Front Page Titles (by Subject) CCCII: ON SMUGGLING AND ITS VARIOUS SPECIES 1 - The Works of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. IV Letters and Misc. Writings 1763-1768
Return to Title Page for The Works of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. IV Letters and Misc. Writings 1763-1768
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
CCCII: ON SMUGGLING AND ITS VARIOUS SPECIES 1 - Benjamin Franklin, The Works of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. IV Letters and Misc. Writings 1763-1768 
The Works of Benjamin Franklin, including the Private as well as the Official and Scientific Correspondence, together with the Unmutilated and Correct Version of the Autobiography, compiled and edited by John Bigelow (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904). The Federal Edition in 12 volumes. Vol. IV (Letters and Misc. Writings 1763-1768).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
ON SMUGGLING AND ITS VARIOUS SPECIES1
There are many people that would be thought, and even think themselves, honest men, who fail nevertheless in particular points of honesty; deviating from that character some times by the prevalence of mode or custom, and sometimes through mere inattention; so that their honesty is partial only, and not general or universal. Thus one, who would scorn to overreach you in a bargain, shall make no scruple of tricking you a little now and then at cards; another, that plays with the utmost fairness, shall with great freedom cheat you in the sale of a horse. But there is no kind of dishonesty, into which otherwise good people more easily and frequently fall, than that of defrauding government of its revenues by smuggling when they have an opportunity, or encouraging smugglers by buying their goods.
I fell into these reflections the other day, on hearing two gentlemen of reputation discoursing about a small estate, which one of them was inclined to sell and the other to buy; when the seller, in recomending the place, remarked, that its situation was very advantageous on this account, that, being on the sea-coast in a smuggling country, one had frequent opportunities of buying many of the expensive articles used in a family (such as tea, coffee, chocolate, brandy, wines, cambrics, Brussels laces, French silks, and all kinds of India goods), twenty, thirty, and in some articles fifty per cent. cheaper than they could be had in the more interior parts, of traders that paid duty. The other honest gentleman allowed this to be an advantage, but insisted that the seller, in the advanced price he demanded on that account, rated the advantage much above its value. And neither of them seemed to think dealing with smugglers a practice that an honest man (provided he got his goods cheap) had the least reason to be ashamed of.
At a time when the load of our public debt, and the heavy expense of maintaining our fleets and armies to be ready for defence on occasion, make it necessary, not only to continue old taxes, but often to look out for new ones, perhaps it may not be unuseful to state this matter in a light that few seem to have considered it in.
The people of Great Britain, under the happy constitution of this country, have a privilege few other countries enjoy, that of choosing a third branch of the legislature, which branch has alone the power of regulating their taxes. Now, whenever the government finds it necessary for the common benefit, advantage, and safety of the nation, for the security of our liberties, property, religion, and every thing that is dear to us, that certain sums shall be yearly raised by taxes, duties, &c., and paid into the public treasury, thence to be dispensed by government for those purposes; ought not every honest man freely and willingly to pay his just proportion of this necessary expense? Can he possibly preserve a right to that character, if, by fraud, stratagem, or contrivance, he avoids that payment in whole or in part?
What should we think of a companion who, having supped with his friends at a tavern, and partaken equally of the joys of the evening with the rest of us, would nevertheless contrive by some artifice to shift his share of the reckoning upon others, in order to go off scot-free? If a man who practised this would, when detected, be deemed and called a scoundrel, what ought he to be called who can enjoy all the inestimable benefits of public society, and yet by smuggling, or dealing with smugglers, contrive to evade paying his just share of the expense, as settled by his own representatives in Parliament, and wrongfully throw it upon his honester and perhaps much poorer neighbours? He will perhaps be ready to tell me that he does not wrong his neighbours; he scorns the imputation; he only cheats the King a little, who is very able to bear it. This, however, is a mistake. The public treasure is the treasure of the nation, to be applied to national purposes. And when a duty is laid for a particular public and necessary purpose, if, through smuggling, that duty falls short of raising the sum required, and other duties must therefore be laid to make up the deficiency, all the additional sum laid by the new duties and paid by other people, though it should amount to no more than a half-penny or a farthing per head, is so much actually picked out of the pockets of those other people by the smugglers and their abettors and encouragers. Are they then any better or other than pickpockets? And what mean, low, rascally pickpockets must those be, that can pick pockets for half-pence and for farthings!
