The Most Important Founding Father You've Never Heard Of
On the 250th anniversary of his "Letters"—some of the most important writing behind the American Revolution—it's time John Dickinson is paid his due.
Two things stand between John Dickinson and the reputation he deserves: John Adams and Hollywood.
It makes sense. Both Adams and Hollywood are entertaining and self-aggrandizing. And both have a history of preferring a good story over the facts.
Unfortunately, both Adams and Hollywood picked Dickinson as their foil.
Ever since the musical film “1776,” Delaware’s most illustrious Founding Father has repeatedly suffered from their tall tales. This libel robs Dickinson of the fame he deserves and deprives modern America of the example of politicians who got things done but were principled and generous as well.
Too bad so many Delawareans don’t know anything about him.
Of course, ask an older crowd who he was, you can elicit a shy, squeak-like “Penman of the Revolution?” out of one or two people. Whatever that means. Beyond that, though, most people just stare at you if you ask, “Who is John Dickinson?” Typically you get, “You mean the high school?”
Just keep in mind one thing: Dickinson was the most important Founding Father you never heard of.
All of this needs to change, and now is the time to do it. This month (December) marks the 250th anniversary of the publication of “Letters From a Farmer in Pennsylvania.” The “Letters” made American colonists aware of their rights. With the “Letters,” Americans gained an outlook, an argument and a philosophy of liberty.
“Dickinson was vital to the founding of the United States,” says professor Jane Calvert, a University of Kentucky historian who is the country’s top authority on Dickinson. She is writing a biography of him and, more to the point, leading a project to publish all of Dickinson’s papers.
“It was his famous publication ‘Letters From a Farmer in Pennsylvania’ that unified Americans and gave them a coherent plan of action against Britain,” she says. “More than this, however, as one of the best legal minds in the Colonies, he was instrumental in crafting most of the nation’s first founding documents, as he played a leadership role in assemblies from the Stamp Act Congress to the Continental Congresses to the Federal Convention. He wrote more for the American cause than any other figure.
“His work gave Americans both an understanding of their rights and the sense of a distinct American identity.”
Not only was he important on the national stage, Dickinson’s roots and heart were in Delaware. His restored mansion sits right outside Dover.
Dickinson was born in Talbot County, Maryland. His family moved to Delaware when he was young, so he grew up in Kent County. No matter how famous he became, that house along the St. Jones River was always his home and refuge. Like another young Delaware lawyer, Thomas McKean, Dickinson moved to Philadelphia to practice law. And like McKean, he prospered in not only law but in both Delaware and Pennsylvania politics. Dickinson would greatly influence the fate of both states.
In addition, his national accomplishments rank up there with the more famous Founding Fathers like Washington, Franklin, Jefferson—even Adams.
John Dickinson dominated the American cause against British overreach from 1765 to 1775. In fact, he invented most of the arguments against Parliament’s taxing policy. His string of newspaper articles, “Letters From a Farmer in Pennsylvania,” shaped and articulated the case for American rights throughout the Colonies, including John Adams’ Massachusetts. He organized and trained the Pennsylvania militia, serving as a colonel when his unit deployed to the front lines. When the British invaded Maryland and marched to capture Philadelphia, he carried a musket as a private in the Delaware militia. He wrote the draft of the Articles of Confederation, the first national constitution. He was the only Founding Father who freed his slaves while he was still alive. He fought against slavery, spoke up for religious freedom and sought peaceful relations with Native Americans. He served as governor of Delaware and Pennsylvania—and, for a spell, both at the same time. He insisted the Delaware Constitution honor rights that are still in force today. He was a philanthropist who endowed colleges, funded schools for the poor and provided relief for prisoners. And at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, he practically invented the U.S. Senate. The historian Forrest McDonald said that without the compromise efforts of Dickinson and a handful of other Framers, the Constitution never would have been ratified.
What he did not do was sign the Declaration of Independence.
That not only damaged his reputation, but it set him up to be Adams’ patsy and Hollywood’s perpetual foil.
Of course, the narrative spun by Adams and picked up by hostile or sloppy historians and Hollywood screenwriters has Dickinson voting against independence. He did not. When the time came to vote on independence, Dickinson knew the yeas would have it. He also knew his negative vote would push the Pennsylvania delegation’s tally into the negative. It was important, he believed, that the vote for independence be unanimous. Dickinson and Robert Morris, another nay vote, purposefully stayed away from the State House that day. This allowed the Pennsylvania delegation to vote yes and make the decision for independence unanimous. Morris went on to sign the Declaration, as did other delegates who had voted against it. Their place in history as “Signers” is preserved. Dickinson was invited to sign, but he declined. He said it would be hypocritical of him to do so when he believed the timing was wrong. He knew this would damage his reputation, but he would not abandon his principles.
