A CALM ADDRESS TO
OUR AMERICAN COLONIES
by John Wesley (1775)
John Wesley (1703-1791). Like his younger brother Charles, the founder
of Methodism John Wesley was born in Epworth, Lincolnshire, England. He
was graduated at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1724 and ordained by the
Church of England in 1728. Wesley returned to Oxford the following year
as a fellow of Lincoln College and, with his brother, organized the
Holy Club, devoted to intense spiritual life and social service among
England’s poor, aged, and delinquent. (George Whitefield joined the
club in 1734.) The Wesleys conducted an American mission in Georgia
from 1735 to 1737, and in Charleston, South Carolina, they published
their pioneering Collection of Psalms and Hymns (1737)—largely the work
of Charles, who was a poet and musician. In later years John Wesley
called their mission the “second rise of Methodism” (despite the meager
results at the time).
Justification by faith alone, a solace gained by John Wesley from the
Moravians, became a hallmark of his ministry, which became largely
itinerant as ordinary pulpits were closed against him. It is estimated
that, over a period of fifty years, he traveled a quarter of a million
miles in the British Isles, mostly on horseback, and preached between
forty and fifty thousand sermons. He remained within the Anglican
Church throughout this time, but in 1784 he first consecrated preachers
to further the American mission. By 1791, the year of John Wesley’s
death in London, he was admired everywhere, and Methodist societies in
Great Britain included 300 traveling ministers, 72,000 members, and
500,000 adherents; there were about two-thirds that number abroad,
especially in the United States, where growth was rapid.
John Wesley’s one direct venture into American politics came with the
publication in Bristol of A Calm Address to Our American Colonies
(1775). It reversed his position of a year earlier on British
oppression of the colonies and brought him down squarely on the side of
the ministry, much to their delight. The pamphlet went through at least
seventeen (and perhaps nineteen) editions; about 100,000 copies
circulated within a year. The British government was happy to foster
its distribution, since it justified its policies and bore Wesley’s
signature. In America, Wesley was vilified, not least because the first
eighteen pages of A Calm Address plagiarized Dr. Samuel Johnson’s
assault on the American position, published in 1775 as Taxation No
Tyranny: An Answer to the Resolutions and Address of the American
Congress. (As Frank Baker has commented, this was “a fairly normal
practice with Wesley.”) To fill out the publication to a full sheet of
type, Wesley added a five-page response to a sermon by William Smith,
provost of the College of Philadelphia, entitled A Sermon on the
Present Situation of American Affairs (June 23, 1775).
The second (London) edition of A Calm Address is reprinted here, the
only significant change from the first edition being the asterisk note
that softens the statement “Our sovereign has a right to tax me . . .
whether we have votes for Parliament-men or no” with “That is, in
connexion with the Lords and Commons.”
The flavor of the response to Wesley’s piece can be seen in the
comparatively mild, anonymous A Constitutional Answer to the Rev. Mr.
John Wesley’s Calm Address (1775) and John Fletcher’s The Bible and the
Sword (1776). As Donald H. Kirkham has summarized the invective aroused
by A Calm Address: “Calumny, name calling, and scurrilous innuendo
(bordering on libel), abounded. Wesley was denounced as a wolf in
sheep’s clothing, a madman, a chaplain in ordinary to the furies, a
cunning fox, a Jesuit in disguise, and a Jacobite traitor.” That the
cause of Methodism was not more adversely affected in America
thereafter than it actually was turns on the fact that American ports
were closed on July 20, 1775, and such copies as had arrived were
promptly destroyed by American Methodists.
Brethren and Countrymen,
1. The grand question which is now debated (and with warmth enough on
both sides), is this, Has the English Parliament power to tax the
In order to determine this, let us consider the nature of our colonies.
An English colony is, a number of persons to whom the king grants a
charter, permitting them to settle in some far country as a
corporation, enjoying such powers as the charter grants, to be
administered in such a manner as the charter prescribes. As a
corporation they make laws for themselves: but as a corporation
subsisting by a grant from higher authority, to the control of that
authority, they still continue subject.
Considering this, nothing can be more plain, than that the supreme
power in England has a legal right of laying any tax upon them for any
end beneficial to the whole empire.
