Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Upon the whole, the single question is . . . whether the parliament can legally take money out of our pockets, without our consent.”

Summary Overview

Historians have called John Dickinson of Pennsylvania the “Penman of the Revolution” for his writings during the Revolutionary era. In the two decades before independence, he wrote most of the major tracts and petitions at the First and Second Continental Congress, several pamphlets articulating colonial grievances, and the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies (also known as Farmer’s Letters), his most well-known and influential piece. Writing under a pseudonym “a Farmer,” these twelve letters first appeared in colonial newspapers in 1767 and 1768, after which they were released in pamphlet form. They were published in all thirteen colonies and throughout Europe, and they became one of the most significant pro-independence publications of the day, second only to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, published in 1776. Farmer’s Letters united the colonies against Britain by providing a cogent explanation as to why British tax policies robbed Americans of their rights and liberties. In addition, they raised serious constitutional questions about what powers the colonies had in the empire and what powers the British had. Farmer’s Letters made Dickinson the face of the American protest movement.

Defining Moment

The French and Indian War (1754–63) left the British Empire in shambles. After nine years of fighting, Britain had neither the resources nor capital to pay off its war debt or to defend its newly acquired territories in North America. Parliament looked to the colonies for help. Before 1764, the colonies had been paying taxes to their local legislatures where they were taxed by their elected representatives. But when Parliament imposed new taxes on them designed to centralize and fortify the empire, it sparked a firestorm in the colonies. The first of the taxes, the Sugar Act of 1764, raised duties on sugar and molasses. The second tax, the Stamp Act of 1765, targeted newspaper items, cards, dice, bills of lading and legal documents. After the Stamp Act was repealed in 1766, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act the same year, reaffirming its authority over the colonies. The last of revenue-raising measures included the Townshend Acts of 1767, which imposed duties on lead, glass, tea, and paint. These acts compelled Dickinson to respond.

In Farmer’s Letters, Dickinson provides a clear and compelling reason why colonists must resist British taxation policies. “Upon the whole,” Dickinson observes, “the single question is, whether the parliament can legally impose duties to be paid by the people of these colonies only, for the sole purpose of raising a revenue . . . whether the parliament can legally take money out of our pockets, without our consent.” As a fierce advocate of the British Constitution, Dickinson argues that the colonists should have the same rights and liberties in the colonies as British subjects have in Great Britain, including the right to be taxed by one’s elected representatives. Moreover, he believes that the taxes were an unconstitutional infringement on colonial rights, because British colonists in America had been taxing themselves for nearly 150 years. Thus, Dickinson believes that Parliament’s powers are limited. In “Letter II” he argues that Parliament’s powers need not be supreme in all matters of the empire but only in some areas operating within specifically defined spheres of authority. He does this not by appealing to higher law or colonial charters, as had some protest writers, but rather by calling to his readers’ attention the historic rights of British subjects in relation to Parliament. Farmer’s Letters helped to unite the colonies against oppressive British policies, but also advanced an argument that no other writer had made: that Parliament and the American legislative assemblies each shared sovereign and coequal legislative powers in the empire. Dickinson believes that both legislatures could levy taxes in the empire, but one could not encroach on the sovereignty of the other.

Author Biography

John Dickinson was born to a prominent Quaker family on November 13, 1732, in Talbot County, Maryland. When he was eight years old, his family moved to Dover, Delaware, where they purchased a large estate. During his early years he enjoyed the privileges that his father’s wealth offered. Educated by a tutor in his youth, Dickinson begin legal training in Philadelphia when he turned eighteen, reading law with John Moland, one of the most respected lawyers in the city. At twenty-one, Dickinson enrolled at the Middle Temple at the Inns of Court in London, where he studied for several years, beginning in 1753, earning a barrister at law degree and making him one of only a handful of Americans in that generation to have studied there.

When Dickinson returned to Philadelphia in 1757, he began practicing law. In 1760 he was elected to the Delaware Assembly, becoming Speaker of the House that same year. With his family’s residence in Delaware and his home in Philadelphia, Dickinson spent the next twenty years crisscrossing both places and becoming thoroughly involved in the politics of each state. Elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1762, he became embroiled in a proprietary dispute pitting him against Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Galloway, two leading spokesmen who wanted to replace Pennsylvania’s 1701 Charter of Privileges with a royal charter.

