Week 6: The Stamp Act Controversy
A LETTER FROM A GENTLEMAN at Halifax, TO HIS FRIEND in Rhode-Island, CONTAINING REMARKS UPON A PAMPHLET, ENTITLED, THE RIGHTS OF COLONIES EXAMINED.
Martin Howard, Jr.
HALIFAX, Nova-Scotia,January 20, 1765.
MY DEAR SIR,
I THANK you very kindly for the pamphlets and news-papers, you was so obliging as to send me. I will, according to your re|quest, give you a few miscellaneous strictures on that pamplet wrote by Mr. H—p—s, your governor, entitled, “The rights of colonies examined.”
His honour reminds me of the Roman poet.
He seems to give a solemnity to his performance, as if the subject had not been sufficiently handled by any other before him, but I am of opinion he falls very short of Mr.—, who, though unhappily misled by popular ideas, and at the head of the tribunitian veto, yet appears to be a man of knowledge and parts: Whereas the rights of colonies examined, is a laboured, ostentatious piece, discovers its author to be totally unacquainted with stile or diction, and eagerly fond to pass upon the world for a man of letters.
I cannot forgive the honourable author in adopt|ing for his motto the three lines from Thompson, so little applicable are they to the present times. I might challenge all the sons of discontent and faction, in the British dominions, to shew the least similitude between the years one thousand six hundred and forty-one, and one thousand seven hundred and sixty-four. How cruel and invidious is it to insinuate the most distant likeness between the two periods? How much like sedition does it seem, to associate the pre|sent transactions of the nation with those of one thou|sand six hundred and forty-one, which soon after kindled into a civil war, and in the end overturned the English constitution?
The honourable author might perhaps flatter him|self, that, in future editions of Thompson‘s liberty, commentators may insert variae lectiones of the text, and the three lines run thus:
Or perhaps some future bard may sing the present times, and HE be made the hero of the song. The aptness is easy and striking, and the idea too pleasing to be resisted. Narcissus, in contemplating his own image, was turned into a daffodil. Who can think of this, and feel no pity for the pride and weakness of man that is born of a woman.
LOVE OF FAME, THE UNIVERSAL PASSION.
I would fain hope that his honour’s motto is not a true portrait of the general temper and conduct of the Americans; I would rather think
delineate only a few disappointed traders. It were to be wished that some friend of the colonies would endeavour to remove any unfavourable impressions this, and other pamphlets of the like kind, may have occasioned at home; lest those in power form the general cha|racter of the colonies from such notices as these con|vey, and from thence be inclined to increase their dependance, rather than to emancipate them from the present supposed impositions. Depend upon it, my Friend, a people like the English, arrived to the highest pitch of glory and power, the envy and admi|miration of surrounding slaves, who hold the balance of Europe in their hands, and rival in arts and arms every period of ancient or modern story; a nation who, for the defence and safety of America only, staked their all in the late war; this people, I say, justly conscious of their dignity, will not patiently be dictated to by those whom they have ever consi|dered as dependant upon them. Happy will it be for the colonies, yea happy for the honourable author, if his pamphlet should meet with nothing more than contempt and neglect; for should it catch the at|tention of men in power, measures may be taken to stifle in the birth “the low murmurs of submissive fear,” and crush in embryo “the mingled rage,” which now so prettily adorns the head of his honour’s pamphlet.
However disguised, polished or softened the ex|pression of this pamphlet may seem, yet every one must see, that its professed design is sufficiently pro|minent throughout, namely, to prove, that the colo|nies have rights independant of, and not controulable by, the authority of parliament. It is upon this dan|gerous and indiscreet position I shall communicate to you my real sentiments.
To suppose a design of enslaving the colonies by parliament, is too presumptuous; to propagate it in print, is perhaps dangerous. Perplexed between a desire of speaking all he thinks, and the fear of saying too much, the honourable author is obliged to en|trench himself in obscurity and inconsistency in seve|ral parts of his performance: I shall bring one in|stance.
