Front Page Titles (by Subject) CCCLXXIII: OBSERVATIONS ON PASSAGES IN AN INQUIRY INTO THE NATURE AND CAUSES OF THE DISPUTES BETWEEN THE BRITISH COLONIES IN AMERICA AND THEIR MOTHER COUNTRY. - The Works of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. V Letters and Misc. Writings 1768-1772
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CCCLXXIII: OBSERVATIONS ON PASSAGES IN “AN INQUIRY INTO THE NATURE AND CAUSES OF THE DISPUTES BETWEEN THE BRITISH COLONIES IN AMERICA AND THEIR MOTHER COUNTRY.” - Benjamin Franklin, The Works of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. V Letters and Misc. Writings 1768-1772 
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. V (Letters and Misc. Writings 1768-1772).
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OBSERVATIONS ON PASSAGES IN “AN INQUIRY INTO THE NATURE AND CAUSES OF THE DISPUTES BETWEEN THE BRITISH COLONIES IN AMERICA AND THEIR MOTHER COUNTRY.”
Extract.—Supreme power and authority must not, cannot, reside equally everywhere throughout an empire.
Observation.—Writers on this subject often confuse themselves with the idea, that all the King’s dominions make one state, which they do not, nor ever did since the conquest. Our kings have ever had dominions not subject to the English Parliament. At first, the provinces of France, of which Jersey and Guernsey remain, always governed by their own laws, appealing to the King in Council only, and not to our courts or the House of Lords. Scotland was in the same situation before the union. It had the same King, but a separate Parliament, and the Parliament of England had no jurisdiction over it. Ireland the same in truth, though the British Parliament has usurped a dominion over it. The colonies were originally settled in the idea of such extrinsic dominions of the King, and of the King only. Hanover is now such a dominion.
If each Assembly in this case, were absolute, they would, it is evident, form not one only, but so many different governments, perfectly independent of one another.
This is the only clear idea of their real present condition. Their only bond of union is the King.
Now that of Great Britain being exactly the kind of government I have been speaking of, the absolute impossibility of vesting the American assemblies with an authority in all respects equal to that of the mother country, without actually dismembering the British empire, must naturally occur to every one.
It would not be dismembering it, if it never was united, as, in truth, it never yet has been. Breaking the present union between England and Scotland would be dismembering the empire; but no such union has yet been formed between Britain and the colonies.
Where divers remote and distant countries are united under one government, an equal and fair representation becomes almost impracticable, or, at least, extremely inconvenient.
Here appears the excellency of the invention of colony government, by separate, independent legislatures. By this means, the remotest parts of a great empire may be as well governed as the centre; misrule, oppressions of proconsuls, and discontents and rebellions thence arising, prevented. By this means the power of a king may be extended without inconvenience over territories of any dimensions, how great soever. America was thus happily governed in all its different and remote settlements, by the crown and their own assemblies, till the new politics took place, of governing it by one Parliament, which have not succeeded and never will.
Should we carry our supposition much farther, the inconveniencies attending such long journeys would be very great, although not interrupted by water.
Water, so far from being an obstruction, is a means of facilitating such assemblies from distant countries. A voyage of three thousand miles by sea is more easily performed, than a journey of one thousand by land.
It is, in my opinion, by no means impracticable to bring representatives conveniently from America to Britain, but I think the present mode of letting them govern themselves by their own assemblies much preferable. They will always be better governed; and the Parliament has business enough here with its own internal concerns.
Whether they should not be allowed such a form of government, as will best secure to them their just rights and natural liberties.
They have it already. All the difficulties have arisen from the British Parliament attempting to deprive them of it.
Is it not, let me ask, most egregious folly so loudly to condemn the Stuart family, who would have governed England without a Parliament, when at the same time we would, almost all of us, govern America upon principles not at all more justifiable?
Very just. Only that the arbitrary government of a single person is more eligible than the arbitrary government of a body of men. A single man may be afraid or ashamed of doing injustice; a body is never either one or the other, if it is strong enough. It cannot apprehend assassination, and by dividing the shame among them, it is so little apiece that no one minds it.
And consistently with our rights of sovereignty over them.
I am surprised that a writer, who, in other respects, appears often very reasonable, should talk of our sovereignty over the colonies! As if every individual in England was a part of a sovereign over America! The King is the sovereign of all.
