Six Letters to Rhode Island
Six Letters to Rhode-Island
from the Providence Gazette, December 21, 28, 1782, January 4, 11, 18, February 1, 1783
To the PRINTER of the PROVIDENCE GAZETTE,
SIR, Philadelphia, Nov. 27, 1782.
Inclosed I send you a Philadelphia paper of this day’s date, and desire you to insert the piece signed “A Friend to Rhode-Island and the Union. — I am concerned that Rhode Island should make it necessary to address a piece to her, on a subject which the rest of the States are agreed in.
Youre, &c. T.P.
In ANSWER to the CITIZEN OF RHODE-ISLAND, on the Five per Cent. Duty.
A WRITER, under the stile of “A Citizen of Rhode-Island,” has undertaken to vindicate the said State in her yet neglecting to pass the law recommended by Congress for laying a duty of five per cent. on foreign imported goods: The monies arising therefrom to be applied towards discharging the interest and principal of the debts which are or may be contracted by the United States (of which Rhode-Island is one) for the defence of the country, and for supporting and establishing the Independence thereof.
The resolution of Congress is as follows.
“In CONGRESS, February 3, 1781.
“Resolved, That it be recommended to the several States, as indispensably necessary, that they vest a power in Congress to levy, for the use of the United States, a duty of five per cent. ad valorem, at the time and place of importation, upon all goods, wares and merchandize, of foreign growth and manufactures, which may be imported into any of the said States, after the 1st day of May, 1781; except arms, ammunition, cloathing, and other articles imported on account of the United States, or any of them, and except wool cards, and cotton cards, and wire for making them, and also except salt during the war: Also a duty of five per cent. on all prizes and prize goods, condemned in the Court of Admiralty of any of these States, as lawful prizes.
“That the monies arising from these duties be appropriated to the discharge of the principal and interest of the debts already contracted, or which may be contracted, on the faith of the United States, for supporting the present war. — That the said duties be continued, until the said debts shall be fully and faithfully discharged.”
On this resolution I shall remark —
First, Here is the purpose for which the money shall be raised, namely, to pay off the interest and principal of the debts, foreign and domestic, which we ourselves, the public of America, have, through our Representatives in Congress, contracted, or may contract, for our defence, and pledged our faith to discharge.
Secondly, The manner, rate, or ratio, by which the money shall be raised, viz. five pounds out of every hundred pounds worth of foreign goods, which shall be imported.
Thirdly, The time for which the said duty shall continue; that is, until the interest and principal of the debts shall be paid.
In consequence of this plan and recommendation (the justice and propriety of which appeared so evident and striking, and so “indispensably necessary” to our honor and reputation) twelve of the States passed the said law. Rhode-Island only remains delinquent.(1)
Having thus stated the outlines of the subject, I shall proceed to my remarks on the publications which have appeared, and add thereto such other observations as the case may require.
The Citizen of Rhode-Island, in objection to the five per cent. duty, begins his argument at a very remote point from the subject. He sets out with obliquely traducing the character of all government whatever. His positions are loose and general, and by endeavuoring to make them apply to every thing, they apply directly to nothing. He speaks of executive power, as if it were something existing in its own right, perpetual in itself, and neither constituted by, nor controulable by the people. He confounds all kinds of government together; and that without perceiving, that the same kind of reasoning, which is applicable in one case, is foreign to the purpose in another.
It is somewhat strange that the theory of government, which is exceedingly simple in itself, and in general well known by almost every farmer in America, should be so perplexed, misconceived and tortured, by those whose very business and duty it is to understand it fully, and exercise it justly.
His pieces are entitled,
“On the five per cent. Duty, by a Citizen of Rhode-Island.”
And his first paragraph is in these words:
“Is it expedient, says he, in any government, that the Supreme Executive Power should hold the revenue independent of the people? To have this question soberly and sensibly discussed, is a matter of some consequence, at any time and place, it taking place of right among the most important principles of civil government; but at this time is, in this country, peculiarly interesting — It applying more closely upon every individual who is capable of forming a judgment upon the effects, which a question so radical in the constitution may have upon us and our posterity.”
When this gentleman asks, “Whether it is expedient in any government, that the Supreme Executive Power should hold the revenue independent of the people,” he asks a question which every man in America, without the least hesitation, can answer at once, because the whole of them will unanimously answer, no. They can answer no otherwise. It is the very being, principle, and constitution of the republic, that the people have nothing in their government independent of themselves. The question may belong to Turkey or Persia, where the government is all executive, and that executive self created, and totally independent of the people; but in a republic, like the United States, where the appointment of the Executive Power is wholly in our own hands, to make and unmake, change and alter, as we please, and where every thing which it has and does is in trust for us, who gave it, how is it possible that the same question can apply here, or with what shadow of propriety can it be put?
There are some truths so self evident and obvious, of which this is one, that they ought never to be stated in the form of a question for debate, because it is habituating the mind to think doubtfully, of what there ought to be no doubt upon. The people of America are much forwarder in their ideas of their own rights than this gentleman supposes, if he thinks that the question, on which he rests so much expectation, can be any subject for debate at all.
He must likewise be exceedingly backward in his notions of a free government, and the principles of a republic, to call that “a radical question in the constitution,” which the constitution knows nothing of, and which is altogether in opposition to it, and wholly repugnant to the principle on which republics are founded. A revenue held by the Supreme Executive Power, independent of the people! Was such a thing ever heard of in a republic? Was such a question ever asked in one before?
Who have we in America but the people? Members of Congress, of Assemblies, or Council, are still a part of the people. Their honors do not take them out of the aggregate body. They serve their appointed time; and are succeeded by others. They are subject to the laws they pass, and must contribute their proportion of taxes in common with the rest. There is no such thing in America as power of any kind, independent of the people. There is no other race of men in it but the people, and consequently there can be no revenue held independent of them; and therefore the question is a nullity, and to reason upon it is throwing away time and words for nothing; for we admit, nay, we contend for the fact, and reprobate the question as partaking of a slavish idea.
But whether it be admitted or rejected is a matter totally foreign to the five per cent. duty. It may be placed as a stalking horse, to keep something else out of sight: But I never can persuade myself, that the gentleman who puts it can mean any thing seriously by it. He must know, nay, he does know better; for he knows that the five per cent. duty is already appropriated in the plan for raising it. He knows it is not of the nature of a revenue, to be expended as circumstances may arise, but as a fund to be applied to the payment of monies which we owe, and of which monies, both foreign and domestic, Rhode-Island has had her share of the benefit. He knows that it is appropriated to the use of the creditors, and not of the Congress, and that to involve it under a question of revenue, held independent of the people, is ungenerous, inconsistent, impolitic, and unjust.
He may perhaps think, that by setting out with a question of popular deception, he has erected a work that cannot easily be demolished; and indeed he is right; for, like a breast-work of sponge, it has not substance enough in it to be knocked down. You may fire through it forever, and kill every man behind it, engineer and all, and still the work, like the question, useless in themselves, will retain their figure.
But to come closer to the point. — The case with the five per cent. is simply this:
The several States, of which Rhode-Island is one, formed themselves into an union, and sent delegates to Congress, as representatives of themselves. They empowered those delegates to pledge the public faith, for the just payment of any monies they might borrow, at home or abroad, or any debts they might contract in the name and for the defense of themselves, the United States of America. Monies have been borrowed, and debts have been contracted, by virtue of this delegation and authority, and now the same people who authorized them to borrow, and who have received the benefit of it, and who likewise by their representatives pledged their faith and honor for payment, are called upon to fulfill that obligation. — This is, in plain language, the long and short of the story, and therefore what is said about perpetual revenue, held independent of the people, is absurd, because it is foreign to the purpose; for this, as I have before observed, is not a revenue, but a fund for the payment of a debt, appropriated to the purpose, and limited in its duration.
