Born November 8, 1732
Talbot County, Maryland
Died February 14, 1808
Wilmington, North Carolina
Politician, lawyer, writer, soldier
John Dickinson helped guide American public opinion in the years before the American Revolution. He opposed British taxation of the colonies but also opposed the use of force against mother England. He was widely admired for his mastery of legal history and his writing skills, but he lost much of his influence when the Revolution got underway against his urging. Once it had begun, though, he worked to make his new nation stronger. He served in the legislatures of both Delaware and Pennsylvania, also serving as president of each state.
John Dickinson was born in Maryland in 1732 to Samuel Dickinson, a well-respected Quaker judge and farm owner, and his second wife, Mary Cadwalader. Historians disagree on whether or not Dickinson himself was a member of the Society of Friends, the formal name for the religious group whose members are popularly referred to as Quakers. Certainly, his Quaker parents' opposition to violence influenced Dickinson's beliefs as an adult that the American colonists should do everything possible to avoid armed conflict with England.
The Dickinson family owned property in both Delaware and Maryland, and when John Dickinson was a youngster, the family moved near Dover, Delaware. Dickinson took lessons at home until he turned eighteen. He then began a three-year study of the law under the guidance of attorney John Moland.
In 1753, at age twenty-one, Dickinson went to further his legal education in London, England, where it was common for wealthy young men of his time to study. There he read law books, visited law courts, and debated points of law with his fellow students. He also gained skills in organizing and presenting his views, and developed a fine grasp of the English legal system and English politics. He was disturbed to observe the corruption and incompetence of the members of the British House of Commons, the lower House of Parliament, England's law-making body.
Splits time between Delaware and Pennsylvania
Dickinson became a lawyer in Great Britain in 1757 and soon sailed home to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There Dickinson began his own legal practice. After the death of his father in 1760, he split his time between Philadelphia and his second home in Kent County, Delaware. He was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1762. There he demonstrated his lifelong ability to see both sides of an argument and adopt a middle position.
In his book John Dickinson, Conservative Revolutionary, Milton E. Flower described the well-known lawyer as being of average height and slight build, with clear eyes and a prominent nose. Flower wrote, "There was an elegance in [the way he carried himself], a poise and confidence that was particularly notable. His professional approach was [that of a well-spoken person] and so markedly [well educated] that his reputation grew easily."
Condemns Stamp Act
In 1765 the British imposed the Stamp Act on the American colonies to raise money. The colonists were forced to pay taxes on a wide range of documents and other items, including legal papers, newspapers, business documents, and even on playing cards and dice. At first, the colonists bitterly accepted the new form of taxation, but Dickinson foresaw that the Stamp Act's passage would bring on severe problems for the colonies, for one tax could easily lead to another.
Dickinson was a delegate from Pennsylvania to the Stamp Act Congress in New York in 1765. It was called "to consult together on the present circumstances of the colonies." Patriot Patrick Henry see entry gave a fiery speech against the Stamp Act; the speech helped changed the attitude of Americans from acceptance to open defiance. The Congress adopted Dickinson's Declarations of Rights and Grievances that denounced taxes imposed by England and collected in America.
In this and other writings, Dickinson voiced his fear that England would bleed America dry to pay its own heavy debts, brought on by recent warfare. He opposed the Stamp Act taxes and petitioned England to repeal them. He wrote, "It is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that no taxes be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives." However, Dickinson also opposed violent resistance to the Act on the part of the colonists.
Responding to American outrage and threats, the British repealed the Stamp Act. But trouble soon began again when Great Britain passed the Townshend Revenue Acts, imposing new taxes on paint, tea, lead, paper, and glass.
Opposes Townshend Acts
In 1767 Dickinson published Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to show his opposition to the Townshend Acts. This was his most famous work. In this series of letters that appeared in most of the newspapers in America, he disputed England's right to tax the colonists and suggested that Americans stop importing goods from England. Still, he stopped short of supporting armed resistance or separation from the mother country.
In the letters, Dickinson wrote, "The meaning of [these letters] is, to convince the people of these colonies that they are at this moment exposed to the most [threatening] dangers; and to persuade them immediately, vigorously, and unanimously, to exert themselves in the most firm, but most peaceable manner, for obtaining relief." The letters were well received in the various colonies and discussed at town meetings throughout New England.
Election victory and marriage
In 1770 Dickinson was again elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly. That same year he married Mary Norris of Philadelphia, whom he called "Polly." During their long marriage the couple was to have five children, though only two of them survived beyond infancy. In 1771 Dickinson helped write a petition to King George III see entry of England, encouraging him to convince the British Parliament to repeal taxes on tea and other items imported by the colonies.
In 1774 Dickinson became a delegate from Pennsylvania to the First Continental Congress, held in Philadelphia. Representatives from the colonies met there to discuss their options regarding their British rulers. According to John C. Miller in his biography Sam Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda, John Dickinson believed that "the cause of liberty should be left in the hands of lofty-minded patriots strongly adverse to riots and … outright rebellion." This was a position opposite to that taken by Samuel Adams see entry, who used his speeches and writings to arouse the anger of the colonists and bring on riots against their English rulers.
At the congress, Dickinson used his writing skills to point out that there were legal limits to the power of the British Parliament over the American colonists, limits that Parliament had exceeded. He also used those skills to protest against Great Britain's unfair trade practices. Dickinson believed that the British government had no right to raise money in the colonies by imposing taxes that Americans hated. However, he also believed Parliament had the power to control colonial trade and pass laws for the colonies.
Opposes war at Second Continental Congress
The Second Continental Congress met in May 1775, shortly after the battles of Lexington and Concord that marked the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Dickinson, along with John Duane of New York, presented a plan in Congress for making up with Britain.