The Americans think that, while they can retain the right of disposing of their own money, they shall thereby secure all their other rights. They have, therefore, not yet disputed your other pretensions.
That England has an undeniable right to consider America as a part of her dominions is a fact, I presume, which can never be questioned.
You do, indeed, presume too much. America is not part of the dominions of England, but of the King’s dominion. England is a dominion itself, and has no dominions.
I will only observe at present, that it was England, in some sense, which at first gave them being.
In some sense! In what sense? They were not planted at her expense. As to defence, all parts of the King’s dominion have mutually always contributed to the defence one of the other. The man in America, who contributes sixpence towards an armament against the common enemy, contributes as much to the common protection as if he lived in England.
They have always been ready to contribute, but by voluntary grants according to their rights; nor has any Englishman yet had the effrontery to deny this truth.
If they are at liberty to choose what sums to raise, as well as the manner of raising them, it is scarcely to be doubted that their allowance will be found extremely short. And it is evident they may, upon this footing, absolutely refuse to pay any taxes at all. And, if so, it would be much better for England, if it were consistent with her safety, to disclaim all further connexion with them, than to continue her protection to them solely at her own expense.
Why is it to be doubted that they will not grant what they ought to grant? No complaint was ever yet made of their refusal or deficiency. He says, if they are not without reserve obliged to comply with the requisitions of the ministry, they may absolutely refuse to pay any taxes at all. Let him apply this to the British Parliament, and the reasoning will equally prove that the Commons ought likewise to comply absolutely with the requisitions of the ministry. Yet I have seen lately the ministry demand four shillings in the pound, and the Parliament grant but three. But Parliaments, and provincial assemblies may always be safely trusted with this power of refusing, or granting in part. Ministers will often demand too much. But assemblies, being acquainted properly with the occasion, will always grant what is necessary. As protection is, as I said before, mutual and equal in proportion to every man’s property, the colonies have been drawn into all British wars, and have annoyed the enemies of Britain as much in proportion as any other subjects of the King, equal in numbers and property. Therefore, this account has always balanced itself.
It may further be observed, that their proceedings are not quite so rapid and precipitate as those of the Privy Council; so that, should it be found necessary, they will have more time to petition or make remonstrances. For this privilege, the least which a subject can enjoy, is not to be denied them.
Late experience has fully shown that American petitions and remonstrances are little regarded in Britain. The privilege of petitioning has been attempted to be wrested from them. The assemblies’ uniting to petition has been called a flagitious attempt, in the ministers’ letters; and such assemblies as would persist in it have therefore been dissolved.
It is a joke to talk thus to us, when we know that Parliament, so far from solemnly canvassing our petitions, have refused to receive or read them.
Our right of legislation over the Americans, unrepresented as they are, is the point in question. This right is asserted by most, doubted by some, and wholly disclaimed by a few.
I am one of those few; but am persuaded the time is not far distant when the few will become the many; for Magna est veritas et prevalebit.
But to put the matter in a stronger light, the question, I think, should be, whether we have a general right of making slaves or not?
A very proper state of the question.
And the Americans may be treated with as much equity, and even tenderness, by the Parliament of Great Britain, as by their own assemblies. This, at least, is possible, though perhaps not very probable.
How can we Americans believe this, when we see almost half the nation paying but one shilling and sixpence in the pound, while others pay full four shillings; and that there is not virtue and honesty enough in Parliament to rectify this iniquity? How can we suppose they will be just to us at such a distance, when they are not just to one another? It is not, indeed, as the author says, very probable. The unequal representation, too, that prevails in this kingdom, they are so far from having virtue enough to attempt to remedy, that they make use of it as an argument why we should have no representation at all.
To the equity of this measure [an American representation in Parliament], the Americans themselves, I presume, could have nothing fairly to object.
Provided they had an equitable number of representatives allowed them.
As to those, indeed, which attend only the choosing a new Parliament, they may, perhaps, by proper means, be considerably lessened, though not wholly removed.
Let the old members continue till superseded by new ones from America.
But, should the King at any time be disposed to dissolve his Parliament and convene a new one, as hath often been done, only at a few weeks’ notice, this, upon the same footing, could not be effected.
By the above it might.