When I speak of Congress, I do not mean a body of men; I mean an Assembly of States; and those States, thus assembled, have, as the most eligible and easy mode of payment, proposed a duty of five per cent. on imported goods. Twelve of the States have adopted the measure, and passed laws for that purpose. Rhode-Island alone is delinquent. Thus stands the case at present.
It is an exceeding easy thing, when men are so disposed, to exhibit any measure, however good, just or necessary it may be, in an odious and offensive light, by tacking to it a number of deformities which have no relation to it, and which are as foreign to its condition, as the filthy blanket of an Indian is to the person of a decent agreeable woman. A writer in Mr. Bradford’s paper of the 16th inst. (who is very likely the same gentleman that stiles himself a citizen of Rhode-Island in another paper) has heaped ten of those odious coverings, numerically arranged, on the five per cent. duty.
The case is, that he either wishes to obscure the subject and hunt it down without the chance of being understood, or he totally misunderstands it himself. He talks of a revenue at the discretion of Congress, when the matter in question is a fund for the payment of a debt; and he speaks of it as perpetual, when the very plan for raising it limits its duration. And thus by mistaking the case he runs into heedless inconsistencies, wide and foreign from the subject.
But let us examine the naked question, uncloathed either with invented deformities or needless embellishments.
Suppose that, in the present wants of the United States for money, any number of men, friendly disposed to our cause and interest, in foreign countries or at home, were to propose to lend us three or four millions of dollars at a reasonable interest, demanding at the same time to know what security the States would give for the payment of the interest and principal.
Should we not, in such a case, appear like fools in the world, unacquainted with the nature of government, of politics, of commerce, and of every thing relative to the common concerns of life, were we to say to them, we will take your money, and pass a law to pay the interest of it for one year only, and after that we will thinnk further about it? Would we, I ask, place ourselves in this foolish situation, to be laughed at by every one, as men who did not understand what they were about, or did not mean to act honestly by their friends? Or would we not rather cast about to see what funds and resources we had got, and make proposals of security adequate to the offer, and put the debt in a certain train of payment at once, justly and fairly, between debtor and creditor? Now this is exactly the case with the five per cent. duty.
The common cry has been, Why don’t Congress borrow? — Why don’t Congress borrow? — But who in the name of heaven will lend, if you do not take care to pay, and fix on permanent funds for that purpose, and nicely and faithfully fulfill the obligation?
I cannot help considering the publications of both these gentlemen (if they are distinct persons) as tending to stab and wound the honor and cause of their country in the nicest and tenderest part; and am concerned that their imprudence, to give it no other harsher name, should make it necessary to bring debates and arguments into view, which ought never to have been started, because there never ought to have been any occasion for them.
Having thus opened the case, and shewn how it at present stands, I shall in my next letter shew that the five per cent. duty is a more eligible and productive mode of raising money, since money must be had, than any other which can be devised, because it is the least felt, the most equal in its operation, and the easiest collected.
In my third letter, with which I mean to close the matter, I shall more particularly confine myself to the most important of all subjects, in this part of the world — the Union of the States. For under the pretence of vindicating a State, in the present instance deficient in her duty in the Union, there is a style of language encouraged in the publications of those gentlemen, which, applied to the Union, is highly reprehensible.
*A Friend to Rhode-Island and the Union.
- It is generally said, that twelve of the States have passed the law, and the Citizen of Rhode-Island seems to admit the fact; but whether the State of Georgia, just emerging from the tyranny of the enemy, has yet had time to complete such a law, is a circumstance I am not clear in.
In ANSWER to the CITIZEN of RHODE-ISLAND, on the Five per Cent. Duty.
In my former letter I mentioned the purpose for which the five per cent. duty is levied; namely, as a fund for the payment of the interest and principal of such debts as are or may be contracted, abroad or at home, for the defence of the United States. I am now to shew the convenience and equality of the mode; which I shall preface with a few occasional observations.
In this country, where every State is interested alike in the event of the war, and almost every man in it stands in the same predicament, there ought to be no occasion for persuasion; and I might as well expect that the Citizen of Rhode-Island should undertake to persuade me to my duty, as that I should endeavour to persuade him. In proportion to our different circumstances, whatever they may be, we must be proportionately affected by a five per cent. duty. I can assure him too, that I am no public creditor, and therefore can have no individual interest in what I am writing. But I have the honor, interest and happiness, of a new and infant world at heart. She has done great things, and it would be a thousand pities to diminish that greatness, by any thing that is little.
In speaking on this part of the subject, I put our foreign debt totally out of the question; because that is what we are all agreed in, and makes no part of the argument. It was contracted in hard money, and the value of it permanent. But we have a species of internal debt among us, the value of which is unfixed, and admits of injury either way, and therefore it is necessary to ascertain it as precisely as possible, and settle it, lest the fair and real creditor should involve his fate with the rapacious claimant, and thereby be exposed to suffer on the one hand, or that the public should pay more than they have a right to pay on the other.
I am sensible that I look with an equal impartiality towards both, and as I do not wish to pay too little, so neither would I pay too much. If the creditor has his interest to take care of, the debtor has his honor to preserve, and the loss to the one is fully as severe as to the other. The States might appoint a general committee of accounts, to meet, adjust and settle all kinds of claims, prior to the commencement of the present system of finance.
But in the mean time, let us make the necessary provision for discharging what is really due, and supporting our reputation, and not embarrass that which is right with that which is wrong. What I cannot but blame the Citizen of Rhode-Island for, is his stating the matter erroneously, and treating it both imprudently and unfairly. He has brought cases into the question which are totally foreign to it, and avoided the points which he might have spoken upon.
Two things only are necessary. — The settlement of the public accounts, and the means of paying them off; and the question before us affords no other points. We did not undertake the defence of our country against a vindictive and powerful enemy, without knowing that it would be attended with many and unavoidable expences; and we have prospered in that defence equal to our utmost expectations, and far better than we many times had reason to hope for. It was by the united efforts of all America, which, like a bundle of rods, could not only not be broken, but were capable of chastising, that this happiness has been effected, and by which it is still secured; and as the case before us is of the nature of an united effort, we cannot too seriously impress ourselves with that idea and principle of union by which we rose into greatness, and are known by to the rest of the universe. It is our Magna Charta — our anchor in the world of empires.
Since then our condition and preservation require money, can there be a more equal and easier way of raising the sum required for the discharge of these accounts than a duty of five per cent. on foreign imported goods? If the duty produces an overplus, so much the better, for the soldier wants it; he likewise is a creditor. If it should not raise enough, pay it as far as it will go, by the best method that can be devised, and let both the public and the creditors know the sums received and paid, and to whom and for what.
The duty then, I say, of five per cent. lights equally on all the States according to their several abilities. For it is not which States import the most or least, but which, from their degrees of opulence or populousness, consume the most or least, that ascertain the quantity they severally bring towards the fund. Rhode-Island will pay but a small share of the duty, because she will consume but little; and all that she imports more than she consumes, is eventually paid by some other neighbouring States, and not by her.
