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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Epifania is pretty boss when it comes to making money. Finding love, though? Not so much. But when the richest woman on earth finds a guy who holds her fancy, will she meet his challenge to live...

Where:
Resident Ensemble Players/Thompson Theatre
110 Orchard Road
Newark, DE
View map »


Website »

More information

These ain’t your granddad’s matchboxes—check out 60 rare examples of decadent 19th-century cases.

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Pkwy.
Wilmington, DE
View map »


Telephone: 571-9590
Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Lynn discovered photography through working in wild bird rehabilitation. Her images  explore Delaware’s wonderful variety of life and landscapes. She is a regular contributor to Delaware State...

Cost: Free

Where:
Blue Ball Barn
1914 West Park Drive
Wilmington, DE  19803
View map »


Telephone: 302-577-7020
Website »

More information

Delaware native, Carson Zullinger, has been exhibiting his figural and landscape fine-art photographs for forty years. Zullinger often subordinates his dynamic and thoroughly modern compositions to...

Cost: 5.00

Where:
Biggs Museum of American Arts
406 Federal Street
Dover, DE  19901
View map »

More information

Prehistoric marine reptiles that ruled the primeval seas more than 100 million years ago are taking over Adventure Aquarium on the Camden Waterfront for a limited-time exhibit starting January 16....

Cost: $25.95 for adults; $18.95 for children ages 2-12

Where:
Adventure Aquarium
1 Riverside Drive
Camden, NJ  08103
View map »


Sponsor: Adventure Aquarium
Telephone: 856-365-3300
Website »

More information

Somerville Manning Gallery presents a solo exhibition of works by Jamie Wyeth concurrent with the artist’s major retrospective on view at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, PA.  The...

Cost: Free

Where:
Somerville Manning Gallery
101 Stone Block Row
Brecks Mill, 2nd Floor
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Sponsor: Somerville Manning Gallery
Telephone: (302) 652-0271
Contact Name: Marisa Nolan
Website »

More information

This summer, Camden’s largest residents, Adventure Aquarium’s hippopotamuses Button and Genny, invite you to join them in their exciting new home, Hippo Haven. As the only aquarium in the...

Cost: $18.95 - 25.95

Where:
Adventure Aquarium
1 Riverside Drive
Camden, NJ  08103
View map »


Contact Name: Amanda Perez
Website »

More information

Visitors may take a two-hour guided tour of Hagley’s 235-acre site. Stops include Eleutherian Mills, the first du Pont family home built in America; the First Office of the DuPont Company; a...

Cost: Free

Where:
Hagley Museum
201 Hagley Creek Road
Wilmington, DE  19807
View map »


Sponsor: Hagley Museum and Library
Telephone: 302-658-2400
Contact Name: Meg Marcozzi
Website »

More information

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

Where:
Longwood Gardens
1001 Longwood Road
Kennett Square, PA  19348
View map »

More information

Delaware native, Carson Zullinger, has been exhibiting his figural and landscape fine-art photographs for forty years. Zullinger often subordinates his dynamic and thoroughly modern compositions to...

Cost: Free

Where:
406 Federal Street
Dover, DE  19901

More information

Tobacco Cessation Location: Bayhealth Kent General, Private Dining Room 1–2, 640 S. State St., Dover Time: 5 p.m.–6:30 p.m. More info: Must be at least 18 years old to register...

Where:
Bayhealth Kent General
Private Dining Room 1–2
640 S. State St.
Dover, DE
View map »

More information

In response to audience demand, the Rehoboth Beach Film Society is presenting an encore screening of the Audience Award winner for Best Documentary at the 2014 Rehoboth Beach Independent Film...

Cost: $9

Where:
Lewes Presbyterian Church
133 Kings Highway
Lewes, DE  19958
View map »


Telephone: 302-645-9095
Website »

More information

Chips for Charity is a Monte Carlo-style cocktail event that boasts table games and dealers, an open bar, catering, a photo booth, a silent auction, 50/50, raffle prizes, a DJ and much more! Unlike...