In page eleven, he says,
I do not much admire either the spirit or compo|sition of this sentence. Is it the duty only of good and loyal subjects to obey? Are the wicked and dis|loyal subjects absolved from this obligation? else why is this passage so marvellously penned: Philo|levtherus Lipsiensis would directly pronounce this a figure in rhetorick, called nonsense.—Believe me, my friend, I did not quote this passage to shew my skill in criticism, but to point out a contradiction between it, and another passage in page twenty, which runs thus:
&c. Here it is observable, that the first cited passage expresses a full submission to the authority of parliament; the last is as explicit a denial of that authority. The sum of his honour’s argument is this: The people of Great-Britain have not any sort of power over the Ameri|cans; the house of commons have no greater autho|rity than the people of Great-Britain, who are their constituents; ergo, the house of commons have not any sort of power over the Americans. This is indeed a curious invented syllogism, the sole merit of which is due to the first magistrate of an English colony.
I have endeavoured to investigate the true natural relation, if I may so speak, between colonies and their mother state, abstracted from compact or posi|tive institution, but here I can find nothing satisfacto|ry; till this relation is clearly defined upon a rational and natural principle, our reasoning upon the mea|sure of the colonies obedience will be desultory and inconclusive. Every connection in life has its reci|procal duties; we know the relation between a pa|rent and child, husband and wife, master and servant, and from thence are able to deduce their respective obligations; but we have no notices of any such pre|cise natural relation between a mother state and its colonies, and therefore cannot reason with so much certainty upon the power of the one, or the duty of the others. The ancients have transmitted to us nothing that is applicable to the state of modern colonies, because the relation between these is formed by political compact; and the condition of each variant in their original, and from each other. The honour|able author has not freed this subject from any of its embarrassments: Vague and diffuse talk of rights and privileges, and ringing the changes upon the words liberty and slavery, only serve to convince us, that words may affect without raising images, or affording any repose to a mind philosophically inqui|sitive. For my own part, I will shun the walk of metaphysicks in my enquiry, and be content to con|sider the colonies rights upon the footing of their charters, which are the only plain avenues, that lead to the truth of this matter.
The several New-England charters ascertain, define and limit the respective rights and privileges of each colony, and I cannot conceive how it has come to pass that the colonies now claim any other or greater rights than are therein expresly granted to them. I fancy when we speak, or think of the rights of free|born Englishmen, we confound those rights which are personal, with those which are political: There is a distinction between these, which ought always to be kept in view.
Our personal rights, comprehending those of life, liberty and estate, are secured to us by the common law, which is every subject’s birthright, whether born in Great-Britain, on the ocean, or in the colonies; and it is in this sense we are said to enjoy all the rights and privileges of Englishmen. The political rights of the colonies, or the powers of government communicated to them, are more limited, and their nature, quality and extent depend altogether upon the patent or charter which first created and instituted them. As individuals, the colonists participate of every bles|sing the English constitution can give them: As cor|porations created by the crown, they are confined within the primitive views of their institution. Whe|ther therefore their indulgence is scanty or liberal, can be no cause of complaint; for when they ac|cepted of their charters, they tacitly submitted to the terms and conditions of them.
The colonies have no rights independant of their charters, they can claim no greater than those give them, by those the parliamentary jurisdiction over them is not taken away, neither could any grant of the king abridge that jurisdiction, because it is found|ed upon common law, as I shall presently shew, and was prior to any charter or grant to the colonies: Every Englishman, therefore, is subject to this jurisdiction, and it follows him wherever he goes. It is of the essence of government, that there should be a supreme head, and it would be a solecism in politicks to talk of members independant of it.
With regard to the jurisdiction of parliament, I shall endeavour to shew, that it is attached to every English subject, wherever he be: And I am led to do this from a clause in page nine of his honour’s pamphlet, where he says,
This postulatum cannot be true with regard to poli|tical rights, for I have already shewn, that these are derived from your charters, and are held by force of the king’s grant; therefore these inherent, indefeasible rights, as his honour calls them, must be personal ones, according to the distinction already made. Per|mit me to say, that inherent and indefeasible as these rights may be, the jurisdiction of parliament, over every English subject, is equally as inherent and inde|feasible: That both have grown out of the same stock, and that if we avail ourselves of the one, we must submit to, and acknowlege the other.
