Tyranny: Real and Imagined


No, this is not a post about Donald Trump.  Sorry to disappoint.

Today I read a November 1774 letter from the Grand Jury of Essex County, New Jersey to Frederick Smyth, the Chief Justice of the Province of New Jersey.  Smyth was a strong opponent of the revolutionary movement beginning to gain ground in New Jersey. The letter is a response to Smyth’s recent “charge from the bench” in which he told the Essex Grand Jury that they were so distracted by “imaginary tryanny, three thousand miles distant” that they were unable to perceive the “real tyranny at our own doors.”

The response of the Essex County Grand Jury, written weeks after the disbanding of the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, calls into question Smyth’s “imaginary tyranny.”  The letter reveals New Jersey’s sympathies for Boston in the wake of the Coercive Acts (including the Quebec Act).  By the end of the year Essex County had established several committees of safety and observation. including local committees at Newark and Elizabeth-Town.

Here is an excerpt:

As your Honor’s charge from the Bench was not so properly directory to us with respect to our duty as the Grand Inquest of this County, as a matter of instruction for the regulation of our own personal conduct amidst the present commotions of the Continent, we think ourselves obliged, from the singularity of the charge, and its paternal tenderness for our welfare, to express our gratitude for your Honour’s friendly admonitions, (which doubtless derived great solemnity from the pace in which they were delivered,) and at the same time inform you how far we have the misfortune to differ from you in sentiment, both as to the origin and tendency of the present uneasiness so generally diffused through all the Colonies.  If we rightly understood a particular part of your Honour’s charge, you were pleased to tell us, that while we were employed in guarding against “imaginary tyranny, three thousand miles distant,” we ought not to expose ourselves to a “real tyranny at our own doors.”  As we neither know, sir, nor are under the least apprehension of any tyranny at our own doors, unless it should make its way hither from the distance you mention, and then, we hope, that all those whom the Constitution has entrusted with the guardianship of our liberties, will rather strive to obstruct than accelerate its progress, we are utterly at a loss for the idea thereby intended to be communicated.  But, respecting the tyranny at the distance of three thousand miles, which your Honour is pleased to represent as imaginary, we have the unhappiness widely to differ from you in opinion.  The effect, sire, of that tyranny is too severely felt to have it thought altogether visionary.  We cannot think, sir, that taxes imposed upon us by our fellow subjects, in a Legislature in which we are not represented, is an imaginary, but that it is a real and actual tyranny; and of which no Nation whatsoever can furnish a single instance.  We cannot think, sir, that depriving us of the inestimable right of trial by jury; seizing our persons and carrying us for trial to Great Britain is a tyranny merely imaginary.

Nor can we think with your Honour, that destroying Charters and changing our forms of Government, is a tyranny altogether ideals.—That an Act passed to protect, indemnify, and screen from punishment such as may be guilty even of murder is a bare idea.  That the establishment of French laws and Popish religion in Canada, the better to facilitate the arbitrary schemes of the British Ministry, by making the Canadians instruments in the hands of power to reduce us to slavery, has no other than a mental existence.  In a word, sir, we cannot persuade ourselves that the Fleet now blocking up the Port of Boston, consisting of ships built of real English oak and solid iron, and armed with cannon of ponderous metal, with actual powder and ball; nor the Army lodged in the Town of Boston, and the Fortifications thrown about it, (substantial and formidable realities,) are all creatures of their imagination.  These, sir, are but a few of the numerous grievances under which America now groans.  These are some of the effects of that deliberate of plan of tyranny concerted at “three thousand miles distance,” and which, to your Honour, appears only like the “baseless fabric of a vision.”  To procure redress of these grievances, which to others assume the form of odious and horrid realities, the Continent, as we learn, has very naturally been thrown into great commotions; and as far as this County in particular has taken part in the alarm, we have the happiness to represent to your Honour, that in the prosecution of measures for preserving American liberties, and obtaining the remove of oppressions, the people have acted in all their popular assemblies, (which it is the right of Englishment to convene whenever they please,”) with the spirit, temper and prudence becoming freemen and loyal subjects.