There were strong differences of opinion among those at the Congress about how to handle their disagreements with Great Britain. Dickinson led the group that always supported peace-making efforts, even after fighting had already broken out. His group suggested that the colonists send a petition to the king and try to work out a series of settlements regarding trade and taxes, but prepare for war, just in case.
Adams's criticism of Dickinson's war views
John Adams see entry, later president of the United States, made fun of Dickinson and accused him and others in Congress who shared his views of trying "to oppose my designs and the Independence of the Country." In his Autobiography he referred to Dickinson, as "very moderate, delicate, and timid."
In the document that John Adams called the Olive Branch Petition, Dickinson told England that the colonies wanted to negotiate at once and desired "accommodation [settlement] of the unhappy disputes" between England and the colonies and were prepared to "enter into measures" to achieve it. Adams believed that Dickinson sent a mixed message, and described the position as one of "having a sword in one hand and an olive branch [a symbol of peace] in the other." Reportedly, King George III never even read the Olive Branch Petition.
Dickinson and his supporters believed that America was not yet ready for war. In their view, America had everything to gain by putting off the war. They thought that in a few years the colonies would be so powerful that the British would be unable to deny them independence.
Opposition to independence damages popularity
Those who preferred a more aggressive and violent course of action disliked Dickinson's approach to the problems with England. Still, the people of Pennsylvania reelected him to their assembly. But in time, as support for complete independence grew among Americans, his position began to make him unpopular.
In July 1776 Dickinson voted against the Declaration of Independence that established the United States as a separate nation. He said that his opposition was based on a lack of foreign support for the American colonists' desire for independence, the military unreadiness of the colonists, and their lack of unity. By voting against the Declaration, he was left behind by those who supported independence with patriotic fervor.
Still, Dickinson worked on one congressional committee to prepare for the new nation the Articles of Confederation (a forerunner to the U.S. Constitution). He worked on another committee to obtain treaties with foreign nations to secure their military assistance. And when war finally came, Dickinson was one of only two congressmen who immediately stepped up to fight. In 1776 he served as colonel of the First Philadelphia Battalion, leading his troops to fight the British in New Jersey.
That same year Dickinson and other like-minded members of the Pennsylvania Assembly opposed the new constitution under which the Assembly was meeting. After his proposals to revise the constitution were rejected by the majority in the body, Dickinson resigned from the Pennsylvania Assembly, resigned his military commission, and relocated his family to their home in Delaware. In time, he fought for the patriot cause in the Delaware Army (not the Continental army under General George Washington see entry) as a private, a low-ranking soldier.
Holds elected positions, faces criticism
In 1779 Delaware appointed Dickinson to be its delegate to the Continental Congress (it became the U.S. Congress in 1789). In 1781 he became president of Delaware, receiving all the votes except his own. It seems his heart remained in Pennsylvania and he truly did not wish to become president of Delaware, but went along with the wishes of others.
Apparently the anger against him in Pennsylvania cooled down, and in 1782 he was elected to the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania and named president of that state as well. Within two months of the election, he had resigned his position in Delaware and returned to Pennsylvania, where he felt more politically experienced. According to Milton E. Flower, "The Delaware assembly took his desertion with little grace, believing it not only contrary to the spirit of the constitution but 'inconsistent with the dignity, freedom and interest' of their state."
In 1783 one especially vicious critic of Dickinson, signing himself Valerius, made bitter personal attacks on Dickinson in a newspaper. He repeated charges that had been leveled at Dickinson even before his election. According to Flower, Valerius charged that Dickinson "had opposed the Declaration of Independence, disapproved of the new state constitution, deserted his battalion when it became a part of the Continental army, and weakened public confidence in Continental currency [money] by advising his brother to refuse acceptance of it." While the other three charges were true, claims that he had deserted his fellow soldiers in battle were false.
Dickinson replied to these attacks in a series of letters that appeared in Philadelphia newspapers. That same year Dickinson helped to found and raise money for western Pennsylvania's new Dickinson College. He presented the school with two farms totaling 500 acres, to provide income for its support, as well as 1,500 books for its library.
Holds various political positions, lives quietly
For several years following his election in Pennsylva nia, Dickinson largely involved himself in the financial and political affairs of that state, where he also served as head of the state court. His legal experience and wisdom proved very useful in that post.
In 1787 Dickinson went back to serving in Delaware when he was elected a delegate from that state to several con ventions of representatives of all the U.S. states. Because of age and declining health, he did not engage in debates. But he did contribute his writing talents, penning a famous series of let ters in support of the U.S. Constitution that he signed Faubius.
During the last couple of decades of his life Dickinson rarely appeared in public meetings. However, he did help to draft a new constitution for Delaware in 1792. He became very interested in international affairs during the 1790s. He was a great lover of France, and in 1797 he published fourteen letters encouraging renewal of the friendship between France and the United States, which had cooled following the Revolutionary War. In 1801 he produced two volumes of his writings that were published after his death on February 14, 1808, at Wilmington, Delaware. He was buried in the Friends' (Quaker) burying ground in that town.
Tributes to Dickinson came from a variety of people, including important politicians. Members of the U.S. House and Senate wore black armbands to honor his memory. In 1808 Thomas Jefferson see entry wrote about Dickinson in a letter to Joseph Bringhurst: "Among the first of the advocates [people who speak out in favor of] the rights of his country when [challenged] by Great Britain, he continued to the last … [an] advocate of the true principles of our new government."
For More Information
Allison, Robert L. "John Dickinson" in American Eras: The Revolutionary Era, 1754–1783. Detroit: Gale, 1998, pp. 218-20.
Boatner, Mark M, III. "Dickinson, John" in Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994, pp. 330-31.
Boatner, Mark M., III. "Dickinson, Philomen" in Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994, pp. 331-32.