Cost: $75/ticket

Where:
Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts (DCCA)
200 S. Madison St.
The Riverfront
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: Next Gen North
Telephone: 609-665-6001
Contact Name: Danielle Dick
Website »

More information

In response to audience demand, the Rehoboth Beach Film Society is presenting an encore screening of the Audience Award winner for Best Documentary at the 2014 Rehoboth Beach Independent Film...

Cost: $9

Where:
Lewes Presbyterian Church
133 Kings Highway
Lewes, DE  19958
View map »


Telephone: 302-645-9095
Website »

More information

“Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is a high-energy song and dance celebration honoring the works of two rock 'n' roll pioneers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The show includes 40 of their hits, including...

Cost: $12-$20

Where:
Wilmington Drama League
10 W. Lea Blvd.
Wilmington, DE  19802
View map »


Sponsor: Wilmington Drama League
Telephone: 764-1172
Website »

More information

These ain’t your granddad’s matchboxes—check out 60 rare examples of decadent 19th-century cases.

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Pkwy.
Wilmington, DE
View map »


Telephone: 571-9590
Website »

More information

Epifania is pretty boss when it comes to making money. Finding love, though? Not so much. But when the richest woman on earth finds a guy who holds her fancy, will she meet his challenge to live...

Where:
Resident Ensemble Players/Thompson Theatre
110 Orchard Road
Newark, DE
View map »


Website »

More information

Make no beans about it—you won’t want to miss Jack face off against the mighty Giant. 

Where:
Delaware Children’s Theatre
1014 Delaware Ave
Wilmington, DE
View map »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Lynn discovered photography through working in wild bird rehabilitation. Her images  explore Delaware’s wonderful variety of life and landscapes. She is a regular contributor to Delaware State...

Cost: Free

Where:
Blue Ball Barn
1914 West Park Drive
Wilmington, DE  19803
View map »


Telephone: 302-577-7020
Website »

More information

Delaware native, Carson Zullinger, has been exhibiting his figural and landscape fine-art photographs for forty years. Zullinger often subordinates his dynamic and thoroughly modern compositions to...

Cost: 5.00

Where:
Biggs Museum of American Arts
406 Federal Street
Dover, DE  19901
View map »

More information

Prehistoric marine reptiles that ruled the primeval seas more than 100 million years ago are taking over Adventure Aquarium on the Camden Waterfront for a limited-time exhibit starting January 16....

Cost: $25.95 for adults; $18.95 for children ages 2-12

Where:
Adventure Aquarium
1 Riverside Drive
Camden, NJ  08103
View map »


Sponsor: Adventure Aquarium
Telephone: 856-365-3300
Website »

More information

This summer, Camden’s largest residents, Adventure Aquarium’s hippopotamuses Button and Genny, invite you to join them in their exciting new home, Hippo Haven. As the only aquarium in the...

Cost: $18.95 - 25.95

Where:
Adventure Aquarium
1 Riverside Drive
Camden, NJ  08103
View map »


Contact Name: Amanda Perez
Website »

More information

Somerville Manning Gallery presents a solo exhibition of works by Jamie Wyeth concurrent with the artist’s major retrospective on view at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, PA.  The...

Cost: Free

Where:
Somerville Manning Gallery
101 Stone Block Row
Brecks Mill, 2nd Floor
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Sponsor: Somerville Manning Gallery
Telephone: (302) 652-0271
Contact Name: Marisa Nolan
Website »

More information

Visitors may take a two-hour guided tour of Hagley’s 235-acre site. Stops include Eleutherian Mills, the first du Pont family home built in America; the First Office of the DuPont Company; a...