2. But you object, “It is the privilege of a freeman and an Englishman
to be taxed only by his own consent. And this consent is given for
every man by his representative in Parliament. But we have no
representation in Parliament. Therefore we ought not to be taxed
I answer, This argument proves too much. If the Parliament cannot tax
you, because you have no representation therein, for the same reason it
can make no laws to bind you. If a freeman cannot be taxed without his
own consent, neither can he be punished without it: for whatever holds
with regard to taxation, holds with regard to all other laws. Therefore
he who denies the English Parliament the power of taxation, denies it
the right of making any laws at all. But this power over the colonies
you have never disputed: you have always admitted statutes, for the
punishment of offences, and for the preventing or redressing of
inconveniences. And the reception of any law draws after it by a chain
which cannot be broken, the necessity of admitting taxation.
3. But I object to the very foundation of your plea. That “every
freeman is governed by laws to which he has consented,” as confidently
as it has been asserted, it is absolutely false. In wide-extended
dominions, a very small part of the people are concerned in making
laws. This, as all public business, must be done by delegation, the
delegates are chosen by a select number. And those that are not
electors, who are far the greater part, stand by, idle and helpless
The case of electors is little better. When they are near equally
divided, almost half of them must be governed, not only without, but
even against their own consent.
And how has any man consented to those laws, which were made before he
was born? Our consent to these, nay and to the laws now made even in
England, is purely passive. And in every place, as all men are born the
subjects of some state or other, so they are born, passively, as it
were consenting to the laws of that state. Any other than this kind of
consent, the condition of civil life does not allow.
4. But you say, You are intitled to life, liberty and property by
nature: and that you have never ceded to any sovereign power, the right
to dispose of those without your consent.
While you speak as the naked sons of nature, this is certainly true.
But you presently declare, Our ancestors at the time they settled these
colonies, were intitled to all the rights of natural-born subjects,
within the realm of England. This likewise is true: but when this is
granted, the boast of original rights is at an end. You are no longer
in a state of nature, but sink down to colonists, governed by a
charter. If your ancestors were subjects, they acknowledged a
sovereign: if they had a right to English privileges, they were
accountable to English laws, and had ceded to the king and Parliament,
the power of disposing without their consent, of both their lives,
liberties and properties. And did the Parliament cede to them, a
dispensation from the obedience, which they owe as natural subjects? Or
any degree of independence, not enjoyed by other Englishmen?
5. They did not indeed, as you observe, by emigration forfeit any of
those privileges: but they were, and their descendents now are intitled
to all such as their circumstances enable them to enjoy.
That they who form a colony by a lawful charter, forfeit no privilege
thereby, is certain. But what they do not forfeit by any judicial
sentence, they may lose by natural effects. When a man voluntarily
comes into America, he may lose what he had when in Europe. Perhaps he
had a right to vote for a knight or burgess: by crossing the sea he did
not forfeit this right. But it is plain, he has made the exercise of it
no longer possible. He has reduced himself from a voter to one of the
innumerable multitude that have no votes.
6. But you say, As the colonies are not represented in the British
Parliament, they are entitled to a free power of legislation. For they
inherit all the right which their ancestors had of enjoying all the
privileges of Englishmen.
They do inherit all the privileges which their ancestors had: but they
can inherit no more. Their ancestors left a country where the
representatives of the people were elected by men particularly
qualified, and where those who wanted that qualification were bound by
the decisions of men whom they had not deputed. You are the descendants
of men who either had no votes, or resigned them by emigration. You
have therefore exactly what your ancestors left you: not a vote in
making laws, nor in chusing legislators, but the happiness of being
protected by laws, and the duty of obeying them.
What your ancestors did not bring with them, neither they nor their
descendants have acquired. They have not, by abandoning their right in
one legislature, acquired a right to constitute another: any more than
the multitudes in England who have no vote, have a right to erect a
Parliament for themselves.
7. However the colonies have a right to all the privileges granted them
by royal charters, or secured to them by provincial laws.
The first clause is allowed: they have certainly a right to all the
privileges granted them by the royal charters. But as to the second
there is a doubt: provincial laws may grant privileges to individuals
of the province. But surely no province can confer provincial
privileges on itself! They have a right to all which the king has given
them; but not to all which they have given themselves.
A corporation can no more assume to itself, privileges which it had not
before, than a man can, by his own act and deed, assume titles or
dignities. The legislature of a colony may be compared to the vestry of
a large parish: which may lay a cess on its inhabitants, but still
regulated by the law: and which (whatever be its internal expences) is
still liable to taxes laid by superior authority.
The charter of Pennsylvania has a clause admitting, in express terms,
taxation by Parliament. If such a clause be not inferred in other
charters, it must be omitted as not necessary; because it is manifestly
implied in the very nature of subordinate government: all countries
which are subject to laws, being liable to taxes.
