John Dickinson

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.


Further Reading on John Dickinson

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.

Additional Biography Sources

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.