Web Exclusive: Who Was Delaware’s John Dickinson and Why You Should Care
William Murchison authors the new biography “The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson.”
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William Murchison is the author of the new biography “The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson,” from which this essay is adapted. Reprinted with permission of ISI Books (Wilmington, Del.). The book is available at isibooks.org or wherever books are sold.
We lose track of our great men and women sometimes—especially if they wore a lot of lace when alive, and could talk for hours without uttering a word modern TV censors would find worthy of a bleep. Take John Dickinson, native Delawarean and possessor of a name once familiar enough to adorn high schools, not to mention a college in Pennsylvania. He had a plantation in Dover. Schoolchildren still visit it. John Dickinson—yes; famous for . . . That depends, in some measure, upon how much faith one places in modern narratives regarding Dickinson’s agonized decision to withhold his signature from the Declaration of Independence. All the rest of his deeds—representing Delaware brilliantly at the Constitutional Convention, writing the major prerevolutionary assertions of colonial rights against England—get lost in popular accountings (HBO’s John Adams miniseries, the musical 1776) of his deliberate absence from the Continental Congress the day of the vote for independence.
The moment would seem at hand to restore balance to general perceptions of the life and career of a gifted and influential patriot—“one of the great worthies of the Revolution,” in the words of the man whose masterpiece Dickinson felt unable to sign. Thomas Jefferson knew a patriot when he saw one. He saw in John Dickinson a deep lover of the American cause.
How did it come to be otherwise?
A Shaper of Mighty Events
Contrary to the simplistic image of The Man Who Would Not Sign the Declaration of Independence, Delaware’s John Dickinson was one of the most complex and influential figures of the entire revolutionary period, someone who was present at all the major assemblages where thinkers and activists charted the young nation’s path. The historian Forrest McDonald has called Dickinson “the most underrated of all the Founders of this nation.”
There is much to examine in the life of a patriot who wrote with force and intellectual brilliance many of the revolutionary era’s major documents—pamphlets, petitions, and speeches, by turns forceful and intricate. Dickinson wrote an extremely popular patriotic song (“The Liberty Song”)—and probably would have written the Declaration of Independence had he been as hot as John Adams to strike off the mother country’s shackles at that precise moment. His Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, which carefully enunciated the argument for colonial rights, were read and huzzaed throughout the colonies. London took exasperated note of them. They made him the leader, in a rhetorical and sometimes operational sense, of colonial opposition to Britain’s transgressions against her overseas sons and daughters. Historians have dubbed Dickinson the “Penman of the Revolution.” It is not a bad phrase; nor is it a totally adequate one, suggesting as much as anything else a recording secretary in half-moon spectacles, with head bent low over his journal—a note taker rather than a shaper of mighty events.
Among the large fraternity active in the cause of independence, John Dickinson gave place, intellectually, to no one. Whenever large decisions were in the offing, his presence and counsel were wanted. In the preconstitutional period he served as chief executive of two different states, Delaware and Pennsylvania. His was the first draft of the Articles of Confederation. A decade later he was instrumental in arranging the convention that wrote the Constitution.
He was deeply learned in history and law alike. Out of the deep net of the past, he fished principles that bore directly on current affairs: respect for the admonitions and precedents of past centuries, and prudence that called for heeding guideposts and warning signs. “Experience,” Dickinson said at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, “must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us.”
Brains, energy, analytical power—one thing more John Dickinson had. The thing was moral courage of an order not often enough glimpsed today. The shifty, weasel-like Dickinson of the HBO series is hardly a man you picture facing down powerful adversaries whose shouts grow fiercer as their numbers grow greater. Yet so he faced them down—and never, as far as history knows, did he give thought to acting otherwise. He was one of the revolutionary era’s authentically great men.
Dickinson understood the risks he ran by questioning the wisdom of severing all ties with Britain in the summer of 1776. Men who had hailed him scurried away from him. He held tight to conviction nonetheless, hazarding fame and reputation to tell the truth as he saw it. The necessity of independence he had come, however slowly, to acknowledge. Was it necessary, all the same, that the task be accomplished before the perils of precipitate action were properly explored? Dickinson, a venerated tribune of the colonists’ cause, counseled precaution and delay. Of his decision to withhold approval of the Declaration of Independence, he would say: “My Conduct this Day, I expect will give the finishing Blow to my once too great and (my integrity considered) now too diminished Popularity.”
Modern reactions to Dickinson’s decision are preordained: How could this man not stand with the great Adams, the great Jefferson, and the other greats at that moment we mark every year with flags and fireworks? We shall examine the matter in its right sequence.