Online Library of Liberty

A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets. A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.

Advanced Search

Dickinson & Lee on Federal Power

Source: Introduction to Empire and Nation: Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (John Dickinson). Letters from the Federal Farmer (Richard Henry Lee), ed. Forrest McDonald (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1999).

Introduction by Forrest McDonald

At first glance, it might seem that John Dickinson’s Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania and Richard Henry Lee’s Letters from the Federal Farmer have little in common beyond being epistles from negative-minded agrarians. Two decades and a Revolution separated their publication: Dickinson’s Letters were published late in 1767, Lee’s late in 1787. Their subject matter appears even less related, for Dickinson wrote in opposition to the Townshend Acts, Lee in opposition to the ratification of the Constitution of the United States. Finally, though both men rank among the more celebrated of the Founding Fathers, they stood on opposite sides of the two most important issues of the revolutionary epoch. In the summer of 1776 Lee authored the motion that the colonies should sever their ties with Britain, and Dickinson was among the foremost opponents of the Declaration of Independence. Eleven summers later, Dickinson helped author the Constitution, and Lee was among its foremost opponents.

But in fact they are dealing with the same question, the never-ending problem of the distribution of power in a broad and complex federal system. Despite a persistent myth of a bygone laissez-faire paradise (or hell, depending on the point of view), Americans have always been accustomed to fairly extensive governmental interference in their lives, but they have continually argued over just which government should do the interfering. When the British government began to levy taxes on the colonies, when the colonies declared their independence, when the new states joined in a “league of friendship” under the Articles of Confederation, when they formed a “more perfect union” under the Constitution, the sum total of governmental power that was recognized as legitimate remained essentially the same. What was being changed was the distribution of power, the equilibrium of the federal system. And each time power has shifted, from then until now, Americans have re-argued the question.

As documents that shaped opinion on two critical attempts to relocate power, Dickinson’s and Lee’s letters are historically significant, but they are at least equally significant as archetypes. Dickinson’s view is historical, pragmatic, and in the Burkean sense, conservative; Lee’s is immediate, rational, and in the Jeffersonian sense, liberal. Throughout his life, Dickinson explicitly rejected the rationalism of the eighteenth century; “Experience,” he once said, “must be our only guide,” for “reason may mislead us.” As consistently, Lee defended the possibility of a clean, rational break with the past. Because these two attitudes form the principal molds into which Americans have cast their arguments over the location of power—as well as over most other political questions—Dickinson and Lee may well be regarded as models for the American political tradition.

John Dickinson was not, strictly speaking, either a farmer or a Pennsylvanian. He was born in Maryland (1732), grew up and received a thorough education in classics and history in Delaware (1742–53), studied law at the Middle Temple in London (1753–57), then returned and was admitted to the bar in Philadelphia. He rapidly attained a lucrative and prestigious practice; almost as rapidly, he succumbed to the lure of politics, the occupational hazard of lawyers in a popular government. In 1760 he became a member of the Assembly of Delaware, and two years later he was elected to the Assembly of Pennsylvania (until the Revolution, Pennsylvania and Delaware were not entirely separate: they had individual legislatures but a common governor). During most of his remaining life he practiced law in Philadelphia, maintained a country estate in Delaware, and was active in the politics of both colonies/states.

His first major action in Pennsylvania politics demonstrated the stand he was to take all his life, and incidentally won him brief but widespread unpopularity. In 1764 Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Galloway led a movement to have the Penns’ proprietary charter revoked, and thus to transform Pennsylvania into a royal colony. The colonists had abundant grievances against the proprietary governor, and few save Dickinson were willing to take a strong stand against Franklin and Galloway. But Dickinson was instinctively wary of any sudden, decisive action, and he knew too much British history to believe that kings and ministers were repositories of infinite virtue, and so he fought. Within eighteen months his argument—that, bad as the proprietors were, the charter did guarantee certain liberties, and Pennsylvanians had no reason to expect improvement by entrusting themselves to the king and his ministers—proved prophetic. In 1765 the Grenville ministry produced the Stamp Act, and subsequent ministries produced the succession of acts that became stepping stones to revolution.

For the next decade, circumstances placed a premium on Dickinson’s particular combination of attitudes and talents. For centuries Englishmen had, when considering something new in politics, justified their espousal (or opposition) by maintaining that they sought only to restore (or preserve) something that Englishmen had always had. Now, in the vast imperial constitutional crisis of 1765–76, the Americans needed a spokesman who could, in this traditional way, justify their resistance to British authority. Whatever their motives for resisting—and these ranged from such sordid aims as grabbing land, repudiating personal debts, and smuggling, to idealistic concern for the supposed natural rights of man—Americans needed someone who could state their case in such a way as to make king and parliament out as radical innovators, and themselves out as defenders of ancient traditions. This, in fact, is just what Dickinson believed to be the case, and few colonists so believing could match Dickinson’s knowledge of history and law and his skill with words.

