Mason's Letter to London Merchants
In the spring of 1764 and 1765, Parliament passed several acts, including the Sugar Act, Stamp Act, and Quartering Act, that were all aimed at raising revenue for the Crown through the colonies. Colonists were quickly becoming outraged at these impositions and seeming violations of their rights, namely taxation without representation, and many came together to find ways around these taxes, especially the Stamp Act. In late February, 1766, a group of merchants in London sent a letter directed specifically to the merchants of New York, but applying to all colonists, that admonished them for their combative reactions to taxation, and pleaded with them to comply with the demands of, and express gratitude to, their Mother-Country. The letter from the British merchants was published in several colonial newspapers, including the Virginia Gazette (Purdie) in May, 1766. In early June, 1766, after reading the letter from the London merchants in the Virginia Gazette, George Mason wrote a letter to the London Public Ledger in response to what he saw as their unfair criticism.
River June 6th 1766
To the Committee of Merchants in London
There is a Letter of yours dated the 28th of Febry last, lately printed in the public Papers here; which tho' addressed to a particular Set of men, seems intended for the Colonys in general; and being upon a very interesting Subject, I shall, without further Preface or Apology, exercise the Right of a Freeman, in making such Remarks upon it as I think proper.
The Epithets of Parent & Child have been so long applyed to Great Britain & her Colonys, that Individuals have adopted them, and we rarely see anything, from your Side of the Water, free from the authoritative Style of a Master to a School-Boy.
"We have, with infinite Difficulty & Fatigue got you excused this one Time; pray be a good boy for the future; do what your Papa and Mamma bid you, & hasten to return them your most grateful Acknowledgements for condescending to let you keep what is your own; and then all your Acquaintance will love you, & praise you, & give you pretty things; and if you shou'd, at any Time hereafter, happen to transgress, your Friends will all beg for you, and be Security for your good Behaviour; but if you are a naughty Boy, & turn obstinate, & don't mind what your Papa & Mamma say to you, but presume to think their Commands (let them be what they will) unjust or unreasonable, or even seem to ascribe their present Indulgence to any other Motive than Excess of Moderation & Tenderness, and pretend to judge for yourselves, when you are not arrived at the Years of Discretion, or capable of distinguishing between Good & Evil; then every-body will hate you, & say you are a graceless & undutiful Child; your Parents & Masters will be obliged to whip you severely, & your Friends will be ashamed to say any thing in your Excuse: nay they will be blamed for your Faults. See your work--See what you have brought the Child to--If he had been well scourged at first for opposing our absolute Will & Pleasure, & daring to think he had any such thing as Property of his own, he wou'd not have had the Impudence to repeat the Crime."
"My dear Child, we have laid the Alternative fairly before you, you can't hesitate in the Choice, and we doubt not you will observe such a Conduct as your Friends recommend."
Is not this a little ridiculous, when applyed to three Millions of as loyal & useful Subjects as any in the British dominions, who have been only contending for their Birth-right, and have now only gained, or rather kept, what cou'd not, with common Justice, or even Policy, be denyed them? But setting aside the Manner, let me seriously consider the Substance & Subject of your Letter.
Can the Honour of Parliament be maintained by persisting in a Measure evidently wrong? Is it any Reflection upon the Honour of Parliament to shew itself wiser this Year than the last, to have profited by Experience, and to correct the Errors which Time & endubitable Evidence have pointed out? If the Declaratory Act, or Vote of Right, has asserted any unjust, oppressive, or unconstitutional Principles, to become "waste paper" wou'd be the most innocent use that cou'd be made of it: by the Copys we have seen here, the legislative authority of Great Britain is fully & positively asserted in all Cases whatsoever. But a just & necessary Distinction between Legislation & Taxation hath been made by the greatest & wisest Men in the Nation; so that if the Right to the latter had been disclaimed, it wou'd not have impeached or weakened the Vote of Right; on the contrary it wou'd have strengthened it; for Nothing (except hanging the Author of the Stamp Act) wou'd have contributed more to restore that Confidence which a weak or corrupt Ministry had so greatly impaired.