I would not, however, be supposed to allow, in what I have just said, that cheating the King is a less offence against honesty, than cheating the public. The King and the public, in this case, are different names for the same thing; but, if we consider the King distinctly, it will not lessen the crime; it is no justification of a robbery, that the person robbed was rich and able to bear it. The King has as much right to justice as the meanest of his subjects; and, as he is truly the common father of his people, those that rob him fall under the Scripture woe, pronounced against the son that robbeth his father, and saith it is no sin.
Mean as this practice is, do we not daily see people of character and fortune engaged in it for trifling advantages to themselves? Is any lady ashamed to request of a gentleman of her acquaintance, that when he returns from abroad he would smuggle her home a piece of silk or lace from France or Flanders? Is any gentleman ashamed to undertake and execute the commission? Not in the least. They will talk of it freely, even before others whose pockets they are thus contriving to pick by this piece of knavery.
Among other branches of the revenue, that of the post-office is, by the late law, appropriated to the discharge of our public debt, to defray the expenses of the state. None but members of Parliament, and a few public officers, have now a right to avoid, by a frank, the payment of postage. When any letter, not written by them or on their business, is franked by any of them, it is a hurt to the revenue, an injury which they must now take the pains to conceal by writing the whole superscription themselves. And yet such is our insensibility to justice in this particular, that nothing is more common than to see, even in reputable company, a very honest gentleman or lady declare his or her intention to cheat the nation of three pence by a frank, and without blushing apply to one of the very legislators themselves, with a modest request, that he would be pleased to become an accomplice in the crime, and assist in the perpetration.
There are those who by these practices take a great deal in a year out of the public purse, and put the money into their own private pockets. If, passing through a room where public treasure is deposited, a man takes the opportunity of clandestinely pocketing and carrying off a guinea, is he not truly and properly a thief? And if another evades paying into the treasury a guinea he ought to pay in, and applies it to his own use, when he know it belongs to the public as much as that which has been paid in, what difference is there in the nature of the crime, or the baseness of committing it?
Some laws make the receiving of stolen goods equally penal with stealing, and upon this principle, that if there were no receivers there would be few thieves. Our proverb too says truly, that the receiver is as bad as the thief. By the same reasoning, as there would be few smugglers if there were none who knowingly encouraged them by buying their goods, we may say that the encouragers of smuggling are as bad as the smugglers; and that, as smugglers are a kind of thieves, both equally deserve the punishment of thievery.
In this view of wronging the revenue, what must we think of those who can evade paying for their wheels1 and their plate, in defiance of law and justice, and yet declaim against corruption and peculation, as if their own hands and hearts were pure and unsullied? The Americans offend us grievously, when, contrary to our laws, they smuggle goods into their own country; and yet they had no hand in making those laws. I do not however pretend from thence to justify them. But I think the offence much greater in those who either directly or indirectly have been concerned in making the very laws they break. And when I hear them exclaiming against the Americans, and for every little infringement on the acts of trade, or obstruction given by a petty mob to an officer of our customs in that country, calling for vengeance against the whole people as rebels and traitors, I cannot help thinking there are still those in the world who can see a mote in their brother’s eye, while they do not discern a beam in their own; and that the old saying is as true now as ever it was, One man may better steal a horse, than another look over the hedge.
[1 ]This letter was found in the London Chronicle, for November 24th, 1767, and is addressed to the printer of that newspaper.
[1 ]Alluding to the British taxes on carriage-wheels and on plate.—Duane.