Bourgoin, Suzanne M., and Paula K. Byers, eds. "John Dickinson" in Encyclopedia of World Biography, Vol. 4, 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale, 1998, pp. 543-44.
Faragher, John Mack, gen. ed. "John Dickinson" in Encyclopedia of Colonial and Revolutionary America. New York: Facts on File, 1990, pp. 111-12.
Flower, Milton E. John Dickinson: Conservative Revolutionary. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1983.
Ginsberg, Elaine K. "Dickinson, John" in American National Biography, Vol.6, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, pp. 566-69.
McDonald, Forrest. "Dickinson, John" in Encyclopedia of American Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Jerome L. Sternstein. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995, pp. 288-89.
Miller, John C. Sam Adams: Pioneer in Propaganda. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1936, p. 310.
Peabody, James Bishop, ed. John Adams: A Biography in His Own Words. New York: Newsweek Books 1973, p. 156.
Whitney, David C. "John Dickinson" in The Colonial Spirit of '76: The People of the Revolution. Chicago, IL: J.G. Ferguson Publishers, 1974, pp. 172-74.
The older brother of John Dickinson, Philomen Dickinson was born in 1739. He also made a major contribution to the American Revolution and the new American nation. Like his brother John, Philomen could be said to belong to two states, because he lived or served in elective offices in both Delaware and New Jersey. When the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, he was living on his comfortable Delaware estate. In 1776 he was elected to the New Jersey provincial congress. At that time he was also a general in that state's militia.
That same year, while George Washington and his troops were encamped at Morristown, New Jersey, Philomen Dickinson led a group of soldiers that hampered the British from getting badly needed supplies. He also led a successful surprise attack in Millstone, New Jersey, capturing horses, wagons, and prisoners. In 1777 he was named Major General and Commander-in-Chief of the New Jersey militia, a post he held until the end of the war. He participated in a number of significant battles.
He was three times defeated when he ran for governor of Delaware. In 1785, along with Robert Morris and Philip Schuyler (pronounced SKY-ler), he was appointed to select a site for the capital of the United States. He was defeated by William Paterson to serve Delaware in the U.S. Senate, but completed Paterson's term of office (1790–93) when Paterson succeeded William Livingston as governor. Dickinson died in 1809.
Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies
First published in 1767–68; excerpted from reprint edition, 1903
"Benevolence towards mankind excites wishes for their welfare, and such wishes endear the means of fulfilling them. Those can be found in liberty alone, and therefore her sacred cause ought to be espoused by every man, on every occasion, to the utmost of his power…. "
John Dickinson, from Letters from a Farmer …
Mob violence had greeted Parliament's attempts to raise money in the colonies. Apart from the violence, though, many stirring words were written and spoken in response to Parliament's actions. Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies, written by John Dickinson (1732–1808), were among the most eloquent early objections to British policies. Dickinson was a lawyer and a retired farmer. He studied law in both Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and London, England. Because of his legal training, he was one of the first to understand that measures like the Townshend Acts posed a danger to colonial liberty. He believed that it was wrong and illegal to impose taxes on people without their consent, given personally or through their representatives.
The Townshend Acts of 1767 appeared just as the colonists were recovering from their joy over the 1766 repeal of the Stamp Act of 1765 (taxes on printed matter, legal documents, dice, and playing cards). The Townshend Acts included (1) a Quartering Act, which ordered the colonies to provide living quarters and supplies such as candles and straw
for mattresses to British troops;(2) an act suspending the New York Assembly (its lawmaking body) for failing to obey earlier Quartering Acts; and (3) a Revenue Act, which called for taxes on lead, glass, paint, tea, and other items. (A revenue is money collected to pay for the expenses of government.)
The Townshend Acts prompted various reactions in the colonies. In the north, the acts were greeted with violence and fierce opposition. In the middle and southern colonies, there was a large group of people who did not like the Townshend Acts but were still loyal to King George III (1738–1820). These were the people whose opinions Dickinson was trying to change in his letters, which he addressed to "My Dear Countrymen."
For twelve weeks beginning on December 2, 1767, the Pennsylvania Chronicle and Universal Advertiser printed Dickinson's letters at the rate of one a week. Dickinson's letters explained the meaning and consequences of different aspects of the Townshend Acts. For example, letters five and six explained how to tell the difference between proper laws and improper laws. If Parliament's laws were designed to raise revenue, then the laws were not acceptable. If Parliament meant to regulate trade, such laws were acceptable.
Dickinson's first letter, which follows, began by describing some of his personal qualities. He said he was a retired farmer and an educated gentleman. He said he was interested in promoting the cause of liberty, and he believed that all men had to work to defeat threats to their liberty— threats like the Townshend Acts.
Things to remember while reading an excerpt from the first of the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies:
- Dickinson had spent four years studying law in England, and he knew well what the rights of English citizens were. In the following letter and in his eleven other letters, Dickinson pointed out that with the Townshend Acts, Parliament was trampling upon the rights of English citizens in the colonies.
- In his first letter, Dickinson referred several times to the Assembly of New York, the colony's lawmaking body. Dickinson was responding to the Townshend Act that punished New York because that colony had failed to obey the Quartering Acts of 1764 and 1766. The Quartering Acts required colonial authorities to provide living quarters and supplies to British soldiers in America. New Yorkers had complained that the burden of the Quartering Acts fell most heavily on them, because British general Thomas Gage (1721–1787) had his headquarters—and a large number of soldiers—in New York City. When Gage asked the New York Assembly to pay for supplies for his soldiers, the assembly refused. The assembly was punished by having its power to make laws suspended. Dickinson argued that if the other colonies did nothing in response to the suspension of the assembly's power, members of Parliament might pass other awful measures when it suited them.