If in America we had but one port, still the inhabitants of the State where that port was would pay no more of the five per cent. duty than in the present case; that is, they would pay only for what they consumed; and the States which had no port might pay much more duty than that which had, because they might severally consume more. In this case, every man throughout the United States would be assessed his five per cent, duty at one place; because there could be but one place of collection; and, consequently, the monies so raised upon the whole cannot be carried to the credit of the State in which it is collected; and this single observation oversets one objection which I have heard Rhode-Island has made.
It is a great convenience to a State to be situated so near the water, as to be eased of the expence of land carriage for foreign goods. This alone is far more than the duty of five per cent. and persons so conveniently circumstanced should, of all people, be the last to object.
Rhode-Island, by her situation, enjoys some superior benefits in the union. Closely connected with the sea, she derives advantages under its flag, its commissions and pass ports, which the inhabitants of more remote places do not; and many reasons will, upon reflection, occur to shew, that her objections are not only wrongly founded, but wrongly judged of.
The Citizen of Rhode-Island has said that the duty of five per cent. will fall unequally. It is easy to say any thing. But he has not advanced a single case or argument to prove it, which he certainly would, if he could have discovered any. He has likewise said many other things; but he has only said them, and left them to shift for themselves. Now a man ought never to leave an assertion to shift for itself. It is like turning out a sickly infant to beg a home in other people’s houses.
But there is one thing which this gentleman has not said; for he has not attempted to shew an easier way of raising the money, and he knows, full as well as I do, that the situation of a country at war requires money. But I can tell him the reason why he has been silent on this head; it is because he cannot devise an easier way, nor any that so well suits the circumstances of Rhode-Island; because, being considerably in the line of commerce, she can easier raise it through that medium, than through any other. And this brings me to shew the convenience and lightness of the five per cent. duty, so far as respects the individuals in any or all the States.
As a tax, it will scarcely be felt. The utmost difference it can make will be a very little more than a half-penny in the shilling, and in the fluctuation of trade, it will be insensibly lost; for there is scarcely a day that passes over our heads, but in which the rise or fall of prices is much greater; and it will so naturally and easily divide and circulate itself through the community, that its productiveness will arise from the universality of its operation.
It will likewise be found not only the lightest of all other modes of raising money, but the most convenient; for it operates with the ease of a tax in kind, without any of its difficulties and incumbrances. The man who might be scarce of money, has still money’s worth; he comes to market, and, by such means as are most convenient to himself, disposes of it, and procures, in the lieu thereof, such imported articles as he has occasion for, and in that exchange he pays his portion of the duty, without any other trouble.
It is likewise that kind of a duty which a man may pay or not; because he may choose whether he will wear or consume foreign articles. It is a duty too which the consumer is never called upon to pay; because whenever it suits him he goes to buy, and not before, and there ends the matter.
It is a duty which is the most easy collected, because it is collected but in few places, and in the lump, without rambling over the world for it, and requires but few persons, and may be done at a small expence; and I am persuaded that when the States find the convenience of this mode in preference to others, they will be inclined to throw some of their present taxes into the same channel. I have observed that the last convinced is often the most effectually convinced; and notwithstanding what the gentleman, who styles himself a Citizen of Rhode-Island, has said, the State will have other opinions. Now as what this gentleman first advanced respecting a perpetual revenue in the hands of an executive power is, in our situation, as a true and pure republic, futile and perfectly unapplicable, for the reasons advanced in my former letter, and as the weight of the duty is scarcely to be mentioned, and as the method is easier than any other which can be devised, and falls equally on all the States, and on the individuals in each State, according to their several abilities, I should be glad to know what objections he has to it, or can advance, for at present he has supported none. He contented himself with stating a question at first setting out, which all America was agreed to before he put it, and consequently could be no question at all.
I observe his pieces are interspersed with confused notions on government. His meaning may be good, and I have no reason to believe it is not; but, for want of distinguishing one sort of government from another, he draws conclusions which suit neither.
He does not see the difference between a country like England, where scarcely one man in an hundred is an elector, and this country, where every man is an elector, and may likewise be elected. Nor yet between the parliament of England (one house of which, the Peers, is perpetual, and the vacancies filled up by the Crown, and the other removeable only in seven years) and our constitutional governments, the representatives under which, both legislative and executive, are annually chosen by ourselves in most instances. Nor yet between the executive power possessed by the Crown, not to be touched at all, be it in hands ever so vicious, extravagant or ignorant, and the Congress of America, which, as members, are removeable at pleasure, and must be chosen every year. In short, he does not see the difference between the one country wrapt up in the most absurd species of slavery, and the other possessing and enjoying all their natural and civil rights; and thus, by carrying the jealousies necessary in people under a monarchy into the constitutions of a republic, he degrades the virtue on which republics are founded.
But there is an observation which this gentleman throws out, and likewise a second observation under another signature, both of which have considerable weight, and on which I shall offer some remarks.
The one is a quotation from Montesquieu, which was introduced into a former declaration of Congress, and is in these words: “When the power of making laws, and the power of executing them, are united in the same person, or the same body of Magistrates, there can be no”liberty; because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or “senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical”manner.”
I shall pay all the regard to this quotation, which the Citizen of Rhode-Island wishes to be paid. Though, by the bye, it is very easy to see that Montesquieu means a power perpetually existing in the same person or persons, and not a power vested in those who are removeable at pleasure. I wish those who quote Montesquieu would strictly regard his applications. It was very properly said by Congress to Britain, whose government over us was absolute, but cannot be said by us to ourselves.
The other observation which I allude to is in Mr. Bradford’s paper, of November 16th, in these words: — “No two States,” says the writer, “have agreed on the measure (meaning the five per cent. duty) without particular provisoes and limitations of their own, differing from the others; it is therefore impossible that a regular systematical collection of the duties should take place, unless those limitations and provisos are first removed.”
Now these two observations, taken either separately or collectively, may be of use to us. They naturally apply to something wanting, and something defective. We want some laws which Congress cannot make, and when the States attempt them they are imperfect. Certainly then the whole of our system is not yet compleat.
The United States are, as Mr. Burke very justly styles them, “The greatest Commonwealth on the face of the earth.” (1) But all Commonwealths must have some laws in common, which regulate, preserve, and protect the whole.
What would the sovereignty of any one individual State be, if left to itself, to contend with a foreign power? It is on our united sovereignty, that our greatness and safety, and the security of our foreign commerce, rest. This united sovereignty then must be something more than a name, and requires to be as compleatly organized for the line it is to act in as that of any individual State, and, if any thing, more so, because more depends on it.
Every man in America stands in a two-fold order of citizenship. He is a citizen of the State he lives in, and of the United States; and without justly and truly supporting his citizenship in the latter, he will inevitably sacrifice the former. By his rank in the one, he is made secure with his neighbours; by the other, with the world. The one protects his domestic safety and property from internal robbers and injustice; the other his foreign and remote property from piracy and invasion, and puts him on a rank with other nations. Certainly then the one, like the other, must not and cannot be trusted to pleasure and caprice, lest, in the display of local authority, we forget the great line that made us great, and must keep us so.
In introducing these remarks I have followed a thought naturally arising from the observations made by the Citizen of Rhode-Island, and I find that experience begins to suggest the idea of an inadequacy in our confederated system to several cases which must necessarily happen; what I mean is, that the confederation is not adapted to fit all the cases which the empire of the United States, in the course of her sovereignty, may experience; and the case before us shows that it is not adequate to every purpose of internal benefit and commercial regulation.
