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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About the Book
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.

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February 2016

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Penn Museum
3260 South St.
Philadelphia, PA  19104
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This art exhibit features fine art works and three dimensional pieces that embrace the subject “red.” Artist are free to use their imagination and creativity, so works will include...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Gibby Center for the Arts
51 W Main St.
Middletown, DE  19709
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Sponsor: The Gibby Center for the Arts
Telephone: 302-449-5396
Contact Name: Caroline Zeitler
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For more information, please contact: Dave Ruffner ​Rehoboth Beach Film Society 107 Truitt Ave. Rehoboth Beach, DE 19971 302-645-9095, ext. 4 administrator@rehobothfilm.com...

Cost: Free

Where:
, DE


Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
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The Rehoboth Beach Film Society and CAMP Rehoboth will co-present "Tab Hunter Confidential" and "Portrait of a Serial Monogamist" as part of its annual Another Take...

Cost: $8

Where:
Metropolitan Community Church
19369 Plantation Rd.
Rehoboth Beach, DE  19971
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Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
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"La Sylphide" shares the beautiful and romantic story of our hero, James—a young Scottish farmer who, on the eve of hid wedding, abandons his betrothed, Effie, after being...

Cost: $25

Where:
Salesanium School
1801 North Broom St.
Wilmington, DE  19802
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Sponsor: Academy of International Ballet
Telephone: 1-866-908-5666
Contact Name: Denis Gronostayskiy
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Venture back with us for an evening where we re-imagine the Victorian Industrial Age as seen through our steam-powered, futuristic goggles.  Our biggest fundraiser of the year and all proceeds...

Cost: $100-$110

Where:
Smyrna Opera House
7 West South Street
Smyrna, DE  19977
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A spoiled orphan girl is sent to live with her uncle on the Yorkshire moors and discovers renewed life, for herself and her sickly cousin, in bringing her dead aunt’s secret garden back to...

Cost: $15–$18

Where:
The Secret Garden
47 W Main St.
Middletown, DE  19709
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Sponsor: The Everett Theatre
Telephone: 302-540-8561
Contact Name: Chris Everett
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Location: St. Mark’s High School, 2501 Pike Creek Road, Wilmington Time: Registration: 11:30 a.m. Race: 12:30 p.m. Fee: $25 (until Thursday, Feb. 11), $35 after and day of event...

Where:
, DE

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Location: Beebe Healthcare’s Medical Center, 424 Savannah Road, Lewes Date: Saturday, Feb. 13 (and the second Saturday of each month) Time: 9 a.m. Fee: Free For more...

Where:
, DE

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Ditch the winter whites for a world of dazzling color at Longwood Gardens, where you can stroll through thousands of orchids in bloom. Kennett Square, www.longwoodgardens.org 

Where:
, DE

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A successful writer of Broadway thrillers is struggling to overcome a dry spell when he receives a script from a student —a potential Broadway hit. Thereafter suspense...

Where:
, DE

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Regional artists Carol Tippit Woolworth, Catherine Drabkin, Pahl Alexander Hluchan, Colleen Randall and Dan Jackson explore the concept of place—physical, emotional and spiritual—in...

Where:
, DE

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