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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“I Should Like to Make an Immense Bustle in the World”
Born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1732, John Dickinson moved to Delaware’s Jones Neck, some five miles below the new village of Dover, at the age of eight, after his landowning father built a suitably imposing Georgian-style house there. That home is now known as the Dickinson Plantation, and it is where, in spirit at least, Dickinson dwelt for the rest of his long, active life. He never ceased to love the house and its lands, returning to them whenever he could. “All nature is blooming around me,” he would write during one such rural reunion in the late 1780s, “and the fields are full of promises.”
Much as Dickinson might have loved the land, he was better cut out to be a lawyer than a farmer. After studying at the Middle Temple in London—a considerable privilege for a young colonial—in 1757 Dickinson settled in Philadelphia, then North America’s most populous and important city. He thrived in law practice. Yet Dickinson was unquestionably ambitious, and his attention, as a fellow Philadelphian observed, “was directed to historical and political studies.” His entry into electoral politics had been practically predetermined.
In 1760 he won election to the Assembly of the “lower counties”—the three Delaware counties that prior to the Revolution belonged to Pennsylvania yet maintained their own legislative body. The precocious and well-connected Dickinson became that assembly’s speaker, then won a 1762 special election to fill a vacancy in the Pennsylvania Assembly. To his friend George Read he wrote with beguiling candor: “I confess that I should like to make an immense bustle in the world, if it could be done by virtuous actions.”
He soon enough had his chance. When the Stamp Act crisis broke out in 1765, marking the beginning of the rupture between the British and the Americans, Pennsylvania sent Dickinson as one of its three delegates to the first congress of the American colonies. The congress chose him to draft the Declaration of Rights and Grievances.
That was the first of many important documents written by the “Penman of the Revolution.” In 1767, when Britain’s Parliament imposed even more objectionable duties on the Americans through the Townshend Acts, Dickinson stepped forth as the leading spokesman for colonial rights and liberties. His Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania were a triumph, published in almost all of America’s newspapers and achieving an impact and circulation exceeded only by that of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense nearly a decade later. Praises rang out everywhere. A Boston town meeting called the Farmer “the friend of Americans, and the common Benefactor of Mankind.” Songs were written in his honor. The College of New Jersey—now Princeton University—made him Doctor of Laws.
Dickinson’s Letters intensified the colonists’ sense of grievance at ill treatment by the mother country and their desire to have the matter put right. Strenuous enough in tone, they were not, however, a bugle blast of resistance. The Letters were in one sense a plea for a grand constitutional solution in the English mode. John Dickinson’s faith in the English sense of right and justice was large.
The Olive Branch
By the 1770s, however, it was becoming plainer and plainer that peaceful reconciliation would be difficult to achieve. The colonies convened a congress in Philadelphia in September 1774. Soon named a delegate to the Continental Congress, Dickinson was called on to draft a new petition to Parliament.
The petition went nowhere. Dickinson could readily see that the British-American relationship was unraveling. As the First Continental Congress broke up, he wrote presciently to his friend Arthur Lee that they would soon see “the whole Continent in arms, from Nova Scotia to Georgia.”
The Second Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775, three weeks after the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Astonishing as it may seem in retrospect, and despite the fervor of John Adams, Samuel Adams, and others, there was no immediate clamor to declare independence, least of all on the part of the middle colonies of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland. New York delegates hoped for a solution short of independence. Jefferson himself hoped for reconciliation.
Still, it was late in the day—very late—for reconciliation. Dickinson acknowledged as much when he wrote to Lee following Lexington and Concord: “What topics of reconciliation are now left for men who think as I do, to address our countrymen? . . . While we revere and love our mother country, her sword is opening our veins.” Dickinson meant to try for it nevertheless.
First he drafted the so-called Olive Branch Petition to King George III, which was urgent in tone but still dutiful in address. That forty-nine members of the Continental Congress put their names to the petition—John Hancock’s at the top; the names of the Adamses, Sam and John, fourth and fifth, respectively; that of Thomas Jefferson still lower—shows the anguish and complexity of the moment. By the time the Declaration of Independence came to be signed, just a year later, jaws and hearts were set firmly.