From a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies

Letter II
by John Dickinson
Editorial published in colonial newspapers


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 connexion 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. 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 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. Grenville first introduced this language, in the preamble to the 4 Geo. III, c. 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 expences 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, towards 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 expences, 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 the further defraying the expences 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. It may perhaps be objected that Great Britain has a right to lay what duties she pleases upon her exports, 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 anywhere 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 the laws to take 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.

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.

* * *

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 we 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 objections 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, 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, anywhere 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.

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 tyrants starved them to death or submission. This may be called the most perfect kind of political necessity.