It might here be properly enough asked, Are these personal rights self-existent? Have they no original source? I answer, They are derived from the con|stitution of England, which is the common law; and from the same fountain is also derived the jurisdiction of parliament over us.
But to bring this argument down to the most vul|gar apprehension: The common law has established it as a rule or maxim, that the plantations are bound by British acts of parliament, if particularly named: And surely no Englishman, in his senses, will deny the force of a common law maxim. One cannot but smile at the inconsistency of these inherent, inde|feasible men: If one of them has a suit at law, in any part of New-England, upon a question of land property, or merchandize, he appeals to the common law, to support his claim, or defeat his adversary; and yet is so profoundly stupid as to say, that an act of parliament does not bind him; when, perhaps, the same page in a law book, which points him out a remedy for a libel, or a slap in the face, would in|form him that it does.—In a word, The force of an act of parliament, over the colonies, is predicated upon the common law, the origin and basis of all those inherent rights and privileges which constitute the boast and felicity of a Briton.
Can we claim the common law as an inheritance, and at the same time be at liberty to adopt one part of it, and reject the other? Indeed we cannot: The common law, pure and indivisible in its nature and essence, cleaves to us during our lives, and follows us from Nova Zembla to Cape Horn. And therefore, as the jurisdiction of parliament arises out of, and is supported by it, we may as well renounce our alle|giance, or change our nature, as to be exempt from the jurisdiction of parliament: Hence, it is plain to me, that in denying this jurisdiction, we at the same time, take leave of the common law, and thereby, with equal temerity and folly, strip ourselves of every blessing we enjoy as Englishmen: A flagrant proof this, that shallow draughts in politicks and legislation confound and distract us, and that an extravagant zeal often defeats its own purposes.
I am aware that the foregoing reasoning will be opposed by the maxim,
It is this dry maxim, taken in a literal sense, and ill understood, that, like the song of Lillibullero, has made all the mischief in the colonies: And upon this, the partizans of the colonies rights chiefly rest their cause. I don’t despair, however, of convincing you, that this maxim affords but little support to their argument, when rightly examined and explained.
It is the opinion of the house of commons, and may be considered as a law of parliament, that they are the representatives of every British subject, whereso|ever he be. In this view of the matter then, the aforegoing maxim is fully vindicated in practice, and the whole benefit of it, in substance and effect, ex|tended and applied to the colonies. Indeed the maxim must be considered in this latitude, for in a literal sense or construction it ever was, and ever will be, im|practicable. Let me ask, is the isle of Man, Jersey, or Guernsey, represented? What is the value or amount of each man’s representation in the kingdom of Scotland, which contains near two millions of people, and yet not more than three thousand have votes in the election of members of parliament? But to shew still further, that, in fact and reality, this right of representation is not of that consequence it is gene|rally thought to be, let us take into the argument the moneyed interest of Britain, which, though immensely great, has no share in this representation; a worthless freeholder of forty shillings per annum can vote for a member of parliament, whereas a merchant, tho’ worth one hundred thousand pounds sterling, if it consist only in personal effects, has no vote at all: But yet let no one suppose that the interest of the latter is not equally the object of parliamentary attention with the former.—Let me add one example more: Copyholders in England of one thousand pounds ster|ling per annum, whose estates in land are nominally, but not intrinsically, inferior to a freehold, cannot, by law, vote for members of parliament; yet we never hear that these people “murmur with submissive “fear, and mingled rage:” They don’t set up their private humour against the constitution of their coun|try, but submit with chearfulness to those forms of government which providence, in its goodness, has placed them under.
Suppose that this Utopian privilege of representa|tion should take place, I question if it would answer any other purpose but to bring an expence upon the colonies, unless you can suppose that a few American members could bias the deliberations of the whole British legislature. In short, this right of representation is but a phantom, and, if possessed in its full extent, would be of no real advantage to the colonies; they would, like Ixion, embrace a cloud in the shape of Juno.