Cost: Free

Where:
Hagley Museum
201 Hagley Creek Road
Wilmington, DE  19807
View map »


Sponsor: Hagley Museum and Library
Telephone: 302-658-2400
Contact Name: Meg Marcozzi
Website »

More information

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

Where:
Longwood Gardens
1001 Longwood Road
Kennett Square, PA  19348
View map »

More information

Delaware native, Carson Zullinger, has been exhibiting his figural and landscape fine-art photographs for forty years. Zullinger often subordinates his dynamic and thoroughly modern compositions to...

Cost: Free

Where:
406 Federal Street
Dover, DE  19901

More information

Tobacco Cessation Location: Bayhealth Kent General, Private Dining Room 1–2, 640 S. State St., Dover Time: 5 p.m.–6:30 p.m. More info: Must be at least 18 years old to register...

Where:
Bayhealth Kent General
Private Dining Room 1–2
640 S. State St.
Dover, DE
View map »

More information

The Lighthouse Church will be starting a Training Center for Deliverances beginning Friday September 12, 2014.  The school will be focused on all aspects of ministering deliverance and healing...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Lighthouse Church Inc.
6 South Railroad Avenue
Wyoming, DE  19934
View map »


Sponsor: The Lighthouse Church Inc.
Telephone: (302) 632-4679
Contact Name: Bro. Christopher Gore
Website »

More information

Chips for Charity is a Monte Carlo-style cocktail event that boasts table games and dealers, an open bar, catering, a photo booth, a silent auction, 50/50, raffle prizes, a DJ and much more! Unlike...

Cost: $75/ticket

Where:
Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts (DCCA)
200 S. Madison St.
The Riverfront
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: Next Gen North
Telephone: 609-665-6001
Contact Name: Danielle Dick
Website »

More information

“Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is a high-energy song and dance celebration honoring the works of two rock 'n' roll pioneers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The show includes 40 of their hits, including...

Cost: $12-$20

Where:
Wilmington Drama League
10 W. Lea Blvd.
Wilmington, DE  19802
View map »


Sponsor: Wilmington Drama League
Telephone: 764-1172
Website »

More information

Epifania is pretty boss when it comes to making money. Finding love, though? Not so much. But when the richest woman on earth finds a guy who holds her fancy, will she meet his challenge to live...

Where:
Resident Ensemble Players/Thompson Theatre
110 Orchard Road
Newark, DE
View map »


Website »

More information

These ain’t your granddad’s matchboxes—check out 60 rare examples of decadent 19th-century cases.

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Pkwy.
Wilmington, DE
View map »


Telephone: 571-9590
Website »

More information

Make no beans about it—you won’t want to miss Jack face off against the mighty Giant. 

Where:
Delaware Children’s Theatre
1014 Delaware Ave
Wilmington, DE
View map »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...

Delaware native, Carson Zullinger, has been exhibiting his figural and landscape fine-art photographs for forty years. Zullinger often subordinates his dynamic and thoroughly modern compositions to...

Cost: 5.00

Where:
Biggs Museum of American Arts
406 Federal Street
Dover, DE  19901
View map »

More information

Prehistoric marine reptiles that ruled the primeval seas more than 100 million years ago are taking over Adventure Aquarium on the Camden Waterfront for a limited-time exhibit starting January 16....

Cost: $25.95 for adults; $18.95 for children ages 2-12

Where:
Adventure Aquarium
1 Riverside Drive
Camden, NJ  08103
View map »


Sponsor: Adventure Aquarium
Telephone: 856-365-3300
Website »

More information

This summer, Camden’s largest residents, Adventure Aquarium’s hippopotamuses Button and Genny, invite you to join them in their exciting new home, Hippo Haven. As the only aquarium in the...

Cost: $18.95 - 25.95

Where:
Adventure Aquarium
1 Riverside Drive
Camden, NJ  08103
View map »


Contact Name: Amanda Perez
Website »

More information

Somerville Manning Gallery presents a solo exhibition of works by Jamie Wyeth concurrent with the artist’s major retrospective on view at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, PA.  The...

