTION OF THE LAWS.”
Thus this great man, whose political reflections are so much admired, makes this power one of the foundations of liberty.
The English history abounds with instances, proving that this is the proper and successful way to obtain redress to grievances. How often have kings and ministers endeavored to throw off this legal curb upon them, by attempting to raise money by a variety of inventions, under pretense of law, without having recourse to parliament? And how often have they been brought to reason, and peaceably obliged to do justice, by the exertion of this constitutional authority of to reason, and peaceably obliged to do justice, by the exertion of this constitutional authority of the people, vested in their representatives?
The inhabitants of these colonies have, on numberless occasions, reaped the benefit of this authority lodged in their assemblies.
It has been for a long time, and now is, a constant instruction to all governors, to obtain a PERMANENT support for the offices of government. But as the author of “the administration of the colonies” says, “this order of the crown is generally, if not universally, rejected by the legislatures of the colonies.”
They perfectly know how much their grievances would be regarded, if they had no other method of engaging attention, than by complaining. Those who rule, are extremely apt to think well of the constructions made by themselves in support of their own power. These are frequently erroneous, and pernicious to those they govern. Dry remonstrances, to show that such constructions are wrong and oppressive, carry very little weight with them, in the opinion of persons who gratify their own inclinations in making these constructions. They CANNOT understand the reasoning that opposes their power and desires. But let it be made their interest to understand such reasoning—and a wonderful light is instantly thrown upon the matter; and then, rejected remonstrances become as clear as “proofs of holy writ. 
The three most important articles that our assemblies, or any legislatures can provide for, are, First—the defense of the society: Secondly—the administration of justice: And thirdly—the support of civil government.
Nothing can properly regulate the expense of making provision for these occasions, but the necessities of the society; its abilities; the conveniency of the modes of levying money in it; the manner in which the laws have been executed; and the conduct of the officers of government: All which are circumstances, that cannot possibly be properly known, but by the society itself; or if they should be known, will not probably be properly considered but by that society.
If money be raised upon us by others, without our consent, for our “defense,” those who are the judges in levying it, must also be the judges in applying it. Of consequence the money said to be taken from us for our defense, may be employed to our injury. We may be chained in by a line of fortifications—obliged to pay for the building and maintaining them—and be told, that they are for our defense. With what face can we dispute the fact, after having granted that those who apply the money, had a right to levy it? For surely, it is much easier for their wisdom to understand how to apply it in the best manner, than how to levy it in the best manner. Besides, the right of levying is of infinitely more consequence than that of applying. The people of England, who would burst out into a fury, if the crown should attempt to levy money by its own authority, have always assigned to the crown the application of money.
As to “the administration of justice”—the judges ought, in a well regulated state, to be equally independent of the executive and legislative powers. Thus in England, judges hold their commissions from the crown “during good behavior,” and have salaries, suitable to their dignity, settled on them by parliament. The purity of the courts of law since this establishment, is a proof of the wisdom with which it was made.
But in these colonies, how fruitless has been every attempt to have the judges appointed “during good behavior”? Yet whoever considers the matter will soon perceive, that such commissions are beyond all comparison more necessary in these colonies, than they were in England.
The chief danger to the subject there, arose from the arbitrary designs of the crown; but here, the time may come, when we may have to contend with the designs of the crown, and of a mighty kingdom. What then must be our chance, when the laws of life and death are to be spoken by judges totally dependent on that crown, and that kingdom—sent over perhaps from thence—filled with British prejudices—and backed by a STANDING army—supported out of OUR OWN pockets, to “assert and maintain” OUR OWN “dependence and obedience”?
But supposing that through the extreme lenity that will prevail in the government through all future ages, these colonies will never behold any thing like the campaign of chief justice Jeffereys, yet what innumerable acts of injustice may be committed, and how fatally may the principles of liberty be sapped, by a succession of judges utterly independent of the people? Before such judges, the supple wretches, who cheerfully join in avowing sentiments inconsistent with freedom, will always meet with smiles; while the honest and brave men, who disdain to sacrifice their native land to their own advantage, but on every occasion boldly vindicate her cause, will constantly be regarded with frowns.
There are two other considerations relating to this head, that deserve the most serious attention.