Several new and important matters have arisen since the confederation was formed. The entering into foreign alliances and treaties of commerce; the borrowing foreign loans; the cessation of the emissions of the paper currency; the raising the supplies by taxes, and several others which might be enumerated. But as nothing can happen to which we are not equal, the thing necessary is to think wisely and deliberately of them, and provide accordingly.
A Friend to Rhode-Island and the Union.
Footnote: 1. See Mr. Burke’s speech on the case of Mr. Laurens, Dec. 17, 1781, in the parliamentary debates, page 185.
In ANSWER to the CITIZEN of RHODE-ISLAND, on the Five per Cent. Duty.
When the cause of America, like a new creation, rose into existence, it had something in it which confounded and yet enraptured the world. The boldness of the attempt, and the extent of its consequences, overawed the conjectures of mankind. A five per cent duty. levied for our support, either on land or commerce, would not then have swallowed up our attention, or produced a debate dishonorable to our patriotism. The defence of our country against an unprincipled and powerful enemy, the establishment of our natural rights, the exalting the human race to their original freedom, and guaranteeing the blessings of civil government, were the great objects of our heart, and we were a united, though a suffering people.
Why is it that so many little cares, unworthy our greatness, and injurious to our peace, have stolen upon our better thoughts? Are we tired of being successful? Is our domestic liberty of less value than formerly? or are we disposed to surrender to contention that which the enemy could never take from us by force?
It would perhaps be quite as well were to talk less about our independence, and more about our union. For if the union be justly supported, our independence is made secure. The former is the mother, the latter the infant at her breast. The nourishment of the one is drawn through the other, and to impoverish the mother is famishing her offspring.
Is there a country in the world that has so many openings to happiness as this? Masters of the land, and proprietors of the government, unchained from the evils of foreign subjection, and respected by sovereign powers, we have only to deserve prosperity, and its attainment is sure.
But it ever was and probably ever will be the unfortunate disposition of some men to encumber business with difficulties. The natural cast of their mind is to contention; and whatever is not to their particular wish, or their immediate interest, is sure to be magnified with invented calamities, and exhibited in terror. Such men can see the fate of empires in the snuff of a candle, and an eternity of public ruin wrapt up in every trifling disappointment to themselves. They build their hopes of popularity on error and accident; and subsist by flattering the mistakes and bewildering the judgment of others, till unable to discover the truth, or unwilling to confess it, they run into new inconsistencies, or retreat in angry discontent.
Never was a subject, simple and easy in itself (and which needed nothing but plain and temperate argument, if it needed any) more hideously tortured, and willfully misrepresented, than by those who have wrote against the five per cent. duty. Yet none of them have proposed a better or more eligible and practicable method of supporting public credit, and supplying the exigencies of the States. To them, I ask, can we rescue ourselves from a merciless enemy without charge? Can we defend our country or our property in it without expence? Can we borrow money without repaying it? Can we expect an army to subsist without supplies, or fight without reward? Or, in short, can we, who are to reap the benefit of independence, look for it as a meer boon from heaven, or hope to receive it at the expence of others?
We have to deal with a treacherous enemy, catching at every circumstance, and continuing the war on the hope of our mistakes. Their perfidiously withdrawing from the assurances they had given, in Carleton and Digby’s letter, of acceding to our independence, serves to explain both their character and their politics. And another letter written by a Doctor Walters, a refugee tory in New-York, to Sir William Pepperil, a refugee tory in England, and published in the London Morning Post on the 12th of last September (though false in its account of our finances) sufficiently shews that their expectations are founded solely on their hope of our neglecting to support the necessary defence. And shall we with our eyes open, and with the information of the enemy before us, encourage them in their deception, and add to the expences of the war by prolonging it? They continue in our country not from a view of conquest, but to wait the issue of our internal difficulties. Every imprudent debate, every embarrassment that is started, is to them a matter of malignant joy, and a new ground for malicious hope. In this situation, watched by our enemies, and wounded by our mistakes, it becomes us to think and act with firm but deliberate patriotism, lest in the petulence of temper, or the hurry of imprudence, we sacrifice the prospects of a seven years contest. (1)
It was my original design to have confined the subject of this letter to the union of the States; but as that is a matter sufficiently forcible of itself, I shall waive it for the present, and continue my remarks on the five per cent. duty, not only as it respects the States generally, but as it more locally respects the State of Rhode-Island.
That our condition, as a country engaged in a just and necessary war, requires money, needs not to be mentioned; and that the easiest way of raising it is the first subject for consideration, is equally clear. That the nature of a union requires and implies a disposition to act and draw together, and that the revenues are always within our controul, are matters that require no proof. That Congress are as much the representatives of the people as the Assemblies are; that the members of it can in no instance exempt themselves from a share of the burthens necessary for the defence of the country, in common with their constituents, and that it is the duty of every legislature to support its faith, rank and reputation, in the union, are subjects which all are agreed in. That monies cannot be borrowed without funds to pay with, and that those who are directed to borrow must be enabled to pay, needs no argument to support it; and that those who have it to lend will expect some better security than a promise, requires no explanation.
The question therefore is not whether we shall raise money, but how we shall raise it. The five per cent. duty is part of the plan of finance adopted about a year ago, upon the failure of the paper currency. It was intendedly applied as a sinking fund for the discharge of the debt we had contracted, at home or abroad, or might hereafter contract, in case the present taxes should not be sufficiently productive, which is now very well known to be the case. — Therefore either the direct taxes on land and personal property must be increased, in the form they now are, or a duty of five per cent. must be drawn through the medium of foreign articles, and the question is, which of the two will be the easiest, and most convenient to the community ? The collected wisdom of the United States assembled in Congress has viewed a duty of five per cent. as the easiest mode, and the several individual States have thought the same.
Those who have hitherto written against the five per cent. duty have never either stated the case, or confined themselves to the subject, but have run out into extravagant language and wild imagination, and constantly endeavuored to keep the country and the community at large from properly understanding the measure, the propriety, or the necessity of it.
In this place I think it necessary to remark, that the United States are successors to a large landed property, and as Rhode-Island has a share, in common with her sister States, so I hope she will never relinquish her right, or by any disagreement with them afford the least pretence for forfeiting it. But this property is not, in the present state of things, a practicable fund. To attempt to sell those lands at this time would be to give them away, neither are there purchasers for them at any price. Nay, it is our interest, at present, to prevent their being settled, because the settlement of them now, instead of enriching us, would draw off our inhabitants, and reduce both our force and our abilities.
But to return to my subject — We, I presume, are the only people in the world who have not taken in the aid of commerce, as a national fund. The landed interest, the stock and internal riches of the country, and almost every species of direct property, are subject, more or less, to some kind of taxation; while foreign imported articles, many of which are luxuries and trifles, have been suffered to pass without any tax at all, except that kind of tax which the importer lays on the community whenever he pleases, by raising the prices.
Whether this is good or ill policy, in a new country, whose first business is to settle and improve its lands, encourage agriculture, and restrain as much as possible the importation of foreign unnecessary articles, is a matter which I leave to the impartiality and honest judgment of every class of men. I am no enemy to genteel or fashionable dress, or to the moderate enjoyment of those articles of indulgence we are furnished with from abroad; but they ought to bear their proportion of the public expence as well as the soil we live on, and not be solely consigned as a revenue to the persons who import them, or the foreigners who bring them.
It is a matter which ought to strike Britain with forcible conviction, when she learns that we have the whole fund of commerce yet untouched. We have all that to begin upon which she has already exhausted; and so far as the debate may serve to explain to her our hitherto reserved funds and resources, I am the less concerned that it began.
