The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XV. Colonial and Revolutionary Literature; Early National Literature, Part I.

VIII. American Political Writing, 1760–1789

§ 5. John Dickinson

Of the important papers agreed to by the Stamp Act Congress, two—a declaration of rights and grievances and a petition to the king—were mainly the work of John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, whose notable career as a political writer, already begun in the controversial atmosphere of his own colony, was to earn for him the title of “the penman of the Revolution.” At the end of the year 1765 Dickinson also published at Philadelphia a pamphlet entitled The Late Regulations respecting the British Colonies on the Continent of America Considered, in a Letter from a Gentleman in Philadelphia to his Friend in London, which was reprinted in London and attracted favourable notice. A notable pamphlet, published anonymously, by Daniel Dulany of Maryland, one of the ablest of colonial lawyers, entitled Considerations on the Propriety of Imposing Taxes in the British Colonies, for the Purpose of Raising a Revenue, by Act of Parliament, in which the notion of the “virtual representation” of the colonies in Parliament was conclusively denied, appeared while the Stamp Act Congress was in session, and was also republished in London.

The repeal of the Stamp Act (March, 1766) caused a sudden cessation of the agitation in America; and the ominous Declaratory Act, asserting for the first time the right of Parliament “to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever,” received little attention. In June, 1767, however, the New York assembly was suspended by act of Parliament for its refusal to comply with the requirements of an act for the quartering of troops; while the Townshend acts, which followed immediately, laid duties upon a number of colonial imports, established resident customs commissioners in America, legalized writs of assistance, and readjusted the tea duties in the interest of the hard-pressed East India Company. The colonies, in resisting the Stamp Act, had dwelt upon the unconstitutionality of internal taxation by a Parliament in which they were not represented. Townshend now sought to turn the tables by imposing the external taxes which he professed to think the colonies, by inference, had conceded the right of Parliament to impose.

The passage of the Townshend acts revived, though to a less wide extent, the controversy over colonial rights. Of the writings which attended this phase of the discussion, easily the most important is John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies. First published in a Philadelphia newspaper in 1767–68, and reproduced from thence in most of the newspapers then issued in the colonies, they were in 1768 collected in a pamphlet, of which some eight editions appeared in America, two in London, one in Dublin, and a French version in Amsterdam. Without the legal mastery of Thacher or Dulany, but, fortunately, also without the discursiveness and extravagance of Otis or the intellectual and religious bias of John Adams, Dickinson reviewed, earnestly and directly, the colonial case; warned the colonies of the grave danger of admitting any form of parliamentary taxation, external or internal; sustained the right of protest and petition, and urged economy, thrift, and the development of American industry. Forcible resistance, indeed, is with him not to be thought of, and the idea of independence is spurned; yet at the same time Dickinson insists

  • that we cannot be happy, without being free; that we cannot be free, without being secure in our property; that we cannot be secure in our property, if, without our consent, others may, as by right, take it away; that taxes imposed on us by parliament, do thus take it away.
  • On the whole, it is the form rather than the substance of the Letters from a Farmer that is most original. Dickinson wrote as a cultivated, prosperous gentleman, addressing an audience of intelligent, but plain, people the soil of whose minds had been already somewhat prepared. What Dickinson did, and did with effective skill, was to present in attractive literary form the best of what had already been said and thought on behalf of the colonial claims, and to adapt the argument to the new crisis presented by the Townshend programme. Too patriotic to submit without a protest, and too thoughtful to rebel, he voiced more successfully, perhaps, than any other American publicist of his day, the sober second-thought of the great body of colonists who were ready to carry resistance to any point short of separation and war.