He then went off to join his militia unit to face the British army.
Isn’t it time we honor the man who did all of this and did not betray his principles, whether we agree with his decision or not?
“Dickinson’s reputation is a complicated issue,” Calvert says. “Ultimately, historians bear great responsibility for which historical figures we celebrate and which are forgotten. But other factors come into play as well. In the first place, historians have been at a disadvantage where Dickinson is concerned because, unlike other leading figures, his papers have not been available for study. Without documentary evidence, it is easy to overlook someone, especially when that person is difficult to understand.”
J.L. Bell agrees. He writes one of the nation’s most popular blogs on the American Revolution, Boston 1775, and is the author of “The Road to Concord.”
“Dickinson never became part of the federal government,” Bell says, “and thus never became a national figure as John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Jay and other comparable figures did.
“Some of the documents Dickinson worked on, such as the Olive Branch Petition and Articles of Confederation, were set aside as circumstances changed, making them seem less important in hindsight. In contrast, the Declaration, which Dickinson opposed, became more and more important.”
Battle Robinson sees something similar, but with a Delaware angle. Robinson is a former Delaware Family Court judge and past president of the Friends of John Dickinson Mansion.
“Historians seem to agree that one reason Dickinson is not better known is that his written works—which are voluminous—have not been collected and made available to scholars and the general public,” she says.
“Indeed,” Robinson adds, “in my view it is a stain on Delaware that historians and officials in the state have not managed to compile and publish Dickinson’s writings, as other states have done for their statesmen.”
Dickinson did not keep a diary. He lived at home during the debate over independence, so there are few letters to his wife and confidants. The record of his actions and thoughts is scant. The picture painted of him from that time comes from his enemies. In other words, John Adams had a large role in shaping our view of Dickinson.
Hollywood, in spinning its narrative, was just doing what it has always done—distorting facts, twisting history and inventing alternate lives for the sake of a good yarn. Most people, however, do not realize that Adams, the sainted patriot of the HBO series and the musical “1776,” often used his letters and autobiography to settle scores. One of his biographers, Joseph J. Ellis in “Passionate Sage,” said for Adams, “It was all so personal.” Adams did not simply argue with opponents. He hated them. It was Alexander Hamilton in the 1790s, but before him it was Dickinson in the 1770s. Adams kept knocking Dickinson well into the 1800s, questioning the Delawarean’s courage and judgment. Dickinson, however, never responded to the insults and never criticized Adams. He could have. Adams wanted war, demanded a fight and praised his own soldierly spirit in the confines of his diary. Yet he chose to let others do the fighting. He never served in the military. Dickinson, however, did.
“I’m skeptical about relying on anecdotes John Adams put in his autobiography, written in the decade of the 1800s, and in letters he wrote even later,” Bell says. “He had a tendency to remember stories that put him at the center, alone and beleaguered by many opponents but stubbornly doing the right thing. That’s how he saw himself, and it’s not a bad model. But contemporaneous records suggest that Adams wasn’t nearly as alone or nearly as opposed as he remembered.”
“John Adams’ letters make clear that he saw Dickinson as holding the Congress back from strong measures in late 1775,” Bell adds. “Adams was probably especially upset because Dickinson was known throughout America as a strong Whig. He was therefore more frustrating and influential to the radical faction than other men who were even more reluctant about strong measures.
“By the debate over independence, Dickinson was no longer the most vocal opponent of Adams’ position. But he still made the best foil.”
Of course, there also is the real issue of the Declaration of Independence. Randy Holland has studied Dickinson’s career and admires the Founder’s lifelong effort to protect Americans’ rights. Holland, a former associate justice of the Delaware Supreme Court, co-authored a book on the London law training of Americans like Dickinson and McKean, “Middle Temple Lawyers and the American Revolution.”
“My guess on why he has been overlooked is because, notwithstanding what he did before, during and after the Revolutionary War, he abstained from signing the Declaration of Independence.”
Dickinson’s refusal to vote for independence was seen by many at the time as a failure caused by timidity. Adams castigated Dickinson as a coward, someone too close to his Quaker mother’s apron strings and too indecisive to take a bold step.
The uproar cost him the high esteem of many fellow citizens. Not all of them, though. Public opinion was split. Adams would later say that the public went three ways: one-third for independence, one-third against and another third indifferent. Dickinson, one of the most farsighted of the Americans, kept hoping for a reconciliation with England despite his frequent criticisms of Parliament. In 1775, he was the Colonies’ leader. In 1776, the public mood, at least among the activists and the crowds in the street, passed him by.
All along Dickinson pushed for reconciliation, but in a far less hysterical way than Hollywood presents him in “John Adams” and “1776.” He also pushed for a stronger army, alliances with foreign powers, a functioning government and then, eventually, independence. John Adams, his cousin Samuel and their allies pushed for independence first. All of the other stuff could come later.
