Sowing the Seeds of 1776
In April 1768, an opinion writer known only as “A Farmer in Pennsylvania” finished the last letter in a series decrying the Townshend Acts and making the case for colonial Americans’ natural rights. His thoughts would be echoed further in A Summary View of the Rights of British America, the Declaration of Independence, and The Federalist Papers, among other Founding documents. The “farmer” summarized his position:
Let these truths be indelibly impressed on our minds—that we cannot be happy, without being free—that we cannot be free, without being secure in our property—that we cannot be secure in our property, if, without our consent, others may, as by right, take it away.
The letters, collected in their entirety in Liberty Fund’s Empire and Nation, are masterworks of Enlightenment thought on natural rights and are worth revisiting. Great Britain, the farmer explained to his fellow colonial Americans, was beginning a great experiment to see if the colonies would surrender their natural rights (that were afforded all British citizens) through the Townshend Acts. Americans must be on their guard, he warned, because, as Montesquieu had taught, “slavery is ever preceded by sleep.”
The “farmer” was not an actual farmer, but instead a successful 36-year-old Pennsylvania lawyer by the name of John Dickinson. He had studied law in Philadelphia and London, where he immersed himself in the most current thinking on constitutional theory and political philosophy. Although his letters were written for the general public, they were filled with ancient and modern history and theory, including Plutarch, Livy, Machiavelli, Montesquieu, Hume, and Locke. He even used the poet Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man to preface his authorial enterprise. He took a line from the following stanza:
So man, who here seems principal alone,
Perhaps acts second to some sphere unknown,
Touches some wheel, or verges to some goal;
‘Tis but a part we see, and not a whole.
He hoped his letters might “[touch] some wheel” and cause the colonists (as well as Parliament and the Crown) to see, understand, and act against the unconstitutional violation of their rights.
Dickinson was not a firebrand looking to tar and feather tax collectors or sever ties with Britain as others were. “I am by no means fond of inflammatory measures,” he wrote, or anything “which might justly displease our sovereign or mother country.” The cause of liberty was a “cause of too much dignity to be sullied by turbulence and tumult.” Protesting unconstitutional acts should be accompanied by a “sedate, yet fervent spirit” that led to actions of “prudence, justice, modesty, bravery, humanity, and magnanimity.” His example of such a people? The ancient Spartans. He calls them “as brave and free a people as ever existed.” Such an example seems bewildering to the modern ear—as everyone knows, the Spartans are known for their martial excellence and extreme way of life—but to the people of Dickinson’s era who knew and read Plutarch, they were a moderate and prudent people who rejected rash and reckless behavior.
The institutions of the British government and the constitution were worthy of praise because they had recognized natural rights for centuries—including those of the colonists in America. Dickinson wrote, “The first principles of government are to be looked for in human nature.” Part of that human nature was the principle of owning, securing, and disposing of private property. Quoting the Old Testament, he wrote “they should sit every man under his vine and, and under his fig-tree, and none should make them afraid.” Property was at the core of natural rights, not speech. He called it “that great one, the foundation of all the rest.”
Each person must have control over his or her own property if natural rights are secure. Losing the ability to retain one’s own property is, as he says, slavery. He uses the word forcefully several times throughout the letters, including a quotation from Montesquieu: “SLAVERY IS EVER PRECEDED BY SLEEP.” Dickinson owned slaves until 1777 (when he conditionally manumitted them) and then 1786 (when he unconditionally manumitted them). His close connection to the Quaker faith provided guidance when, in 1776, the Quakers of Philadelphia declared slavery unacceptable.
Even before then, however, he must have understood the implications of withholding property from human beings, let alone owning men and women as property. As a delegate to the Constitutional Convention years later, he spoke out against the evils of slavery. He understood that a slave’s ownership of property—that is, the right to enjoy the fruits of his or her labors—is denied. Even a slave’s own body is forfeit to those who rule over him or her. Colonists were hardly slaves in the truest sense of the word, but he understood that the point was important. If allowed to stand, the Townshend Acts would put the British in a position to rule over the colonists by usurping their right to property through unrepresentative taxation.
The Townshend Acts had already begun the process of stripping the colonists of their property. The act actually consisted of several individual acts, including the Revenue Act (1767) which placed an indirect tax on glass, lead, and paper, and the New York Restraining Act (1767), which suspended New York’s legislature until it complied with the Quartering Act (1765). The unpopular Quartering Act had upset New Yorkers by allowing the British Army to house soldiers in American barracks, public houses, taverns, barns, and other privately-owned places. Dickinson understood the taxes, and Parliament’s understanding of taxation in general, as “imposition[s] on the subject[s], for the sole purpose of levying money.”
In his understanding, taxes are a gift from the people to the government to enact specific services—an idea as old as the Magna Carta itself. Local legislatures who knew the will of the people were the only proper body to levy taxes because they understood the local feelings, desires, and hardships of those they represented and would naturally keep taxation at a sensible level. He writes that in any free society, taxes must be “proportioned as is possible to the abilities of those who are to pay them.” The Revenue Act had taken this power out of the hands of the local legislatures—who had been setting limits for years—and placed it in the hands of Parliament which had no American representation.