In 1770, Dickson married Mary (Polly) Norris, the daughter of the wealthy Quaker politician Isaac Norris II. The couple had five children, all born between 1771 and 1783. In addition to his legal practice, Dickinson made a lucrative living in real estate and other business ventures, establishing himself as one of the wealthiest men in the region. He owned thirty-seven slaves, whom he eventually freed in his later years.

In national politics, Dickinson cut a large figure. No other revolutionary figure of the day can claim to have written or spoken as much on behalf of American rights and liberties as Dickinson. At the Stamp Act Congress in 1765, he wrote tracts and petitions that the Congress sent to the King. He wrote a number of pamphlets addressing colonial liberties such as An Address to the Committee in Barbados (1766), The Late Occurrences in North American, and the Policy of Great Britain, Considered (1766) and the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (1767–68). Between 1774 and 1776, he drafted more than half of the major publications at the First and Second Continental Congresses, earning him the affection of his countrymen. Though he did not sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776, calling it premature, he later supported it and fought to preserve it by enlisting in the Pennsylvania state militia. In June of 1776, he wrote the first draft of the Articles of Confederation, the first Constitution for the new United States. In the early 1780s he served as the president of both Delaware and Pennsylvania.

The Constitutional Convention was Dickinson’s final act in public life. After chairing the Annapolis Convention in 1786, a deliberative body that had convened to discuss commercial affairs, he attended the Constitutional Convention in 1787 as a delegate from Delaware. He played a vigorous role in both the writing and ratification of the Constitution, having written a series of newspaper essays, called the Letters of Fabius, which urged ratification. He retired from political life after the Constitution was ratified in 1788. He died in Wilmington, Delaware, on February 14, 1808. Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was named after him.

Document Analysis

Colonial pamphleteers often used pseudonyms to hide their identities, especially if they were writing something controversial. Calling himself a “Pennsylvania Farmer,” John Dickinson’s essay collection Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania was indeed controversial. The text of “Letter II” represents his attempt to clarify the British Constitution and to expose Britain’s tax policies as a new and dangerous innovation over the colonies. When Parliament passed a series of acts in the 1760s, beginning first with the Sugar Act in 1764 and concluding with the Townshend Acts in 1767, Dickinson believed that these acts robbed Americans of the right of self-government and were thus unconstitutional intrusions of American rights and liberties.

In “Letter II,” which is the second of twelve letters first published in the Pennsylvania Chronicle in late 1767 and early 1768, Dickinson asserts that the new taxes impinged on the colonists’ right to self-government. He makes this argument by appealing to history, challenging Parliament’s claim that it was sovereign in all aspects in the empire, including the right to tax its overseas colonies. For Dickinson, it is a matter of sovereignty—who can tax and by what authority. In the eighteenth century British jurists defined sovereignty as the final, supreme, unqualified authority. This meant that power had to be lodged in Parliament, which the king had vested with governing power to administer the affairs of the empire. But Dickinson challenges that assertion, contending that the fundamental powers of sovereignty are not concentrated in Parliament alone, but divided equally with the colonies in a unique power-sharing arrangement that had existed since the first settlements were established in 1607. For nearly two centuries, Dickinson posits, Americans have exercised complete control over all matters of local government in the colonies, while British imperial officials handled all matters of external concern over the colonies. Americans have administered justice through common-law courts and customs, maintained law and order through their local, law-enforcing constabularies, and most of all, taxed themselves through their own self-appointed representatives. For their part, British officials have reviewed colonial legislation through a Board of Trade, levied moneys in the form of customs duties to regulate colonial commerce, and administered full and complete control over the military and foreign policy in the empire. Dickinson’s point in “Letter II” is that the empire has always operated according to federal principles, despite claims by Parliament that its power cannot be divided.

For Dickinson, then, Parliament has the authority to regulate trade in its overseas dominions because it had always done so. It is therefore appropriate for Parliament to impose duties on colonial trade because those taxes “were always imposed with design to restrain the commerce of one part, that was injurious to another,” which promoted “the general welfare in the empire,” Dickinson writes. But after 1763, with the Sugar, Stamp, and Townshend Acts, Parliament had exceeded its authority. It was not imposing taxes for the purposes of regulating trade in the empire but to raise a revenue to pay off a war debt. Imperial officials have done this, Dickinson laments, not to manage colonial trade “but for the single purpose of levying money on us,” which he calls “a most dangerous innovation.”

