The Farmer Refuted

“The safety of the whole depends upon the mutual protection of every part. If the sword of oppression be permitted to lop off one limb without opposition, reiterated strokes will soon dismember the whole body.”

Summary Overview

The Farmer Refuted was Alexander Hamilton’s second published work and was a follow-up to his A Full Vindication of the Measures of the Congress, from the Calumnies of their Enemies (1774), which was a response to open letters written by Loyalist A. W. Farmer, whose real name was Samuel Seabury. Seabury’s next letter continued his pro-British arguments, and Hamilton responded with The Farmer Refuted. The debate centered on whether the colonists should fight British rule or submit to it. It also raised the question of what kind of government the colonists should establish should they achieve independence. In his response, Hamilton articulates his vision of a strong central government.

Defining Moment

The central issue in the dispute between Loyalists such as Seabury and Patriots such as Alexander Hamilton was the legitimacy of Great Britain’s authority to govern the colonies. Hamilton argued that Great Britain had forfeited her right to rule Americans by ignoring their “natural” and God-given rights to petition, have a voice in the making of legislation they were obligated to follow. Overthrowing British rule was both justified and necessary. Seabury held that as subjects of the Crown the patriots were required to follow the rules and regulations of the Crown whether they agreed with them or not. No resolution to the conflict was possible unless the colonists would acknowledge “the supreme legislative authority of Great Britain.”

Another issue that emerges from The Farmer Refuted is Hamilton’s vision of what type of government might look like after the conflict. Foreshadowing his efforts as Secretary of the Treasury and leader of the Federalist Party to establish a strong central government, he argued that a loose confederation would not be adequate. Instead, the colonies will need to establish a stronger confederation and pool their strength if they hoped to survive: “Unless they continually protect and assist each other they must inevitably fall a prey to their enemies” because “the safety of the whole depends upon the mutual protection of every part.”

Author Biography

Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804) was born in Nevis in the British Antilles and immigrated to America as a teenager. He studied law at King’s College (now Columbia University). At the age of twenty and in law school, Hamilton wrote The Farmer Refuted. During the American Revolution, he served as a high-ranking officer in the Continental Army, and after the war he became the nation’s first secretary of the treasury and one of President George Washington’s top advisors. As treasury secretary he sought to put the nation’s finances on a sound and independent footing. As leader of the Federalists, he was an arch-opponent of the Democratic-Republicans’ program and the French Revolution. Never a stranger to controversy, in 1804 he became embroiled in a dispute with Vice President Aaron Burr. The argument led to a duel in Weehawken, New Jersey, in which Hamilton was mortally wounded.

Dr. Samuel Seabury (1729–96), whose letters spurred Hamilton to write The Farmer Refuted, was an Anglican cleric in Westchester County, New York. He wrote on a range of topics before the American Revolution. He was particularly interested in religion, science, and psychology. Like many conservatives, he was loyal to King George III when the conflict with Great Britain worsened in the 1770s. As a means of generating opposition to the rebels, he published Letters of a Westchester Farmer (November 16, 1774–January 17, 1775), which were five letters denouncing the revolutionaries position (the fifth was never published). In 1775, Patriots arrested him at the Connecticut grammar school where he taught. He was held for seven weeks and then released. After the war, he became the first Episcopal Bishop in America.

Document Analysis

Seabury initiated the debate with Hamilton with the publication of Seabury’s Letters from a Westchester Farmer, the first of which was published in November 1774. Seabury borrowed the format and title from Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer, which were pro-revolutionary letters published in 1767 and 1768 in the Pennsylvania Chronicle by John Dickinson (1732–1808), a Pennsylvania lawyer.

Seabury’s letters berated a host of rebel efforts, not least of which were the Continental Association, a body established by the First Continental Congress in 1774 to promote a trade boycott with Great Britain. Seabury claimed these bodies to be “unlawful” and unnecessary. No peace was possible, he argued, unless the Patriots recognized the illegality of their actions.

Mechanisms were already in place, Seabury contended, for the colonists to redress grievances they had with Parliament and the Crown. For example, the right to petition had been used effectively in the past and should be relied on in the future. In his letter, A View of the Controversy, Seabury cites the example of the Stamp Act (1765) among others as an instance in which the right to petition had been used “with temper and decency” by the colonists to raise objections to the law and ask for redress. In this case and others, Seabury asks, “[W]ere not our addresses received, read, and debated upon? and was not the repeal of those acts the consequence?”

He maintained that such acts were not only unpopular with the colonists, but also countered British trade and commercial interests and, as such, should be easily repealed. He warned that if enough colonies followed the lead of the revolutionaries, Britain would use its great power to impose a trade embargo on the colonies. He predicted that the effects of an embargo would be devastating, particularly on farmers, who comprised the majority of the colonial work-force.

Like many Anglicans during this period, Reverend Seabury did not have a particularly high opinion of the revolutionaries. He poked fun at their limited learning, immodesty, and rejection of “proper and moderate” measures of redressing grievances with the Crown. For instance, the delegates to the Continental Association were “a venomous brood of scorpions [who would] sting us to death” and the delegates to the Continental Congress were “Our sovereign Lords and Masters, the High and Mighty Delegates, in Grand Continental Congress assembled” (Free Thoughts).

