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Speech of Mr. Wilkins, of Westchester County


[The following was sent to the Printer by a gentleman who assures him it is nearly verbatim as it was spoken by Isaac Wilkins, Esquire, of Westchester, during the late session of the General Assembly of the Province of New-York, in a debate relative to the Continental Congress.]

MR˙ SPEAKER: The subject now under our consideration, is the most important, I believe, that has ever come before this House; nothing less than the welfare, I had almost said the existence, of this Colony, and perhaps of all America, depends upon the result of our present deliberations.

Deeply impressed with this idea, I rise with the greatest anxiety of mind to deliver my sentiments on this occasion. Whether they are such as this House will think proper to approve, I cannot tell; but sure I am they are such as are dictated by an honest heart — an heart biased by no selfish or sinister motives, and warped by no attachment to sect, persons, or party.

There is not, I am persuaded, an individual in this Assembly who does not wish well to America in general, and who is not solicitous for the preservation of this Province in particular. For my own part I feel more real concern than I can well express, at the gloomy prospect of our affairs, and I would sacrifice more, much more, than most men would be willing to believe, if I could by that means rescue my country from the ruin and destruction that is now ready to overwhelm her. The necessity of a speedy reconciliation between us and our mother country, must be obvious to every one who is not totally destitute of sense and feeling; so that there can be no dispute now, I presume, but about the means of accomplishing it. Before I give my opinion, however, upon this matter, I must beg the indulgence of the House, while I exhibit a short view of the rise and progress of our present disturbances in America.

Ever since the first settlement of these Colonies, Great Britain has claimed and exercised the right of jurisdiction over them, and her claim was founded in reason, and in the nature of Civil Government; for it is certain beyond all manner of doubt and controversy, that the supreme authority of every Empire must extend over the whole and every part of that Empire, otherwise there must be imperium in imperio, two absolute and distinct powers in one and the same Government, which is impossible; and consequently the supreme authority of the British Empire, which is vested in the King, Lords, and Commons, must extend over these Colonies, which are part of the British Empire. This authority was never disputed by the Colonists till the time of the Stamp Act, and then no farther than as to the right of imposing internal taxes; for the right of regulating trade, and of imposing duties upon articles of commerce, was universally acknowledged as essential to the supremacy of the British Parliament. Their right of internal taxation over the Colonies, was by the Americans opposed upon this principle, that it was contrary to one of the fundamentals of our free Constitution, which forbids the taking of the subjects' money without their consent, given either personally or by their Representatives. This power of disposing of their property, they imagined and asserted was lodged in their Provincial Legislatures only. Be that as it will, this was certainly placing their liberty upon a proper basis; here they ought to have rested; here they ought to have bounded their demands; this would


have been a sufficient barrier against arbitrary power. The Parliament, in consequence of this, although they did not relinquish their claim of right to tax the Colonies, repealed that impolitick and oppressive Act; and although they afterwards imposed duties on Paper, Glass, Paints, Colours, &c˙, yet those also, in compliance with our demands, were taken off; so indulgent has our mother country been to the claims and the humours of her children. This complying disposition, however, in her, so far from exciting our gratitude, or satisfying our uneasiness and discontent, has only emboldened us to make further encroachments upon her authority. We foolishly attribute this gentle conduct towards us to fear, and to a consciousness of her inability to compel us to submission. And when a three-penny duty on Tea was demanded of us, we peremptorily refused to comply; and instead of expostulating, or of shewing our disapprobation of that Act, by remonstrating in a legal and constitutional way, as we ought to have done; or instead of taking that easy and effectual method that offered itself to us — I mean the not purchasing that commodity, while encumbered with the duty, we flew into the most indecent rage, and hastily adopted every unwarrantable measure that could irritate and provoke the Government; we either destroyed or sent back, in a most contemptuous manner, all the Tea that entered our Harbours; we insulted her Ministers, and absolutely denied her authority.

The Colony of Massachusetts Bay was the foremost and the most violent in this opposition, and chastisement followed close upon the transgression, which, though the mildest that could possibly have been inflicted, considering the nature of the offence, has kindled such a flame through the whole Continent of America, as threatens universal devastation. The Colonies, instead of endeavouring to extinguish it, are increasing its violence; instead of striving to restore peace and good harmony, so essential to the welfare of both countries, are using every possible means to widen the breach and make it irreparable. Good God! that we should be so void of common sense; that we should be so blind to our own happiness! What advantage, in the name of Heaven, can we propose to ourselves, in being at enmity with Great Britain? Shall we by this means become more powerful, more wealthy, or more free? Let us pause a moment, and reflect a little upon the absurdity and folly of such expectations.

