This year marks the 250th anniversary of one of the most influential series of writings in American history: the first of John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, which appeared in 1767.
These “letters” — 12 newspaper op-eds later collected in book form — asserted the colonial cause against imperial British overreach and helped to lay the groundwork for the U.S. Constitution drafted two decades later. The letters also presented important ideas about resisting usurpation.
John Dickinson (1732-1808) did not sign the Declaration of Independence, but in other respects, he was an American Founder of the first rank. With homes in Delaware and Pennsylvania, he served both states. Pennsylvania sent him to the 1765 Stamp Act Congress and, after publication of the Farmer letters, to the Continental Congress in 1774. Dickinson authored most of those assemblies’ public pronouncements. He also chaired the congressional committee that drafted the Articles of Confederation.
During the Revolution, Dickinson served two stints in the American armed forces, after which Delaware returned him to Congress (1779). In 1781, he was elected president (governor) of Delaware. The following year, he was elected president of Pennsylvania. In 1786, representing Delaware, he chaired the Annapolis Convention, which recommended a constitutional convention the following year. Delaware sent Dickinson to the latter meeting, where he impacted the results in ways not fully understood until his convention notes were rediscovered a few decades ago.
Dickinson wrote the Farmer letters in response to the British Parliament’s Townshend Acts (1767), which imposed duties on goods imported to America.) They explained why the Townshend duties were improper and how and why Americans should resist them.
The Farmer letters took America by storm. They were reprinted in Britain and Europe. In accordance with the Founding-era understanding of freedom of the press, Dickinson had written anonymously, but the authorship soon became known. Dickinson eventually became one of the most famous Americans in the world, second only to Benjamin Franklin.
The letters maintained that the colonists, as British subjects, had the right not to be taxed without the consent of lawmakers elected by them. They also contended the Townshend duties were “taxes” because they were imposed to raise revenue rather than to regulate behavior. Thus, only the colonists’ elected legislatures could impose them on Americans. Parliament, where Americans were unrepresented, could not.
Dickinson’s case was largely legal and constitutional, but he supported it with appeals to natural law and human welfare. “We cannot be happy without being free. We cannot be free without being secure in our own property. We cannot be secure in our property, if, without our consent, others may take it away,” Dickinson wrote.
In furtherance of the same principle, Dickinson worked two decades later to ensure the Constitution prescribed that revenue bills could originate only in the House of Representatives.
The Farmer letters went well beyond asserting the case against taxation without representation; they also helped clarify American constitutional thinking on other questions, including: Which government responsibilities should be exercised centrally and which locally?
Dickinson argued the central government should regulate commerce among the political units of the British Empire, but individual colonies should control civil justice and other domestic matters. In this respect, the letters foreshadowed the split between federal and state powers embodied in the Constitution 20 years later. Early in the convention, Dickinson advocated dividing federal and state authority by “enumerating” federal powers. His fellow delegates eventually adopted the idea.
The letters defended the existence of the British House of Lords by observing the nobility needed a separate legislative chamber to protect them against the king and the commons. At the Constitutional Convention two decades later, Dickinson persuaded his fellow delegates to extend similar protections to the states. He successfully advocated the Framers provide for a Senate that represented the states equally and was composed of senators selected by state legislatures for long, staggered terms.
The Farmer letters further examined how a free people should respond to governmental usurpations. Dickinson recommended opposing small usurpations immediately to prevent them from acquiring the force of precedent. “A perpetual jealousy regarding liberty is absolutely required in all free states. Slavery is ever preceded by sleep,” he wrote.
But Dickinson also emphasized opposition should be carefully calibrated, avoiding both underreaction and overreaction. Violence should never be the first step. Citizens should begin by petitioning for redress. If that proved unsuccessful, the next resort was lawful resistance, followed by peaceable civil disobedience.
Dickinson, like other Founders, emphasized the need to protect liberty by frequently resorting to “first principles.” This 250th anniversary offers Americans an opportunity to do just that.
• Rob Natelson, a constitutional historian and former law professor, serves as a senior fellow in constitutional jurisprudence at the Heartland Institute.