Hamilton and other patriots found Seabury’s sanguine view of British-American relations to be false. In The Farmer Refuted, one of two pamphlets composed in reply to Seabury, Hamilton exposed the fundamental issues dividing the two sides. He published the two pamphlets anonymously. They were often attributed to other authors, including John Jay, a republican who had graduated from King’s College more than a decade earlier. The pamphlets generated considerable interest because they articulated the fears and frustrations many colonists had with regard to the mother country. Patriots discovered a new spokesman in the author of these pamphlets. As is often the case in bitter political disputes, both men exaggerated the others’ positions. For example, Hamilton claimed that Seabury was a “disciple of” Thomas Hobbes, the champion of monarchical rule and a man reviled for his atheism, and that his argument was based on “a total ignorance of the natural rights of mankind” while Seabury saw Hamilton as a wild-eyed rebel.

Hamilton’s major point is that Great Britain forfeited its authority over the colonies when it instituted legislation and duties (taxes) without consulting the colonists: “[A]ll civil government . . . must be a voluntary compact, between the rulers and the ruled; and must be liable to such limitations as are necessary for the security of the absolute rights of the latter.” On the other hand, Seabury wrote that this position undermined the authority of the Crown and was never true in the first place because many British subjects did not elect their own representatives and yet are still governed by laws to which neither they themselves nor their representatives gave consent.

Hamilton countered that the first responsibility of government was to give security to the lives and property of its people, but Americans had neither under British rule. He cited John Locke, Montesquieu, William Blackstone and other legal and philosophical giants in support of the Patriots’ opposition to British rule. While Blackstone was a champion of natural rights and an intellectual disciple of Locke, he did not subscribe to all elements of Locke’s political philosophy. For example, Blackstone did not believe that people had the right to use violence overthrow their government.

According to Hamilton, Parliament had been “subversive of our natural liberty, because an authority is assumed over us, which we by no means assent to.” Parliament, through legislation such as the Stamp Act (1765) and the Tea Act (1767) governed in an arbitrary fashion and attempted to deny the natural rights of the Americans. These rights, he argued—echoing Locke—originated with God, and, therefore, could not be denied nor could an alternative to them be found. In his view, people who are bound by laws that they or their representatives had no part in making are essentially slaves. In one of the most stirring passages in the literature of the Revolutionary Era, Hamilton wrote, “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of divinity itself, and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.” Petitions were temporary measures and were ultimately ineffective.

Contrary to the reputation he later acquired as a defender of the wealthy and privileged and, as Thomas Jefferson dubbed him, the “colossus” of the Federalist Party, Hamilton expressed faith and confidence in the ability of ordinary colonists to govern themselves. He praised the colonists as “rational” and as having God-given and “inviolable” “natural rights,” such as freedom of assembly, “personal liberty, and personal safety.” This is the same man who wrote in 1778, “Opinion, whether well or ill-founded, is the governing principle of human affairs” (Works of Alexander Hamilton 58).

For Seabury, mercantilism benefited both the mother country and the daughter colonies, and it was preferable to a system in which the colonies regulated trade, which, as Seabury believed, could only end in disorder:

If we should succeed in depriving Great Britain of the power, of regulating our trade, the colonies will probably be soon at variance with each other. Their commercial interests will interfere; there will be no supreme power to interpose, and discord and animosity must ensue. (A View of the Controversy)

Hamilton denied that this was a problem and in The Farmer Refuted, accused the Seabury of “starting difficulties where there are really none.” Seabury believed the colonists should be patient and respectful of British authority and power, and under Britain’s guidance, the colonists might set up the organic society that the early New England colonists, such as Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, had hoped, but failed, to establish. Unfortunately, for Reverend Seabury and his Loyalist associates, most colonists had already become convinced that the Crown and Parliament were more interested in keeping the them subordinate than in allowing them to develop a republican society.

Essential Themes

A key issue in the debate between American revolutionaries, such as Hamilton, and Loyalists, such as Seabury, concerned the natural rights of man. It was a debate that had intensified during the Enlightenment in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries thanks in part to the writings of Montesquieu, John Locke, Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In earlier eras, religion had been the predominant interpreter of human rights, but with the rise of science and humanistic learning in the sixteenth century, the belief in a divine, hierarchical order began to lose influence. Popular political movements such as the Glorious Revolution in England at the end of the seventeenth century and documents such as the Declaration of Independence (1776), which asserted that “all men are created equal” and are endowed with “certain inalienable Rights,” and France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789), which led to the breakdown of the aristocratic order in the largest and most powerful nation on the European continent, testify to the widespread appeal and strength of these ideas. Radical political change is usually resisted in at least some quarters of every society, and the response of Seabury and others loyal to the British monarchy fit this pattern. It was their belief that giving ordinary Americans more social and political rights would undermine long-standing institutions and social relations and ultimately be destructive to society. Real political change is often slow; it would take many decades before Americans enjoyed all of the “absolute rights” Hamilton claims in this pamphlet were God-given and “inviolable.”


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Additional Reading

  • Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin, 2004. Print.
  • Commager, Henry Steele, and Richard B. Morris, eds. The Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants. Edison: Castle, 2002. Print
  • Hebb, Ross N. Samuel Seabury and Charles Inglis: Two Bishops, Two Churches. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2010. Print.
  • Jasanoff, Maya. Liberty’s Exiles: American Loyalists in the Revolutionary World. New York: Vintage, 2012. Print.
  • Prest, Wilfrid. William Blackstone: Laws and Letters in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.