Excerpt from the first of the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies
I am a Farmer, settled after a variety of fortunes, near the banks, of the river Delaware, in the province of Pennsylvania. I received a liberal education, and have been engaged in the busy scenes of life: But am now convinced, that a man may be as happy without bustle, aswith it. My farm is small, my servants are few, and good; I have a little money at [earning] interest; I wish for no more: my employment in my own affairs is easy; and with a contented grateful mind, I am compleating the number of days allotted to me by divine goodness.
Being master of my time, I spend a good deal of it in a library, which I think the most valuable part of my small estate; and being acquainted with two or three gentlemen of abilities and learning, who honour me with their friendship, I believe I have acquired a greater share of knowledge in history, and the laws and constitution of my country, than is generally attained by men of my class, many of them not being so fortunate as I have been in the opportunities of getting information.
From infancy I was taught to love humanity and liberty. Inquiry and experience have since confirmed my reverence for the lessons then given me, by convincing me more fully of their truth and excellence. Benevolence towards mankind excites wishes for their welfare, and such wishes endear the means of fulfilling them. Those can be found in liberty alone, and therefore her sacred cause ought to be espoused by every man, on every occasion, to the utmost of his power: as a charitable but poor person does not withhold his mite, because he cannot relieve all the distresses of the miserable, so let not any honest man suppress his sentiments concerning freedom, however small their influence is likely to be. Perhaps he may "touch some wheel" that may have an effect greater than he expects.
These being my sentiments, I am encouraged to offer to you, my countrymen, my thoughts on some late transactions, that in my opinion are of the utmost importance to you. Conscious of my defects, I have waited some time, in expectation of feeling the subject treated by persons much better qualified for the task; but being therein disappointed, and apprehensive that longer delays will be injurious, I venture at length to request the attention of the public, praying only for one thing,—that is that these lines may be read with the same zeal for the happiness of British America, with which they were wrote.
With a good deal of surprise I have observed, that little notice has been taken of an act of parliament, as injurious in its principle to the liberties of these colonies, as the STAMP-ACT was: I mean the act for suspending the legislation of New-York.
The assembly of that government complied with a former act of parliament, requiring certain provisions to be made for the troops in America, in every particular, I think, except the articles of salt, pepper,and vinegar. In my opinion they acted imprudently, considering all circumstances, in not complying so far, as would have given satisfaction, as several colonies did: but my dislike of their conduct in that instance, has not blinded me so much, that I cannot plainly perceive, that they have been punished in a manner pernicious to American freedom, and justly alarming to all the colonies.
If the BRITISH PARLIAMENT has a legal authority to order, that we shall furnish a single article for the troops here, and to compel obedience to that order; they have the same right to order us to supply those troops with arms, cloaths, and every necessary, and to compel obedience to that order also; in short, to lay any burdens they please upon us. What is this but taxing us at a certain sum, and leaving to us only the manner of raising it? How is this mode more tolerable than the STAMP ACT? Would that act have appeared more pleasing to AMERICANS, if being ordered thereby to raise the sum total of the taxes, the mighty privilege had been left to them, of saying how much should be paid for an instrument of writing on paper, and how much for another on parchment ?
[Next came a complicated paragraph, which stated that an act of Parliament commanding the colonies to house, clothe, and feed British soldiers was really a tax. Some colonies complied with the act simply to show their respect for Great Britain; but by complying, they were not saying it was legal to tax them.]
The matter being thus stated, the assembly of New-York either had, or had not a right to refuse submission to that act. If they had, and I imagine no AMERICAN will say, they had not, then the parliament had no right to compel them to execute it.—If they had not that right, they had no right to punish them for not executing it; and therefore had no right to suspend their legislation, which is a punishment. In fact, if the people of New-York cannot be legally taxed but by their own representatives, they cannot be legally deprived of the privileges of making laws, only for insisting on that exclusive privilege of taxation. If they may be legally deprived in such a case of the privilege of making laws, why may they not, with equal reason, be deprived of every other privilege? Or why may not every colony be treated in the same manner, when any of them shall dare to deny their assent to any impositions that shall be directed? Or what signifies the repeal of the STAMP-ACT, if these colonies are to lose their other privileges, by not tamely surrendering that of taxation?
There is one consideration arising from this suspicion, which is not generally attended to, but shews its importance very clearly. It wasnot necessary that this suspension should be caused by an act of parliament. The crown might have refrained from calling the assembly together, by its prerogative in the royal governments. This step, I suppose, would have been taken, if the conduct of the assembly of New-York, had been regarded as an act of disobedience to the crown alone: but it is regarded as an act of "disobedience to 'the authority of the BRITISH LEGISLATURE.'" This gives the suspension a consequence vastly more affecting. It is a parliamentary assertion of the supreme authority of the British legislature over these colonies in the part of taxation; and is intended to COMPEL New-York into a submission to that authority. It seems therefore to me as much a violation of the liberty of the people of that province, and consequently of all these colonies, as if the parliament had sent a number of regiments to be quartered upon them till they should comply. For it is evident, that the suspension is meant as a compulsion: and the method of compelling is totally indifferent. It is indeed probable, that the sight of red coats, and the beating of drums would have been most alarming, because people are generally more influenced by their eyes and ears than by their reason: But whoever seriously considers the matter, must perceive, that a dreadful stroke is aimed at the liberty of these colonies: For the cause of one is the cause of all. If the parliament may lawfully deprive New-York of any of its rights, it may deprive any, or all the other colonies of their rights; and nothing can possibly so much encourage such attempts, as a mutual inattention to the interest of each other. To divide, and thus to destroy, is the first political maxim in attacking those who are powerful by their union. He certainly is not a wise man, who folds his arms and reposeth himself at home, seeing with unconcern the flames that have invaded his neighbour's house, without any endeavours to extinguish them. When Mr. Hampden's ship-money cause, for three shillings and four-pence, was tried, all the people of England, with anxious expectation, interested themselves in the important decision; and when the slightest point touching the freedom of a single colony is agitated, I earnestly wish, that all the rest may with equal ardour support their sister. Very much may be said on this subject, but I hope, more at present is unnecessary.
