John Dickinson (1732-1808)

Dickinson, John

John Dickinson was one of the influential political thinkers and writers of the American Revolution. His Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies (1768) set out the colonial argument for opposing British taxation more clearly and persuasively than any previous work. A staunch advocate of the British constitution, he forcefully opposed independence in July 1776 as a member of the Continental Congress, but nevertheless chose to fight in the Continental Army. Dickinson was also a member of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and argued unsuccessfully for the supremacy of the national legislature over the other branches of government, yet he urged ratification of the final document.

Dickinson was born November 8, 1732, at Crosiadore, his family's plantation on Maryland's Eastern Shore. In 1741, the Dickinsons moved to Delaware, where he was educated by tutors at home. He began to study law in 1750, first in Philadelphia with a prominent attorney and then in London at the Middle Temple, which he entered in 1754. He was admitted to the London bar in 1757 and returned to Philadelphia to practice.

Dickinson's political career began in 1759 when he was elected to Delaware's provincial legislature. He became its Speaker only a year later. Dickinson was elected to the Pennsylvania assembly in 1762, where he became embroiled in disputes with Benjamin Franklin and others who opposed the Penn family's proprietary rights over the colony. In 1765, he became active in imperial politics as an advocate of colonial rights within the British Empire, publishing a pamphlet against the Sugar Act of 1764 as an impractical measure and, more importantly, as a delegate to the Stamp Act Congress where he drafted its Declaration of Rights and Grievances, as well as its petitions to the King and Parliament. In them he acknowledged Parliament's sovereignty over the colonies but claimed that taxation without representation was a violation of their British constitutional rights.

Dickinson became famous on both sides of the Atlantic in 1768 with the publication of his Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies, the most influential pamphlet of the revolutionary period (although first published as a series of essays in a Pennsylvania newspaper). In the Letters, he impressively laid out the case that Parliament could legislate for the colonies, which included the regulation of trade, but had no constitutional authority to tax them to raise a revenue. Moreover, he argued that any such unconstitutional measures - like the Townshend Duties - would be most effectively opposed by not importing or purchasing British goods; violence was unacceptable and, more to the point, fruitless as a means of obtaining redress.

Inherent in the Letters is Dickinson's fundamental adherence to the orthodox view of the British constitution that emerged from the Revolutionary Settlement of 1688-89 and was shaped during Sir Robert Walpole's long term as prime minister, one shared by a number of contemporaries, such as Peyton Randolph. Dickinson and his constitutional compatriots had little patience for arguments based on claims to abstract natural right or first principles. Relying heavily on David Hume, and rejecting John Locke, Dickinson posited the British constitution as the product of England's particular political history and which, while not without its flaws, was proven by experience to be the best form of government for the preservation of liberty.

The Letters proved wildly popular in the colonies and in Britain and was published as far away as Paris and Amsterdam. A Boston merchant, William Palfrey, described them to a friend in England as "justly esteem'd thro the whole Continent for the Strength of Reason and Argument, the thorough knowledge of the British Constitution and the Rights of mankind which they contain." The Boston Sons of Liberty sent a copy to John Wilkes, proclaiming "his sentiments are ours." George Washington purchased the Letters in Williamsburg at the same time that he led fellow Virginians in establishing a non-importation association to protest the Townshend Duties. Through the Letters, Dickinson became universally acknowledged as the leader of American political thought just as non-importation was adopted across the colonies as the preferred tactic of protest. In 1768, he also authored the "Liberty Song," which soon had colonials up and down the Atlantic seaboard singing "By uniting we stand, By dividing we fall."

While Dickinson was the most prominent defender of American constitutional liberties, he had no patience for destructive measures or discussions of independence. He opposed the Tea Act of 1773 and Coercive Acts of 1774 on constitutional grounds, but had little sympathy for the radical Bostonians who resorted to violence. As a delegate to the First Continental Congress, he pushed for clear statements about colonial rights in its petitions to the King and Parliament and direct action in the form of a continental non-importation association, but he also advocated that the colonies maintain a conciliatory posture. In October 1774, just after the Congress ended, he wrote to a friend in London to congratulate him "on the hearty union of all America" and expressed his belief that "if it be possible, the return of the members into the several colonies will make the people still more firm." Nevertheless, Dickinson believed that all was not beyond repair because "Every thing may yet be attributed to the misrepresentations and mistakes of ministers, and universal peace be established throughout the British world only by a general acknowledgment of this truth, that half a dozen men are fools or knaves." Even after the battles of Lexington and Concord, Dickinson retained his hope for reconciliation. In the Second Continental Congress he substantially rewrote Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms because he thought its language too harsh and persuaded his fellow delegates to submit the Olive Branch Petition to the King (which he wrote) as a final effort to avoid all-out war. Dickinson's insistence on reconciliation destroyed his political standing with the radicals in Congress, such as John Adams and Jefferson, who called Dickinson's constitutional views an unacceptable "half-way house." His final act in Congress was a mark not only of his consistency but also of the strength of his convictions: He vigorously spoke out against independence on July 1, 1776, the final day of debate. When independence was adopted the next day, Dickinson — a constitutional loyalist but still an American patriot - left Congress to join the Continental Army.

Dickinson returned to Congress in 1779, was elected governor of Delaware in 1781, and governor of Pennsylvania in 1782 (he retained his Delaware post until 1783, making him chief executive of both states at the same time for a year). Also in 1783, he helped Benjamin Rush establish Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the first college chartered in the United States, and gave the school its motto, tuta libertas (bulwark of liberty).

In 1787, Delaware selected Dickinson to represent it in the convention meeting in Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation. There he returned to principles that had always guided his constitutional thought, imploring his fellow delegates to let experience be their sole guide, for it was experience that proved the effectiveness of the British constitution, upon which they should model their efforts. He argued for a weak executive, an independent judiciary, and a supreme legislature that could not be overruled by either. Few of his ideas directly made it into the United States Constitution, but he nevertheless campaigned for its adoption. His nine "Fabius" letters helped Delaware and Pennsylvania become the first and second states, respectively, to ratify.

His participation in the drafting and ratification of the Constitution was the end of Dickinson's active involvement in national affairs. He retired to Delaware, where he helped write the state's own constitution, and briefly served as a state senator. He did speak out against the Jay Treaty with Britain in 1795, wrote more "Fabius" letters in 1797 to convince Americans to avoid war with France, and, astonished by Napoleon's thirst for power, in the early 1800s advocated a naval alliance with Britain against him. He died in Wilmington, Delaware, on February 14, 1808.

Browse Content By Theme