We do not deny the supreme Authority of Great Britain over her Colonys, but it is a Power which a wise Legislature will exercise with extreme Tenderness & Caution, and carefully avoid the least Imputation or Suspicion of Partiality. Wou'd to God that this Distinction between us & your fellow Subjects residing in Great Britain, by depriving us of the ancient Tryal, by a Jury of our Equals, and substituting in its' place an arbitrary Civil Law Court--to put it in the Power of every Sycophant & Informer ("the most mischievous, wicked abandoned & profligate Race" says an eminent writer upon British Politics, "that ever God permited to plague Mankind") to drag a Freeman a thousand Miles from his own Country (whereby he may be deprived of the Benefit of Evidence) to defend his property before a Judge, who, from the Nature of his office, is a Creature of the Ministry, liable to be displaced at their Pleasure, whose Interest it is to encourage Informers, as his Income may in a great Measure depend upon hi Condemnations, and to give such a Judge a Power of excluding the most innocent Man, thus treated, from any Remedy (even the recovery of his Cost) by only certifying that in his Opinion there was a probable Cause of Complaint; and thus to make the property of the Subject, in a matter which may reduce him from Opulence to Indigence, depend upon a word before an unknown in the Language & Style of Laws! Are these among the Instances that call for our Expression of "filial Gratitude to our Parent- Country?" These things did not altogether depend upon the Stamp- Act, and therefore are not repealed with it. Can the Foundations of the State be saved, & the Body of the People remain unaffected? Are the Inhabitants of Great Britain absolutely certain that, int he Ministry or Parliament of a future Day, such Incroachments will not be urged as Precedents against themselves?
Is the Indulgence of Great Britain manifested by prohibiting her Colonys from exporting to foreign Countrys such Commoditys as she does not want, & from importing such as she does not produce or manufacture & therefore can not furnish but upon extravagant Terms? One of your own Writers (I think it is Bishop Burnett) relates a remarkable peice of Tyranny of the Priesthood in Italy. "They make it an Article of Religion" says he " for the People to mix Water with their Wine in the Press, by which it is soured; so that the Laity can not drink a Drop of good Wine, unless they buy it from the Convents, at whatever Price the Clergy think fit to set upon it." I forbear to make the Application.
Let our fellow-Subjects in Great Britain reflect that we are descended from the same Stock with themselves, nurtured in the same Principles of Freedom; which we have both suck'd in with our Mother's Milk: that in crossing the Atlantic Ocean, we have only changed our Climate, not our Minds, our Natures & Dispositions remain unaltered; that We are still the same People with them, in every Respect; only not yet debauched by Wealth, Luxury, Venality, & Corruption; and then they will be able to judge how the late Regulations have been relished in America.
You need not, Gentlemen, be afraid of our "breaking out into intemperate Strains of Triumph & Exultation" there is yet no Cause that our Joy shou'd exceed the Bounds of Moderation.
If we are ever so unfortunate to be made Slaves; which God avert! what Matter is it to us whether our chains are forged in London, or at Constantinople? Whether the Oppression comes from a British Parliament, or a Turkish Divan?
You tell us that "our Task-Masters will probably be restored." Do You mean the Stamp-Officers, or the Stamp- Ministry? If the first, the Treatment they have already found here will hardly make them fond of returning--If the latter, we despise them too much to fear them.--They have sufficiently exposed their own Ignorance, Malice, & Impotence--The Clovenfoot has been too plainly seen to be again concealed; They have rendered themselves as obnoxious to Great Britain as to America.