With concern I have observed that two assemblies of this province have sat and adjourned, without taking any notice of this act. It may perhaps be asked, what would have been proper for them to do? I am by no means fond of inflammatory measures. I detest them.—I should be sorry that any thing should be done which might justly dis-please our sovereign or our mother-country. But a firm, modest exertion of a free spirit, should never be wanting on public occasions. Itappears to me, that it would have been sufficient for the assembly, to have ordered our agents to represent to the King's ministers, their sense of the suspending act, and to pray for its repeal. Thus we should have borne our testimony against it; and might therefore reasonably expect that on a like occasion, we might receive the same assistance from the other colonies.
"Concordia res parvae crescunt. " Small things grow great by concord. —
A FARMER. (Dickinson, Letters, pp. 5–12)
What happened next …
Dickinson's letters were so popular in Pennsylvania that nearly every other colonial newspaper reprinted them. At town and assembly meetings everywhere, resolutions were passed thanking Dickinson for expressing so well the British threat to liberty. The letters were then printed in book form. American politician Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790) liked them so well that he wrote a preface to the London edition of the book and then arranged to have it translated into French for publication in Europe.
The letters helped unite Americans in resistance, and they had international influence, too. In London, members of Parliament angrily discussed them. Ordinary citizens, who up until then had heard little of the situation in America, now grew alarmed that their own liberties might be taken from them as well. Letters from citizens began to be published in English newspapers, and Dickinson's name became well known throughout the kingdom as the leader of political thought in the American colonies.
Did you know …
- John Dickinson was a Quaker, a member of the Society of Friends, who oppose violence. Dickinson strongly objected to British attempts to tax the colonies, but he meant to plead his case like a lawyer, in the hopes that Great Britain and America could reach an understanding.
- Dickinson's letters were published in London Magazine in 1768. The magazine expressed the opinion that Dickinson's reasoning was sound and that "nine persons in ten, even in this country, are friends to the Americans, and convinced that they have right on their side." The magazine's editors did not speak for King George or his friends in Parliament, however. The king and Parliament continued to assert Parliament's right to tax the colonies.
- Dickinson had earlier gained some fame when he wrote a pamphlet opposing the Stamp Act of 1765. In it, he pointed out that if the colonists spent all their money paying taxes to Great Britain, there would be none left to buy British goods. He warned that if the British continued to tax the Americans, the colonists would have to manufacture their own goods and would become completely independent from Great Britain. It would not be long before his prediction came true.
- Dickinson believed strongly in education. In 1773, he founded Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, because he thought western Pennsylvania needed a college. He gave the school fifteen hundred books and two farms totaling five hundred acres.
Where to Learn More
Cook, Don. The Long Fuse: How England Lost the American Colonies, 1760–1785. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995.
Dickinson, John. Empire and Nation: Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania. Edited by Richard Henry Lee. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998.
Dickinson, John. Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, to the Inhabitants of the British Colonies. New York: Outlook Co., 1903.
Dickinson, John (1732-1808)
John Dickinson (1732-1808)
Lawyer and statesman
Study Abroad. John Dickinson was born on 8 November 1732 into a wealthy, socially prominent Quaker family on the eastern shore of Maryland. Dickinson was schooled at home until 1750, when he went to Philadelphia to study law in the office of John Moland, a prominent attorney. Dickinson worked in Moland’s office for three years, copying documents and studying in the company of other apprentices. In 1753 he went to London’s Inns of Court to complete his legal education. The study of law in the Inns was an unstructured affair. Dickinson followed a daily regimen of reading law books, visiting law courts, and debating the fine points of law with fellow law students. He learned not only court procedure but also, from discussions with the other residents, how to organize and present his views on a variety of topics. This broad but rigorous legal training helped him develop an extensive knowledge of England’s legal history and a keen insight into British politics. This close contact with politics taught him other, troubling lessons: he was distressed to learn that the members of the House of Lords were rather ordinary men, and he was even more disturbed to see corruption and incompetence among members of the House of Commons. He completed his training in London upon admission to the bar in 1757 and sailed home to Philadelphia.
Legislator. Dickinson began his legal practice as soon as he returned home. In Pennsylvania a long-running political feud was heating up at this time—the dispute between the supporters of the elected assembly and the supporters of the proprietorship. The assembly, deriving authority from the 1701 Charter of Liberties, had gradually increased its control of local financial affairs. The proprietary faction were the supporters of the heirs of William Penn. The proprietors, who owned one-tenth of all the land in the colony, also had some political powers—they appointed the governor and the judges. Dickinson did not get involved in this dispute at the outset of his political career, but when he was elected to the assembly in 1762, he was quickly forced to take sides.
Champion of the Status Quo. One of the leaders of the movement to replace the proprietary system with a royal charter form of government was Benjamin Franklin. He and his allies argued that the proprietors, as owners of one-tenth of all the land in the colony, had a conflict of interest on the issue of taxes, when, in their positions as governor’s council members and judges, they needed to raise taxes and appropriate money for defense of western settlements. The antiproprietor faction urged a separation between the power of government and the ownership of property and sought to have the assembly petition the Crown for a change to a royal colony form of government.
