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Early American history is filled with many interesting figures that have contributed much to the history of the nation, the most celebrated of which are the Founding Fathers. The Fathers have an almost saint-like quality within the culture of American identity, with many of them being associated with the concepts of liberty and fighting against tyranny. When one thinks of the Founding Fathers, they usually picture the figures of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, or Franklin, but they seldom know many of the other important figures that helped bring about the birth of the nation. One of these seemingly forgotten fathers was John Dickinson, the reluctant patriot. After reading his Letters from a Pennsylvanian Farmer, I believe that Dickinson attempted to defend the rights of the colonies against taxation by appealing to British Common Law and history.

John Dickinson was born on November 8, 1732 in Maryland. He would later become a lawyer and politician, serving in positions in both Delaware and Pennsylvania. When he finally lost his seat in the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1765 (after serving for three years), he was still very active in public affairs. He prepared the first draft of the Pennsylvania Assembly’s resolutions against the Stamp Act, which had imposed a direct tax specifically on the American Colonies, and it required that many printed materials in the colonies be produced with stamped paper that had been made in London. He served on the Stamp Act Congress held in New York, which consisted of representatives from the colonies to devise a unified protest against new British taxation. He is most famous for writing a series of essays between 1767 and 1768, called Letters from a Pennsylvanian Farmer, which attempted to justify colonial resistance to the Townshend Acts.

Taking on the persona of a Pennsylvanian farmer, Dickinson made several arguments against the new taxes being levied on the American colonies. He readily acknowledged the power of the British Parliament in matters pertaining to the British Empire as a whole, but he believed that the colonies were sovereign in their own internal affairs. Dickinson thus argued that while it was perfectly fine and understandable to place duties and taxes for the purposes of trade regulation, it was unconstitutional and a “dangerous innovation” to levy taxes upon the colonies for the sole purpose of raising revenue. [1] To quote Dickinson himself:

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 her laws to take them 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. [2]

So for Dickinson, there was a fundamental distinction between two kinds of financial exactions: taxes and duties. Taxes were for the sole purpose of levying money, while duties were for the purpose of regulated commerce rather than raising revenue. [3] He believed that the purpose of government was to promote the common good or general welfare of the people. And so the ultimate reason why Parliament did not have the power to tax the colonies was because that power ran contrary to the general welfare of the colonies. Dickinson believed that Parliament could look after the general welfare of the British Empire by regulating trade via imposing duties on trade in one part of the empire to protect another, just as long as the imposition was part of a plan for the advancement of the general welfare. He vehemently opposed efforts to evade distinctions between duties and taxes, and felt that it was improper for Parliament to impose taxes disguised as duties. [4]

His letters were so persuasive that they caused a national sensation, and they saturated the political discourse of the colonies. One scholar has noted that: “none but the illiterate or the remote frontiersman could have been ignorant of the arguments of the Pennsylvanian Farmer.” [5]

One reason why Dickinson’s letters were so popular was because he presents himself as a reasonable farmer, as someone the common man can relate to, and as someone who only seeks to live at peace with the world around him. The reader should take note at how the Farmer begins his first letter:

My dear Countrymen,
I am a Farmer, settled, after a variety of fortunes, near the banks of the river Delaware, in the province of Pennsylvania. I received a liberal education, and have been engaged in the busy scenes of life; but am now convinced, that a man may be as happy without bustle, as with it. My farm is small; my servants are few, and good; I have a little money at interest; I wish for no more; my employment in my own affairs is easy; and with a contented grateful mind, undisturbed by worldly hopes or fears, relating to myself, I am completing the number of days allotted to me by divine goodness. [6]

By presenting himself in this persona, Dickinson appears to be a simple man who is minding his own business and has no axe to grind. He seems to be merely making observations about the facts of the matter, with no ulterior motive. He wrote in such a peaceful manner because he was attempting to speak to the broad number of colonists that had been happy with British rule and were seeking peace and reconciliation with their mother country. While firebrands like John and Samuel Adams were attempting to stir up the tempers of their audiences, Dickinson was enjoying a much broader audience with his more peaceful reasoning, which is probably why his letters were so popular. He was fully aware of the plight that these colonists faced in that they had legitimate grievances with London but they did not want to seem disloyal to the crown. Dickinson answers this by listing the grievances and then solving the problem by appealing to past examples of British history in which the people appealed to the crown e.g. The Magna Carta, the Petition of Right, and the Bill of Right. [7] By doing this, Dickinson educates his readers, the common man, of their rights. He placed these grievances within their political and historical contexts, while giving examples of how these issues can be resolved by methods that have already been put into place. One example of this is in the first letter, in which he writes about New York. He states that Parliament has no right to tax the colony of New York for the purposes of supporting British troops stationed there, and though the call to provide and quarter soldiers was not a direct monetary tax, it was still a tax for all intents and purposes because it required public expenditures to comply with the Act. [8] Dickinson then answers this by reaching back into British Constitutional Law and asserts that the power to tax can never be lawfully exercised without the consent of the governed. Dickinson then quotes a member of the British Parliament to make his case:

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, as 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.” [9]

And so Dickinson makes a very good case, using British Law and precedents, that what the British were doing was going against their own laws. And yet Dickinson was in no hurry to rush to war over the matter either. In fact, one of the reasons why Dickinson is probably not as well remembered is that he did not sign the Declaration of Independence. It should be noted that he was no Tory, and his refusal to sign the document can be attributed to his belief (and hope) of reconciliation with Britain. It should also be noted that not long after Congress made its decision, he was commanding troops in defense of the colonies. Historians have also long downplayed Dickinson’s contributions to the Constitution, but as one historian has said “If James Madison was the ‘father of the Constitution, then John Dickinson was at least a kindly uncle.” [10]

Notes

1.John Dickinson, Empire and Nation: Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (John Dickinson). Letters from the Federal Farmer (Richard Henry Lee), ed. Forrest McDonald (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1999), 18.
Accessed from http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/690 on 2013-09-05
2. Ibid.,
3.Robert G. Natelson, The Constitutional Contributions of John Dickinson , 108 Penn. St. L.Rev. 415 (2003), 436.
Available at: http://scholarship.law.umt.edu/faculty_lawreviews/46
4.Ibid., 438.
5. Joseph Leland Feeney, Jr., “Continuity and Revolution: The Basis of the American Revolution in the Common Law and the Ancient Constitution, As Explicated by John Dickinson” (master’s thesis, Louisiana State University, 2003), 83.
6.John Dickinson, Empire and Nation: Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (John Dickinson). Letters from the Federal Farmer (Richard Henry Lee), ed. Forrest McDonald (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1999), 14.
Accessed from http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/690 on 2013-09-05
7.Joseph Leland Feeney, Jr., “Continuity and Revolution: The Basis of the American Revolution in the Common Law and the Ancient Constitution, As Explicated by John Dickinson” (master’s thesis, Louisiana State University, 2003).
8.John Dickinson, Empire and Nation: Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (John Dickinson). Letters from the Federal Farmer (Richard Henry Lee), ed. Forrest McDonald (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1999), 15-16.
Accessed from http://oll.libertyfund.org/title/690 on 2013-09-05
9.Ibid., 20.
10.Robert G. Natelson, The Constitutional Contributions of John Dickinson , 108 Penn. St. L.Rev. 415 (2003), 476.
Available at: http://scholarship.law.umt.edu/faculty_lawreviews/46

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