The Best of John Dickinson, Pennsylvania Farmer

[Unless otherwise noted, all quotes come from Forrest McDonald, ed., EMPIRE AND NATION (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1999).  As always, all honor to Liberty Fund]


John Dickinson, perhaps the greatest founder next to Washington.

In response to the Townshend Acts, Dickinson published his Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer.

As one great historian has written of these: “Their impact and their circulation were unapproached by any publication of the revolutionary period except Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (Indeed, because they were a crucial step toward transforming the mass circulation pamphlet into the soberest forum for debating public issues, they helped make Common Sense possible).  They were quickly reprinted in newspapers all over the colonies, and published in pamphlet form in Philadelphia (three editions), Boston (two editions), New York, Williamsburg, London, Paris, and Dublin.  Immediately, everyone took Dickinson’s argument into account: Americans in assemblies town meetings, and mass meetings adopted revolutions of thanks; British ministers wrung their hands; all the British press commented, and a portion of it applauded; Irish malcontents read avidly; even the dilettantes of the Paris salons discussed the Pennsylvania Farmer.” [Forrest McDonald, “Introduction,” Empire and Nation, xiii]

21 of the 27 newspapers in America printed and reprinted these in 1768 [Knollenberg, Growth, 47]

Letter I: Announces he is liberally educated; had a nice library, where he had a nice collection and spends much time.

“From my infancy I was taught to love humanity and liberty.  Enquiry and experience have since confirmed my reverence for the lessons then give me, by convincing me more fully of their truth and excellence.  Benevolence toward mankind, excites wishes for their welfare, and such wishes endear the means of fulfilling them.  These can be found in liberty only, and therefore her sacred cause ought to be espoused by every man on every occasion, to the utmost of his power.” [Dickinson, Letters, 3]

“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 aht 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.” [Dickinson, Letters, 6]

Should petition–for “I am by no means fond of inflammatory measures; I detest them.” [Dickinson, Letters, 6]

Letter II:

The Townshend Acts are unconstitutional.  While Britain has a right to regulate trade, it can only do so with the entire commonwealth in mind.  “We are but parts of a whole; and therefore there must exist a power somewhere to preside, and preserve the connection in due order.” [Dickinson, Letters, 7]

Parliament must support the “general welfare.” [Dickinson, Letters, 9]

Instead, through the Townshend Acts, Parliament was innovating.  “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 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.” [Dickinson, Letters, 10-11]

“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. . . . If they can, our boasted liberty is but. . . A sound and nothing else.” [Dickinson, Letters, 14-15]

Letter III: “But while Divine Providence, that gave me existence in a land of freedom, permits my head to think, my lips to speak, and my hand to move, I shall so highly and gratefully value the blessing received as to take care that my silence and inactivity shall not give my implied assent to any act, degrading my brethren and myself from the birthright, wherewith heaven itself “hath made us free.” [Dickinson, Letters, 16]

“The constitutional modes of obtaining relief are those which I wish to see pursued on the present occasion; that is, by petitions of our assemblies, or where they are not permitted to meet, of the people, to the powers that can afford us relief.  We have an excellent prince, in whose good dispositions toward us we may confide. We have a generous, sensible and humane nation, to whom we may apply. They may be deceived. They may, by artful men, be provoked to anger against us. I cannot believe they will be cruel and unjust; or that their anger will be implacable. Let us behave like dutiful children who have received unmerited blows from a beloved parent. Let us complain to our parent; but let our complaints speak at the same time the language of affliction and veneration.” [Dickinson, Letters, 20]

Letter VIII: Great War for Empire for Britain, not American colonies.  “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.” [Dickinson, Letters, 48]

Letter IX: After a discussion of whig/Anglo-saxon history, Dickinson claims a legislature has three jobs:

“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.” [Dickinson, Letters, 52]

Letter XI: All states must constantly look to first principles.

Letter XII: “Some states have lost their liberty by particular accidents: But this calamity is generally owing to the decay of virtue. A people is travelling fast to destruction, when individuals consider their interests as distinct from those of the public. Such notions are fatal to their country, and to themselves. Yet how many are there, so weak and sordid as to think they perform all the offices of life, if they earnestly endeavor to increase their own wealth, power, and credit, without the least regard for the society, under the protection of which they live; who, if they can make an immediate profit to themselves, by lending their assistance to those, whose projects plainly tend to the injury of their country, rejoice in their dexterity, and believe themselves entitled to the character of able politicians. Miserable men! Of whom it is hard to say, whether they ought to be most the objects of pity or contempt: But whose opinions are certainly as detestable, as their practices are destructive.” [Dickinson, Letters, 77-78]

“Our vigilance and our union are success and safety. Our negligence and our division are distress and death. They are worse—They are shame and slavery. Let us equally shun the benumbing stillness of overweening sloth, and the feverish activity of that ill informed zeal, which busies itself in maintaining little, mean and narrow opinions. Let us, with a truly wise generosity and charity, banish and discourage all illiberal distinctions, which may arise from differences in situation, forms of government, or modes of religion. Let us consider ourselves as MEN—FREEMEN—CHRISTIAN FREEMEN—separated from the rest of the world, and firmly bound together by the same rights, interests and dangers. Let these keep our attention inflexibly fixed on the GREAT OBJECTS, which we must CONTINUALLY REGARD, in order to preserve those rights, to promote those interests, and to avert those dangers.  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—that taxes imposed on us by parliament, do thus take it away—that duties laid for the sole purpose of raising money, are taxes—that attempts to lay such duties should be instantly and firmly opposed—that this opposition can never be effectual, unless it is the united effort of these provinces—that therefore BENEVOLENCE of temper towards each other, and UNANIMITY of counsels, are essential to the welfare of the whole—and lastly, that for this reason, every man among us, who in any manner would encourage either dissension, dissidence, or indifference, between these colonies, is an enemy to himself, and to his country.” [Dickinson, Letters, 79-80]

“Let us take care of our rights, and we therein take care of our prosperity. ‘SLAVERY IS EVER PRECEDED BY SLEEP.’” [Dickinson, Letters, 81]


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