Moderate Course. Dickinson pointed out that other colonies with royal charters chafed under many burdens and urged that Pennsylvania not change to a charter simply to spite the proprietors. More important, he argued, Pennsylvanians had benefits under their 1701 charter that they put at risk by asking for a change—complete religious freedom, with no oaths required for political participation, and the assembly was less subject to the will of the governor than were the legislatures of the royal colonies. Dickinson disliked the proprietary form of government, but he saw too much to lose by changing to a royal charter. He advised bargaining with the royal authorities to solve the primary problem, the taxation dispute. Dickinson’s arguments had only partial success in the assembly. The members voted to send Franklin to London to petition for a change of the charter, provided that he preserve Pennsylvania’s civil and religious privileges. When Franklin arrived in London, in March 1765, as the Stamp Act controversy was gathering steam, Parliament’s determination to tax the colonies made the antiproprietary petition a lost cause. Dickinson’s analysis of the situation was clearly correct.
Stamp Act Congress. Pennsylvania sent Dickinson to the Stamp Act Congress in New York in September 1765. He gained widespread notice as the principal draftsman of the Congress’s “Declarations of Rights and Privileges.” The delegates acknowledged that the colonists were loyal to the British Crown and subject to the authority of Parliament. However, as Dickinson wrote: “It is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people, and the undoubted right of Englishmen, that no taxes be imposed on them, but with their own consent, given personally, or by their representatives.” The Stamp Act Congress’s resolutions and petition were sent to Parliament and helped convince Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act in 1766.
“Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer.” After the settlement of the Stamp Act controversy, Parliament passed three acts that rekindled the dispute: the Quartering Act required colonial legislatures to provide barrack necessities (candles, mattress straw, windowpanes, etc.) for British soldiers stationed in the colonies; the Restraining Act prohibited the New York assembly from meeting until it complied with the Quartering Act; and the Townshend Act imposed new duties on goods imported into the colonies from England. These three acts inspired Dickinson to write his most famous work: “Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer.” His first letter, published in a Philadelphia newspaper on 2 December 1767, described some personal qualities. He said he was a retired farmer, an educated gentleman interested in promoting the welfare of men, and one who believed that such welfare was best secured with liberty. At the rate of one letter every week for twelve weeks, the farmer wrote about these three acts. The letters were quickly republished in newspapers in other cities, and pamphlet versions soon appeared as well. The sober tone of the letters and their call for cautious opposition to the various tax acts awakened and unified people in all the colonies. The letters generated favorable comments in all the colonies and were discussed and praised in New England town meetings.
Continental Congress. In 1774 Dickinson was a delegate from Pennsylvania at the First Continental Congress. He played a prominent role outlining the grievances and drafting essays, resolutions, and petitions. He based his arguments on natural law and constitutional limitations of Parliament’s power. He focused on two main grievances—Parliament’s interference with the internal affairs of the colonies and its wrongful use of its power over trade. The Second Continental Congress convened in May 1775, after the battles at Lexington and Concord. Dickinson, working with John Duane of New York, proposed a plan for a reconciliation with Britain. He urged a three-staged approach: preparations for war, sending a petition to the king, and negotiating a permanent set of commercial regulations and a revenue settlement. Dickinson’s insistence that Congress wait for a response to the Olive Branch Petition was the main controversy in the debate. The petition was sent in July, and support for Dickinson’s position on reconciliation wasted away as months passed with no response from London. Finally, in November, Congress learned that the king would not respond. Dickinson’s prestige in Congress waned rapidly.
Declaration of Independence. Dickinson labored under the conviction that reconciliation was still possible although he became increasingly doubtful. He simply was unable to make the same leap that so many others already had, that independence was inevitable. In Congress in June 1776 the delegates debated declaring independence. Dickinson urged that independence be deferred at least until the colonies could agree on how they would form a confederation and ascertain the likelihood of foreign help in the war. When the motion for independence was finally presented, Dickinson abstained and did not sign the Declaration of Independence. In the next several weeks he drafted the Articles of Confederation for a committee of the Continental Congress. On 20 July, Pennsylvania’s provincial convention ousted him from the congressional delegation because he had not supported independence. Dickinson was not disappointed at his ouster, writing that “no youthful Lover ever stript off his cloathes to step into Bed to his blooming beautiful bride with more delight that I have cast off my Popularity.”
Later Years. Dickinson spent the next several years out of the public spotlight. He moved to Delaware and resumed his law practice. In 1781, however, he was elected to Delaware’s legislature. Later that year, under the then-current form of government, the legislature elected him president of the state for a three-year term. Dickinson’s main interests were in Philadelphia, though, and in late 1782 he returned there, where he was promptly elected to the Pennsylvania legislature. Shortly thereafter the legislature elected him president of Pennsylvania. Dickinson was president of both states at the same time but resigned the Delaware office after three months. In 1783, believing there was a need for a college in the western part of Pennsylvania, he founded Dickinson College. He endowed the new school with two farms, totaling five hundred acres, and a library of 1,500 volumes. Dickinson represented Delaware at the Annapolis Convention in 1786 and at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. During the debate on ratification, Dickinson’s “Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer” were often cited by opponents of ratification. Dickinson wrote a series of essays signed “Fabius” in support of ratification. He helped write the Delaware constitution in 1792 and wrote occasionally on political matters for the next ten years. He died on 19 February 1808.
Lawrence Henry Gipson, The Coming of the Revolution, 1763-1775 (New York: Harper, 1954);
David L. Jacobson, John Dickinson and the Revolution in Pennsylvania, 1764-1776 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965);
Charles J. Stille, The Life and Times of John Dickinson (Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1891).
John Dickinson (1732-1808), American lawyer, pamphleteer, and politician, helped guide public opinion during the clash between colonial and British interests prior to the American Revolution. Although he had opposed American independence, he worked to strengthen the new nation.
After 1769 John Dickinson was without peer in the pamphlet war for colonial rights, which the moderates preferred to a shooting war. He was not a "man of the people," but he shared with most American Whigs the aspiration for self-government. He was cautious but not an obstructionist.