If Parliament was allowed to legislate regarding the property of the colonists (through taxation), what were they not able to legislate? Dickinson asks his reader to follow the logic to its conclusion: “When a branch of revenue is once established, does it not appear to many people invidious and undutiful, to attempt to abolish it?” A Parliament allowed to tax the colonies without their consent would never abolish the revenue because, like all legislatures, they would become dependent on the revenue.
Ahead of his time, he explained to his readers the problems of a system of taxation without representation. Representation was essential in a free government because representatives used taxation to check the government in two distinct ways. First, representatives delimited the size of a colony’s government and its administration by the amount of money raised through taxes. To keep the size of government small—that is, adequate but not oppressive—only a specific amount of taxes would be raised. As governments cannot function without financial support, the government would be forced to stay small and operate within its means.
In its prefatory clause, the Townshend Acts stated that the taxes raised by the act would be “for defraying the charge of the administration of justice, [and] the support of civil government.” The colonies, Dickinson argued, had been collecting their own taxes to pay these costs for decades. What he suspected was an increase in the size and scope of what was essentially a separate government if the funds could be raised through taxation. Since government administrators were Crown-appointed, and Parliament claimed it could force taxes on the colonies, there could be no real check on the size and scope of the government. Taxes, limited by local representatives, acted as a safety valve for the colonies because they were only levied “suitable to [the colonies’] abilities.” Dickinson understood that bureaucracy begets bureaucracy, and British-appointed colonial ministers would always need more funds for new offices and ministers. There could be no effective check on the British government unless American representatives could control their own taxation.
The second check on the government through representative taxation was to rein in spending. If the local representatives do not increase government funds through taxation, the government cannot spend recklessly on unnecessary things—such as foreign wars. For example, in the same prefatory clause, Parliament had claimed the taxes were also to defray the expenses of “defending, protecting, and securing” the colonies and “dominions” (i.e., not the American colonies). Dickinson points out that the recent French and Indian War was initiated by Britain without consulting representatives in the American colonies. He claims that the American colonies had not needed “defending, protecting, or securing” because they had been fighting and keeping their rivals at bay for years. The colonists had not needed to spend exorbitant amounts of money on British defense when they had decades of experience defending themselves. Even more absurd was that Americans were being forced to raise taxes to pay for defending other parts of the British Empire—a cost too high to be borne. By having local, colonial representatives control taxes, the government could not embark on foolish spending because its funds would be severely curtailed.
Not consulting the colonies on a costly war but having them pay for it violated the true spirit of taxation.
What was most appalling to Dickinson, however, was that the British Army was being used inside America to enforce the Act. The army was dangerous because it was not accountable or dependent on the colonial legislatures or the people among whom it operated. He writes, “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?” Without a check on spending, Parliament could claim a necessity on anything—even defense—and raise taxes at will. Gradually, the colonists’ property would be lost to a legislature thousands of miles away.
Although he did not think the time for force was at hand, he was not a pacifist and did not rule it out. Pointing to a precise prescription for armed resistance, however, was elusive. The time for “resistance by force” was never “ascertained till [it] happen[ed].” Only when a government unmistakably set as a goal the annihilation of the liberties of its citizens should more drastic action be taken. This measured resistance made its way into the Declaration of Independence when it speaks about “light and transient causes” and a “long train of abuses and usurpations.” Thomas Jefferson wrote in his original draft of the Declaration that the people had “the right … to alter or abolish [their government].”
Jefferson was undoubtedly well-versed in Dickinson’s assertion of the natural right of self-government and the two men were in the Continental Congress together in 1776 when the Declaration was written. Dickinson, however, did not sign the Declaration, later saying that the time was not right to declare independence. He was unceremoniously dismissed from the Congress but ever the patriot, he joined the militia. He might not have thought the colonies were ready, but once they declared their right of self-government, he threw himself into the cause. He did not doubt the colonists’ looking to reestablish their natural rights with an entirely new government, but instead the ability of the colonists to carry it through.
Dickinson’s Letters are well worth reading. They are not only a clear look at the political philosophy that influenced the American Revolution—a philosophy that would become enshrined in America’s Founding documents—but they are also a master class in making complex and sublime concepts simple and powerful. Dickinson was one of the first, and certainly the most popular of the early American authors who summarized the burgeoning undercurrent so eloquently and succinctly (he was only surpassed in readership by Thomas Paine’s Common Sense years later which contained none of the measured philosophical thought of the Letters).
It is fitting to remember Thomas Jefferson’s memorial to him in a letter written upon hearing news of his death in 1808. Jefferson was saddened at the passing of the man who had refused to sign his Declaration but who later generations would call the “Penman of the Revolution.” Jefferson wrote, “a more estimable man, or truer patriot, could not have left us.” He then summarized his career, saying he was “among the first of the advocates for the rights of his country when assailed by Great Britain, he continued to the last the orthodox advocate of the true principles of our new government, and his name will be consecrated in history as one of the great worthies of the revolution.” The majority of Americans might not remember Dickinson, but thanks to Liberty Fund’s handsome volume, his Letters outlining the natural rights of Americans—indeed of all people—will continue to be read for generations to come.