By the late act, the officers of the customs are “impowered to enter into any HOUSE, warehouse, shop, cellar, or other place, in the British colonies or plantations in America, to search for or seize prohibited or unaccustomed goods,” etc. on “writs granted by the superior or supreme court of justice, having jurisdiction within such colony or plantation respectively.”
If we only reflect, that the judges of these courts are to be during pleasure—that they are to have “adequate provision” made for them, which is to continue during their complaisant behavior—that they may be strangers to these colonies—what an engine of oppression may this authority be in such hands?
I am well aware, that writs of this kind may be granted at home, under the seal of the court of exchequer: But I know also, that the greatest asserters of the rights of Englishmen have always strenuously contended, that such a power was dangerous to freedom, and expressly contrary to the common law, which ever regarded a man’s house as his castle, or a place of perfect security.
If such power was in the least degree dangerous there, it must be utterly destructive to liberty here. For the people there have two securities against the undue exercise of this power by the crown, which are wanting with us, if the late act takes place. In the first place, if any injustice is done there, the person injured may bring his action against the offender, and have it tried before INDEPENDENT JUDGES, who are NO PARTIES IN COMMITTING THE INJURY. Here he must have it tried before DEPENDENT JUDGES, being the men WHO GRANTED THE WRIT. 
To say, that the cause is to be tried by a jury, can never reconcile men who have any idea of freedom, to such a power. For we know that sheriffs in almost every colony on this continent, are totally dependent on the crown; and packing of juries has been frequently practised even in the capital of the British empire. Even if juries are well inclined, we have too many instances of the influence of over-bearing unjust judges upon them. The brave and wise men who accomplished the revolution, thought the independency of judges essential to freedom.
The other security which the people have at home, but which we shall want here, is this.
If this power is abused there, the parliament, the grand resource of the oppressed people, is ready to afford relief. Redress of grievances must precede grants of money. But what regard can we expect to have paid to our assemblies, when they will not hold even the puny privilege of French parliaments—that of registering, before they are put in execution, the edicts that take away our money.
The second consideration above hinted at, is this. There is a confusion in our laws, that is quite unknown in Great Britain. As this cannot be described in a more clear or exact manner, than has been done by the ingenious author of the history of New York, I beg leave to use his words. “The state of our laws opens a door to much controversy. The uncertainty, with respect to them, RENDERS PROPERTY PRECARIOUS, and GREATLY EXPOSES US TO THE ARBITRARY DECISION OF BAD JUDGES. The common law of England is generally received, together with such statutes as were enacted before we had a legislature of our own; but our COURTS EXERCISE A SOVEREIGN AUTHORITY, in determining what parts of the common and statute law ought to be extended: For it must be admitted, that the difference of circumstances necessarily requires us, in some cases, to REJECT the determination of both. In many instances, they have also extended even acts of parliament, passed since we had a distinct legislature, which is greatly adding to our confusion. The practice of our courts is no less uncertain than the law. Some of the English rules are adopted, others rejected. Two things therefore seem to be ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY for the PUBLIC SECURITY. First, the passing an act for settling the extent of the English laws. Secondly, that the courts ordain a general set of rules for the regulation of the practice.”
How easy it will be, under this “state of our laws,” for an artful judge, to act in the most arbitrary manner, and yet cover his conduct under specious pretences; and how difficult it will be for the injured people to obtain relief, may be readily perceived. We may take a voyage of 3000 miles to complain; and after the trouble and hazard we have undergone, we may be told, that the collection of the revenue, and maintenance of the prerogative, must not be discouraged—and if the misbehavior is so gross as to admit of no justification, it may be said, that it was an error in judgment only, arising from the confusion of our laws, and the zeal of the King’s servants to do their duty.
If the commissions of judges are during the pleasure of the crown, yet if their salaries are during the pleasure of the people, there will be some check upon their conduct. Few men will consent to draw on themselves the hatred and contempt of those among whom they live, for the empty honor of being judges. It is the sordid love of gain, that tempts men to turn their backs on virtue, and pay their homage where they ought not.
As to the third particular, “the support of civil government”—few words will be sufficient. Every man of the least understanding must know, that the executive power may be exercised in a manner so disagreeable and harassing to the people, that it is absolutely requisite, that they should be enabled by the gentlest method which human policy has yet been ingenious enough to invent, that is, by shutting their hands, to “ADMONISH” (as Mr. Hume says) certain persons “OF THEIR DUTY.”