From the Stamp Act Congress (at which he wrote the celebrated resolutions declaring Britain had no right to tax the colonies) until the eve of the Second Continental Congress, Dickinson’s was among the most eloquent and respected voices in the colonies. Such was the respect he commanded by 1776 that he could refuse to vote for or sign the Declaration of Independence—for the same conservative, pragmatic, and historical reasons that he opposed the Stamp Act—and yet continue to be generally regarded as a patriot.

This enormous prestige was built largely upon the Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer. The immediate background of these essays lay in two loosely connected sets of events. The first was an act, passed at about the time of the Stamp Act, that required each colony to furnish food and shelter for soldiers stationed within its boundaries; this did not tax the colonies, but it required them to tax themselves. To hedge on this issue while contesting the larger issue of parliament’s right to tax directly, most colonies were careful to comply only in part or to offer the services as a voluntary gift, making no reference to the parliamentary law. New York, which had more troops than anyone else, flatly refused to comply, and its assembly was prorogued, an action that took some of the luster from the victory the colonies were winning in the Stamp Act controversy.

The other set of events was the Declaratory Act and the Townshend Acts. In March, 1766, parliament repealed the Stamp Act, but not without simultaneously declaring that it had the right to legislate for the colonies “in all cases whatsoever.” Fifteen months later, it passed the Townshend Acts, imposing duties to be paid by the colonists on certain items they imported (paper, glass, lead, paints, tea), and reorganizing the entire colonial customs machinery—an action which one historian has called “England’s most fateful action.”

In taking these steps, Britain was making the most dangerous of all political blunders: it was stating its position clearly and as an absolute. Until that moment, the imperial system had worked, and it had worked precisely because it had never been clearly defined. Now, parliament was declaring, in effect, “This is what the empire is, and this is what it shall be.” The Stamp Act had been easy for the colonists to react to, for it was gross, and resisting it necessitated no final commitment on the nature of the imperial system. The Declaratory and Townshend Acts were the opposite: the taxes imposed were subtle, being small and painlessly collected, but resisting them was an irreversible step. In 1765, the tax issue had been clear and the imperial issue muddled; in 1767, it was the other way around. Small wonder that the colonists hesitated before taking their stand.

For once, Dickinson hesitated not at all; or if he did, it was only long enough to learn whether anyone else would take up the gauntlet, and no longer. By the time the new customs commissioners arrived in America, Dickinson had his twelve epistolary essays ready as a greeting of unwelcome. He dated his first letter November 5, 1767, the seventy-ninth anniversary of the landing of William the Third at Torbay, the occasion that “gave Constitutional Liberty to all Englishmen.” The letters were published in twelve installments in the weekly Pennsylvania Chronicle and Universal Advertiser, beginning with the issue of November 30. Their impact and their circulation were unapproached by any publication of the revolutionary period except Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. (Indeed, because they were a crucial step toward transforming the mass circulation pamphlet into the soberest forum for debating public issues, they helped make Common Sense possible.) They were quickly reprinted in newspapers all over the colonies, and published in pamphlet form in Philadelphia (three editions), Boston (two editions), New York, Williamsburg, London, Paris, and Dublin. Immediately, everyone took Dickinson’s argument into account: Americans in assemblies, town meetings, and mass meetings adopted resolutions of thanks; British ministers wrung their hands; all the British press commented, and a portion of it applauded; Irish malcontents read avidly; even the dilettantes of the Paris salons discussed the Pennsylvania Farmer.

But the consequences were a good deal more important than just that. Parliament had posed a rigid, narrow, arbitrary definition of its powers; Dickinson countered with a subtle, pluralistic, historical, realistic definition of the imperial constitution; but his view was, in its way, as brittle and as absolute as was parliament’s. Parliament’s claim admitted only of acceptance or rejection; Dickinson pleaded for conciliation, flexibility, mutual concession, but by the very act of attempting to pin down the location of power in the empire, he reduced the empire to a form in which concession was impossible. In the long run, Dickinson’s system admitted no more of compromise than did parliament’s. Together, they forced everyone on both sides to face and give a firm answer to a forbidden question: what is the nature and distribution of power in the imperial system? To force a firm answer to that question was to invite destruction, for the only viable federal system is one in which power is free to shift.

Richard Henry Lee—a Virginia aristocrat who was, like Dickinson, born in 1732—was a weaker and more attractive breed of man. He was as rash as Dickinson was prudent, as flamboyant as Dickinson was straightlaced, as cunning as Dickinson was straightforward. Both got into political hot water from time to time, but when Dickinson did so, his action usually reeked of integrity, and when Lee did so his action usually smacked of the unsavory.