If the late Ministerial Party cou'd have influenced the Legislature to have made so cruel & dangerous an Experiment as attempting to enforce the Stamp-Act by military Power, wou'd the Nation have engaged heartily in such an execrable Cause? Wou'd there have been no Difficulty in raising & transporting a Body of Troops sufficient to occupy a Country of more than two thousand Miles in Extent? Wou'd they have had no Dangers to encounter in the Woods & Wilds of America. Three Millions of People driven to Desperation are not an Object of Contempt. America, however weak in herself, diminished in Proportion by her Loss: with prudent Management she might become an impenetrable Bulwark to the British Nation, and almost enable it to stand before the Stroke of Time.
Say there was not a Possibility of failing in the Project; what then wou'd have been the Consequence? Cou'd you have destroyed us without ruining yourselves? The Trade of Great Britain is carryed on & supported, principally by Credit. If the American [British?] merchant has an hundred thousand pounds due to him in the Colonys, he must owe near as much to his Woolen- Draper, his Linnen-Draper; his Grocer, &c. and these again are indebted to the Manufacturer, & son on: there is no determinate End to this Commercial Chain; break but one Link of it, and the whole is destroyed. Make a Bank[r]upt of the Merchant by stopping his Remittances from America, and you strike at the Credit of every Man who has Connections with him: there is no knowing where the Contagion wou'd stop. You wou'd overturn one another, like a Set of Nine Pins. The Value of your Lands & Produce wou'd fall, your Manufacturers wou'd starve for want of Employment, your Funds might fail, your public-Credit sink. And let but the Bubble once burst; where is the Man who cou'd undertake to blow it up again?
These Evils are, for the present, removed. Praised be Almighty God! Blessed be our most gracious Sovereign! Thanks to the present mild & prudent Temper of Parliament. Thanks to the wise & honest Conduct of the present Administration. Thanks to the unwearied Diligence of our Friends the British Merchants, & Manufacturers; Thanks to that happy Circumstance of their private Interest being so interwoven with ours, that they cou'd not be separated. Thanks to the spirited & disinterested Conduct of our own Merchants in the northern Colonys; who deserve to have their Names handed down, with Reverence & Gratitude to Posterity. Thanks to the Unanimity of the Colonys themselves. And many Thanks to our generous & able Benefactor, Mr. Pitt; who has always stood forth a Champion in the Cause of Liberty & his Country. No Thanks to Mr. Grenville & his Party; who, without his Genius or Abilitys, has dared to act the part that Pericles did, when He engaged his Country in the Peleponesian War; which, after a long & dreadful Scene of Blood, ended in the Ruin of all Greece, and fitted it for the Macedonian Yoke. Some Bungler in politics will soon, perhaps, be framing Schemes for restraining our Manufacturers. Vain Attempt! Our Land is cheap and fresh, we have more of it than we are able to employ; while we can live in Ease & Plenty upon our Farms, Tillage, & not Arts, will engage our Attention. If by opening the Channels of Trade, you afford Us a ready Market for the Produce of our Lands, and an Opportunity of purchasing cheap the Conveniencys of Life, all our superfluous Gain will sink into Your Pockets, in Return for British Manufactures. If the Trade of this Continent with the French & Spaniards, in their Sugar-Islands, had not been restrained, Great Britain would soon have undersold them, with their own Produce, in every Market of the World. Until you lay Us under a necessity of shifting for ourselves, You need not be afraid of the Manufactures of America. The ancient Poets, in their elegant Manner of Expression, have made a kind of Being of Necessity, and tell Us that the Gods themselves are obliged to yield to her. It is by Invitations & Indulgence, not by Compulsion, that the Market for British Manufactures is to be kept up, & increased in America:--without the first, you will find the latter as ineffectual, as destructive of the End it aims at, as Persecution in Matters of Religion, which serves not to extinguish, but to confirm the Heresy. There is a Passion natural to the Mind of man, especially a free Man, which renders him impatient of Restraint. Do you, does any sensible Man think that three or four Millions of People, not naturally defective in Genius, or in Courage, who have tasted the Sweets of Liberty in a Country that doubles it's Inhabitants every twenty Years, in a Country abounding in such Variety of Soil & Climate, capable of producing not only the Necessarys, but the Conveniencys & Delicacys of Life, will long submit to Oppression; if unhappily for yourselves, Oppression shou'd be offered them? Such another Experiment as the Stamp-Act wou'd produce a general Revolt in America.
