To the Inhabitants of the Province of Massachusetts-Bay.
BY an act of parliament, made in the twenty-fifth year of the reign of Charles the second, duties are laid upon goods and merchandise of various kinds, exported from the colonies to foreign countries, or carried from one colony to another, payable on exportation. I will recite a part of it; viz. ‘For so much of the said commodities as shall be laden and put on board such ship or vessel, that is to say, for sugar white the hundred weight, five shillings; and brown and Muscovados the hundred weight, one shilling and sixpence; tobacco the pound, one penny; cotton wool the pound, one half-penny; for indigo two pence; ginger the hundred weight, one shilling; logwood the hundred weight, five pounds; fustic and all other dying wood the hundred weight, six pence; cocoa the pound, one penny, to be levied, collected, and paid at such places and to such collectors and other officers, as shall be appointed in the respective plantations, to collect, levy and receive the same before the landing thereof, and under such penalties both to the officers and upon the goods, as for non-payment of, or desrauding his majesty of his customs in England. And for the better collecting of the several rates and duties imposed by this act, be it enacted, that this whole business shall be ordered and managed, and the several duties hereby imposed shall be caused to be levied by the commissioners of the customs in England, by and under the authority of the lord treasurer of England, or commissioners of the treasury.’
It is apparent, from the reasoning of this statute, that these duties were imposed for the sole purpose of revenue. There has lately been a most ingenious play upon the words and expressions, tax, revenue, purpose of raising a revenue, sole purpose of raising a revenue, express purpose of raising a revenue; as though their being inserted in or left out of a statute, would make any essential difference in the statute. This is mere playing with words; for if, from the whole tenor of the act, it is evident, that the intent of the legislature was to tax, rather than to regulate the trade, by imposing duties on goods and merchandise; it is to all intents and purposes an instance of taxation, be the form of words, in which the statute is conceived, what it will. That such was the intent of the legislature, in this instance, any one that will take the pains to read it will be convinced. There have been divers alterations made in this by subsequent statutes; but some of the above taxes remain, and are collected and paid in the colonies to this day. By an act of the 7th and 8th of William and Mary it is enacted, ‘that every seaman whatsoever that shall serve his majesty, or any other person whatever in any of his majesty’s ships or vessels whatsoever, belonging or to belong to any subjects of England, or any other his majesty’s dominions, shall allow, and there shall be paid out of the wages of every such seaman, to grow due for such his service, six pence per annum for the better support of the said hospital, and to augment the revenue thereof.’ This tax was imposed in the reign of King William the third, of blessed memory, and is still levied in the colonies. It would require a volume to recite or minutely remark upon all the revenue acts that relate to America. We find them in many reigns, imposing new duties, taking off, or reducing, old ones, and making provision for their collection, or new appropriations of them. By an act of the 7th and 8th of William and Mary, entitled ‘an act for preventing frauds and regulating abuses in the plantations,’ all former acts respecting the plantations are renewed, and all ships and vessels, coming into any port here, are liable to the same regulations and restrictions as ships in the ports in England are liable to; and it enacts ‘That the officers for collecting and managing his majesty’s revenue, and inspecting the plantation trade in many of the said plantations, shall have the same powers and authority for visiting and searching of ships and taking their entries, and for seizing, or securing, or bringing on shore, any of the goods prohibited to be imported or exported into or out of any of the said colonies and plantations, or for which any duties are payable or ought to be paid by any of the before mentioned acts, as are provided for the officers of the customs in England.’
The act of the 9th of Queen Anne, for establishing a post-office, gives this reason for its establishment, and for laying taxes thereby imposed on the carriage of letters in Great-Britain and Ireland, the colonies and plantations in North-America and the West-Indies, and all other his majesty’s dominions and territories, ‘that the business may be done in such manner as may be most beneficial to the people of these kingdoms, and her majesty may be supplied, and the revenue arising by the said office, better improved, settled and secured to her majesty, her heirs and successors.’ The celebrated patriot, Dr. Franklin, was till lately one of the principal collectors of it. The merit in putting the post-office in America upon such a footing as to yield a large revenue to the crown, is principally ascribed to him by the whigs. I would not wish to detract from the real merit of that gentleman; but, had a tory been half so assiduous in increasing the American revenue, Novanglus would have wrote parricide at the end of his name. By an act of the sixth of George the second, a duty is laid on all foreign rum, melasses, syrups, sugars and paneles, to be raised, levied, collected and paid unto and for the use of his majesty, his heirs and successors. The preamble of an act of the fourth of his present majesty declares, that ‘it is just and necessary that a revenue in America for defraying the expences of defending, protecting and securing the same,’ &c. by which act duties are laid upon foreign sugars, coffee, Madeira wine; upon Portugal, Spanish and all other wine (except French wine) imported from Great-Britain; upon silks, bengals, stuffs, callico, linen cloth, cambric and lawn, imported from particular places.