In addition to this head, I could further urge the danger of innovations; every change in a constituti|on, in some degree, weakens its original frame; and hence it is that legislators and statesmen are cautious in admitting them: The goodly building of the British constitution will be best secured and perpetuated by adhering to its original principles. Parliaments are not of yesterday, they are as antient as our Saxon ancestors. Attendance in parliament was originally a duty arising from a tenure of lands, and grew out of the feudal system; so that the privilege of sitting in it, is territorial, and confined to Britain only. Why should the beauty and symmetry of this body be destroyed, and its purity defiled, by the unnatural mixture of representatives from every part of the Bri|tish dominions. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and the dwellers of Mesopotamia, &c. would not, in such a case, speak the same language. What a heterogene|ous council would this form? what a monster in government would it be?—In truth, my friend, the matter lies here: The freedom and happiness of every British subject depends, not upon his share in electi|ons, but upon the sense and virtue of the British parlia|ment, and these depend reciprocally upon the sense and virtue of the whole nation. When virtue and honour are no more, the lovely frame of our con|stitution will be dissolved. Britain may one day be what Athens and Rome now are; but may heaven long protract the hour!
The jurisdiction of parliament being established, it will follow, that this jurisdiction cannot be apporti|oned; it is transcendant and entire, and may levy in|ternal taxes as well as regulate trade; there is no essential difference in the rights: A stamp duty is confessedly the most reasonable and equitable that can be devised, yet very far am I from desiring to see it established among us, but I fear the shaft is sped, and it is now too late to prevent the blow.
The examples cited by his honour, with regard to ancient colonies, may shew his reading and erudition, but are of no authority in the present question. I am not enough skilled in the Grecian history to correct the proofs drawn from thence, though they amount to very little. If the Grecian colonies, as his honour says,
there is no kind of similitude between them and the English colonies, and therefore to name them is nothing to the purpose. The English colonies take their forms of government from the crown; hold their privileges upon condition, that they do not abuse them; and hold their lands by the tenure of common socage, which involves in it fealty and obe|dience to the king: Hence it is plain, his honour’s argument is not strengthened by the example of the Grecian colonies; for what likeness is there between independant colonies, as those must be, which
and colonies like ours, which are in a manner feudatory, and holden of a superior.
With regard to the Roman colonies, I must beg leave to say, that the honourable author, either igno|rantly or wilfully, mistakes the facts: A little more enquiry, or a little more candour, would have con|vinced him, that the Roman coloniae did not enjoy all the rights of Roman citizens; on the contrary, they only used the Roman laws and religion, and served in the legions, but had not the right of suffrage, or of bearing honours. In these respects, our English colo|nies exactly resemble them; we enjoy the English laws and religion, but have not the right of fuffrage, or of bearing honours in Great-Britain, and indeed our situation renders it impossible.
If the practice of the ancients was of any authority in this case, I could name examples to justify the en|slaving of colonies. The Carthaginians were a free people, yet they, to render the Sardinians and Corsicans more dependant, forbad their planting, sowing, or doing any thing of the like kind, under pain of death, so that they supplied them with necessaries from Africa: This was indeed very hard. But there is something extremely weak and inconclusive in recur|ring to the Grecian and Roman history for examples to illustrate any particular favourite opinion: If a de|ference to the ancients should direct the practice of the moderns, we might sell our children to pay our debts, and justify it by the practice of the Athenians. We might lend our wives to our friends, and justify it from the Example of Cato, among the Romans. In a word, my dear Sir, the belly of a sow, pickled, was a high dish in ancient Rome; and I imagine, as you advance in the refinements of luxury, this will become a capital part of a Rhode-Island feast, so fond you seem of ancient customs and laws.