This dangerous innovation had thus violated a decades-old constitutional practice in which British American colonists taxed themselves to raise revenue for Great Britain. To underscore the point, Dickinson appeals to history to bolster his claim, calling his “dear countryman” to unite and resist Parliament’s unconstitutional and oppressive taxes. He focuses on manufacturing. Except for linens, which the colonists could still import from Ireland, Parliament forbade the colonies from exporting their manufactured items or importing goods that were not from Great Britain. This policy, Dickinson decries, has made the colonies “a city besieged.” “If Great Britain can order us to come to her for necessaries we want, and can order us to pay what taxes she pleases before we take them away, or when we land them here, we are as abject slaves as France and Poland.”

Dickinson’s comparison of Americans to slaves is a careful choice. Throughout Farmer’s Letters and particularly in “Letter II,” he frequently alludes to slaves and slavery to characterize the colonists’ condition. Dickinson is part of a generation of Americans who read widely in British Whig literature. Among the authors he frequently cites are two British writers, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, whose Cato’s Letters (1720–23), condemning the corruption of King George I, taught Dickinson about the dangers of tyrannical government. Dickinson also read John Locke, the popular English philosopher whose writings demonstrated a connection between taxes and property, consent and representation. Locke wrote that when government leaders issue taxes on people without their consent, they become slaves to the government.

Dickinson appropriates this language but goes a step further. For him, slavery means more than Parliament coercing the colonies into paying taxes and depriving them of their property. It also relegates them to a status similar to other disenfranchised people in the Atlantic world who pay taxes without their consent, including women, children, free blacks, poor whites, and others who could not vote in the eighteenth-century British Empire but had to pay taxes anyway.

Dickinson further illustrates the danger of British tax policies by appealing to a dramatic episode in history, in which he draws examples from the ancient world to argue that Parliament has no right to tax the colonists on goods they were forced to import from Britain. He remarks that when the Carthaginians possessed the island of Sardinia, they passed a decree declaring that Sardinians could only get corn from the Carthaginians. The Carthaginians, Dickinson claims, then imposed exorbitant duties on the corn, draining Sardinians of “any sums they pleased.” When the Sardinians protested these harsh and oppressive duties, their warlike oppressors “starved them to death” and made them suffer unspeakable cruelties. Dickinson’s point is clear: unless his “countryman” unite against corrupt British policies, they would experience a similar fate as the Sardinians. The British government will deprive them of their money and set a precedent that would eventually destroy them financially.

Dickinson’s rhetoric is forceful but not treasonous. He does not advocate a separation from Great Britain in 1767, the year he began writing Farmer’s Letters. He views himself as a proud British subject. He has read widely in British history and literature and has studied law at the Inns of Court in London. Moreover, by 1767 he has already served in colonial politics for nearly a decade. He understands the British Constitution. He zealously advocates for British rights and liberties. What he wants is for Parliament to recognize the Constitution he reveres and loves. Consequently, his protests in “Letter II” also express his affection for the empire. He sees the colonies as “but parts of a whole” in this far-reaching and powerful empire. He believes that there has to be “some power to preside and preserve” the connection between the colonies and Great Britain. He ascribes that power to Parliament because it can regulate trade in the empire and prevent one dominion from levying excessive duties at the expense of another.

But he does not believe Parliament can tax for revenue purposes. It would set a dangerous precedent and thereby rob the colonists of a longstanding constitutional practice where they had taxed themselves. If Parliament “can legally take money out of our pockets without our consent,” Dickinson affirms, then colonial liberty would be nothing more than a sham. It would be “vox et praetera nihil,” a Latin phrase which he translated as “a sound and nothing else.”

Dickinson’s taxation-regulation distinction seems tenuous at best since it was impossible for American colonists to determine what would be taxed for revenue and what would be taxed for trade, but that was presumably not the point. Dickinson’s argument seems to be that British history has demonstrated that all duties previously imposed in the empire were not for the purposes of raising revenue but only for regulating trade. This was true with the Navigation Acts Parliament passed in the 1660s, and it is also true, Dickinson reasons, for Americans living in Britain’s thirteen mainland colonies.

In advancing this position, Dickinson is the first of a long line of protest writers to invoke the historic rights of British subjects in a defense of the rights and liberties of American colonists. Whereas other writers would refer to natural rights’ principles, claiming that the taxes constituted an assault on colonists’ property, Dickinson advances a legalistic view of the taxes and thus offers a way to end the imperial crisis. He sees that if Parliament could accept its long history of sharing power with the colonies, then it might renounce its policies and implement reforms allowing the colonists to govern themselves.