Thus, my friends, it is evident, that the parliament has been in the actual, uninterrupted use and exercise of the right claimed by them, to raise a revenue in America, from a period more remote than the grant of the present charter, to this day. These revenue acts have never been called unconstitutional till very lately. Both whigs and tories acknowledged them to be constitutional. In 1764 Governor Bernard wrote and transmitted to his friends his polity alluded to, and in part received by Novanglus, wherein he asserts the right or authority of parliament to tax the colonies. Mr. Otis, whose patriotism, sound policy, profound learning, integrity and honour, is mentioned in strong terms by Novanglus, in the self-same year, in a pamphlet which he publishes to the whole world, asserts the right or authority of parliament to tax the colonies, as roundly as ever Governor Bernard did, which I shall have occasion to take an extract from hereafter. Mr. Otis was at that time the most popular man in the province, and continued his popularity many years afterwards.
Is it not a most astonishing instance of caprice, or infatuation, that a province, torn from its foundations, should be precipitating itself into a war with Great-Britain, because the British parliament asserts its right of raising a revenue in America; inasmuch as the claim of that right is as antient as the colonies themselves, and there is at present no grievous exercise of it? The parliament’s refusing to repeal the tea act is the ostensible foundation of our quarrel. If we ask the whigs, whether the pitiful three-penny duty upon a luxurious, unwholesome, foreign commodity, gives just occasion for the opposition; they tell us, it is the precedent they are contending about, insinuating that it is an innovation. But this ground is not tenable; for a total repeal of the tea-act would not serve us upon the score of precedents. They are numerous without this. The whigs have been extremely partial respecting tea. Poor tea has been made the shibboleth of party; while melasses, wine, coffee, indigo, &c. &c. have been unmolested. A person that drinks New-England rum, distilled from melasses subject to a like duty, is equally deserving of a coat of tar and feathers with him that drinks tea. A coffee drinker is as culpable as either, viewed in a political light. But, say our patriots, if the British parliament may take a penny from us without our consent, they may a pound, and so on, till they have filched away all our property. This incessant incantation operates like a spell or a charm, and checks the efforts of loyalty in many an honest breast. Let us give it its full weight: Do they mean that if the parliament has a right to raise a revenue of one penny on the colonies, that they must therefore have a right to wrest from us all our property? If this be their meaning, I deny their deduction; for the supreme legislature can have no right to tax any part of the empire to a greater amount, than its just and equitable proportion of the necessary national expence. This is a line drawn by the constitution itself. Do they mean, that, if we admit that the parliament may constitutionally raise one penny upon us for the purposes of revenue, they will probably proceed from light to heavy taxes, till their impositions become grievous and intolerable? This amounts to no more than a denial of the right, lest it should be abused. But an argument drawn from the actual abuse of a power, will not conclude to the illegality of such power; much less will an argument drawn from the capability of its being abused. If it would, we might readily argue away all power that man is intrusted with. I will admit, that a power of taxation is more liable to abuse than legislation separately considered; and it would give me pleasure to see some other line drawn, some other barrier erected, than what the constitution has already done, if it be possible, whereby the constitutional authority of the supreme legislature might be preserved intire, and America be guaranteed in every right and exemption, consistent with her subordination and dependence. But this can only be done by parliament. I repeat, I am no advocate for a land-tax, or any other kind of internal tax, nor do I think we were in any danger of them; I have not been able to discover one symptom of any such intention in the parliament, since the repeal of the stamp-act. Indeed the principal speakers of the majority, that repealed the stamp-act, drew the line for us, between internal and external taxation; and I think we ought, in honour, justice, and good policy, to have acquiesced therein, at least till there was some burdensome exercise of taxation. For there is but little danger from the latter, that is, from duties laid upon trade; as any grievous restriction or imposition on American trade, would be sensibly felt by the British; and I think, with Dr. Franklin, that ‘they (the British nation) have a natural and equitable right to some toll or duty upon merchandises carried through that part of their dominions, viz. the American seas, towards defraying the expence they are at in ships to maintain the safety of that carriage.’ These were his words in his examination at the bar of the house, in 1765. Sed tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis. Before we appeal to heaven for the justice of our cause, we ought to determine, with ourselves, some other questions, whether America is not obliged in equity to contribute something toward the national defence: Whether the present American revenue amounts to our proportion: And whether we can, with any tolerable grace, accuse Great-Britain of injustice in imposing the late duties, when our Assemblies were previously called upon, and refused to make any provision for themselves. These, with several imaginary grievances, not yet particularly remarked upon, I shall consider in reviewing the publications of Novanglus; a performance, which, though not destitute of ingenuity, I read with a mixture of grief and indignation, as it seems to be calculated to blow up every spark of animosity, and to kindle such a flame, as must inevitably consume a great part of this once happy province, before it can be extinguished.
February 27, 1775