Instead of wandring in the labyrinth of ancient co|lonies, I would advise his honour to read the debates in parliament in the year one thousand seven hundred and thirty-three, when Mr. Partridge, your agent, petitioned the commons against the then sugar-bill; he will there find more satisfaction upon the subject of colonies, than in Thucydides’s history of the Pelopennesian war. It was declared in the course of that debate, that the colonists were a part of the peo|ple of Great-Britain; and, as such, fully represented in that house. The petition then presented by Mr. Partridge, was of a very different temper from those now sent home by the colonies; it was extremely modest, and only intimated that the sugar bill, if passed into a law, might be prejudicial to their charter; at the bare mention of this Sir William Yonge took fire, and said,
Mr. Winnington, with equal warmth, added,
Here you have the opinion of two of the most eminent members of that time; they spoke the sen|timents of the whole house, and these sentiments still continue the same. And from hence you may per|ceive, how little prospect there is of the colonies gain|ing any point upon the footing of these new supposi|titious rights; broaching such opinions will excite the jealousy of the parliament, and you will be looked upon with an evil eye. The promoters of such doctrines are no friends to the colonies, whatever may be their pretensions. Can his honour be so vain as to imagine, that ten thousand such pamphlets as his, will influence the parliament, or that they will be persuaded, by the force of his elocution, to give up their supremacy, and right of taxing the colonies. What purpose then can be served by these pamphlets, but to embitter the minds of a simple, credulous, and hitherto loyal peo|ple, and to alienate their affections from Great-Britain, their best friend, their protector, and alma mater. A different behaviour would be much more prudent and politick. If we have any thing to ask, we should remember that diffidence and modesty will always obtain more from generous minds, than frowardness and impertinence.
The act of the thirteenth of his late majesty, entitled, An act for naturalizing of foreign protestants, had better have been omitted by his honour; for if that act is to be the measure of the colonists rights, they will be more circumscribed than he would wil|lingly chuse. In that act, there is a proviso, that no person, who shall become a natural born subject by vir|tue of that act, should be of the privy council, or a mem|ber of either house of parliament, or capable of en|joying, in Great-Britain or Ireland, any place of trust, civil or military, &c. This statute confirms the dis|tinction I have set up between personal and political rights. After naturalization, foreign protestants are here admitted subjects, to all intents and purposes; that is, to the full enjoyment of those rights which are connected with the person, liberty or estate of Englishmen; but by the proviso, they are excluded from bearing offices or honours.
Enlarging the power of the court of admiralty, is much complain’d of by the honourable author. I shall open my mind to you freely on this head.
It is notorious, that smuggling, which an eminent writer calls a crime against the law of nature, had well nigh become established in some of the colonies. Acts of parliament had been uniformly dispensed with by those whose duty it was to execute them; corruption, raised upon the ruins of duty and virtue, had almost grown into a system; courts of admiralty, confined within small territorial jurisdictions, became sub|ject to mercantile influence; and the king’s revenue shamefully sacrificed to the venality and perfidiousness of courts and officers.—If, my friend, customs are due to the crown; if illicit commerce is to be put an end to, as ruinous to the welfare of the nation:— If, by reason of the interested views of traders, and the connivance of courts and custom-house officers, these ends could not be compassed or obtained in the common and ordinary way; tell me, what could the government do, but to apply a remedy desperate as the disease: There is, I own, a severity in the method of prosecution, in the new established court of admi|ralty, under Doctor SPRY, here; but it is a seve|rity we have brought upon ourselves. When every mild expedient, to stop the atrocious and infamous practice of smuggling, has been try’d in vain, the government is justifiable in making laws against it, even like those of Draco, which were written in blood. The new instituted court of admiralty, and the power given to the seizer, are doubtlese intended to make us more circumspect in our trade, and to confine the merchant, from motives of fear and dread, within the limits of a fair commerce.
says the admired Secondat. This is the spirit of the new regulations, both with regard to the employing of cutters, and the enlarged power of the admiralty; and both measures are justifiable upon the same prin|ciples, as is the late act for preventing murder, which executes and dissects the murderer at surgeons-hall in twenty-four hours after conviction.
But notwithstanding the severity of this act, let me add, that no harm can accrue to the honest and fair trader, so long as the crown fills the admiralty de|partment with an upright judge; such a one is Doctor SPRY, an able civilian, and whose appointments place him above any kind of influence; yet the honourable author of the pamphlet before me, has told us to this effect; That it is very well known this judge can be prevailed on, very easily, to certify, upon the acquittal of a seizure, that there was a probable cause for making it.—So shamefully intemperate is his honour’s zeal and opposition to every measure adopted by the government at home, that he spares not even private characters, however worthy and re|spectable. I fear he knows not the high value of a good name, and how dear it is to men of sentiment and honour.