It is true, The first settlers in Massachusetts-Bay were promised an
exemption from taxes for seven years. But does not this very exemption
imply, that they were to pay them afterwards?
If there is in the charter of any colony a clause exempting them from
taxes for ever, then undoubtedly they have a right to be so exempted.
But if there is no such clause, then the English Parliament has the
same right to tax them as to tax any other English subjects.
8. All that impartially consider what has been observed, must readily
allow, that the English Parliament has undoubted right to tax all the
But whence then is all this hurry and tumult? Why is America all in an
uproar? If you can yet give yourselves time to think, you will see, the
plain case is this.
A few years ago, you were assaulted by enemies, whom you were not well
able to resist. You represented this to your mother-country, and
desired her assistance. You was largely assisted, and by that means
wholly delivered from all your enemies.
After a time, your mother-country desiring to be reimbursed for some
part of the large expence she had been at, laid a small tax (which she
had always a right to do) on one of her colonies.
But how is it possible, that the taking [of this reasonable and legal
step, should have set all America in a flame?
I will tell you my opinion freely; and perhaps you will not think it
improbable. I speak the more freely, because I am unbiassed: I have
nothing to hope or fear from either side. I gain nothing either by the
government or by the Americans, and probably never shall. And I have no
prejudice to any man in America: I love you as my brethren and
9. My opinion is this. We have a few men in England, who are determined
enemies to monarchy. Whether they hate his present majesty on any other
ground, than because he is a king, I know not. But they cordially hate
his office, and have for some years been undermining it with all
diligence, in hopes of erecting their grand idol, their dear
commonwealth upon its ruins. I believe they have let very few into
their design (although many forward it, without knowing any thing of
the matter): but they are steadily pursuing it, as by various other
means, so in particular by inflammatory papers, which are industriously
and continually dispersed, throughout the town and country: by this
method they have already wrought thousands of the people, even to the
pitch of madness. By the same, only varied according to your
circumstances, they have likewise inflamed America. I make no doubt,
but these very men are the original cause of the present breach between
England and her colonies. And they are still pouring oil into the
flame, studiously incensing each against the other, and opposing under
a variety of pretences, all measures of accommodation. So that although
the Americans, in general, love the English, and the English in
general, love the Americans (all, I mean that are not yet cheated and
exasperated by these artful men), yet the rupture is growing wider
every day, and none can tell where it will end.
These good men hope it will end, in the total defection of North
America from England. If this were effected, they trust the English in
general would be so irreconcileably disgusted, that they should be
able, with or without foreign assistance, intirely to overturn the
government: especially while the main of both the English and Irish
forces, are at so convenient a distance.
10. But, my brethren, would this be any advantage to you? Can you hope
for a more desirable form of government, either in England or America,
than that which you now enjoy? After all the vehement cry for liberty,
what more liberty can you have? What more religious liberty can you
desire, than that which you enjoy already? May not every one among you
worship God according to his own conscience? What civil liberty can you
desire, which you are not already possessed of? Do not you sit without
restraint, every man under his own vine? Do you not, every one, high or
low, enjoy the fruit of your labour? This is real, rational liberty,
such as is enjoyed by Englishmen alone; and not by any other people in
the habitable world. Would the being independent of England make you
more free? Far, very far from it. It would hardly be possible for you
to steer clear, between anarchy and tyranny. But suppose, after
numberless dangers and mischiefs, you should settle into one or more
republics: would a republican government give you more liberty, either
religious or civil? By no means. No governments under heaven are so
despotic as the republican: no subjects are governed in so arbitrary a
manner, as those of a commonwealth. If any one doubt of this, let him
look at the subjects of Venice, of Genoa, or even of Holland. Should
any man talk or write of the Dutch government as every cobler does of
the English, he would be laid in irons, before he knew where he was.
And then wo be to him! Republics shew no mercy.
11. “But if we submit to one tax, more will follow.” Perhaps so, and
perhaps not. But if they did; if you were taxed (which is quite
improbable) equal with Ireland or Scotland, still were you to prevent
this by renouncing connection with England, the remedy would be worse
than the disease. For O! what convulsions must poor America feel,
before any other government was settled? Innumerable mischiefs must
ensue, before any general form could be established. And the grand
mischief would ensue, when it was established; when you had received a
yoke, which you could not shake off.