When Dickinson first advanced these ideas in 1767, critics quickly assailed them for placing formal, constitutional limitations on Great Britain’s sovereignty by dividing what was supposed to be indivisible. However, he also had supporters. For example, when the wealthy Boston merchant and later signer of the Declaration of Independence John Hancock read Farmer’s Letters, he immediately made arrangements to visit Philadelphia so as to hear more from Dickinson.

Historian David Ramsay, writing in the eighteenth century, said that American colonists avidly read Farmer’s Letters and extolled them as the best defense of American rights and liberties. Farmer’s Letters was published in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and Charleston, as well as in smaller cities. Across the Atlantic, they were published in London, Paris, Dublin, and Amsterdam. In addition, they went through multiple editions in pamphlet form, spanning as far east as Hartford and Boston and as far south as Williamsburg and Charleston.

What did the British ministry think of Farmer’s Letters? The general consensus seems to have been that Dickinson was responsible for stirring up rebellion and revolution in the colonies. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Dickinson’s home was torched by the redcoats—a fate that was not shared by other prominent colonial leaders such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

Farmer’s Letters, then, made Dickinson the de facto leader of the protest movement and one of the most important American voices in the decade before independence. Clearly written and effectively argued, the Farmer’s Letters, especially “Letter II,” helped to unite Americans against British imperial policies they deemed unjust and unfair. What is even more important is that Farmer’s Letters provided a principled appeal explaining why Americans had the right to tax themselves.

Essential Themes

When American colonists cried “no taxation without representation” in their pamphlets and petitions, British officials assured them that they were “virtually” represented in the empire: even though they did not have an actual seat in Parliament, the British ministry still took their interests to heart. Many Britons, the officials noted, lived in districts in England where they did not have a member of Parliament for whom they voted. So when protesters such as Dickinson complained that they did not have an actual seat in Parliament, it fell on deaf ears.

That neither side could resolve their differences ultimately led Americans to declare independence in 1776. Neither side could adequately explain what the other side could and could not do. Americans insisted with Dickinson that they could not be taxed without their consent, while the English insisted that legislation and taxation were inseparably connected. Americans stated their positions in a number of pamphlets and petitions protesting the taxes, but none of them could explain how Parliament could manage the affairs of the empire if it could not tax. Nor could they articulate what would happen to Parliament’s authority if it had to rely on colonial consent to administer colonial legislation. Finally, few writers seemed to consider the practical and constitutional implications that would arise if there existed two units in the empire that both had with the authority to tax and legislate in the same geographical area. For the British, it was not clear what would prevent the one from encroaching on the territory of the other.

Most of the colonial writers were content to live with the ambiguities and contradictions inherent in their positions. Many were content to focus on the wisdom and expediency of the taxes without questioning Parliament’s right to administer those taxes. Dickinson saw things differently, however. During the imperial crisis, he formed a dynamic and innovative position of sovereignty that would later become the foundation of American federalism. In “Letter II,” he argues that the British Empire is not the consolidated empire that Parliament officials have made it out to be. Rather, over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, he observes, the empire functioned much like a federal state by dispersing and dividing its sovereign powers to constituent units of government. This position highlights the two points that characterize the tone and message of this letter, namely, that Dickinson had a deep distrust of concentrated power and that he was fiercely committed to the idea of limited government.

Bibliography
  • Calvert, Jane E. Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought of John Dickinson. New York: Cambridge UP, 2009. Print.
  • Flower, Milton E. John Dickinson, Conservative Revolutionary. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1983. Print.
  • Jacobson, David L. John Dickinson and the Revolution in Pennsylvania, 1764–1776. Berkeley: U of California P, 1965. Print.
  • Kaestle, Carl F. “The Public Reaction to John Dickinson’s Farmer’s Letters.” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 78.2 (1968): 323–53. Print.
  • Stillé, Charles, and Paul Leicester Ford. The Life and Writings of John Dickinson. 2 vols. Philadelphia: Hist. Soc. of Pennsylvania, 1891–1895. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Colbourn, H. Trevor. The Lamp of Experience: Whig History and the Intellectual Origins of the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1965. Print.
  • Ferling, John. Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free. New York: Bloomsbury, 2011. Print.
  • Johannesen, Stanley K. “John Dickinson and the American Revolution.” Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques 2.1 (1975): 29–49. Print.
  • Maier, Pauline. From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765–1776. New York: Knopf, 1972. Print.
  • Rakove, Jack. Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America. Boston: Houghton, 2010. Print.

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