Dickinson, John (1732–1808)

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DICKINSON, JOHN (1732–1808)

The conservative patriot leader John Dickinson, scion of a wealthy Quaker family, was called to the bar at the Middle Temple in London in 1757 and soon after returning to America became one of the most prosperous lawyers in Philadelphia. He served in the colonial legislatures of both Delaware and Pennsylvania, and in 1765 he rose to continental prominence with his pamphlets opposing the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act.

A delegate to the stamp act congress (1765), Dickinson was the author of that body's Declaration of Rights and Grievances, ostensibly a loyal, even humble, petition to the king. Dickinson's resolutions condemned as unconstitutional the levying of internal taxes upon the colonists by the British Parliament and denounced as subversive of liberty the trial of offenses against tax laws by admiralty courts without juries. Dickinson himself later referred to the Declaration of Rights and Grievances as the first American bill of rights.

After the passage of the townshend acts in 1767 Dickinson established himself as the preeminent American interpreter of the constitutional relationship between the colonies and Britain. His "Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania" (1767–1768), published in all but four American newspapers, advanced an understanding of the British constitution that made Parliament supreme in imperial matters but proscribed all taxation without representation. Moreover, he abandoned the distinction between external and internal taxes in favor of a distinction based on purpose: if a duty was laid for the purpose of raising revenue, rather than regulating commerce, then it was taxation and fell under the constitutional proscription. The Farmer's Letters counseled petition for repeal of, rather than resistance to, unconstitutional legislation.

By the time he wrote his long essay on "The Constitutional Power of Great Britain" in 1774, Dickinson had come to think of the British Empire as federal—comparable to the Swiss Confederation or the United Netherlands. The British king was king of the American colonies, but "a parliamentary power of internal legislation over these colonies appears … equally contradictory to humanity and to the Constitution, and illegal."

In 1774 Dickinson represented Pennsylvania in the First Continental Congress. The petition to the king and the address to the inhabitants of Canada, adopted pursuant to the declaration and resolves, were products of Dickinson's pen. In 1775, at the Second Continental Congress, he worked with thomas jefferson drafting the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. But Dickinson was still committed to the idea of a resolution of the crisis within the constitutional system of the British Empire. He opposed immediate separation from Britain and refused to sign the declaration of independence.

On June 12, 1776, the Congress, anticipating independence, appointed a committee to draft a plan of union. Dickinson was the dominant member of that committee and the principal author of the draft articles of confederation reported to Congress on July 12. Dickinson's draft called for no mere alliance or league of sovereign states but for a permanent union with a national government. The "United States assembled" was to be heir to those powers of regulation and general legislation legitimately exercised before independence by the British Parliament, while each "colony" retained "sole and exclusive Regulation and Government of its internal police, in all matters that shall not interfere with the Articles of this Confederation." True to the "Farmer's" principles, Dickinson inserted a provision that "the United States assembled shall never impose or levy any Taxes or Duties, except in managing the Post-Office." Dickinson's draft Articles were regarded by many in Congress, especially Southerners, as too centralizing, and even some who favored Dickinson's position despaired of securing ratification. Only after considerably weakening the government to be established by the Articles did Congress finally propose them to the states.

When his stand on independence cost Dickinson his seat in Congress and his colonelcy in the militia, he enlisted in the army as a private soldier. But in November 1776 he was elected to Congress by Delaware, and he was later made a brigadier general in the Delaware militia. In 1779 he signed the Articles of Confederation to signify Delaware's ratification.

Dickinson served as president of Delaware in 1781–1782 and as president of Pennsylvania in 1782–1785. In both states he was recognized as a leader of the conservative party. Although a slaveholder, he favored abolition of slavery, and he opposed its extension into the Northwest Territory.

In 1785 he retired to his estate in Delaware, but he was recalled to public service in 1786 and elected a delegate from Delaware to the annapolis convention. Dickinson was chosen president of the convention, which discussed commercial problems under the Confederation and which issued the first call for a federal constitutional convention.

Notwithstanding his poor health, Dickinson accepted appointment to represent Delaware at the constitutional convention of 1787. Although he was an active and conscientious delegate, his contribution to the work of the convention was not among the most important. A nationalist of long standing, he represented a small state and often had to balance competing interests. He was the first to propose a bicameral congress with equal representation of the states in one house and representation apportioned by population or financial contribution in the other—a proposal that later became the basis of the great compromise. He favored abolition of the slave trade but acquiesced in the compromise that imposed a twenty-year moratorium on congressional power to accomplish it. He wanted Congress to be the dominant branch of government, with full authority to remove Presidents and judges; and he wanted to limit executive power and to create a council to share the President's appointing power. Forced by illness to leave the convention early, Dickinson authorized a colleague to sign his name to the finished Constitution.

Dickinson wrote a series of nine newspaper essays (signed "Fabius") in support of ratification of the constitution; they were influential, especially in Pennsylvania. He declined appointment as a United States senator from Delaware and never held public office under the new Constitution.

Dennis J. Mahoney


Ford, Paul Leicester, ed. 1970 Political Writings of John Dickinson. New York: DaCapo.

Jacobson, D.L. 1965 John Dickinson and the Revolution in Pennsylvania. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Stille, Charles J. 1891 Life and Times of John Dickinson. Philadelphia: Historical Society of Philadelphia.

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Dickinson, John (1732–1808)

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