Cost: Free

Where:
Somerville Manning Gallery
101 Stone Block Row
Brecks Mill, 2nd Floor
Greenville, DE  19807
View map »


Sponsor: Somerville Manning Gallery
Telephone: (302) 652-0271
Contact Name: Marisa Nolan
Website »

More information

Visitors may take a two-hour guided tour of Hagley’s 235-acre site. Stops include Eleutherian Mills, the first du Pont family home built in America; the First Office of the DuPont Company; a...

Cost: Free

Where:
Hagley Museum
201 Hagley Creek Road
Wilmington, DE  19807
View map »


Sponsor: Hagley Museum and Library
Telephone: 302-658-2400
Contact Name: Meg Marcozzi
Website »

More information

The Rehoboth Beach Film Society and the Cape Henlopen Educational Foundation are proud to present The Metropolitan Opera’s live broadcast of Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” on...

Cost: $15 - $25

Where:
Cape Henlopen High School Theater
1250 Kings Hwy
Lewes, DE  19958
View map »


Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
Website »

More information

The Rehoboth Beach Film Society and the Cape Henlopen Educational Foundation are proud to present The Metropolitan Opera’s live broadcast of Offenbach’s “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” on...

Cost: $15 - $25

Where:
Cape Henlopen High School Theater
1250 Kings Hwy
Lewes, DE  19958
View map »


Sponsor: Rehoboth Beach Film Society
Telephone: 302-645-9095
Contact Name: Jeri Kaplan
Website »

More information

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

Where:
Longwood Gardens
1001 Longwood Road
Kennett Square, PA  19348
View map »

More information

Delaware native, Carson Zullinger, has been exhibiting his figural and landscape fine-art photographs for forty years. Zullinger often subordinates his dynamic and thoroughly modern compositions to...

Cost: Free

Where:
406 Federal Street
Dover, DE  19901

More information

Tobacco Cessation Location: Bayhealth Kent General, Private Dining Room 1–2, 640 S. State St., Dover Time: 5 p.m.–6:30 p.m. More info: Must be at least 18 years old to register...

Where:
Bayhealth Kent General
Private Dining Room 1–2
640 S. State St.
Dover, DE
View map »

More information

Chips for Charity is a Monte Carlo-style cocktail event that boasts table games and dealers, an open bar, catering, a photo booth, a silent auction, 50/50, raffle prizes, a DJ and much more! Unlike...

Cost: $75/ticket

Where:
Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts (DCCA)
200 S. Madison St.
The Riverfront
Wilmington, DE  19801
View map »


Sponsor: Next Gen North
Telephone: 609-665-6001
Contact Name: Danielle Dick
Website »

More information

“Smokey Joe’s Cafe” is a high-energy song and dance celebration honoring the works of two rock 'n' roll pioneers, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The show includes 40 of their hits, including...

Cost: $12-$20

Where:
Wilmington Drama League
10 W. Lea Blvd.
Wilmington, DE  19802
View map »


Sponsor: Wilmington Drama League
Telephone: 764-1172
Website »

More information

Epifania is pretty boss when it comes to making money. Finding love, though? Not so much. But when the richest woman on earth finds a guy who holds her fancy, will she meet his challenge to live...

Where:
Resident Ensemble Players/Thompson Theatre
110 Orchard Road
Newark, DE
View map »


Website »

More information

Make no beans about it—you won’t want to miss Jack face off against the mighty Giant. 

Where:
Delaware Children’s Theatre
1014 Delaware Ave
Wilmington, DE
View map »

More information

These ain’t your granddad’s matchboxes—check out 60 rare examples of decadent 19th-century cases.

Where:
Delaware Art Museum
2301 Kentmere Pkwy.
Wilmington, DE
View map »


Telephone: 571-9590
Website »

More information

It’s a tag team on the pipe organ for this month’s Dickson Theatre Organ Society concert.  See them put it down at John Dickinson High School

Where:
John Dickinson High School
1801 Milltown Road
Wilmington, DE
View map »


Website »

More information

Show More...
Show Less...
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