On the contrary, shall we not derive every desirable advantage from being in friendship and amity with her? Shall we not derive strength, protection, and stability, from that oak around which we have so long twined ourselves, and under the shadow of whose branches we have so long flourished in security.

Permit me to carry on this allusion. We are a vigorous and fertile vine, but without some prop, without some sufficient support, we shall only trail upon the ground, and be liable to injury and destruction from the foot of every passenger. But if Great Britain gives us her protection; if she cultivates us with tenderness and care, we shall yield her a rich and plentiful vintage, as necessary to her welfare and prosperity, as her support is to our existence. In this mutual relation do we stand to each other. Let us, therefore, like wise men, endeavour to establish a lasting and permanent union between us; let us endeavour to remove every obstacle to this desirable end; and let us reject with the utmost disdain and abhorrence, every measure that can tend to increase the difference between us, and make this necessary union impracticable. Let us therefore, to the utmost of our power, endeavour to put a stop to the illegal and disorderly proceedings and resolutions of Committees, Associations, and Congresses. They have already driven this Colony to the brink of a precipice; some of our sister Colonies, (I speak it with the deepest concern) have already taken the desperate plunge, and unless the clemency of Great Britain shall work a miracle in their favour, I know not how they will escape perdition. Let us be warned by their example; let their folly and precipitation teach us wisdom; and instead of linking ourselves to the chain of their evil destiny, let us instantly break loose, and, by a well-timed effort, rescue ourselves from destruction, and endeavour to make peace for ourselves — not a shameful — not an ignominious peace, but such an one as shall be worthy of freemen; such an one as will secure to us our liberties and properties, and render the union between


us and our mother country permanent and lasting; in short, such as will be worthy Great Britain to offer, and Americans to receive.

And here let it not be said that it will be a base desertion of our sister Colonies, to withdraw our assistance from them when in so critical and dangerous a situation. But let it be remembered that Great Britain is our mother — a kind and indulgent mother, who hath nourished, protected, and established us in this land of Canaan, this land flowing with milk and honey — a mother whose arms are open to receive all such of her children as will return to their duty, who is willing to hear their complaints, and to redress their grievances. And shall we take part against such a parent? Shall we, like detestable parricides, wound her bosom for the sake of ungrateful brethren, who have wilfully shut their eyes both to their interest and their duty, and who are obstinately bent upon their own destruction? Surely we cannot. No, I am persuaded there is not an individual in this House who would not reject such a proposal with the utmost abhorrence. We have too much understanding not to know that the interest of these Colonies and of Great Britain are the same; that we are all one people — of the same laws, language, and religion, each of us equally bound to each other by the ties of reciprocal affection; and we have too much loyalty to the best of Sovereigns — too great a regard to order and good Government, to assert that insurrections and tumults in one Colony, can or ought to justify them in another. Indeed, so far am I from thinking that this conduct in us would be deserting the common cause of the Colonies, that I am convinced it is the only expedient left, by which we can in any measure promote their real and true interest. By uniting with them, we shall in all probability sink with them, but by rending ourselves from the rash and ill-judged combination in which they are engaged, while we are doing good to ourselves, we may do good also to them. We may have it in our power, as I know we shall have it in our will, to stretch out an helping hand to raise them from the pit into which they are falling. And I will venture to assert it with boldness and confidence, that if this loyal Province will do her duty, and act with wisdom and moderation in the critical juncture, she may yet save America.

Great Britain is not the only quarter from whence danger is to be apprehended. Her resentment, no doubt, is to be dreaded, and it behoves us, if possible, to avert it. She may destroy our cities; she may ruin our commerce; she may reduce us to so deplorable a condition that we shall be willing to accept of peace and reconciliation upon any terms which she shall think proper to impose. This is what she may do, and what most probably she will do, unless we alter the mode of our conduct towards her. But if she should think proper to decline the contest; if in her wrath she should give us up to our own direction, and leave us to cut and shuffle for ourselves, and to settle our boundaries, and to appoint our own forms of Government, deeper and more terrible scenes of distress will present themselves to our view. Fain would I draw a veil over this melancholy prospect, and hide it from the eye of humanity; but my duty to my family — to my constituents — to my country, forbid me to be silent. Factions and animosities will lay waste our country. Provinces will rise against Provinces, and no umpire to determine the contest but the sword. This once flourishing and happy land will smile no more; it will become a field of blood, and a scene of terrour and desolation.

To such calamities shall we awake from our dreams of independence, and to such miseries will our unreasonable love of liberty lead us. Let us, therefore, moderate a little the eagerness of our pursuit, and not prostitute this noblest and best principle of the human heart, to the unworthy purposes of sedition and rebellion.

