Pamphlet War: Silas Downer and His Dedication of the Tree of Liberty in Providence

The Pamphlet War is a good illustration of how individuals use the power of the pen to change the hearts and minds of their fellow countrymen. The Pamphlet War began in 1764 with a few brave politicians like Thomas Fitch proclaiming the Reasons Why the British Colonies in America should not be Charged with Internal Taxes. For years these brave individuals sounded the cry for liberty until a large percentage of Americans insisted that the Continental Congress declare its Independence from England.

Many Americans have heard of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and how it sparked the American Revolution. However, Paine’s Common Sense was one of the last Pamphlets written on the subject prior to the Declaration of Independence. The real pioneers of the cause of liberty were those who spoke early before it was popular.

Introduction

On July 25, 1768, a lawyer from Rhode Island, Silas Downer, gave a speech at the dedication of the Tree of Liberty. This speech was transferred to a pamphlet so that all might understand how the acts of Parliament were violating the natural liberties of the American colonist. Not much is known about Silas Downer. Nonetheless, his message on the laws of liberty should still be read today.

It is important to understand that Rhode Island was a small colony. Because of its size, it really was not experiencing the abuses that were being felt up in Boston. Nonetheless, Silas Downer understood the principle that if they did not rally for the liberties of those in Boston, once Boston was out of the way, England would be setting its sights on small colonies like Rhode Island.

A Discourse, Delivered in Providence, in the Colony of Rhode-Island, upon the 25th day of July, 1768: At the Dedication of the Tree of Liberty

Silas Downer starts out by recognizing his allegiance to King George III. However, he is quick to deny any dependence upon the inhabitance of Great Britain. Silas establishes that our forefathers had traveled to this country to avoid oppression. Our forefathers endured many miseries and hardships in establishing their homes. Our forefathers’ “hoped and expected that the blessings of freedom would be the inheritance of their posterity …”.

Silas goes on to explain that for many years, the colonies thrived without the protection or assistance from England. the Colonist were free to worship God and educate their children. An administration system was established so that justice was executed. The Colonist owned their own property, their needs were taken care of. They may not have had luxury and extravagances, but they were content.

Government is necessary. It was instituted to secure to individuals that natural liberty, which no human creature had a right to deprive them of. For which end the people have given power unto the rulers to use as there may be occasion for the good of the whole community, and not that the civil magistrate, who is only the people trustee, should make use of it for the hurt of the governed.

Silas argues that the distance between Great Britain and the colonies made it impossible for parliament to represent them. He argues that “the great barrier against tyranny and oppression” is that the “king’s subjects” are governed by laws in which they have a share in making. Since the colonist were not represented in parliament, why did parliament think that it had the right to declare taxes upon them?

Parliament’s Violations of the Colonist’s Liberties

Parliament had established a new system of government. This new government violated the established principles of how Great Britain involved itself with its colonist around the world. Parliament no longer treated the colonist as their equals. Parliament restricted trade requiring the Colonist to only trade with Great Britain. Merchants who tried to exercise their “natural right” to trade found their ships seized. They were then tried without juries.

Parliament placed a standing army in the colonies. These armies suspended the local governments because these assemblies did not pass resolutions that were popular in Great Britain. The taxes imposed by parliament restricted the colonists’ freedom of speech.

As the speech was coming to an end, Silas Downer asked his audience to consider what their forefathers would think if they came back and saw what had happened to the colonies. He then spurs his audience to action by encouraging them to “strengthen the hands of the civil government”. He encourages them to break off trade with England. This trade should be stopped because justice so required. If it was not broken, the liberties of each colonist and their children would be forfeited forever.

Commentary

This pamphlet is as relevant today as it was over 200 plus years ago. We are not worried about a parliament in England passing unnecessary laws. We should be concerned about the massive regulations that are being passed without the consent of the governed. Our forefathers were concerned about how their liberties were being taken away without their consent. We too need to be demanding “No Regulation without Representation”.

Our freedoms and liberties are too important to just be given to government bureaucrats. Some unelected government worker should not be allowed to make rules with the full force of law that restrict your ability to make a living. We live in a Republic where we vote for our officials who pass the laws that govern us. It is time that we reign in the bureaucrats and return power to We the People.

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