Dickinson writes on the importance of opposing the Townshend Acts, which threatened the sovereignty of the Thirteen Colonies.
In this excerpt from the first of John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies, Dickinson contends that unilateral parliamentary taxation represents a complete repudiation of colonial sovereignty because taxation is an expression of the broader authority to compel compliance and punish disobedience. The first in a series of twelve open letters, it was dated November 5th, 1767, the seventy‐ninth anniversary of the landing of William the Third at Torbay, but was initially published in the Pennsylvania Chronicle and Universal Advertiser on November 30th. Subsequent installments followed weekly.
With a good deal of surprise I have observed, that little notice has been taken of an act of parliament, as injurious in its principle to the liberties of these colonies, as the Stamp Act was: I mean the act for suspending the legislation of New York.
The assembly of that government complied with a former act of parliament, requiring certain provisions to be made for the troops in America, in every particular, I think, except the articles of salt, pepper and vinegar. In my opinion they acted imprudently, considering all circumstances, in not complying so far as would have given satisfaction, as several colonies did: But my dislike of their conduct in that instance, has not blinded me so much, that I cannot plainly perceive, that they have been punished in a manner pernicious to American freedom, and justly alarming to all the colonies.
If the British parliament has legal authority to issue an order, that we shall furnish a single article for the troops here, and to compel obedience to that order, they have the same right to issue an order for us to supply those troops with arms, clothes, and every necessary; and to compel obedience to that order also; in short, to lay any burthens they please upon us. What is this but taxing us at a certain sum, and leaving to us only the manner of raising it? How is this mode more tolerable than the Stamp Act? Would that act have appeared more pleasing to Americans, if being ordered thereby to raise the sum total of the taxes, the mighty privilege had been left to them, of saying how much should be paid for an instrument of writing on paper, and how much for another on parchment?
An act of parliament, commanding us to do a certain thing, if it has any validity, is a tax upon us for the expense that accrues in complying with it; and for this reason, I believe, every colony on the continent, that chose to give a mark of their respect for Great Britain, in complying with the act relating to the troops, cautiously avoided the mention of that act, lest their conduct should be attributed to its supposed obligation.
The matter being thus stated, the assembly of New York either had, or had not, a right to refuse submission to that act. If they had, and I imagine no American will say they had not, then the parliament had no right to compel them to execute it. If they had not this right, they had no right to punish them for not executing it; and therefore no right to suspend their legislation, which is a punishment. In fact, if the people of New York cannot be legally taxed but by their own representatives, they cannot be legally deprived of the privilege of legislation, only for insisting on that exclusive privilege of taxation. If they may be legally deprived in such a case, of the privilege of legislation, why may they not, with equal reason, be deprived of every other privilege? Or why may not every colony be treated in the same manner, when any of them shall dare to deny their assent to any impositions, that shall be directed? Or what signifies the repeal of the Stamp Act, if these colonies are to lose their other privileges, by not tamely surrendering that of taxation?
There is one consideration arising from this suspension, which is not generally attended to, but shows its importance very clearly. It was not necessary that this suspension should be caused by an act of parliament. The crown might have restrained the governor of New York, even from calling the assembly together, by its prerogative in the royal governments. This step, I suppose, would have been taken, if the conduct of the assembly of New York had been regarded as an act of disobedience to the crown alone; but it is regarded as an act of “disobedience to the authority of the British Legislature.” This gives the suspension 1 a consequence vastly more affecting. It is a parliamentary assertion of the supreme authority of the British legislature over these colonies, in the point of taxation, and is intended to compel New York into a submission to that authority. It seems therefore to me as much a violation of the liberties of the people of that province, and consequently of all these colonies, as if the parliament had sent a number of regiments to be quartered upon them till they should comply. For it is evident, that the suspension is meant as a compulsion; and the method of compelling is totally indifferent. It is indeed probable, that the sight of redcoats, and the hearing of drums, would have been most alarming; because people are generally more influenced by their eyes and ears, than by their reason. But whoever seriously considers the matter, must perceive that a dreadful stroke is aimed at the liberty of these colonies. I say, of these colonies; for the cause of one is the cause of all. If the parliament may lawfully deprive New York of any of her rights, it may deprive any, or all the other colonies of their rights; and nothing can possibly so much encourage such attempts, as a mutual inattention to the interests of each other. To divide, and thus to destroy, is the first political maxim in attacking those, who are powerful by their union. He certainly is not a wise man, who folds his arms, and reposes himself at home, viewing, with unconcern, the flames that have invaded his neighbor’s house, without using any endeavors to extinguish them. When Mr. Hampden’s ship money case, for Three Shillings and Four‐pence, was tried, all the people of England, with anxious expectation, interested themselves in the important decision; and when the slightest point, touching the freedom of one colony, is agitated, I earnestly wish, that all the rest may, with equal ardor, support their sister. Very much may be said on this subject; but I hope, more at present is unnecessary.
This refers to the New York Restraining Act, part of the Townshend Acts which suspended the New York Assembly until it complied with the Quartering Act. ↩