The method, however, of examining and deciding contested elections, when necessary, must undoubtedly with respect to America be set, in a great measure, upon a different footing from that at present practised in this kingdom.
Let the members be chosen by the American assemblies, and disputed elections settled there, if any; but there would be none.
It is not in the least, at this time, probable that an American representation will ever be convened in England.
I think so too; where neither side approves a match, it is not likely to be made.
They will be almost wholly excluded the benefit of private acts by reason of immoderate expense.
They may make them at home. The expense of private acts in England is shamefully great.
The repairing of highways, making rivers navigable, and cutting canals, with a variety of other things of the like kind, wherein recourse must be had to Parliament, and yet the expense be supplied chiefly, if not wholly, by private persons.
All this may be done by their own laws at home.
This mode of compromise may as well be waived, as it cannot be effected, it is evident, without immense trouble.
And if they should be divided in their sentiments upon it, and uncertain what measures to adopt and follow, it cannot be matter of just wonder and censure.
Then leave it as it is. It was very well, till you attempted alterations and novelties.
In respect to the article of levying taxes, it should be deemed only a matter of grace, to be resumed at pleasure.
Your humble servant! We thank you for nothing. Keep up your claim, and make the most of it.
To be placed upon a level with the rest of the subjects of the British crown, is the utmost the colonies can challenge.
No. They may challenge all that was promised them by charters to encourage them to settle there. They have performed their part of the contract, and therefore have a right to expect a performance of the other part. They have, by the risks and expenses they have incurred, additional merit, and are therefore to be considered as above the level of other subjects.
We cannot otherwise maintain our sovereignty over it, unless our safety were actually at stake and absolutely required it.
I am quite sick of our sovereignty. Your safety is only endangered by quarrelling with the colonies, not by leaving them to the free enjoyment of their own liberties.
They who first migrated from England to settle in America well knew, I presume, they were still to continue the subjects of the same government.
They well knew the contrary. They would never have gone if that had been the case. They fled from your government, which oppressed them. If they carried your government with them, and of course your laws, they had better have stayed and endured the oppression at home, and not have added to it all the hardships of making a new settlement. They carried not your laws; but, had they carried your government and laws, they would now have been subject to spiritual courts, tithes, church acts of Parliament, game acts, &c., &c., which they are not, and never were since their being out of the realm.
They knew they were not to be independent.
They were to depend on the King only.
For no one, I imagine, would doubt if their charters granted them an inconsistent power, but that they might be justly cancelled; as no government can be supposed to alienate prerogatives necessary to its safe existence.
Every government is supposed to be compos mentis when it grants charters, and shall not be allowed to plead insanity. If you break the charters, or violate them, you dissolve all ties between us.
However, a right of sovereignty in this case we may undeniably claim and vindicate; though we might safely grant them independency.
You may claim it; but you have not, never had, nor, I trust, ever will have it. You, that is, the people of England, cannot grant the Americans independency of the King. It can never be, but with his consent and theirs.
Preserving our sovereignty over them, although at the expense of some portion of their natural prerogatives. They partly consist of our own plantations, and partly of the conquests we have made from a nation in whose hands it would have been dangerous for us to have continued.
Our sovereignty! Our sovereignty for ever. Of their, not our plantations. The conquests may be yours partly; but they are partly conquests belonging to the colonies, who joined their forces with yours in equal proportion.
Our very being, therefore, at least as a free people, depends upon our retention of them.
Take care, then, how you use them.
They are now treated as children. Their complaints are heard, and grievances redressed. But then they would be treated rather as slaves, having the swords of their masters perpetually held at their throats, if they should presume to offer half the indignities to the officers of the French crown, which they have often with impunity done to those of the British.
The direct contrary is true; they are not redressed; they are refused to be heard. Fresh oppressions and insults are continually added. English swords are now held at our throats. Every step is taking to convince us that there is no difference in government.
Nay, they have assemblies of their own to redress their grievances.
It is well they have.
And, if that should be done, what marks of sovereignty will they allow us to enjoy? What sort of a claim will they indulge us with? Only, I suppose, a mere titular one. And if so, would they then expect that we should still protect them with our forces by sea and land? Or will they themselves maintain an army and navy sufficient for that purpose? This they certainly at present are not able to do, if they were not sheltered by the wings of Great Britain.