How we came to leave so practicable and valuable a fund so long dormant, contrary to the custom and experience of all other nations, will, I believe, be best understood by the following observation:
Our non-importation agreement had exhausted us of almost every kind of supplies, and it was then necessary to hasten and encourage importations from all countries, except England, by every possible means. The then state of our commerce, therefore, permitted those indulgences, which, in any other case, would have been nationally improper. We suffered the produce and manufactures of other countries to be sold in America without duty, whereas none of our exports from America can enjoy the same privilege there; and thus having got into the habit of doing a thing from necessity, we have continued it to an impropriety.
This part of my argument naturally brings me to offer a remark on the five per cent duty. as a regulation of commerce.
Commerce is not the local property of any State, any more than it is the local property of any person, unless it can be proved, that such a State neither buys nor sells out of its own dominions. But as the commerce of every State is made up out of the produce and consumption of other States, as well as its own, therefore its regulation and protection can only be under the confederated patronage of all the States.
Besides, the European world, or any place we may trade to, knows us only through our national sovereignty, as UNITED STATES. Any infringement on our rights of commerce must be lodged before the United States, and every redress for any such injury must come to us through that line of sovereignty; consequently the regulation of it must reside in the same power.
The United States are likewise accountable to foreign powers for all misconduct committed under their flag; and as it is their flag which privileges our commerce abroad, and on the seas, it cannot therefore be expected, that the United States should be thus accountable on the one hand, and afford protection on the other, to all the rights of commerce, without receiving an aid and assistance from it.
I come now to consider a very striking injury that would accrue to Rhode-Island, by not coming into the measure with the rest of the States.
The fidelity, patriotism, and well-affected disposition of Rhode-Island, has never been made the least question of; neither does her present dissent proceed from any source of that kind, but from a misrepresentation of it on some part, and a misconception of it on another.
In the course of the debate she has taken up an idea, warranted by the articles of confederation, that each State has a prerogative to furnish its quota by such means as best suits its conveniency, and in this she is right. But the mistake is, that the five per cent. duty is not of the nature of a quota, and that for the reason I have already mentioned, namely, that trade is not local property, but is diffused over and promiscuously drawn from all parts, beyond as well as within the State. Neither is she called upon, in the character of an individual State, for a particular thing limited like direct property, within her own jurisdiction only, but in her united character, to concur in a measure common to all the States, and yet the particular property of none.
But for the purpose of exemplifying this part of the argument, I will suppose her left out of the five per cent duty, and that she furnished a supply into the treasury, by laying on some new taxes in the room of it. The consequence to her in this case as a community would be, that, to avoid the five per cent duty, she would at least have to pay to the amount of ten per cent. For the prices of foreign articles would, by the imperceptible management of trade, get up to the same price in Rhode-Island as they would be at in Boston, or other places where the duty was paid, and consequently would come as dear to the consumer as if they had undergone the duty; and yet the same consumer would have his part to pay in the additional tax laid on in the lieu the five per cent. And thus an exemption from the duty would operate as a bounty, or an additional profit of the five per cent. to the merchant only, and a double tax to the community.
Perhaps it is a circumstance worthy of remarking, that in all cases where a union of conduct and disposition is necessary, nothing can be gained and much may be lost by disagreement. The United States constitute one extended family, one imperial Commonwealth, the greatest and most equal in its rights and government of any ever known in the world: And while its principles permit the free exercise of debate, its manners ought to restrain every licentious abuse of it.
In offering the foregoing remarks, and those contained in my former letters, I have kept strictly to the point in question, without involving it with subjects foreign to the purpose, or treating it with wild and overheated language. All that is necessary, in a case like this, is calm discussion, and a disposition to agree and be understood. — That measures and subjects do not strike every mind alike — that the necessity of them is not always equally known — and that, in a situation so remote as the several parts of the United States are from each other, some misconception may arise, is a circumstance we may naturally expect; but as our interest, like our object, is a united one, there can be no measure which is to operate equally over all, in matters common to all, that can, on a just consideration, be supposed to affect one more than another.
But if such a supposition could any way take place, it would apply to the merchants of Philadelphia, because it is the greatest seat of commerce, and extends it into parts of several other States. But they, convinced of its justice, necessity and true policy, have been among the promoters of the measure; and so likewise, on a just reflection, will be those of Rhode-Island; and the country interest can adopt no other measure with equal ease. (2)
A Friend to RHODE-ISLAND and the Union.
January 1, 1783.
The letter which I refer to, to Sir William Pepperil, has been seen by the Delegates of Rhode-Island, now in Congress; for it fell into my hands, and I sent it there. And those gentlemen know full as well as I do, if they will confess it, that the hope of the enemy is fed up, by every imprudent dispute and inflammatory publication of ours, respecting revenue and supplies.
The pieces to which these letters are more particularly intended as an answer, were published in one of the Philadelphia news-papers, by a gentleman from Rhode-Island, under the style of “A Citizen of Rhode-Island,” and the last of his pieces was signed “A Countryman”; that is, they were began under one name, and ended under another. In the State of Rhode-Island they were contained in one publication, under the signature of “A Countryman.”
ON THE FIVE PER CENT. DUTY
On the decline of the paper currency, either the United States must have sunk with it, or more solid revenues must have been established in its room. The wisdom and patriotism of America chose the latter.
There was at this time a debt due in Europe for money, arms, ammunition, and other military stores, and likewise considerable sums due to individuals in America; and Congress had at once two very difficult and distressing pieces of business on their hands. The one was to provide means for the current service of the year, and the support of the army — and the other was for maintaining public credit, by at least a just discharge of the interest due abroad and at home.
To have put both those burthens on the landed interest, the rental of houses, and other direct property of the country, and to have left commerce totally out of the question, would have been the height of ill policy, and the most consummate injustice.
Congress, therefore, considering the several interests of their constituents, as well as the united interest of the States, divided the burthens, and apportioned out the sum of eight million of dollars on the several States, for the current service of each year, and proposed a duty of five per cent. on imported goods for the other service, that is, for discharging the public debt, and supporting national honor and credit.
It requires nothing but plain honesty, and calm and candid thinking, to judge of the propriety and equity of those measures. But the opposition to the five per cent. duty, from whatever quarter or with whatever design it began, has a tendency to overset the justice of Congress, and to throw both of the burthens upon the landed interest, and the direct property of the community, and to draw the neck of commerce compleatly out from every share and portion of the public difficulty.
I have no inclination to ascribe this conduct to selfishness in the persons who support it, or to a want of feeling in them for those on whom the burthen must directly fall, if put into any other channel; but it certainly has not a generous appearance, neither can it add any thing to a fair reputation. The landed interest and the rental of houses have already their share of direct taxes, but commerce has contributed nothing; and we are the only people in the world who have for so long acted with this flagrant partiality.
If we view this matter in a national light, it will appear with very striking marks of ill policy. For by laying no duty on foreign imports, we permit every foreign merchant or adventurer to enjoy the trade of America duty-free and at our expense — while every article of ours, sent from hence, must pay a duty to the country he comes from. And Congress, on whom the regulation of commerce devolves, and who are the guardians of its rights, would not have acted with national justice to have permitted any longer such an inequality.
But as national matters do not always strike with such immediate force as those in which men are more individually concerned, I shall proceed to examine further into the consequences which would accrue to Rhode-Island by not adopting the measure.