Do you think that all your rival Powers in Europe wou'd sit still, & see you crush your once flourishing & thriving Colonys, unconcerned Spectators of such a Quarrel? Recollect what happened in the Low-Countrys a Century or two ago. Call to Mind the Cause of the Revolt. Call to Mind too the Part that England herself then acted. The same Causes will generally produce the same Effects; and it requires no great Degree of Penetration to foretell that what has happened, may happen again. God forbid there shou'd be Occasion, and grant that the Union, Liberty, and mutual Happiness of Great Britain, & her Colonys may continue, uninterrupted, to the latest Ages!
America has always acknowledged her Dependence upon Great Britain. It is her Interest, it is her Inclination to depend upon Great Britain. We readily own that these Colonys were first setled, not at the Expence, but under the Protection of the English Government; which Protection it has continued to afford them; and we own too, that Protection & Allegiance are reciprocal Dutys. If it is asked at whose Expence they were setled? The Answer is obvious at the Expence of the private Adventurers our Ancestors; the Fruit of whose Toil and Danger we new enjoy.
We claim Nothing but the Liberty & Privileges of Englishmen, in the same Degree, as if we had still continued among our Brethren in Great Britain: these Rights have not been forfeited by any Act of ours, we can not be deprived of them without our Consent, but by Violence & Injustice; We have received them from our Ancestors and, with God's Leave, we will transmit them, unimpaired to our Posterity. Can those, who have hitherto acted as our Friends, endeavour now, insidiously, to draw from Us Concessions destructive to what we hold far dearer than Life!
--If I cou'd find Example Of thousands, that by base Submission had Preserv'd their Freedom, I'd not do't; but since Nor Brass, nor Stone, nor Parchment bears not one; Let Cowardice itself forswear it.--
Our Laws, our Language, our Principles of Government, our Inter-marriages, & other Connections, our constant Intercourse, and above all our Interest, are so many Bands which hold us to Great Britain, not to be broken, but my Tyranny and Oppression. Strange, that among the late Ministry, there shou'd not be found a Man of common Sense & common Honesty, to improve & strengthen these natural Tyes by a mild & just Government, instead of weakening, & almost dissolving them by Partiality & Injustice! But I will not open the wounds which have been so lately bound up, and which still require a skilful & a gentle Hand to heal them.
These are the Sentiments of a Man, who spends most of his Time in Retirement, and has seldom med[d]led in public Affairs, who enjoys a moderate but independent Fortune, and content with the Blessings of a private Station, equally disregards the Smiles & Frowns of the Great; who tho' not born within the Verge of the British Isle, is an Englishman in his Principles; a Zealous Assertor of the Act of Settlement, firmly attached to the present royal Family upon the Throne, unalienably affected to his Majesty's sacred Person & Government, in the Defence of which he wou'd shed the last Drop of his Blood; who looks upon Jacobiteism as the most absurd Infatuation, the wildest Chimaera that ever entered into the Head of Man; who adores the Wisdom & Happiness of the British Constitution; and if He had his Election now to make, wou'd prefer it to any that does, or ever did exist. I am not singular in this my Political Creed; these are the general Principles of his Majesty's Subjects in America; they are the Principles of more than nine-tenths of the People who have been so basely misrepresented to you, and whom you can never grant too much; because you can hardly give them any thing, which will not redound to the Benefit of the Giver.
If any Person shou'd think it worth his while to animadvert upon what I have written, I shall make no Reply. I have neither Abilitys nor Inclination to turn Author. If the Maxims have asserted, & the Reflections I have made, are in themselves just, they will need no Vindication; if they are erronious, I shall esteem it a Favour to have my Errors pointed out; and will, in modest Silence, kiss the Rod that corrects me.
I am, Gentlemen, Your most obdt. Servt.
A Virginia Planter.