What would you have? Would you, the people of England, be subjects and kings at the same time? Don’t be under any apprehensions for them. They will find allies and friends somewhere; and it will be worth no one’s while to make them enemies, or to attack so poor a people, so numerous, and so well armed.
Nor is there any reason to apprehend that they should be at all formidable to England; as the number [of American representatives in Parliament] might be properly limited, as those of Scotland were at the Union.
A proper limitation can only be this, that they shall from time to time have such a number of additional members, as are proportioned to their increasing share of the taxes and numbers of the people.
An exact estimate can scarcely be made of what expense their protection stands in to Great Britain.
The protection is mutual. They are always, in time of war, at as much expense as would be necessary to protect themselves; first, by the troops and armed ships they raise and equip; secondly, by the higher price they pay for all commodities, when drawn into war by English European quarrels; thirdly, by obstructions to the vent of their produce by general embargo.
They are justly chargeable with a certain portion of the civil list; for this most indubitably constitutes a part of government. How this article at present is managed in England, is not now my business to inquire.
I will tell you how it is managed. The colonies maintain their governors, who are the King’s representatives; and the King receives a quitrent from the lands in most of the colonies.
In many parts they are little, perhaps, or nothing at all, inferior in respect of their conveniences to the mother country.
As these differences cannot be known in Parliament here, how can you proportion and vary your taxes of America, so as to make them equal and fair? It would be undertaking what you are not qualified for, as well as doing what you have no right to do.
Yet it must be granted that they know the best state of their own funds and what taxes they can afford to pay.
And yet you would be meddling.
It is very certain that England is entitled to a great deal of gratitude from her colonies.
The English are eternally harping on this strain, the great obligation the colonies are under for protection from the French. I have shown, already, that the defence was mutual. Every man in England, and every man’s estate, have been defended from the French; but is it sense to tell any particular man “the nation has incurred a debt of one hundred and forty-eight millions to protect you and your estate, and therefore you owe a great deal of gratitude to the nation”? He will say, and justly: “I paid my proportion, and I am under no obligation.” The colonies, as I have shown in preceding notes, have always paid more in various ways, and besides extending your trade sometimes (from which you exclude the colonies), and for whims about the balance of power, and for the sake of continental connexions in which they were separately unconcerned. On the other hand, they have, from their first settlement, had wars in America, in which they never engaged you. The French have never been their enemies, but on your account.
That the late war was chiefly kindled and carried on on your account, can scarcely be denied.
It is denied.
By the steps they seem to take to shake off our sovereignty.
Our sovereignty again! This writer, like the Genoese queens of Corsica, deems himself a sprig of royalty!
For as soon as they are no longer dependent upon England, they may be assured they will immediately become dependent upon France.
We are assured of the contrary. Weak states that are poor are as safe as great ones that are rich. They are not objects of envy. The trade that may be carried on with them makes them objects of friendship. The smallest states may have great allies; and the mutual jealousies of great nations contribute to their security.
And whatever reasons there might exist to dispose them in our favor in preference to the French; yet how far these would operate no one can pretend to say.
Then be careful not to use them ill. It is a better reason for using them kindly. That alone can retain their friendship. Your sovereignty will be of no use if the people hate you. Keeping them in obedience will cost you more than your profits from them will amount to.
It is not, indeed, for their jealousy of their rights and liberties, but for their riotous and seditious manner of asserting them.
Do you Englishmen then pretend to censure the colonies for riots? Look at home! I have seen, within a year, riots in the country about corn; riots about elections; riots about work-houses; riots of colliers; riots of weavers; riots of coal-heavers; riots of sawyers; riots of sailors; riots of Wilkesites; riots of government chairmen; riots of smugglers, in which custom-house officers and excisemen have been murdered, the King’s armed vessels and troops fired at, &c. In America, if one mob rises and breaks a few windows, or tars and feathers a single rascally informer, it is called rebellion; troops and fleets must be sent, and military execution talked of as the decentest thing in the world. Here, indeed, one would think riots part of the mode of government.
And if she had not thought proper to centre almost all her care as she has done, upon making the late peace, in procuring them a safe establishment, and to sacrifice to it, in a manner, every other object, she might at least expect from them a more decent and dutiful demeanour.