John Dickinson was born Nov. 13, 1732, in Talbot County, Md., the son of a judge. Dickinson began his legal studies in 1750 in Philadelphia, but 3 years later he went to London and became a reader at the Middle Temple.
In England, Dickinson studied the authorities, heard cases argued, and visited the theater and the family of Pennsylvania proprietor Thomas Penn. He took his law degree in 1757 and returned to America with the disillusioned view that Parliament was a school for corrupt bargainers of meager talents.
Dickinson was admitted to the Philadelphia bar, and after 1760, when his father died, he divided his time between Kent County, Del., and the thriving Pennsylvania capital. Elected to the colonial legislature in 1762, he showed little awe for the Penn family's proprietary interests but displayed a lifelong tendency to see both sides of an issue and then lean toward the middle ground. When the antiproprietary leaders insisted that the colony should be wrested from the Penns and converted into a royal province, Dickinson warned that the transition might exact a heavy price. The colony was torn between the Quaker party and the Scotch-Irish faction, and Dickinson insisted that a change of masters was in itself no solution to their deep-rooted problems.
Debating American Independence
No one could foresee the rapid deterioration of British-American relations set off by the Stamp Act in 1765, when local concerns finally gave way to larger problems. Whereas Benjamin Franklin at first saw no harm in the stamped paper, Dickinson sensed the dreaded implications it carried. As a delegate to the Stamp Act Congress, he met leaders of active antiparliamentary parties from other colonies. His "Declaration of Rights and Privileges" adopted by the Congress denounced taxes voted in England and collected in America. Regulation of trade was one thing, but levying taxes struck at the main artery of colonial government. Dickinson wrote several pamphlets which suggested that Britain would, if necessary, bleed the Colonies into obedience. In common with James Otis, the foremost pamphleteer of the day, Dickinson argued that "immutable maxims of reason and justice" supported the American discontent.
Repeal of the Stamp Act temporarily relaxed tensions, but the Townshend Acts of 1767 gave Dickinson renewed opportunity to serve as a moderate spokesman. In the maelstrom of American discontent, Dickinson's Letters from a Pennsylvanian Farmer capitalized on the shifting grounds of argument. The new duties were contrary to natural law, he argued, and clearly unconstitutional. Dickinson denied the sophistry that claimed there were internal and external duties and that Parliament might legally enact only the latter. Levying taxes, he argued, was the precious prerogative of the colonial assemblies alone but Parliament might enact regulatory duties on trade. Dickinson insisted that the point of tightened British controls was to keep Americans obedient rather than happy. Widely published in newspapers and as a pamphlet, his Letters (as Franklin said) echoed "the general sentiments" of the colonists. The tone was neither humble nor belligerent.
Dickinson tried to rouse the lethargic Philadelphia merchants into a more active stand and corresponded with James Otis and other resistance leaders. In 1770 he was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly. He married Mary Norris the same year. In the backlash of the Boston Tea Party, Philadelphians debated both their role in aiding a sister city and their position in the imperial argument. Dickinson helped clarify matters in his pamphlet An Essay on the Constitutional Power of Great Britain, which granted Parliament power to regulate foreign trade but little else in American life. In the First Continental Congress he drafted both the cogent "Address to the Inhabitants of Quebec," a summary of the rights of Americans, and the petition to George III seeking reconciliation.
Dickinson's attitude characterized the Second Continental Congress, which John Adams saw as holding "the Sword in one Hand [and] the Olive Branch in the other." Dickinson's "Olive Branch" petition to the King boomeranged. By ignoring it, George III slammed the door on moderate Americans and placed Dickinson in a difficult position.
Dickinson's Approach Too Moderate
By 1776 Dickinson was arguing against the inevitable; his opposition to the Declaration of Independence left him a conscientious but marked man. His proposed "Articles of Confederation" proved useful as Congress patched together a national government, but in state politics his ideas were rejected, and he was dropped from the congressional delegation. Exasperated, Dickinson challenged supporters of the ultrademocratic Pennsylvania Constitution by calling for an immediate revision of their work. Frustrated and convinced he was ill, he temporarily retired.
Gradually, Dickinson regained his old political form. In 1779 Delaware sent him back to Congress and in 1781 elected him its chief executive. A year later Pennsylvania also chose him as its president, and he briefly held both offices. Soon, however, he returned to Pennsylvania to serve 3 years as its president. Dickinson was sent to the Annapolis Convention and was a Delaware delegate to the Federal Convention in 1787. Age and health excused him from an active role in debate, but in the ratification campaign he wrote the "Fabius" letters in support of the United States Constitution.
Thereafter, Dickinson appeared rarely in public bodies. He helped draft the 1792 Delaware Constitution but took no part in a similar work for Pennsylvania. He veered away from the Federalists to attack Jay's Treaty. He supported the rising Republican party and Jefferson in 1800 but refused to become politically active himself. Dickinson died on Feb. 14, 1808, at Wilmington, Del.
There is no satisfactory comprehensive biography of Dickinson. Charles J. Stillé, The Life and Times of John Dickinson (1891), is inadequate. David L. Jacobson, John Dickinson and the Revolution in Pennsylvania, 1764-1776 (1965), is excellent for its analysis of a significant period. Dickinson's papers in the several leading Philadelphia archives have not yet been collected and edited by a competent scholar. The Political Writings of John Dickinson, edited by himself (1801), and Paul L. Ford, ed., The Writings of John Dickinson (1895), leave gaps.
Flower, Milton Embick, John Dickinson, conservative revolutionary, Charlottesville: Published for the Friends of the John Dickinson Mansion by the University Press of Virginia, 1983.