She must break off trade with the rest of the States, or, what is equal thereto, they must break off trade with her; for it never can be supposed that any one State is to enjoy an advantage, at the injury of the rest, or that the fair trader in other States, who has legally contributed towards discharging the public debt, is, contrary to the principle of the union, and the faith of the confederation, to have his interest undermined by those who had not. Whether it can answer the purpose of Rhode-Island, as a State, to place herself in so disagreeable a point of contention with her neighbours, she is to determine. To trade with them on such a footing of inequality, she can have neither right nor pretension to. To desire it would be ungenerous — to attempt it would be unjust. And as it could not fail to produce disagreeable consequences, it might in the end be fatal to her happiness. There may be those who wish it — it is my wish to prevent it.
The thing required of her is only to agree with the rest. They ask nothing of her, they request nothing from her, more than what they lay on themselves. She has a voice in the union equal to the most powerful State in it. She participates alike with them in every right and privilege which they enjoy; and though her service can be but small, yet that smallness ranks her equally with a greater.
But the principal error in her politics arises from her not having duly considered the case. Why do not Congress (say some of her citizens) call on us for our quota?
I have already remarked (in my third letter) that the five per cent. duty is not of the nature of a quota, because commerce is not local property, but belongs to all the citizens of America, without distinction of place or State. The extent of the territory of any State, which sets limits to taxes raised as a quota, does not set limits to its commerce, and consequently cannot be taken as a rule to determine what its quota of taxes raised upon commerce shall be. The dominion of commerce, if I may so express it, and the dominion of jurisdiction, are distinct things; neither can the quantity of the one be made a rule to know that of the other by. The persons whom we trade with, or the places that we trade to, though they are out of the State, are nevertheless within the circle of its commerce, and of the same advantage to it as if the limits of the State extended over them.
When money is to be raised by direct taxes levied on direct property, the quota of the States may be ascertained, because the number of inhabitants and the value of that property can be known. But in cases where commerce is made the basis of a tax, the rule to quota out such a tax must be (if it be at all) according to the quantity of trade which each State carries on; and yet no more of the monies thus collected can be carried to her credit than what is supposed to be produced by her consumption; the remainder, be it little or much, belongs to the credit of some other States, being the produce of their consumption.
If any other rule than this were to be followed (except that of carrying the whole to the credit of all the States collectively) it would put it in the power of one State to tax another, and to pay its own quota out of a tax raised upon the rest. Surely Rhode-Island cannot have a thought so selfish as this, or can suppose that others will not perceive it.
There is not an idea that can occur to Rhode-Island on this business, which has not occurred to Congress and to the States severally; yet both the one and the other have seen the propriety of rejecting them, and of adopting the general principle.
There is always some respect due to experience. Could Congress have devised an easier mode, they naturally would have done it; as well for their own sakes, who must individually pay their part of the tax, as for the sake of their constituents. Their collected situation must enable them to know more than any individual State can know. They see over the whole, and in behalf of the whole. They are best acquainted with the difficulties the United States are under. They hear the cries of the army, the claims of creditors, and the demands of foreign countries for the supplies they have trusted us with, and the money they have lent us. He who sits at home, and enjoys his commerce or his possessions, or those who have only the local concerns of any one State to rectify their minds, know but little, and feel still less, of the weight that presses those who must undergo it all. The States individually always find money enough for their civil departments, even at the injury of their public quota. But the great one thing needful, and that which should be their highest honor, and is the corner-stone of their happiness, seems to them like something afar off, too much neglected, and in part forgotten.
Can nothing but misfortune awaken us? Must adversity alone be the minister of exertion? Or must we forever be tossed from uncertainty to uncertainty, by trusting every thing to the moment of distress? The fairest prospects may fail, and the best calculated system of finance become unproductive of its end, if left to the caprice of temper and self interest.
I would not wish to throw out a thought that might offend. But knowing, as I well know, what the difficult circumstances of the States are, I am justified in saying, that more injury has arisen to the United States, by the conduct of Rhode-Island in this instance, than lies in her power to repair.
It was my design in this letter to have shown that the five per cent duty. when compared with any other mode, is not only the easiest and most convenient, but, when compared with the general good and interest of all the States, is the only one that can be adopted; but as this would extend my present letter to an inconvenient length, I shall refer this part of the subject to my next.
A Friend to RHODE-ISLAND and the Union.
January 9, 1783.
P. S. In the third letter, instead of “the five per cent. duty is part of the plan of finances adopted about a year ago,” read two years ago. — The reflection which naturally occurs from this length of time, must point out to Rhode-Island the incumbrance which has arisen to the general cause and interest, by so long a dissent from the measure.
On the FIVE per CENT. DUTY.
Addressed to such of the Citizens of the State of Rhode-Island as have opposed the Measure.
Whatever mischiefs may arise to the cause, or whatever blemishes may fall on the character of America, by not carrying the five per cent. duty into practice, can never be ascribed to those who are advocates for the measure. Should the war not be prosecuted with the vigour necessary for our defence; should our credit fail in Europe to procure further supplies of money; or, should the terms of a peace fall short of the expectations of the States, let those who are opposers of the duty, and are thereby disabling Congress from performing the service expected from them, be accountable. It is my pleasure to reflect, and it will be to my reputation to have it known, that convinced as I am of the rectitude, I am likewise an advocate for the five per cent. duty. — My reasons for this conviction and for this conduct are as follow:
The States, either unitedly or severally, have a moral as well as a sovereign character to support. Their reputation for punctuality and integrity ought to stand as high as their reputation for liberty. To be free is a happiness — but to be JUST is an honor, if that can be called an honor which is only a duty.
He who means to be punctual, will avoid even the appearance of being suspected to be otherwise: But those trifling cavils, and unfair representations, concerning the mode of paying our debts, will be interpreted into dishonor, and become productive of consequences injurious to our prosperity.
Though the cause of America is the most honorable that man ever engaged in, I am not so dazzled by it as not to perceive the faults that are twisting themselves round it, and unnaturally claiming kindred with it. The pretences which are set up for not complying with the five per cent. duty are as remote from the purpose for which the five per cent. duty is to be raised, and to which it is to be applied, as darkness is from light.
I do not, neither shall I, rest the case upon elegance of language, or forcible expression. I mean to state it with all the plainness of conversation, and put the merits of it without a gloss.
“If we pass the act (say the objectors) Congress will have it in their power to keep a standing army, and support a number of pensioners.” — To which I reply,
That when an objection cannot be made formidable, there is some policy in trying to make it frightful; and to substitute the yell and the war-whoop, in the place of reason, argument and good order.
This objection may and naturally will have an effect to throw the whole burden of taxes upon the farmer, and upon every class of men except the merchant, and to draw the neck of commerce completely out from every share and portion of the public difficulty; but there is not a man in America, who will exercise his natural reason, that cannot see through its fallacy, or into its effects.
The five per cent. duty was proposed as a matter of aid and ease to the present mode of taxation. The monies arising from it are to be applied towards discharging the debts which America has contracted, or may contract, for her necessary defence, and which must be paid in one mode or another.
Is it right, then, or is it wrong, that commerce, which is one of the national funds in every other country in the world, should contribute nothing towards the public expences in this; and that every supply should be drawn through, and every burden thrown upon, the direct property of the community? Or, in other words, that commerce, which is more profitable to those who are employed in it than the best farm in the State of Rhode-Island is to him who works it, should go free of every duty?
Whether the opposers to the five per cent. will say yes or no to these questions, I am not anxious to know. They may be privately desirous that their commerce should escape free of all taxation, but they will not be so hardy, neither will they risk their popularity, in saying so.