In the last war, America kept up twenty-five thousand men at her own cost for five years, and spent many millions. Her troops were in all battles, all service. Thousands of her youth fell a sacrifice. The crown gained an immense extent of territory, and a great number of new subjects. Britain gained a new market for her manufactures, and recovered and secured the old one among the Indians, which the French had interrupted and annihilated. But what did the Americans gain except that safe establishment, which they are now so taunted with? Lands were divided among none of them. The very fishery, which they fought to obtain, they are now restrained in. The plunder of the Havana was not for them. And this very safe establishment they might as well have had by treaty with the French, their neighbours, who would probably have been easily made and continued their friends, if it had not been for their connexion with Britain.
And it seldom happens that any one fares the better for his insolence.
Then don’t be insolent with your power.
For should matters on all sides, as I hope they never will, be carried to extremities, I cannot take upon me to say but England may yet produce both a ministry and Parliament, that would rather share them once more with the French than relinquish her present pretensions.
We have been often threatened with this wise measure of returning Canada to France. Do it when you please. Had the French power, which you were five years subduing with twenty-five thousand regulars, and twenty-five thousand of us to help you, continued at our backs ready to support and assist us, whenever we might think proper to resist your oppressions, you would never have thought of a Stamp Act for us; you would not have dared to use us as you have done. If it be so politic a measure to have enemies at hand (as the notion is), to keep your subjects in obedience, then give part of Ireland to the French to plant. Plant another French colony in the Highlands, to keep rebellious Scotland in order. Plant another on Tower Hill, to restrain your own mobs. There never was a notion more ridiculous. Don’t you see the advantage you may have, if you preserve our connexion? The fifty thousand men and the fleet employed in America during the last war, are now so much strength at liberty to be employed elsewhere.
The legislative power of every kingdom or empire should centre in one supreme assembly.
Distinguish here what may be convenient from what is fact. Before the union it was thought convenient and long wished for, that the two kingdoms should join in one Parliament. But, till that union was formed, the fact was, that their parliaments were distinct, and the British parliaments would not make laws for Scotland. The same fact now subsists in America. The Parliament and states are distinct; but the British Parliament has taken advantage of our minority, and usurped powers not belonging to it.
It would not be amiss, perhaps, to ask them what bounds they would be content to fix to their claims and demands upon us, as hitherto they seem to be at a loss where to stop.
They only desire that you would leave them where you found them; repeal all your taxing laws, and return to requisitions when you would have aids from them.
I must freely own, that whatever opinion I may have of their right, I certainly have not quite as favorable one of their conduct, which often is neither consistent nor prudent.
They think the same of yours.
If they are really willing we should exercise any acts of sovereignty among them at all, the imposition they have so riotously resisted might not improperly, perhaps, have been allowed better quarter.
Leave the King, who alone is the sovereign, to exercise his acts of sovereignty in appointing their governors, and in approving or disapproving their laws. But do you leave it to their choice to trade elsewhere for commodities? To go to another shop? No! you say they shall buy of you, or nobody.
Nor should mere custom, nor any charter or law in being, be allowed any great weight in the decision of this point.
The charters are sacred. Violate them, and then the present bond of union (the kingly power over us) will be broken.
The Americans may insist upon the same rights, privileges, and exemptions as are allowed the Irish, because of the similarity, if not identity, of their connexions with us.
Surely the Americans deserve a little more. They never put you to the trouble and expense of conquering them, as Ireland has done three times over. They never were in rebelllion. I speak now of the native Irish. The English families settled there lost no rights by their merit in conquering that country.
But if any distinction were to be made, most certainly, of the two nations, the Americans are least entitled to any lenity on that score.
I wonder much at this “most certainly.”
The terms she may not think safe and proper to grant the Irish, she may judge full as dangerous and imprudent to grant the Americans.
It is very imprudent to deprive America of any of her privileges. If her commerce and friendship are of any importance to you, they are to be had on no other terms than leaving her in the full enjoyment of her rights.
Long before we could send among them any considerable number of forces, they might do a great deal of mischief, if not actually overturn all order and government.
They will take care to preserve order and government for their own sakes.
Several other reasons might be offered why the same measures, in regard to both nations, might not be altogether alike convenient and advisable.
Where you cannot so conveniently use force, there you should endeavour to secure affection.