The most significant differences were two. The first was that mentioned earlier: that Dickinson was in the historical and Lee was in the rationalist tradition. In the historical view, men have such rights as they have won over the years; in the rationalist view, men are born with certain rights, whether they are honored in a particular society or not. The other difference lay in their talents for expressing themselves. Dickinson wrote extremely well, but was a mediocre speaker; Lee was a mediocre writer and a brilliant orator. Dickinson’s influence was felt wherever men could read; Lee’s was confined to the range of his own voice, and so in the decade before independence, when Dickinson’s word reached everyone, Lee’s scarcely reached across the Potomac.

But there soon came a day when the voice spoke louder than the pen. Amid the smoke and flames of ’seventy-five and ’seventy-six, in the halls of the first and second Continental Congresses, Lee and his cohort Patrick Henry and their kindred soul Sam Adams seized leadership. By their shrewd maneuvers and their ringing appeals to the rights of man, they swayed the men who held the fate of the colonies in their hands, and thus brought revolution where those like Dickinson had sought stability.

In another decade, Dickinson and his kind had their day again: in 1787, they wrote the Constitution of the United States. This occasioned for Lee—as it did for several of his friends of 1776—the last great political battle of his life.

The Constitution located power not only in a new place but also in a new way, and for each reason it encountered a ready-made set of enemies. It took some (but not all) powers then being exercised by the states, shifted them upstream, and thereby created a new general government. Automatically, almost everyone with a vested interest, political or economic, in the system of the Articles of Confederation—under which the states were all-but-sovereign republics—fought the change. At the same time the Constitution relocated power, it distributed the new national power among three branches of government; but at each axis the lines of separation were left blurred, shifting, and sometimes nonexistent. The result was a most irrational (and therefore viable) system: a many-faceted government in which it was impossible to pin down the location of power. Automatically, almost all rationalists—most of whom were republican idealogues—also fought the change.

Even before the Constitution appeared in September, 1787, Lee stood poised, pen in hand, ready to attack it. A believer in a national government founded on “proper” principles, he joined others who opposed a national government founded on any principles, and together they attempted to weld a united opposition to ratification. The center of this activity was New York. George Clinton, governor of New York and a devout foe of nationalism, likewise was ready with articles denouncing the Constitution before it existed; and Clinton’s printer, Thomas Greenleaf (publisher of the New York Journal and Weekly Advertiser, and printer to the state), printed and distributed Lee’s five Letters from the Federal Farmer as a pamphlet, as he did the writings of many other anti-Federalists.

Lee’s letters were dated October 8–15, 1787. The popularity of this pamphlet—it sold several thousand copies—as well as the momentum the Federalists were achieving, induced Lee to write a new series of essays. The new series, titled the same as the first, consisted of thirteen letters, dated from December 25, 1787, to January 25, 1788. It was not nearly so successful as the first, and it soon fell into obscurity.

In 1888, during the centennial celebrations of the ratification of the Constitution, Paul Leicester Ford published a book called Pamphlets on the Constitution, in which he republished Lee’s first series of letters. He dismissed the thirteen additional letters as “largely repetitions of the first,” and because Ford’s book has for many years been the only easily available copy of Lee’s work, the second series of letters all but disappeared from memory.

The present editor agrees with Ford’s judgment in the main: letters 8–10, which are concerned largely with representation, letters 11 and 12, concerned with the Senate, letters 13 and 14, concerned with appointive offices, and letter 15, concerned with the judicial branch, are all not only repetitive of Lee’s earlier arguments, but are also extremely verbose and tedious. Letters 6, 7, 16, and 17, on the other hand, are much more interesting, and they all bear directly on the central question in all these essays, balance in the federal system. For that reason these four of the second series are included in this collection.

The texts of both Dickinson’s and Lee’s Letters in the present edition are from first editions in the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University. The Dickinson text has been followed as closely as possible, even to the reproduction of errors. Thus, for example, Dickinson regularly misspelled the name of British statesman George Grenville, rendering it Greenville, and Dickinson’s rendition has been followed here. In a few instances, however, absolute faithfulness to the original would yield absurd or misleading results, and minor modifications have been made. Dickinson’s letters posed additional problems, for he followed the common pre-revolutionary practice of using a variety of typographical effects to achieve emphasis, and it has not always been possible to reproduce this convention with modern type. Inasmuch as no definitive edition of Lee’s Letters exists—the eighteenth-century printings vary widely—the John Carter Brown Library edition has been standardized in terms of spelling, punctuation, and capitalization in order to make the substance more accessible to the modern reader.

Last modified April 13, 2016