Hollywood, and John Adams himself, sneered at Dickinson’s 1775 Olive Branch Petition to the king. They did not tell their audiences that the plea was accompanied by Dickinson’s punched-up version of the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking up Arms, which was issued the very next day. The first politely asks for a restoration of American rights. The second threatens a fight if they do not get them. It was a two-pronged strategy. King George III and Parliament foolishly ignored both.
The battle between Dickinson and Adams was a dramatic one. Dickinson held the upper hand throughout 1775 despite the outbreak of war at Concord and Lexington and the Battle of Bunker Hill. The Adams cousins frantically pushed for a declaration. After all, the British army occupied Boston. And Massachusetts farmers died fighting the British. They began conspiring with Pennsylvania pro-independence forces, meeting secretly and plotting ways to turn Dickinson and his General Assembly allies out of power. Only then, they thought, would Dickinson’s grip on Pennsylvania’s political structure be loosened so the colony could officially join with Massachusetts in the vote for independence.
In 1776, the colonists learned that King George refused to read the Olive Branch Petition. Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” was everywhere. Finally, the Virginia delegation won permission from its assembly to demand a declaration of independence.
The rest of the story we know. The Pennsylvania radicals, with their boiling hatred of the Quaker power structure and wealthy men like Dickinson and Morris, staged mass rallies and chased the elected General Assembly out of office. Maryland and South Carolina dropped their reconciliation stands and joined Massachusetts and Virginia. And, of course, Caesar Rodney made his famous ride to break the Delaware delegation’s tie. Independence was declared.
Quite a few of Dickinson’s opponents gleefully predicted his political career was over. It wasn’t, we know. He returned to politics, first leading Delaware as governor and then Pennsylvania.
Delaware named him a delegate to the Annapolis Convention in 1786. The other delegates selected him as chairman. When that convention on commercial treaties failed because of sparse attendance, he joined with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton to bring about the Philadelphia Convention in 1787.
In Philadelphia, he forged compromises, opposed the slave trade and worked out a plan for a senate that was tied to the states. He also was a top leader of the coalition that stopped the big states like Pennsylvania and Virginia from rolling over the small states. They won a guarantee of equal representation in the Senate.
After the convention, he wrote a widely distributed series of essays called the “Letters of Fabius” that advocated ratifying the Constitution.
Finally, he was among the prime movers for a new Delaware Constitution in 1792.
For that, we owe him a lot, former Supreme Court Justice Holland says.
“The Delaware right to a jury trial, for example, is the same as it existed in the common law of England that Dickinson studied in London at the Middle Temple—12 jurors who must be unanimous,” he says. “This provides greater criminal jury trial rights in Delaware than the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution adopted the year before in 1791. Dickinson and others knew that.
“The Delaware right to a civil jury trial was also protected in 1792,” Holland adds. “The Seventh Amendment civil jury still does not apply to the states. There are other examples. The 1792 Delaware Bill of Rights has remained virtually unchanged until the present time with only two additions.”
Something more than adjusting the history books is at stake, though.
Delaware had an actual hero in its midst. Delawareans of his day—Pennsylvanians, too—turned to him when they needed help. They trusted him.
“When Dickinson wanted to play politics, he was extremely good at it,” Calvert explains. “He seemed to know when to step forward and when to hang back. He could read the public as well as his colleagues—opponents and allies alike—and work a situation to good advantage for the end he was pursuing.
“But Dickinson always valued principle over politicking,” she says. “He tried unfailingly to do what was right rather than what was politically expedient. Back then, politicians cared about their reputations rather than re-election. All the Founding Fathers obsessed over their reputations, and Dickinson was no different—except that he didn’t let protecting his reputation interfere with his pursuit of the ‘publick Happiness,’ as he put it. He was highly conscious of the fact that when he spoke for the last time against independence on July 1, he would destroy, as he put it, ‘my once too great and, my integrity considered, now too diminish’d popularity.’ He always said that his conscience demanded that he do what was right even if his countrymen hated him for it.”
Richard B. Carter, chair of the Delaware Heritage Commission, worries that the neglect of historical figures will have a negative effect on our democracy. By not knowing who our heroes are, we are losing something as a society.
“Sadly,” Carter says, “the old pastime of sharing stirring stories of historical events around the fireside in the long winter evenings, and to a lesser extent having stories passed down from grandparents and other elders, as was done in my childhood, is pretty much a thing of the past. “I am alarmed by what I see as a decline in the importance that the public schools, not just in Delaware but across the country, seem to place on the teaching of history and civics.”
Children will be interested, however, if the history is presented well and the historical figures come across as people worth learning about, he says.