Let the question be asked in any mixt multitude of the people, or in any assembly of representatives — whether commerce ought to be taken in as one of the national funds towards discharging or defraying the expences of the war? and every man must, from self-conviction, answer yes.
But the objectors to the measure, not choosing to begin the question where it ought to be begun, have formed themselves into an ambuscade to attack it in disguise. And this ambuscade consists originally of about ten or a dozen merchants, who have a self-interest in the matter, and who, with a very profitable trade (occasioned by raising cent. per cent. and in some instances a thousand per cent. and more, upon their goods) pay very little taxes in proportion thereto, when compared with other inhabitants of the State — and who likewise, by their present opposition, are drawing themselves away from the common burthens of the country, and throwing them upon the shoulders of others. And this, forsooth, they call patriotism.
I speak now with the more freedom, because there is a probability that the deception will succeed. But the instant that any other mode of paying the public debt is proposed, in the lieu of the five per cent. the people of the State of Rhode-Island will then see who have been their friends, and who have not.
To favour the opposition of those gentlemen, and to keep the public from seeing into the design, the cry, I say, has been, that if the act is passed Congress will have it in their power to keep a standing army, and support a number of pensioners.
Be ashamed, gentlemen, to put off the payment of your just debts, the payment of your suffering army, and the support of your national honor, upon such illiberal and unbelieved pretences; and be generous enough to reflect, that the consequences of your opposition tend to throw the burthen on the shoulders of your neighbours, both in town and country, already more taxed in proportion than you are. Compare your situation, as merchants, with the circumstances of thousands round you; and then ask your conscience whether your conduct is right.
But I will answer all your invented fears about pensioners, &c. by an appeal to your own sagacity.
I have too high an opinion of your attachment to your own interest, and of your ideas of liberty and rights, to suppose that you ever could be so duped as to suffer it; and the instant you had any just reason to believe it, which now you have not, it would be your duty to prevent it. But at present you are only called upon to pay your just debts, and support your national faith; and until you do that you ought to be silent. Perform your own duty first, and then you will have right to make other people perform theirs.
There is one more remark respecting commerce which is well worth attending to, because it shews the superior advantages which that branch enjoys over every other interest in the country.
Commerce has not only not been taken in as one of the national funds of taxation for the support of the war, but it has got rid of the taxes which it used to pay before the war. The burthens have increased upon land, and decreased upon trade, which is a policy not justifiable on any comparative principle. And Congress have been the poor man’s friend in dividing the burthen.
There used to be a duty on wines, but now the merchant drinks it duty-free; yet a man cannot drink cider without a tax, because the orchard that produces it is taxable. Neither can he eat or wear any thing, produced from the soil of America, that does not contribute something to the public expences, because the soil that produces it is taxable property. But a merchant eats or wears any thing imported from abroad, free of taxes. I wish all those who are at the head of this opposition in the State of Rhode-Island, and who are building up a false popularity, by censuring Congress, would act as honestly a Congress have done, and learn to feel for others as well as for themselves. — Certainly he, who, not relishing the native liquor of his country, can indulge himself in foreign wines, or can afford to wear the fineries of foreign manufacture, is as proper an object of taxation as he who works a cider-press, or keeps a cow, or tills a few acres of land. — And on these, and many other similar principles, both for the sake of the justice due to suffering creditors, and a suffering army, and for the purpose of equalizing the public expences, I am an advocate for the five per cent. duty.
I have never yet made, and I hope I never shall make, it the least point of consideration, whether a thing is popular or unpopular, but whether it is right or wrong.
That which is right will become popular, and that which is wrong will soon lose its temporary popularity, and sink into disgrace. — There is one gentleman who has raised all his present fame upon his opposition to the measure, and he has trudged laboriously in the service of those who encouraged him; but I will apply to him a simile I once applied to another person, and whose fate verified my prediction — that as he rose like a rocket, he would fall like the stick.
Had the enemy succeeded in conquering America, the taxes upon commerce would have been an amazing deal more than five per cent. The conquered could not have expected to have been better off than the conquerors; and the most favorable terms that could have been looked for, would have been to pay no more taxes than what the people of England pay. As a specimen of what those are, I shall produce two or three instances. I have quoted them from Burn’s Justice of the Peace, a book which is in several gentlemen’s hands in this country, and likewise in Providence.
The duty on West-India coffee is one shilling and nine-pence sterling a pound weight; and on Turkey coffee, two shillings and nine-pence sterling a pound, which is upwards of forty per cent.
The duty on tea, over and above the custom-house duty, is one shilling sterling a pound, and five and twenty per cent, besides, which makes the duty on common bohea tea more than sixty per cent. and on fine teas upwards of forty per cent.
The duty on cocoa-nuts is ten shillings sterling a hundred weight; and when made into chocolate, is two shillings and three-pence a pound weight more, which makes the duty upwards of fifty per cent.
The duty on single-brandy and rum, or spirits, is four shillings and four-pence sterling a gallon; and on double-brandy, or rum, eight shillings and eight-pence sterling a gallon.
The duty on salt, either made at home or imported, is more than six times its first price.
When we seriously consider those things, and compare the present state of commerce, free of all taxes, with what must have been its fate if the enemy had succeeded, and likewise compare the situation of the merchant with the general state of the country, there is something in their opposition which is ungenerous and ungrateful. And instead of using and propagating such various arts and deceptions, to throw the five per cent. duty off, they would have appeared with more honor, and the event will prove it so, had they voluntarily proposed to have had it laid on, as an ease and aid to the present mode of taxation. And I shall conclude this piece by drawing up an address for them, which will shew what they ought to have done, instead of what they have done, viz.
WE, the merchants of the State of Rhode-Island, taking into our serious consideration the enormous burthens which our commerce was threatened with by the enemy, and the happy deliverance it has been blest with through the noble exertions of the United States — and considering, at the same time, that no part of it is taxed, towards defraying the public expence, and that the burthens of the war fall not in sufficient proportion on us,
Do, therefore, unanimously propose and recommend to the United States assembled in Congress, that a duty, not less than five per cent. be laid on all imported articles; and that the monies arising therefrom be applied towards discharging the debts which this country has or may contract, at home or abroad, for her necessary defence.
And we do most solemnly pledge our faith and honor, and the word and character of gentlemen, that we, disdaining and abhorring every illicit practice in trade, and detesting, as we ought to do, the mean and ruinous practice of smuggling, by which the fair trader is basely injured, and the country defrauded, will break off all dealings and connexion with any person or persons, who we shall discover to be guilty of them, or any of them, as aforesaid.
Signed by unanimous consent,
A. B. Chairman.
A proceeding of this kind, gentlemen, would have done you honor, and you may yet lament that you did not furnish the opportunity.
A Friend to RHODE-ISLAND and the Union.
January 16, 1783.
On the FIVE per CENT. DUTY
He that has a turn for public business and integrity to go through it, untempted by interest, and unawed by party, must likewise sit down with the calm determination of putting up with the mistakes, petulance and prejudices of mankind.
As I am not cramped by self-interest in viewing a public measure, it naturally presents itself to me without fetters; and my judgment, such as it is, being left free, makes its determination without partiality. The merchant and the farmer are persons alike to me, and all places in America nearly the same. It is the general good, the happiness of the whole, that has ever been my object. Neither is there any Delegate that now is, or ever was in Congress, from the State of Rhode-Island, or elsewhere, who can say that the author of these letters ever sought from any man, or body of men, any place, office, recompence or reward, on any occasion, for himself. — I have had the happiness of serving mankind, and the honor of doing it freely.