To suspect the integrity of others, is not the effusion of a virtuous mind. Those who have been long used to traffick with judges and juries, are, from the depravity of their own hearts, easily led to believe others even as themselves.
This libel upon Doctor SPRY, contained in a pamphlet published by authority, may spread over the British dominions, and, however false and scandalous it be, yet may leave a shade upon his character which can never be effaced. With what grace, let me ask you, do such reflections as these come from the governor of a colony, where, all the world agree, the law has scarcely yet dawned, and where all your legal rights are decided by the strength of that faction which happens to be uppermost.
I am not enough skilled in trade to know whether the act, so much complained of, will do most good or most harm; and I wish others were as diffident of their knowledge in this particular. To compre|hend the general trade of the British nation, much exceeds the capacity of any one man in America, how great soever he be. Trade is a vast, compli|cated system, and requires such a depth of genius, and extent of knowledge, to understand it, that little minds, attached to their own sordid interest, and long used to the greatest licentiousness in trade, are, and must be, very incompetent judges of it. Sir Andrew Freeport is no inhabitant of Rhode-Island colony. For my own part, I am still willing to leave the manage|ment of trade with that people, who, according to the same admired author just quoted,
Here I would just observe, that, from the intelli|gence I have gained, the beloved article of melasses is now plentier and cheaper, in all the New-England colonies, than when it was avowedly smuggled; and so far is the linen manufacture of Ireland from being ruined, as his honour intimates, that never was a greater demand for flax-seed than during the last fall, notwithstanding the clause in the act relating to lumber. How senseless is it to imagine that the pro|hibiting a few dunnage slaves to be carried to Ireland, will ruin the manufactures of that kingdom.
Believe me, my Friend, it gives me great pain to see so much ingratitude in the colonies to the mo|ther country, whose arms and money so lately res|cued them from a French government. I have been told, that some have gone so far as to say, that they would, as things are, prefer such a government to an English one.—Heaven knows I have but little malice in my heart, yet, for a moment, I ardently wish that these spurious, unworthy sons of Britain could feel the iron rod of a Spanish inquisitor, or a French farmer of the revenue; it would indeed be a punishment suited to their ingratitude. Here I can|not but call to mind the adder in one of the fables of Pilpay, which was preparing to sting the generous traveller who had just rescued him from the flames.
You’l easily perceive, that what I have said is upon the general design of his honour’s pamphlet; if he had divided his argument with any precision, I would have followed him with somewhat more of method; The dispute between Great-Britain and the colonies consists of two parts; first, the jurisdiction of parlia|ment,—and, secondly, the exercise of that jurisdic|tion. His honour hath blended these together, and no where marked the division between them: The first I have principally remarked upon: As to the second, it can only turn upon the expediency or uti|lity of those schemes which may, from time to time, be adopted by parliament, relative to the colonies. Un|der this head, I readily grant, they are at full liberty to remonstrate, petition, write pamphlets and news|papers, without number, to prevent any improper or unreasonable imposition: Nay, I would have them do all this with that spirit of freedom which English|men always have, and I hope ever will, exert; but let us not use our liberty for a cloak of maliciousness. Indeed I am very sure the loyalty of the colonies has ever been irreproachable; but from the pride of some, and the ignorance of others, the cry against mother country has spread from colony to colony; and it is to be feared, that prejudices and resentments are kindled among them which it will be difficult ever, thoroughly, to sooth or extinguish. It may be|come necessary for the supreme legislature of the na|tion to frame some code, and therein adjust the rights of the colonies, with precision and certainty, other|wise Great-Britain will always be teazed with new claims about liberty and privileges.
I have no ambition in appearing in print, yet if you think what is here thrown together is fit for the publick eye, you are at liberty to publish it: I the more chearfully acquiesce in this, because it is with real concern I have observed, that, notwithstanding the frequent abuse poured forth in pamphlets and news-papers against the mother country, not one filial pen in America hath, as yet, been drawn, to my knowledge, in her vindication.
I am, very affectionately, Your most faithful and obedient servant, * * * * * *