12. Brethren, open your eyes! Come to yourselves! Be no longer the
dupes of designing men. I do not mean any of your countrymen in
America: I doubt whether any of these are in the secret. The designing
men, the Ahithophels, are in England; those who have laid their scheme
so deep and covered it so well, that thousands who are ripening it,
suspect nothing at all of the matter. These well-meaning men, sincerely
believing, that they are serving their country, exclaim against
grievances, which either never existed, or are aggravated above
measure, and thereby inflame the people more and more, to the wish of
those who are behind the scene. But be not you duped any longer: do not
ruin yourselves for them that owe you no good will, that now employ you
only for their own purposes, and in the end will give you no thanks.
They love neither England nor America, but play one against the other,
in subserviency to their grand design, of overturning the English
government. Be warned in time. Stand and consider before it is too
late; before you have entailed confusion and misery on your latest
posterity. Have pity upon your mother country! Have pity upon your own!
Have pity upon yourselves, upon your children, and upon all that are
near and dear to you! Let us not bite and devour one another, lest we
be consumed one of another! O let us follow after peace! Let us put
away our sins; the real ground of all our calamities! Which never will
or can be thoroughly removed, till we fear God and honour the king.
A sermon preached by Dr. Smith, in Philadelphia, has been lately
reprinted in England. It has been much admired, but proceeds all along
upon wrong suppositions. These are confuted in the preceding tract: yet
I would just touch upon them again.
Dr. Smith supposes, 1. They “have a right of granting their own money”:
that is, of being exempt from taxation by the supreme power. If they
“contend for” this, they contend for neither more nor less than
independency. Why then do they talk of their “rightful sovereign”? They
acknowledge no sovereign at all.
That they contend for “the cause of liberty” is another mistaken
supposition. What liberty do you want, either civil or religious? You
had the very same liberty we have in England. I say, you had: but you
have now thrown away the substance, and retain only the shadow. You
have no liberty, civil or religious now, but what the Congress pleases
But you justly suppose, “We are by a plain original contract intitled
to a community of privileges, with our brethren that reside in England,
in every civil and religious respect,” p. 19. Most true. And till you
appointed your new sovereigns, you enjoyed all those privileges. Indeed
you had no vote for members of Parliament, neither have I, because I
have no freehold in England. Yet the being taxed by the Parliament is
no infringement either of my civil or religious liberty.
But you say again, “No power on earth has a right to grant our property
without our consent,” p. 22.
Then you have no sovereign: for every sovereign under heaven has a
right to tax his subjects: that is, “to grant their property, with or
without their consent.” Our* sovereign has a right to tax me, and all
other Englishmen, whether we have votes for Parliament-men or no.
Vainly therefore do you complain of “unconstitutional exactions,
violated rights, and mutilated charters,” p. 24. Nothing is exacted,
but according to the original constitution both of England, and her
colonies. Your rights are no more violated than mine, when we are both
taxt by the supreme power: and your charters are no more mutilated by
this, than is the charter of the city of London.
Vainly do you complain of being “made slaves.” Am I, or two millions of
Englishmen made slaves because we are taxed without our own consent?
You may still “rejoice in the common rights of freemen.” I rejoice in
all the rights of my ancestors. And every right which I enjoy, is
common to Englishmen and Americans.
But shall we “surrender any part of the privileges which we enjoy, by
the express terms of our colonization?” that is, of our charter? By no
means: and none requires it of you. None desires to withhold any thing
that is granted by the express terms of your charters. But remember!
One of your first charters, that of Massachusetts-Bay, says in express
terms, you are exempt from paying taxes to the king, for seven years:
plainly implying, that after those seven years you are to pay them like
other subjects. And remember your last charter, that of Pennsylvania,
says, in express terms, you are liable to taxation.
But “a people will resume, you say, the power, which they never
surrendered, except[”]—no need of any exception. They never surrendered
it at all; they could not surrender it; for they never had it. I
pray[,] did the people, unless you mean the Norman army, give William
the Conqueror his power? And to which of his successors did the people
of England (six or seven millions) give the sovereign power? This is
mere political cant: words without meaning. I know but one instance in
all history, wherein the people gave the sovereign power to any one;
that was, to Massaniello of Naples. And I desire any man living to
produce another instance in the history of all nations.
Ten times over, in different words, you “profess yourselves to be
contending for liberty.” But it is a vain, empty profession: unless you
mean by that threadbare word, a liberty from obeying your rightful
sovereign, and from keeping the fundamental laws of your country. And
this undoubtedly it is, which the confederated colonies are now