If, then, any of the intimations in the paper of last week, respecting “mercenary writers,” had the least allusion to me, the author of them is most unfortunate in his application; neither is it necessary for me to disown them, because the voice of the country will do it for me: And as it is impossible to be wounded by a wasp that never had the power of stinging, it would be folly indeed to be discomposed at the buzzing of a harmless insect.
When I mentioned the metaphor of the rocket and the stick, I left the application to be made by others; and if any gentleman has applied it to himself, it is a confession that the metaphor fits him.
But to return to the subject of the five per cent. duty:
I cannot help viewing the clamour that has been raised against this measure, as arising, in some instances, from selfishness, and, in others, from a false idea of patriotism.
The gentlemen who are at the head of the opposition in this State, are those who are in the mercantile line. — To give their opposition an air of patriotism, they say, “Why do not Congress call on us for a quota? — We are willing to raise it, but we will not consent to a five per cent duty.”
All this sounds mighty fine. But do not those gentlemen know, that of the annual quota, called for last year, there has not been a quarter part of it paid in, perhaps not above a sixth or an eighth, even in this State? And yet those gentlemen are exceedingly generous in proposing to raise more money by the same mode of taxation, or any other mode, provided that their commerce goes duty-free.
We are certainly the most wise or the most foolish people in the world, not to take in commerce as one of the funds of taxation. We are now doing what no other country in the world does, and what no other country on earth can long afford to do; for we are, in the first place, giving encouragement to the commerce of foreign countries at the risk of our own; and, in the second place, we are raising all our taxes on the necessaries of life, and suffering the luxuries of it to go free.
I am strongly persuaded, that the gentlemen who are in opposition to the measure are themselves convinced that the measure is right, because in their arguments they are continually flying off from the point, like sparks from a rocket, and drawing the eye of the beholder from the ground he stands upon.
The proper point or question before the public is, whether commerce ought to be taken in as one of the national funds?
When this point or question is settled in the affirmative, the next will be, which is the most just and equitable way of doing it? And,
Thirdly, which will be the most effectual method of securing the application of the monies so raised to the purpose for which they are intended?
These are the proper, natural and political questions upon the measure, and the only ones into which it can be divided. But the opposers, instead of keeping to these points, and beginning, as they ought to have done, with the first of them, have filled the papers of this State with wild declamation, idle and frothy rhapsody, foreign to the subject, and calculated only to bewilder and perplex, and prevent the measure being understood.
A long piece in the Providence Gazette of last week, signed A. C. has not a single line in it to the purpose; but, like all the rest on the same side, is contrived to shun the debate, by fomenting an uproar.
I have now, by stating the several parts of the question, put, as I conceive, the whole matter into a clear and intelligible train of being understood; and until those points are adjusted, every other method of treating the subject is useless. To which I may justly add, that the manner in which the gentlemen of the opposition have hitherto conducted their publications, serves only to unhinge the public mind, even in their own State, from every obligation of civil and moral society, and from all the necessary duties of good government; and to promote, a profligacy, that may in time think all property common, and fall, when too late to prevent it, on their own heads. — The transition from disobedience to disorder is easy and rapid; and as the richest men now in the State of Rhode-Island are making tools of the poorest, I cannot help thinking but that the avarice of the former is trying a dangerous experiment: For the man who will say that he will enrich himself by smuggling, cuts asunder the laws that are to protect him, and exposes himself to a second plunder.
As I intend this to be my last publication in the State of Rhode-Island, I shall conclude it with such circumstances as may be an answer to any present or future remarks on the part I have taken.
I am not only convinced that the conduct of Rhode-Island is wrong, in her opposition to the five per cent. duty, but I am likewise persuaded that it will precipitate her into difficulties she does not at present foresee.
My design in taking the matter up was as much out of kindness to her, as to promote the general good of America. There may be those, in other States, who are privately urging her on, and putting her, in this instance, on the forlorn hope of disgrace, to avoid the reproach themselves: — But the part I have acted towards her has been open, friendly, and sincere.
In my personal acquaintance, in this State, I have scarcely met with a man, who was in the opposition to the measure, that did not confess to me, in the course of conversation, that commerce ought to be taken in as one of the funds for defraying the expenses of the war; and I have met with numbers who are strong advocates for it.
I have likewise heard a great deal of the angry dislike of few men, whose niggardly souls, governed only by the hope of the high price which their next or present cargoes may bring, have been throwing out intimations that my publications on this subject ought to be stopped in Rhode Island; but I have never met with any of them, or with any other person in the State, who did not pay me respect when he met me. Why any man should say one thing, and act another, or why he should endeavour to throw a blot on my reputation in the Providence news-paper, and yet show every possible civility to my face, I leave to those who can act a double part to explain.
But to show those persons that I am not, like themselves, governed by self-interest and narrow thinking, I shall, for once in my lifetime, make free with the correspondence of my friends — men whose characters the persons in opposition will never imitate, and who personally and intimately knew me in various and trying situations. Neither could I take this liberty with the dead, or with the living, or reconcile it to my feelings, were it not on a public question, wherein the interest of the country and not of myself is concerned.
The writers in the Providence paper of last week, with a view of keeping up the bubble, fraud and avarice, of the opposition, held out that I was a mercenary writer. They may call me so a thousand times over, if they please, and when they have done, they may sit down in shame and disgrace. Even Mr. Howell, who is now in Providence, must be a witness to my integrity. But I will produce much higher authorities than Mr. Howell.
For this purpose I have put into the Printer’s hands two letters, the one from a dear and intimate friend of mine, and of mankind, whose greatness of soul has laid his person in the dust, Col. LAURENS, whom I accompanied to France, to procure money for America. The other from Major-General GREENE, to whom I was a volunteer aid-de-camp in the gloomy times of 1776, since which an uninterrupted friendship has subsisted between us.
The letter of Col. Laurens is in these words:
“Carolina, April 18, 1782.
“I received the letter wherein you mention my horse and trunk (the latter of which was left at Providence). The misery which the former has suffered at different times, by mismanagement, has greatly distressed me — he was wounded in service, and I am much attached to him — if he can be of any service to you, I entreat your acceptance of him, more especially if you will make use of him in bringing you to a country (Carolina) where you will be received with open arms, and all that affection and respect which our citizens are anxious to testify to the author of ____ _____ .
“Adieu. — I wish you to regard this part of America (Carolina) as your particular home — and every thing that I can command in it, to be in common between us.”
The letter from General Greene, among many other declarations of esteem and friendship, contains the following:
“Ashley-River (Carolina) Nov. 18, 1782.
“Many people wish to get you into this country. —
“I see you are determined to follow your genius, and not your fortune. I have always been in hopes that Congress would have made some handsome acknowledgment to you for your past services. — I must confess that I think you have been shamefully neglected; and that America is indebted to few characters more than to you. But as your passion leads to fame, and not to wealth, your mortification will be the less. — Your name, from your writings, will live immortal.
“At present my expenses are great; nevertheless, if you are not conveniently situated, I shall take a pride and pleasure in contributing all in my power to render your situation happy.”
It is needless for me to make any other remarks on these letters, than to say, that while I enjoy the high esteem and opinion of good and great men, I am perfectly unconcerned at the mean and snarling ingratitude of little incendiaries.
I now refer the reader to my five letters already published in the Providence Gazette, on the five per cent. duty, and more particularly to the last number.
A Friend to RHODE-ISLAND and the Union.
Providence, Jan. 31, 1783.