The Americans love liberty, ' tis their grand, their darling object, and may they ever have virtue and spirit enough to assert and defend it, as well as wisdom and prudence to enjoy it. But that love of liberty which beats so strongly at our hearts, and which seems to animate and inspirit almost every individual, if not carefully watched and attended to, will, on some future day, (should we be so fortunate as to escape our present danger,) prove a dreadful source of misfortunes to us, if not of ruin. Liberty and licentiousness are nearly allied to each other; like wit and madness,


there is but a thin partition between them; and licentiousness invariably leads to slavery. Almost every page of history will furnish abundant proofs of the truths of these observations; and God grant that the annals of this country may not add to the number; but I fear from the present licentious conduct, we are much nearer to a state of slavery and oppression than we seem to be aware of. So far already have we advanced towards it, that all internal order and subordination is nearly at an end among us. The authority of the Civil Magistrate is become useless, and almost contemptible; even the authority of this House, nay, of the whole Legislative body of the Province, has been treated with the utmost contempt, and our power in a manner wrested from us, by a set of men who have arrogated to themselves the style of the People' s Representatives. If they are in reality such, to what purpose are we here assembled? If they are authorized to make laws, to establish penalties, and to regulate the concerns of this Colony, why are we called together? What is left for us to do? Nothing, sir, but to do our duty; to undo, if possible, all that they have done; to strip them of their borrowed plumes, and to resume that authority which has been delegated to us for the most important purposes; for the preservation of liberty, order, and good Government. We are the Representatives of the inhabitants of this Colony; they have entrusted us with the guardianship of their rights and liberties, and they look up to us for the preservation of them. Let us therefore act as becomes us, with firmness and resolution. The eyes of all honest and good men are upon us: their hopes; their expectations of peace and safety, under Heaven, are centred here. Let us not disappoint those hopes, but let us lay aside every prejudice; let us suppress every passion and sentiment that can interfere with our country' s welfare, and let us unite with one voice and one mind, to save her from destruction.

We have this day before us the choice either of peace or war; of happiness or misery; of freedom or slavery; and surely we cannot hesitate a moment which to choose. By proceeding in a firm, but in a peaceful, loyal, and constitutional manner, in the settlement of this unhappy difference with our mother country, we cannot fail, I am convinced, of meeting with all desirable success. We shall by these means, undoubtedly secure to ourselves a free Constitution; we shall have a line of Government stretched out and ascertained, and we shall be restored to the favour and protection of the parent state, which, next to the favour and protection of Heaven, will be our best and strongest safeguard and security.

But, if you listen to the dictates of violent and enthusiastick men; if you adopt the ill-judged, tyrannical, and destructive measures of the Congress, where will your miseries end? Where, indeed, I cannot tell; but from that moment you must date the commencement of them; from that moment be assured that your ruin is inevitable. Now is the critical moment of our fate; we have it now in our power to do the most essential good, or the most essential mischief to ourselves and our posterity. If we neglect this opportunity of promoting our common felicity, and of establishing our liberties upon a firm and lasting basis, we may perhaps never have another, and we shall repent of our fatal infatuation and folly, when too late to retrieve the mistake; when the horrours and miseries of a civil war shall be increased, if possible, ten fold upon our heads, by the curses and execrations of our distracted and deluded constituents; when all orders and degrees of men shall, in the bitterness of their hearts, point us out as the authors of their ruin; when we shall be obliged to submit to the laws of conquest, or to the penalties of rebellion.

I have now, sir, delivered my sentiments freely and candidly upon the subject under our consideration. I have shown that the rise of our present disputes with Great Britain, has been an unreasonable jealousy on our parts, originating from an impolitick exertion of authority on her' s. I have proved that it is both our interest and our duty to cultivate the closest and most intimate union with her. I have shown that the authority of the British Parliament, which is the Supreme Legislature of the Empire, extends over these Colonies, which are parts of that Empire. I have shown the extreme danger of an undue opposition to that authority, which either by exerting itself against us, or giving us up to our own government, will equally involve us


in misery and destruction. I have shown, that by a peaceful and loyal conduct, we may now procure for ourselves, and perhaps for our sister Colonies, a more perfect system of Government than that which we have hitherto enjoyed, which was indeed better calculated for our infant state, than for the present period of our maturity — a period that requires, (however paradoxical it may seem,) at the same time more liberty and a stricter Government.

I have, therefore, Mr˙ Speaker, nothing more to add, than that, if contrary to my hopes and my most ardent wishes; if, contrary to the honour and dignity of this House; if, contrary to the dictates of humanity, and to the duty which we owe to our constituents and our country, you adopt the unjust and destructive measures of the Congress, and by that means involve our country in a civil war, the most dreadful calamity that can befall a people, I hereby declare my honest indignation to that measure, and now call Heaven and this House to witness, that I am guiltless of the blood of my fellow-subjects that will be shed upon the occasion — I am guiltless of the ruin of my country.