Dickinson surely fits that bill.
“Today, with the benefit of hindsight, we can recognize and appreciate things about Dickinson that his contemporaries either could not see or did not value,” professor Calvert says.
“Dickinson had an alternate vision for America that was distinct from those of the other leading founders. Although he was not a Quaker, he was submerged in a Quaker culture that valued both diversity of opinion and respect for the unity of the political body. He adopted their priorities, and this led him to advocate peaceful protest over violent conflict and gave him a greater desire than most to see rights protected for all Americans, regardless of race, gender or social standing. Today, we understand these things as foundations of American political culture.”
Battle Robinson also appreciates Dickinson’s legacy.
“Dickinson is worthy of recognition and emulation because he was not only an astute political thinker and writer, but he also took an active role in all the major political events of his era,” she says. “And many of his views, which did not necessarily prevail at the time, looked forward toward the kind of country he hoped the United States would be.
“He strikes me as a man of dignity and integrity, and one who was not interested in self-aggrandizement,” she says. “His modest tombstone in the Wilmington Friends burial ground testifies to that.”
John Dickinson gained an international reputation for writing “Letters From a Farmer in Pennsylvania” back in 1767. The trouble was he was a lawyer in Philadelphia, but also a farmer from Delaware.
And his farm is still there, just outside of Dover.
Dickinson’s series of essays became America’s first bestseller and one of the most influential political documents of the Revolutionary War era. He used the pseudonym of “A Farmer” to evoke trust among readers. Since he was trying to influence voters and legislators in the larger Colonies, he picked a Pennsylvania farm as his imagined setting.
The real-life setting, however, was his family’s plantation off Kitts Hummock Road near Dover Air Force Base. He grew up there and learned to love the fields and marshes. The plantation would be his refuge all of his life. He also learned to manage a large farm, and throughout his long political career in Pennsylvania, he would periodically return home to oversee tenants and repairs to the buildings and streams. Dickinson truly was a farmer.
Visitors today can get an idea of what life was like then. The house, originally called Poplar Hall, is now referred to as the “Mansion.” It has been restored and is open for tours.
The house stayed in the Dickinson family until the early 20th century. It then went through a series of owners. By the middle of the century, however, it had fallen into disrepair. Tradition-minded Delawareans tried to get the federal government involved in saving it. That didn’t work, so several groups got together to raise money to buy and restore it. By 1952, the Historic Activities Committee of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America in the State of Delaware was able to buy the house and the surrounding 12 acres. That same year the house and land were deeded to the state.
Restoration was undertaken by the Delaware Public Archives Commission. And once again, individuals and groups joined with the state to restore the property, using John Dickinson’s own letters and business records to provide authenticity. Separate programs were developed by Henry Francis du Pont and the Garden Club of Wilmington to develop the garden. Another group, the Friends of John Dickinson Mansion, helps maintain the property, and it works to inform the public about John Dickinson and his life.
The John Dickinson Plantation operates as a branch of the Delaware State Museum. It is also part of the First State National Historical Park.
Visiting the mansion makes Dickinson fans out of many people. Vertie Lee, a researcher on the plantation, isn’t surprised.
“Historians that help continue the legacy of a person after they have passed have neglected Dickinson or, because he didn’t fit into their narrative of the founding of the country, have set him aside,” Lee says. “But Dickinson deserves to be studied. His belief that one could set aside their personal convictions and move forward in the best interest of the country is still valid and essential today.”
Gloria Henry, site supervisor, says most people come away with a renewed respect for his accomplishments. They go away wanting to learn more about him.
So does Henry. She has been studying him for years. But there is much she wants to learn about him.
“I wonder why did Dickinson decided to manumit his slaves, and what was his reason,” Henry says. “We have Sally Norris Dickinson’s version of why she believed her father manumitted his slaves, but not Dickinson’s personal reasons.” There is more to discover about John Dickinson.
Visit the home of one of our most important Founding Fathers at 340 Kitts Hummock Road, Dover. For more, call 739-3277 or visit history.delaware.gov/museums.
For decades historians, professional and amateur alike, have pleaded with the state of Delaware, colleges and other organizations to get behind the publication of John Dickinson’s writing.
Dickinson is the only major Founding Father without a modern collected edition of his writings. This has made it harder for historians and biographers to chronicle his achievements.
The wait will soon be over.
The John Dickinson Writings Project will publish the first three volumes in 2019. The University of Delaware will be the publisher. Funding comes from the National Endowment for the Humanities and groups like the Friends of John Dickinson Mansion.
Professor Jane Calvert of the University of Kentucky is editor of the project. Calvert is the author of “Quaker Constitutionalism and the Political Thought of John Dickinson.”
Visit the John Dickinson Writings Project information page at dickinsonproject.rch.uky.edu.