- The Slave Narrative and the Stamp Act, or Letters from Two American Farmers in Pennsylvania
One enduring legacy of the Stamp Act, 250 years after its passage in 1765, is an ongoing willingness, among conservative American politicians and pundits, to equate political coercion generally, and oppressive tax policies more specifically, with slavery. As Bernard Bailyn notes, North American Whigs borrowed this conception of slavery from their eighteenth-century counterparts in England and popularized its figurative use during debates over the Stamp Act, Townshend Duties, and subsequent crises (232–46).1 In 1764, while Prime Minister George Grenville was still formulating the specific provisions of the Stamp Act, the governor of Rhode Island, Stephen Hopkins, anticipatorily objected that “they who are taxed at pleasure by others, cannot possibly have any property, can have nothing to be called their own; they who have no property, can have no freedom, but are indeed reduced to the most abject slavery” (16).2 Characterizations of involuntary taxation and other forms of political oppression as bondage proliferated in the decade that followed. Colonists opposed to the Stamp Act reported a public discourse “filled with exclamations against Slavery and arbitrary Power,” and declamations against the British imposition of slavery persisted long after the duty had been repealed (“New Haven”).
Ironically, no North American did more to propagate this tie between slavery and taxation without representation than the only member of the Second Continental Congress to oppose the Declaration of Independence: John Dickinson. During the winter of 1767–68, in rejection of parliamentary powers first exercised in the Stamp Act of 1765 and then reasserted in the Townshend Duties which followed, Dickinson anonymously published in the Pennsylvania Chronicle a series of twelve Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania that were reprinted in nineteen of twenty-three then existing [End Page 645] North American English-language newspapers.3 Dickinson’s seventh letter declares, “Those who are taxed without their own consent, expressed by themselves or their representatives, are slaves. We are taxed without our own consent, expressed by ourselves or our representatives. We are therefore—* SLAVES” (53). These words were consumed silently and read aloud in public spaces. In just two years Dickinson’s Letters ran through seven different pamphlet editions, proving so successful that Milton Flower argues, “Until Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was published early in 1776, no other document earned the acclaim given the Farmer’s Letters; none reached a wider public. Until the year of Independence, John Dickinson, apart from Benjamin Franklin, was probably the American known to more colonists than any other” (69). More than Hopkins or any other writer, Dickinson and his ubiquitous Letters prepared colonial readers to think of oppressive parliamentary governance as a form of slavery, paving the path to revolution.
Despite his central place in colonial American history and culture, Dickinson and his Letters have faded into relative obscurity. This neglect may be in part a product of scholarly patriotism; as Ed Larkin and Philip Gould argue, “loyalism remains one of the last truly invisible categories in the scholarship on early America” (Larkin 2), and Dickinson’s refusal to sign the Declaration allied him with king and Crown, notwithstanding his advocacy of American interests both before and after 1776 (see Gould 8). Yet Dickinson’s downfall is also, at least in part, a matter of genre. While scholars of British literature have long lavished attention on epistolary works, comparatively few have studied early American letters as a literary category. In fact, before Konstantin Dierks’s pioneering account of eighteenth-century epistolary culture, no book-length study of colonial and Revolutionary-era American letters had been written. Dierks describes the American eighteenth century as “an infinity of letters” (xiii), but literary critics have largely limited their inquiries to a handful of epistolary novels and a small sampling of the correspondence between John and Abigail Adams, neglecting Dickinson and the broader sphere of public letters within which he wrote.4 We frequently reference an eighteenth-century republic of letters but have yet to take that phrase seriously in a generic sense. Editorial epistles filled colonial newspapers with commentary on every public issue of the eighteenth century.5 And...