Fredman, Lionel E., John Dickinson, American Revolutionary statesman, Charlotteville, N.Y., SamHar Press, 1974. □
DICKINSON, JOHN. (1732–1808). American political theorist. Born on 8 November 1732 in Talbot County, Maryland, John Dickinson studied law for three years before going to London for another three years of study at the Temple (1753–1757). Returning to Philadelphia, he was admitted to the bar and quickly became a prominent lawyer. In October 1760 he was elected to the assembly of the lower counties of Delaware, where his family owned property, becoming speaker of that body. In 1762, after losing re-election in Delaware, he was elected representative from Philadelphia to the Pennsylvania legislature. Here his conservative views threw him into the role of leading the unpopular Proprietary Party in opposition to Benjamin Franklin, who wanted a royal government. Dickinson won this battle and Franklin lost his bid for re-election. A vigorous opponent of the Stamp Act, Dickinson attended the congress of 1765 and is credited with doing most of the work on the "Declaration of Rights and Grievances." In an essay published in 1765 entitled "The Late Regulations Respecting the British Colonies … Considered," Dickinson advocated enlisting the aid of British merchants to secure the repeal of the Sugar and Stamp Acts. His Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania (1768), which called for peaceful resistance to the arbitrary government of the British Parliament, had a major impact on political thought in England as well as America.
In 1771 Dickinson drew up the first "Petition to the King," which won unanimous acceptance from the assembly, but he fell in popular estimation by condemning the often violent approach of the New England radicals. In 1774 he disapproved of any more assistance to Boston beyond sending an expression of sympathy. He epitomized the conservative Patriot viewpoint in his "Essay on the Constitutional Power of Great Britain over the Colonies in America," which urged caution in America's resistance to British authority. The Pennsylvania assembly selected Dickinson as a delegate to the first Continental Congress, drafting their "Petition to the King" and "Address to the People of Quebec," in which they sought Canadian support.
Made chairman of a Committee of Safety and Defense on 23 June 1775, Dickinson held this position a year. He also became a colonel of the first battalion raised in Philadelphia. In the Second Continental Congress he continued to advocate peaceful methods. He wrote the "Olive Branch Petition," adopted 5 July 1775 over the furious objections of New England delegates, and crafted the final version of the "Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of taking up Arms." He voted against the Declaration of Independence, insisting that a peaceful settlement was still possible and believing that the colonies lacked the central government and the support of allies needed for a successful war. Nonetheless, he headed the committee that drafted the Articles of Confederation, and led his regiment to Elizabethtown to combat the British. Dissatisfied by the direction events were taking, he quit both the assembly and Congress and moved to Delaware. He served as a private in the Delaware militia during the Philadelphia campaign, and in October 1777 he was a made a brigadier general of militia.
Dickinson returned to Congress in February 1779 as a delegate from Delaware, but he resigned in the fall. In 1781 he became president of the Supreme Executive Council of Delaware, and when he returned to live in Philadelphia he held the same office in Pennsylvania from 1782 to 1785. In 1787 he was a delegate from Delaware to the convention that framed the federal Constitution, and the next year he published nine letters, signed "Fabius," urging its adoption. In 1791, Dickinson was a delegate to and president of the Delaware constitutional convention. He then served in the assembly until he resigned because of ill health in 1793. During his last 15 years he held no public office, but in 1797 he published fourteen letters advocating friendship with France. He died on 14 February 1808.
Flower, Milton E. John Dickinson: Conservative Revolutionary. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983.
Jacobson, David L. John Dickinson and the Revolution in Pennsylvania, 1764–1776. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965.
revised by Michael Bellesiles
John Dickinson was born November 8, 1732, in Talbot County, Maryland. He was educated at the College of New Jersey (today known as Princeton University), where he earned a doctor of laws degree in 1768. He also pursued legal studies at the Middle Temple, Inn of the Court, England.
After his admission to the Philadelphia bar in 1757, Dickinson established a prestigious legal practice in that city and subsequently entered politics on the state level.
In 1760, Dickinson served in the Assembly of Lower Counties, Delaware, and performed the duties of speaker. Two years later, he participated in the Pennsylvania legislature, representing Philadelphia until 1764, and again, from 1770 to 1776. In 1765, Dickinson wrote a pamphlet titled The Late Regulations Respecting the British Colonies on the Continent of America Considered, which protested the passage of two unjust acts of taxation, the stamp act and the Sugar Act, by England. In the same year, he also served at the Stamp Act Congress and drafted a series of requests to King George III. Although he opposed many of the policies enforced by England, Dickinson favored conciliatory action over violence.
England passed the unpopular townshend acts in 1767, which levied tariffs on colonial imports of certain items. Dickinson composed another publication in protest, known as "Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania"; these letters advocated nonimportation of the taxed materials, rather than a violent reaction to the passage of the act.
Dickinson continued to serve in pre-Revolutionary War activities, including the Committee of Correspondence in 1774 and the continental congress from 1774 to 1776 and from 1779 to 1781. He still hoped for reconciliation with England and, as a result of this sentiment, opposed the Declaration of Independence. However, with the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Dickinson served a tour of military duty.
"It is inseparably essential to the freedom of a people that no taxes be imposed on them but with their own consent, given personally or by their representatives."
From 1781 to 1785, Dickinson was a participant in state government activities, acting as
administrator of the Supreme Council of Delaware in 1781 and performing the same duty for the Supreme Council of Pennsylvania from 1782 to 1785.
Dickinson was instrumental in the formation of the articles of confederation, adopted in 1781, by serving as presiding officer of the committee appointed to compose the document and creating the outline that became the foundation of the articles. In 1787, he represented Delaware at the Constitutional Convention and advocated the ratification of the Constitution through a series of letters published under the name of Fabius.
In addition to his achievements as a statesman, Dickinson also contributed to the field of education as a founder of Dickinson College, located at Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Dickinson died February 14, 1808, in Wilmington, Delaware.