The SAR Magazine

Spring 2018

The SAR MAGAZINE is the official quarterly publication of the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution published quarterly.

Issue link: https://sar.epubxp.com/i/985202

Contents of this Issue

Navigation

Page 17 of 47

12 SAR MAGAZINE their beginning to just prior to the Stamp Act, and found them all limited to the regulation of commerce (pp. 13f). The purpose, however, of the Stamp Act and of the Townshend Revenue Acts was not to regulate trade but to raise revenue. This, as Dickinson notes, is an "innovation; and a most dangerous innovation" (p. 19). As noted above, Quaker conservatism generally regarded innovation with skepticism. Dickinson closes the second letter by noting the particularly pernicious character of a revenue-raising duty on products that the Colonies could not purchase from anywhere other than Great Britain, essentially exploiting the power of monopoly (p. 26). "Letter III" highlights Dickinson's affection for the Mother Country. He notes that "[e]very government, at some time or other, falls into wrong measures" (p. 31). He emphasizes, therefore, the need to seek redress against those "wrong measures" in peaceful appeal. He does conclude, however, that if "it shall happen by an unfortunate course of affairs, that our applications to his Majesty and the parliament … prove ineffectual, let us then take another step, by withholding from Great-Britain, all the advantages she has been used to receive from us" (p. 35). By this, Dickinson does not mean armed rebellion but the kind of trade embargos that had proved so effective against the Stamp Act. "Letter IV" concerns the nature of taxation. A number of people in the Colonies and in Great Britain had distinguished between "external taxes," essentially import duties, and "internal taxes," taxes levied against domestic activity. Dickinson defines tax as "an imposition on the subject for the sole purpose of levying money" (p. 37). This understanding of tax is, he claims, required by English history and the British constitution. With this understanding, the Townshend duties clearly constitute taxation, and their imposition on the Colonies by Parliament is clearly "taxation without representation," a violation of the British constitution. After surveying the history of taxation in the Colonies in "Letter V," Dickinson moves in "Letter VI" to point out that the Townshend duties cannot possibly be regarded as regulation of trade for the simple reason that they are levied on commodities that are exported to the Colonies from Great Britain (p. 66). "Letter VII" addresses those in the Colonies who would excuse Great Britain on the grounds of a general affection toward the Mother Country. Dickinson points out that, with both King and Parliament, as is the case with all people, "their conduct as rulers may be influenced by human infirmities" (p. 68). Faulty conduct must, therefore, be exposed in the hope that it will then be corrected. As always for Dickinson, precedent was important. The right to tax lightly is no different as a principle than the right to tax heavily; "in short, if they have a right to levy a tax of one penny upon us, they have a right to levy a million upon us" (p. 76). The Colonies must not allow Great Britain to establish a precedent giving them a right to tax the Colonies. "Letter VIII" harkens back to the Declaratory Act of 1766 and argues again against the constitutional legitimacy of a tax on the Colonies imposed by an assembly in which they were not represented. "Letter IX" sets out the importance for liberty of the "power of the purse," noting that transferring the payment of Colonial officials, especially of judges, from the Colonial assemblies to the Crown removes the financial "check on [judicial] behavior" (p. 96). "Letter X" continues the same theme, with reference to the example of Ireland and the corruption and graft that arose there from officials who failed to be held in check. "Letter XI" provides a general discussion of the importance of some sort of separation of powers to ensure liberty, and the final letter emphasizes the importance for all to attend to the public interest over private interest. The above summary should make clear the discipline of Dickinson's appeal. It was immediately recognized as a clarion call to the British Colonies in America to unite in opposition to the Townshend Acts and to any other legislation that threatened the liberty that the Colonials, as British subjects, were due. They "were published immediately in book form in Philadelphia (three different editions), New York, Boston (two different editions), Williamsburgh, London (with a preface written by Franklin), and Dublin" (Dickinson, p. xxiv). They were also translated into French and published in continental Europe. Thus the effects of the Letters were at least twofold. They continued and strengthened the unifying of the Colonies that the Stamp Act Congress and the Sons of Liberty had begun. They also bore a quiet and dignified appeal from a loyal subject of the king in a manner that gained considerable support in the Mother Country. Dickinson's letters were "endorsed by many town meetings from Massachusetts to Georgia" (Thomas, p. 77). According to Peter D. G. Thomas, "Dickinson looked for support to Massachusetts rather than to [the more conservative Assembly of] his own colony" (p. 78). Massachusetts responded. On Feb. 11, 1768, the Massachusetts Assembly adopted a "Circular Letter," sent to the other Colonial assemblies. The "Letter," largely the work of Samuel Adams and James Otis, expressed the view of the Massachusetts representatives "that the acts made there [in Parliament], imposing duties on the people of this province, with the sole and express purpose of raising a revenue, are infringements of their natural and constitutional rights" ("Massachusetts Circular Letter"). The Earl of Hillsborough, secretary of state for the newly created American Department, was outraged. He sent an edict through Governor Francis Bernard demanding that the Massachusetts Assembly rescind the Circular Letter, on pain of being dissolved. The vote of the Assembly on the motion to rescind failed on June 30, 1768, by a vote of 92 to 17 (Thomas, p. 83). "The 92" became heroes, along with Dickinson. "Bernard was chagrined but not surprised to find that, of the 17 members who had voted to follow Hillsborough's command to rescind the Circular Letter in 1768, only five had been re-elected" (Chaffin, p 133). The claims of the Massachusetts Circular Letter were endorsed by Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia. "Four other colonies, although not petitioning, had also given early indications of their intention to oppose the taxation" (Thomas, p. 84). These were Georgia, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. As early as mid-January 1768, 24 Massachusetts towns had joined Boston in agreeing to a boycott of British goods, and New York merchants had followed the same course by April (Chaffin, p. 137). Albany and South Carolina also joined the boycott. However, the merchants of Dickinson's own Philadelphia failed to support the boycott, damaging the impact of the boycott movement (Thomas, p. 85). By the beginning of 1768, Charles Townshend was four months dead. He had failed to see the controversy that his plan would provoke. Townshend had really believed that 18 SAR MAGAZINE John Dickinson

Articles in this issue

Archives of this issue

view archives of The SAR Magazine - Spring 2018