What shall we now think when, upon looking into the late act, we find the assemblies of these provinces thereby stripped of their authority on these several heads? The declared intention of the act is, “that a revenue should be raised IN HIS 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 toward further defraying the expenses of DEFENDING, PROTECTING AND SECURING THE SAID DOMINIONS.”
Let the reader pause here one moment—and reflect—whether the colony in which he lives, has not made such “certain and adequate provision” for these purposes, as is by the colony judged suitable to its abilities, and all other circumstances. Then let him reflect—whether if this act takes place, money is not to be raised on that colony without its consent, to make “provision” for these purposes, which it does not judge to be suitable to its abilities, and all other circumstances. Lastly, let him reflect—whether the people of that country are not in a state of the most abject slavery, whose property may be taken from them under the notion of right, when they have refused to give it.
For my part, I think I have good reason for vindicating the honor of the assemblies on this continent, by publicly asserting, that THEY have made as “certain and adequate provision” for the purposes above mentioned, as they ought to have made, and that it should not be presumed, that they will not do it hereafter. Why then should these most important trusts be wrested out of their hands? Why should they not now be permitted to enjoy that authority, which they have exercised from the first settlement of these colonies? Why should they be scandalized by this innovation, when their respective provinces are now, and will be, for several years, laboring under loads of debt, imposed on them for the very purpose now spoken of? Why should all the inhabitants of these colonies be, with the utmost indignity, treated as a herd of despicable stupid wretches, so utterly void of common sense, that they will not even make “adequate provision” for the “administration of justice, and the support of civil government” among them, or for their own “defense”—though without such “provision” every people must inevitably be overwhelmed with anarchy and destruction? Is it possible to form an idea of a slavery more complete, more miserable, more disgraceful, than that of a people, where justice is administered, government exercised, and a standing army maintained, AT THE EXPENSE OF THE PEOPLE, and yet WITHOUT THE LEAST DEPENDENCE UPON THEM? If we can find no relief from this infamous situation, it will be fortunate for us, if Mr. Greenville, setting his fertile fancy again at work, can, as by one exertion of it he has stripped us of our property and liberty, by another deprive us of so much of our understanding; that, unconscious of what we have been or are, and ungoaded by tormenting reflections, we may bow down our necks, with all the stupid serenity of servitude, to any drudgery, which our lords and masters shall please to command.
When the charges of the “administration of justice,” the “support of civil government,” and the “expenses of defending, protecting and securing” us, are provided for, I should be glad to know, upon what occasions the crown will ever call our assemblies together? Some few of them may meet of their own accord, by virtue of their charters. But what will they have to do, when they are met? To what shadows will they be reduced? The men, whose deliberations heretofore had an influence on every matter relating to the liberty and happiness of themselves and their constituents, and whose authority in domestic affairs at least, might well be compared to that of Roman senators, will now find their deliberations of no more consequence, than those of constables. They may perhaps be allowed to make laws for the yoking of hogs, or pounding of stray cattle. Their influence will hardly be permitted to extend so high, as the keeping roads in repair, as that business may more properly be executed by those who receive the public cash.
One most memorable example in history is so applicable to the point now insisted on, that it will form a just conclusion of the observations that have been made.
Spain was once free. Their cortes resembled our parliaments. No money could be raised on the subject, without their consent. One of their Kings having received a grant from them, to maintain a war against the Moors, desired, that if the sum which they had given, should not be sufficient, he might be allowed, for that emergency only, to raise more money without assembling the Cortes. The request was violently opposed by the best and wisest men in the assembly. It was, however, complied with by the votes of a majority; and this single concession was a PRECEDENT for other concessions of the like kind, until at last the crown obtained a general power of raising money, in cases of necessity. From that period the Cortes ceased to be useful—the people ceased to be free.
Venienti occurrite morbo.
Oppose a disease at its beginning.
 Shakespeare. [back]
 The writs for searching houses in England, are to be granted “under the seal of the court of exchequer,” according to the statute—and that seal is kept by the chancellor of the exchequer. 4th Inst. p. 104. [back]
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